June 8, 2021

POSITIONS OF POWER: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN FERRARI SHEPPARD & MICHÈLE LAMY

photographs by Amanda Demme

Ferrari Sheppard is an enigmatic, multi-disciplinary artist whose practice defies classification, and lives firmly at the center of a three-dimensional venn diagram. Likewise, the work of Michèle Lamy is as fluid and instinctive as it is crystallized in her unmistakable and ever-expansive character. She is not just a maven of fashion, design, and art, or an innovator of music and former restaurateur. She is a cultivator of community and expression. Sheppard is not just a painter, writer, photographer and music producer. He is an activist who has worked to provide relief aid in Haiti, shape economic policy and development in South Africa, and shine light on the Israel-Palestine conflict. It makes perfect sense that the two of them would fortuitously meet at Mr. Chow’s while stepping outside for a cigarette. Sheppard’s recent solo exhibition of paintings, Positions of Power, at UTA Artist Space is a testament to the mistreatment of a generation for profit by the criminal justice system. They are love letters to those who carried the weight of the “war on drugs” and risked it all in pursuit of freedom in the United States. Their structural composition is the result of an almost unconscious, improvised dance. A process that the artist refers to as “walking while painting.” The figures are laid heavy with dark brown and black pigments that visibly absorb light, and are gilded with a reflective gold trim, creating a balance that feels harmonious and befitting. At the center of the gallery’s main space lies a brutalist, three-pronged elmwood bench of mythical giant proportions. A place to put everything down and spend some time with the work. A creation that could only come from the collective minds of Michèle Lamy and Rick Owens. And the perfect place for these two chameleonic masters of material, sound, and ceremony to discuss their work.

MICHELE LAMY: I just wanted to start with one thing because your show made me think of this Matthew Stone saying, “Optimism is the new cultural revolution.” We talked a lot when we were smoking at Mr. Chow outside, but I think it’s interesting because we never met before that. When did you start this?

FERRARI SHEPPARD: Oh yeah, what was it, like six years ago, I was travelling around Africa, different countries, we were in Marrakech, and all Addis Ababa and Yasiin Bey could talk about was “oh, Michèle, Michèle, Michèle.” He loves you. When he and I met, he didn’t even know I made music. I was a general artist, and I did photography, I was writing—I did all of the arts, and he was a fan of that, and obviously I was a fan of him, and he discovered my music by accident because he heard me playing it one day. That’s kinda how I prefer my relationships. Any serious relationship that I’m in, be it creative or whatever, I want it to happen organically. I never really push to know anybody because I feel like if you are meant to know them, and they are meant to be in your life, then they will come. Like you. It happens naturally.

LAMY: Yeah, like this bench that we’re sitting on. It wasn’t really planned. It was just sort of a surprise and it happened.

SHEPPARD: Yeah, but that’s the whole thing—I obviously know your work, and it’s truly impactful and powerful. So, when I heard we’re gonna be doing something—you could’ve never planned this in a million years, but it works, and I think that that is part of the cosmic connection between artists. When you were making this bench, it lived in so many homes, it already had a show, so I just think that’s interesting.

LAMY: Yeah because it’s very now, what you are painting. When I was talking about this optimism, you have this dark background, but then there is that touch of gold on top of it. You might call this a reference to power, but it makes you think about what is underneath, and that’s why I was thinking of that optimism. I don’t know if you think power and optimism go together, but I think it goes.

SHEPPARD: In life, we go through stages. So, you have your childhood, and you have your teenagehood—that moment right before you become an adult, some people call it teenage angst. You look at the world and you want to make it better, and a lot of my world is almost crystallized in that moment because I think that there is some truth in that angst and in that discomfort. With the work, I’m always searching for that balance between something that is extremely legible and also just teetering on the edge of honesty, and like you’re saying, optimism is just bursting full of passion.

LAMY: That’s how we think of you.

SHEPPARD: I do this thing—I don’t have a name for it other than I would describe it as walking while painting. There’s been different artists who have done action painting, and I guess this is my version, where I literally have the music playing, and I’ll just walk past really fast, make a gesture and walk away without thinking, because I know that brings forth the truest expression of myself. It’s almost like reading someone’s subconscious, like this is what’s really there because I didn’t have time to form it, or to overthink, or anything; it’s just a moment.

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LAMY: But you have so much to say, which is why I was so excited when you said you were doing a solo, because already you have so much in there. And we miss the music because I’m sure there is something that calls for it even if all those moments you flash them on the wall, but then we know, and I think we have to express it, because you are a young artist and you have so much more to say.

