Monday, June 13th, 2011 | 154 Comments
“This series of paintings describes the turning points of various infamous outlaws. Each image dissects the reasons behind why these people abandon societies rules and carve their unlawful paths through life”
The true stories and dark motivations of American history’s most notorious outlaws are the subjects of the latest series of paintings by Toronto illustrator Sean Lewis. From Black Bart to Pablo Escobar, the portraits are fascinatingly ambivalent in their treatment of these grim characters.
The stories are at times tragic, sometimes resembling an anti-hero narrative, or in the case of the Unabomber, simply retold with a shift in emphasis form the commonly told tale. We caught up with Sean Lewis to talk all things vile and villainous.
The Kray Twins: Growing up together in London’s East End, Ronnie and Reggie were one of the most violent organized crime leaders during the 1950’s. As teenagers they were relatively successful lightweight boxers but became more known and feared for their violence outside the ring. They rose through London’s underground and became prominent nightclub owners. They were huge fixtures in the night life there and were affiliated with many celebrities at the time, most notably Frank Sinatra.
Q1>From all the famed criminals throughout history, what drew you to choose these particular ones for your project? Were there certain qualities or characteristics to the story you were looking for?
When it came to researching figures the only quality I was really focused on was telling an interesting story, although I knew each painting needed to play on different emotions and say something different. I was very conscious about the time period they lived in and this played a big role in keeping the body of work from becoming too repetitive. So each person’s era became really important to the painting because it usually dictated the imagery, colour scheme and conceptual devices I would use.
I also wanted to balance lesser known figures with famous ones so people could hear a story they may not have heard before.
Being sensitive to more disturbing stories and depicting them in a tasteful way was really important to me as well. I didn’t want my work to be a drag to look at, or be about me condemning the already condemned. As long as I could keep a neutral stance on the subject, or depict more disturbing stories in a more poetic way, I was excited to approach their story.
The collection of criminals I ended up with wasn’t preplanned. I would just research them and if something popped into my head or could be worked out then I would go right into sketching.
Pablo Escobar: Rising from one of the poorest regions of Colombia, Pablo went to become one of the richest men on the planet through his vast drug trafficking empire. Notorious for public assassinations on politicians, bribery and extortion, Escobar had almost complete control over his country. Despite this he was championed by the poor for his financial support from which many came to rely on.
Q2>Do you have a favorite story among these – one that fascinates you more than the others?
Black Bart, who I talked about in the previous interview, remains one of my favourite stories because it’s a pretty classic revenge tale. Despite him breaking the law he held onto his own code of ethics. He’d only rob Wells Fargo and never the passengers of the stagecoaches he would target.
My other favourite story was the Barefoot Bandit aka Colton Harris-Moore, which unfortunately was a painting I wasn’t happy enough with to feature! This is so epic and just happened within the past two years.
The short of it is: at 17 he runs away from home Washington State and lives out in the woods. He supports himself by breaking into homes and and stealing food and cash. He’s known to have stolen at least 2 cars, a boat and up to 5 planes which he figured out how to fly on his own! From Indiana he steals a plane and flies it to the Bahamas. He stuck out a little there so the authorities were finally able to close. Although this was after a high speed boat chase where the police had to shoot out the engine of the boat and talk him out of shooting himself. Now he’s back in the states awaiting all the charges faced against him!
Ed Gein: Raised and sheltered by his religiously fanatic mother, he was teased for his effeminate demeanor. Ed went on to dig up the bodies of women at the local graveyard and later murdered two women. When the police raided his home they discovered one of the most horrific crime scenes any have witnessed with skin stretched over furniture, skull bowls, a body suit stitched from skin and many other body parts used in disgusting ways. He was the influence for many horror movies such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and Buffalo Bill’s character in Silence of the Lambs.
Q3>If making art went badly for you and you had to choose a life of villainy, what manner of criminal would you be?
I’d probably get into good ol’ environmental terrorism. Take a similar route as The Unabomber although I’m not into the idea of bombing poor random people… But it would be badass to take an aggressive stand against something I’m worried about. Although it’s a pretty unrealistic thought seeing as I’m a paranoid about even the most petty of crimes like riding my bike at night with no lights…
Andrea Yates: Suffering from postpartum depression and dementia Yates lived for a time in a small trailer with her 5 children and husband. They were devoutly religious and “would seek to have as many babies as nature allowed.” The pressure of their growing family proved to be too much for Andrea and after multiple failed suicide attempts she drowned her 5 children in their tub
George Gordon: A drillmaster and eventual brigadier general for the Confederate army. He became the first nation wide Grand Master of the Klu Klux Klan
John Torrio: One of the head mob bosses and booze smugglers during prohibition era American. John Torrio immigrated from Italy when he was a child with his mother after the death of his father. Raised in New York City he helped build the criminal empire known as the Chicago Outfit and mentored its successor, Al Capone
Q4> You recently graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design. What (in the best of worlds) do you see yourself doing with your work in the coming months?
I just hope to hold onto the many friendships I’ve made with all the talented people I’ve met these past 5 years and earlier. I know as long as I stick around inspiring work and people with aspirations I wont fall too deeply into laziness or suffer much loss of motivation.
Ideally I’ll continue doing group shows (like the one opening June 3rd called Romance of the Wheel at Jet Fuel), make some neat books with my friend Lisa, some posters for a site being put together by another friend, Symon, and continue to be pushed by everyone else’s great work! Nothing gets me more excited than collaboration and as of now that’s the only way I see myself doing well.
If I can work with bands I love and make a living from freelance illustration I’d be a happy man but I have to get my butt in gear on the promotional and business side of things. But for now I’ll be spending the summer working in Muskoka and when I return I hope to be refreshed and ready to delve right into things with people I really admire!
Unabomber: Considered a mathematical child prodigy, Ted Kaczynski attended Harvard at the age of 16. After completing his PHD and a short time spent as a professor Ted moved to a remote cabin where he attempted to become self sufficient. It was from here that he started a mail bombing spree that spanned over 20 years. Spurred by the destruction of the wilderness around his home he used bombings to attract attention for his cause. He sent a letter to authorities claiming to stop the bombings if the Times or Washington Post printed his manifesto. It was through this letter that he was eventually apprehended.
Aileen Wuornos: Born into an unstable home Aileen was abandoned by her mother as a child and raised for a time by her grandparents. From an early age she became sexually active with multiple partners, and at 15 was thrown out of her grandparents house. She lived in the woods and supported herself through prostitution. She later hitchhiked to Florida and it was there that she murdered 7 men whom she claimed had sexually assaulted her while working as a prostitute.
Phil Spector: A famous music producer throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, Phil is most famous for his recording technique called the “wall of sound”. Suffering from intense bouts of paranoia he was known for violent mood swings and famously pulled a gun on The Ramones. Spector later shot and killed his girlfriend and appeared in many courtrooms with an assortment of ridiculous wigs.
Black Bart: Known for his gentlemanly demeanor when robbing stage coaches, he was most famous for leaving poems at a few of his crime scenes. His criminal career resulted from his troubled history with Wells Fargo. The company approached him when seeking to buy his land where he had a small mining business. After refusing their offer they cut off his water supply and ruined his land. He went on to target and rob only their stage coaches.
S&TM: Huge thanks to Sean for his time and all his help with this interview! We wish you the best for the future!
All images © 2011 Sean Lewis