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Studio Visits: Rufus Snoddy's constructed paintings

Inside an old strip mall on the southeast side of Traverse City, there’s a boxing gym-turned-motorcycle shop-turned-art studio. As soon as artist Rufus Snoddy rolls up the garage door entrance, the unassuming cinderblock building suddenly bursts with color, texture, and movement. Painted pieces of wood jut out from the corners, brushes and tools cover every surface, and dozens of Snoddy’s works seem alive and vibrating on all of the walls.

Snoddy, who calls his art “construction paintings,” intended it to be that way.

“I think a lot of people are expecting pictures, and then when they see the physical aspect of my work, I think it opens up a different perspective,” said Snoddy. “You tell them, well, these are construction paintings. They don't quite know where to put that.”

Many paintings extend beyond the frame of the canvas, changing shape and color. Others are packed with layers of found objects, old computer parts, and other trinkets. Some are abstract; others are portraits. But all of them leap off the wall with an energy that’s difficult to define. The mind-bending construction of Snoddy’s art is meant to explore ideas of perception and illusion – especially on a societal scale.

“I've always been interested in illusion and perception because I find that there are certain kinds of rituals in society that people do. And some of those are really cool rituals, or some of them are really ugly rituals. And a lot of it is based on perception,” Snoddy explained. “My first 11 years was in Jim Crow East Texas. I didn't understand the whole racism thing – that ‘separate but equal.’ I never understood that as a kid. I’d ask my dad like, ‘What's happening? What is this all about?’ And he said, ‘That's just the way it is.’ And that was never enough for me. … And, you know, the whole perception thing, to me, is a big part of it. We say that we believe in all these different things. We believe in freedom. We believe in all these different kinds of things. And we behave completely differently. … I've always seen it as being very curious, and I've always tried to find a way to include that in my work.”

Recently, that’s manifested in Snoddy’s 2021 “Disappearing Man” series. Each piece features a humanoid figure, but one that’s distinctly lacking in the characteristics that separate us from other species: no furrowed brow, no mouth in motion, no inquisitive eyes. Instead, the big-headed portraits stare wide-eyed into the distance. Snoddy said the series is a clarion call. The naive “talking heads” are a metaphor for silence, lack of alarm, and apathy about several intersecting crises of our time: climate change, unchecked capitalism, and racial violence.

But the same years that inspired his “Disappearing Man” series shaped his work in other, more heartening ways, too. Following George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2021, Snoddy said his work has moved more towards Blackness. Living in a place with few Black people, Snoddy’s art shifts the spotlight onto reaffirming and asserting Blackness, Black people, and Black experiences.

“My whole thing right now is like, Okay, yeah, well, you can say that Black lives matter, but I'm going to show you a bunch of Black lives. … Kind of like Kerry James Marshall, who decided, ‘I'm only going to paint black people.’ I'm feeling more of that. I won't say that I'm always going to paint Black people, but I'm certainly going to paint more Black people than I've ever painted before. Because we're here, we've been here. … Until society, until policemen, until all these different things that put these constraints on how we live as human beings stop, I'm going to be doing that kind of stuff. I'm going to be painting those kinds of pictures. … If you're interested in artwork by Rufus Snoddy, you're going to have to see that kind of stuff because … that's what it's going to be.”

Hear the full interview with Rufus Snoddy above.

To see Snoddy’s work for yourself, check out an upcoming show. He’s currently exhibiting a number of small works called “Excerpts” at Commongrounds in Traverse City. A larger installation, including some of Snoddy’s “Wings of Icarus” series, will be featured at the same location from May 26 to June 11. Later in the summer, see an exhibition by Rufus Snoddy and Traverse City-area artist Glenn Wolff at the Crooked Tree Art Center from July 8 to August 5.

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Laura is Executive Producer of Stateside. She came to Michigan Public from WDET in Detroit, where she was senior producer on the current events program, Detroit Today.
Ellie Katz joined the Stateside team as an intern in September 2022.