SHEPPARD: I just think that subject matter is a really interesting thing for me because I look at some of my predecessors, like Matisse and Picasso, and I think that scholarship was built around their work. Sometimes, I think being an artist from my culture, there is always something deeper to be said about where all of this is coming from. Really, I always had a desire to make what I was experiencing with hip hop, and life, and the crack epidemic. When I was young, I grew up at the apex of the crack epidemic, so we had the police knocking down our door, tearing apart our sofa, looking for drugs. Next morning, I had to go to school, and that’s what I thought was normal until I went to college, and started talking to different people from different backgrounds. I’ve been shot at five times in my life—and this is nothing to be celebrated—it’s really amazing that I made it through all of that, but I feel I have a duty to tell a story, and not always in a stereotypical type of way. My experiences are fine art; they can be translated into fine art in the same way as Picasso’s stance on the Franco regime leading up to World War II.

LAMY: Do you think you are going to make them move with some kind of video? I want to see them moving. Do you think you are getting there, or you have an instant and you flash it on the canvas?

SHEPPARD: It is, and you asked about the medium, like you know, video. I felt so much like an infant in this where I’m just discovering my hands and my legs where I’m like, oh, I can do that, and I can do this. Even with the installation piece, this is my first installation. I was always intimidated by installation. I never tried it because I was always, “the paintings, the paintings!”

LAMY: It’s very clean, in a way. I’m sure your second or your third installations are going to be a little more chaotic.

SHEPPARD: I want to try different things, and it just dawned on me that once an artist gets out of what I guess you would call the starving artist period, which is really hard, you can experiment. Now you have resources. Every day, I wake up and I’ll wonder if I could do this, and how much does that cost, and it’s okay because I can pay for it now. Being this emerging artist, that is one of the few things I find enjoyable about it.

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LAMY: So, how did you come here, to such an institution for your first solo show?

SHEPPARD: This is actually my third solo show. I know some of your readers might read this and feel a way, but I’ll say the truth. For me, I don’t like group shows. I did a few group shows, but what they have turned into today is something that I’m just not really interested in. I see that the focus is not so much on the art anymore; it’s on the curator. There have been shows where I don’t even know the other artists’ names. I’ll just know the curator.

LAMY: Yeah, but aren’t you pleased to be part of something with other people even if you do not know all of them?

SHEPPARD: For me, it would have to be something really special. I’m working on a project right now; I can’t talk about it too much, but I will say it’s with Interscope Records for their 30th anniversary. They have come and asked some of the most influential artists to come in and reinterpret their catalog for their covers, so that’s a good group show.

LAMY: Exactly. But we see you, you are big there in the mix.

SHEPPARD: I have to first respect the artist, and not to say that I don’t respect any of the artists doing group shows, but I can stretch my wings more when I do a solo show. There’s a responsibility that you don’t have with a group show or art fair. You may have a little booth, and you do two things, but with solo shows, you have to have a narrative, and it has to come together. Even if it’s chaotic, or through feeling, you are creating a whole experience.

LAMY: I understand. It’s like the runway shows are important for designers, and when you think about the people, the commercial thing is important always, but there is the thing that you have to put in a few space or image, and everything you have together that time. I understand this feeling, and I understand the thing with your solo show.

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SHEPPARD: You have really blended fine art and fashion, would you agree?

LAMY: We have Rick Owens, who is a designer and also starting we did furniture for our house, as you said, I took it for a while but it’s very much in a spirit that we have created together and I’m placing it, first more mingling with people…

SHEPPARD: You’re the liaison.

LAMY: I’m a liaison, because I want to see that we are always interacting with people, and I always wanted to be savvy and figure out how it all works, because this is how I see us moving forward. So, something like this bench is a gesture—it’s not a collaboration.

SHEPPARD: It’s beautiful. This bench brought the show to another level. We were going crazy. I wanted this sofa that was long, and you don’t want it to look cheesy, and here, it was the perfect fit.

LAMY: When they asked me of course, three days before the opening, I was really scrambling to figure out what we could do, and then we found this crazy guy who drove to the storage unit in upstate New York to get this big part, but for some reason, the two heads were in the Rick Owens booth at Saks Fifth Avenue. So, he had to get all the pieces together and then drive them here in two days.

SHEPPARD: Thank you. This is so beautiful. I didn’t know that.

LAMY: Are you planning to do something around your name? Ferrari Sheppard is such a combination of words.

SHEPPARD: I always say that my name fits me, but it is a contradiction. You got the Ferrari, but my middle name is Elite, so Ferrari Elite Sheppard. I always joke that I probably couldn’t become a janitor because I had to live up to my name.

LAMY: What was your mother thinking?

SHEPPARD: My father named me, but my mother had some strange ideas. She wanted to name me Rashid something, and my father said, “No, this is going to be a different kid.” So, he came up with Ferrari Elite Sheppard, and somehow it flows.

LAMY: When you came in, you told me that you wanted to look like Jim Morrison today. Where does that come from?

SHEPPARD: I love Jim Morrison in terms of style, because I’ve made clothes before, like when I was living in Zanzibar, I started to make clothes. Zanzibar is a beautiful island, it’s a mixture of so many cultures: Swahili, French, Portuguese,etc. And they have what’s called Kitenge cloth. That’s for the men, and it’s just beautiful patterns, and sometimes they have letters or messages in Swahili across it, but I started taking these things and making designs with overlapping collars and different leisure suits from the ‘70s, and stuff like that.

