“Here’s to the crazy ones — the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things.”
The above quote from that famous Apple ad, and also Steve Jobs’ advice to “think different” come to mind when looking at the work of another Steve — New Jersey visual artist and art educator, Steve Cummings. That’s because Steve Cummings’s art is bold, daring, powerful and, indeed, different.
In his own words, Cummings’s art “concentrates on the outsiders and misfits of American life throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The images show characters and scenarios that seem to have been stumbled upon. A narrative is taking place; the viewer becomes a kind of voyeur who must supply the storyline, details, or outcome. “The personalities of my subjects have been characterized as vagabonds, drifters of the road, the forgotten, those who may not have a voice but their stories must be told. Regret, melancholy, loneliness – even violence – may befall my people, but I’m also interested in avoiding sensationalism or exploitation through simultaneously conveying empathy, hope or compassion. The ‘inner light of the soul’ is bared despite adversity or disparity.”
Chatting with the man behind the art, with Steve Cummings himself, is both delightful, and also enlightening. Born and raised in New Jersey, Cummings grew up in West Orange, and studied at Montclair State University, where he majored in painting, with a minor in film studies. As a child, he was drawn to “horror movies and scary things,” because, he explains, the creatures in the movies didn’t really fit in.
Today, Cummings creates art inspired by those who feel they don’t fit it. “While the mainstream subjects always attract the general masses,” he explains, “there are a lot of different kinds of people out there that don’t have a voice. And their voice deserves to be heard and portrayed with a certain amount of dignity.”
Over the years, in particular after the last year’s election, Cummings has connected with the transgender community, becoming determined to use his art to advocate for the rights of transgender individuals, and express the trials and challenges they’ve been going through, “just for looking different,” he says. “It’s really important that they’re portrayed.”
In creating his stunning artwork, Cummings has also been inspired by the likes of Edward Hopper, Dorothea Lange, and Cindy Sherman, to mention only a few. And he’s always been drawn to what gay life must have been like “before Stonewall happened.” He says, “I’ve always been drawn to vintage photography of gay couples, the intimacy that you see in those photographs. I find it very haunting.” And he tries to capture that feeling in some of his own paintings.
Many of Cummings’s art pieces are inspired by political events. Two recent favorites are Miriam and Subway Martyr.
Miriam shows a transgender woman opening up a “cloak of illumination.” The image captures an enlightened moment, like a “cosmic awakening within her,” like a safe place where she can be safe, be herself.
Another favorite is Subway Martyr. It shows a transgender woman who is attacked on a subway.
Exotica is a work of art that has little, if anything, to do with politics and everything to do with beauty. It’s a portrait of a woman resembling an Egyptian goddess, dressed in jewelry-embedded clothing. “I consider it my Gustav Klimt inspired piece,” the artist laughs.
Regardless its source of inspiration, Cummings’s art tells powerful visual stories that not only engage viewers in an intriguing conversation, but leave them yearning for more. “One of the artists that inspired me was Edward Hopper,” Cummings explains. “What I like about him, and what I try to do in my artwork, is give you [the audience] a scenario and a few characters. And it’s up to you to decide what it’s happening in the frame. And that’s why I’m so influenced by the movies, because [they help] you invest your own narrative into the piece.”
To aspiring artists, he offers, “It [might sound] like a cliché, but you must follow your heart. You must follow what interests you. Trust your inner voice. Try not to sell out. Try to maintain your integrity, and [you’ll have] the universe [within your reach].”
To learn more about Steve Cummings and his artwork, please visit him online at s-cummingsart.com.