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People of Duke Arts: Stephen Hayes

Published By Ilona Stanback / published on: November 7, 2018

Meet Durham-born artist and Duke Visiting Instructor Stephen Hayes in this "People of Duke Arts" interview.  "My number one goal is to wow my audience and to have meaning behind it—to have people relate to my work or even just start a conversation," explains Hayes.

A photo of Stephen Hayes

A New Sculptor at Duke

Stephen Hayes is a local artist born and raised in Durham. This September, he kicked off his appointment at Duke as the Brock Family Visiting Instructor in Studio Arts in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies with Stephen Hayes: Selected Works, an exhibition in the Rubenstein Arts Center’s gallery. Currently, Hayes is also bringing back life into Duke’s sculpture studio on Oregon Street by teaching sculpture and drawing classes. A new version of his ongoing project, Voices of Future Past, will be on exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh in the spring. Hayes has a BA from Carolina Central College and a MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design.

Read on to meet Stephen through an interview by Creative Arts Student Team member Ilona Stanback (Class of 2019).

Q+A with Stephen Hayes

Photo by Ilona Stanback.

Ilona Stanback: You work in a number of different mediums. What drew you to use mixed media?

Stephen Hayes:  When I was a kid I broke a toy—a little remote control car. My brother took the motor out of the car and a nine volt battery. He wired them both together and then the wheels started moving. I was like, “Oh my God. I can break toys and make toys.” My mom saw I was good at it, and she gave me all these machines and a workbench. That’s what made me start learning how to adapt to different materials.

IS:  How do you think your art and creations have evolved?

SH: When I was a kid, it was all about wowing my mom, which meant showing her what I could make, exploring, and not being afraid to fail. Grad school pushed me to learn how to talk about my artwork and how to give it meaning. Now, my number one goal is to wow my audience and to have meaning behind it—to have people relate to my work or even just start a conversation.

“I learned how to crochet in high school. I started doing wood cuts in graduate school. I ended up crocheting the wood together.”

IS: Why do you refer to yourself as a creator, rather than just an artist?

SH: That came from when I was in school. I could sit there and make something for a whole week and have it be better than my classmate’s work. It felt like it would take me five minutes to create my classmate’s work but they could sit there and talk about their work for on hours on end. When it would become my time for the critique and I put my artwork out there, I didn’t understand how to talk about it. I don’t always have to try and sell this certain goal, or this meaning behind it, it’s just there.

My work is an object I wanted to create. That’s why I say I’m a creator and not an artist. I don’t like the term “artist” because I felt like at a certain point in time in my life people told me, “Hey, you’re not an artist.”

Photo by Ilona Stanback.

IS: You have a very eclectic background of experience. Do you feel that it all comes together in your art, or are there aspects that you don’t express as much?

SH: I have a mental toolbox. I learn different skills and techniques that I put in this toolbox, and then I reach in and try and connect different things. I learned how to crochet in high school. I started doing wood cuts in graduate school. I ended up crocheting the wood together. I learn different materials and different skills to create an object—I just use that mental toolbox.

IS: Do you have a favorite project or piece that you have a particular connection to?

SH: I love everything I make. My number one sculpture that is always moving around is Cash Crop, which is from my MFA Thesis show. Cash Crop is fifteen life-sized statues. The reason why I did fifteen is because there was an estimated  fifteen million people who were transported from Africa to America. They are all chained to a pallet. The pallet represents how we outsource our goods from these sweatshops in third-world countries today from places that don’t have child labor laws. This exhibition answers the question: Who, or what, is the next cash crop?

“I didn’t have the platform to talk about what I was going through, so I stayed quiet. . . I am giving these kids a platform to be able to talk about what they’re going through and have it be said on a larger scale.”

Photo by Ilona Stanback.

IS: What are you working on currently?

SH: I have a show that will be in the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) in Raleigh next spring. It’s called Voices of Future Past. I interviewed younger African American males about what they’re going through in today’s society, and how they feel society views them. I recorded their voices, and I pair their voices with busts of older black males. You have to walk up to each sculpture and put your ear up to that man’s chest to hear what these kids are going through today. It all came from my childhood experiences—how I felt I was being viewed. I didn’t have the platform to talk about what I was going through, so I stayed quiet. I never told my mom what I went through. I am giving these kids a platform to be able to talk about what they’re going through and have it be said on a larger scale.

Photo by Robert Zimmerman.

IS: How do you choose your the subject of your creations?

SH: I don’t want my work to cut people off, to cut a certain race off and say, “This isn’t for you, you don’t need to be a part of this.” I want my work to be able to inspire, to open people’s eyes, and to change their views on things—even though it is heavily about the black body and how the black body is represented.

When I went to SCAD, I was the only black student in my department. I didn’t have any African American professors, so I couldn’t really relate to anybody. I went into my shell. I felt like they were pushing me to work on stuff about my ethnicity. It just wasn’t something I was into. Now, I feel like I’m at a point where there are subjects that I need to address. I want to use my work to talk about my experiences and how I’m being viewed. Or if not me, explore how somebody else that looks like me is viewed because of how the media portrays us.


Ilona Stanback (Class of 2019) is majoring in Psychology and working toward a certificate in Documentary Studies. She plans to work with victims of human trafficking and hopes to incorporate her passion for documentary photography by sharing the stories of the individuals affected by this issue. Ilona is currently a member of the Duke Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).