LAMY: My friend Jamaal was in Zanzibar and brought back a fantastic gift, those shoes that are made from old tires. So, I had those tire shoes and they’re great for running in the sand. So then, Virgil said they have this Nike workshop in London where they choose designers to modify the Air Jordan. So, they asked me what kinds of material I needed. I said, “I need tires, I need inner tubes, and I need somebody to cut them because I don’t want those guys to sue.” So, anyway, we changed the sole of the Air Jordan. Of course, nobody at Nike picked up on it, but Virgil sent me one of his books and there was a picture abstract of it.

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SHEPPARD: Just to circle back to what you were talking about with the optimism I have. On a day-to-day basis, I might fuss about anything, like this is wrong, oh my god, blah blah blah.

LAMY: But that is optimism. It’s not that you think nothing is going to happen. You push it out.

SHEPPARD: I think I need that. I need little moments of doubt to overcome. The scary part about our personalities as artists is that we need adversity. If everything went right for me, I wouldn’t know what to do. I need a problem because then I can solve it.

LAMY: There is optimism, but there is also revolution. We don’t want the revolution when people should be celebrating. We want to push our spirit, and this is what is going to change people’s minds. Already, we are going into a world where we should talk about the positive, and especially for the little things, when people talk about the vaccine, it’s just to say what’s bad about this thing. Don’t you think that we should celebrate that there has been a vaccine in one year? That’s what I’m talking about, and it’s what I feel with you. We have to push it and express it in a way that will show hope and beauty.

SHEPPARD: I definitely agree. I used to be on Twitter, and it’s like this black hole of fucking negativity. You get caught up in this shit, so I killed my Twitter last year, and it was the best.

LAMY: So, be on Instagram. Even better.

SHEPPARD: But Instagram, you put a little caption; it’s more of the photos.

LAMY: Yeah, it’s nice to put a photo and a sentence.

SHEPPARD: And be done with it. You don’t have to argue with it. The last ten years were very interesting because we saw different social media revolutions like the Arab Spring, Me Too, Black Lives Matter. Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the beast where they end, and they move, and we just move out and announce the next thing. I think that we’re approaching a time when we are going to use social media as a tool, but we’re going to step away from it and actually bring in material aspects. What I mean by that is, when I think of James Baldwin, he did numerous interviews and he broke different grounds, but there are physical books to show his work, you understand?

LAMY: Yeah.

SHEPPARD: There’s physical manifestations of Michèle Lamy and Rick Owens, so I think it’s important for younger people, and I’ll always tell younger people: make stuff, do stuff in the real world.

LAMY: But, of course. The text and image is a way of communicating something that you see out in the world, but that should push you to do more.

SHEPPARD: Yeah, but I have to be honest, being a Renaissance man didn’t work out well for me initially, and I don’t know why. In my mind, you have to be honest with yourself. I said, “Ferrari, out of all the things that you do, what do you feel that you are the best at? This was before I broke through, and I been painting since I was about two, three years old, so my first show—this is ridiculous—my first actual show was in kindergarten. I’m not lying, you could ask my mother, it was selected to be in the Art Institute of Chicago Children’s Exhibit. My mother still has this picture, and it’s funny, it was a man in a skirt. I was a little baby, and I was like, this man should have a skirt on. I support my digital artists out there and everything, but I think there is something majestic about a painting that lives with you. Right there, and if you have this in your home, you have my DNA. My actual skin cells are being transferred if I touch the painting. I’m living with the painting. That’s beautiful to me. If I was to get a Degas, I would say he lived with this, he touched it. That’s tactile, and I enjoy things like that.

LAMY: You think that your paintings are going to evolve to be more abstract?

SHEPPARD: My ultimate goal is that—I went from figurative realism in the natural world, to rejecting that completely, to absolute abstraction. The first works that I ever sold in my life were abstract. I sold to this guy, Yusaku Maezawa, who bought the $110 million Basquiat. He started to buy my work, and he liked it. It was abstract, and I had no idea that I was going to go back to three-dimensions.

LAMY: Okay, where did you meet this guy?

SHEPPARD: He was just on Instagram.

LAMY: You see?

SHEPPARD: I was so inexperienced that I didn’t know how to price my work. I had a friend that was friends with Julie Mehretu and she said twenty-five thousand. I was like, “You sure?” And she was like, “Yeah.” And he bought three pieces. That helped build my studio. Art is the only place I’m safe, and that’s why I always run towards art. No matter what type of day I’m having, I can go, and I can say this is where I’m safe. When I was coming up, it was the worst time, all my friends were dying, and we were in the city barely surviving, but on weekdays, I got to go to my art class and I would just escape. My teacher, her name was Ms. Sokoloff, shout her out, she would put on the Beatles, Bob Dylan, or whatever, and free paint. Just go crazy.

LAMY: Fantastic story.

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