"What does the money machine eat? It eats youth, spontaneity, life, beauty, and, above all, it eats creativity. It eats quality and sh!ts quantity." — William S. Burroughs.
Somewhere at the rocky intersection of creation and commodification, a gray ether of contradiction forms where the value of the art created becomes measured by an intangible sliding scale that too often keeps it out of the hands of those who perhaps need it the most.
Scott Stanton, known as the artist Panhandle Slim, has learned to navigate the murky waters of art commodification through a simple yet profound notion that art is for everybody.
When his paintings were dubbed folk art, he embraced that title by calling it art for folk. When money makers come to him looking to score by brokering his art on a larger scale for much more money, he sniffs them out and moves on — “I can smell them coming” — sets his paintings up on the side of the road and sells them to passersby. When people tell him to increase the price of his paintings, he gets offended.
“I am going to give up that million dollar painting to sell a million paintings for a dollar,” Stanton said. “I’d rather sell a bunch of paintings to a lot of really good people instead of one painting to an asshole.
“If somebody really wants a painting, I would never be like ‘you can’t afford it.’ It would suck if somebody doesn’t have much money, but then someone with a lot of money can buy it. That’s just crazy. That goes against everything that I believe art is. It’s not for people with money. It’s for everybody.”
As Panhandle Slim, a nod to his native Florida, Stanton has become one of Savannah’s most recognizable and prolific artists. He quit counting his paintings after he hit 1,000 over a decade ago. And he’s done so through a DYI ethos that began in his late teens and early 20s as a professional skateboarder — make the art from the heart and share it.
“But setting up street shows is the same as going on my skateboard and skating the curb — where it’s not made for that,” Stanton said. “The places I setup for art shows are not made for art shows. You just do it and if someone tells you to leave, you leave. Just like with a skateboard. The difference is now, versus skateboarding, police officers show up and I have the reaction, Oh! Cops are here! And then, they’re like ‘Oh, I am here to buy some art.’ It’s really great. There’s that part of me that goes back, oh, I don’t know if this is right [laughs].”
In the last few years, through his robust use of social media and a surge of popularity via his street art sales, Stanton’s paintings have moved from Facebook posts into the hands of thousands of people both rich and poor.
They can be found on the exterior walls of public and private buildings throughout Savannah, the halls of schools, held high in protest marches, on the walls of presidents and famous musicians, on political signage, projected behind professional touring musicians during live sets, and miniaturized into magnets and stickers.
Several even grace the walls of the newsroom at Savannah Morning News.
Stanton’s paintings are rudimentary in nature, a portrait of a person beside a quote, but project a profound and lasting impact. They mostly illicit joy, but also perhaps some anger from some. Mostly, people stop by and take photos of his public murals and share comments on his Facebook posts about how much the artist or person he quotes meant to them, generating an immediate connection between him and his patrons. One resident in a neighborhood recently begged the artist not to take the mural down in front of her house as he worked to repair it. He promised he was just fixing it.
She, of course, had no idea that he was the artist. But Stanton sees himself as only the medium for the message. He doesn’t even consider himself an artist.
“Art for folk — It feels like a much bigger picture than me and my paintings,” Stanton said. “It’s connected. And the fact that what I do is paint people and their quotes. I am doing it. I think that’s why it connects with so many people. I am using other people to get messages out that everybody connects with. Therefore, you can’t be pretentious or too big headed.
“It just goes to that ‘put it out there.’ Do it. That’s the main thing for artist… I say artist, but I still don’t refer to myself as that. Everybody is an artist. I guess professional artist, sit on their ideas a lot more than they do stuff. I am about just getting it done. I don’t think too much about it. I just get it done and put it out there.”
As with skateboarding, Stanton never set out to make a profit from art. He was surprised in his youth that people would pay him to ride his skateboard. Then he saved the money he made from it and paid his way through college, where he met his wife, which eventually brought him to Savannah.
Some 15 years ago, he saw a painting in a gallery that he wanted, but he couldn’t afford to buy. On his way home from the gallery he thought that if he couldn’t buy it he would simply make it. His first painting was of Dolly Parton. The second was President Jimmy Carter.
“When I was painting Jimmy Carter, that second painting — it kind of goes back to the just do what you love — I never ever would have dreamed that Jimmy Carter would end up with one my paintings. He’s got one in his house. You just never know.”
The most surreal moment in his recent experiences came after a tragedy that struck the heart of the entire Lowcountry. In 2015, a young white boy walked into the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine parishioners to death while they were in prayer, simply because they were black.
Jolted by the tragedy, Stanton wanted to contribute something.
“Originally, I did nine paintings and took them to the church a week after the shooting,” Stanton recalled. “Like everybody, I was like, what can I do? I said, well I paint. I can do this. And I didn’t know how that was going to be accepted. I was just like, I don’t care, this is a love offering and I am going to do it.
“It was for Savannah. For them. For the people. Anyway, I got a call back pretty quickly. It was the family, they said ‘who are you?’ At first, I was worried. But they loved it. We’ve been close friends ever since. We text each other. Call each other. That’s another surreal moment. There’s one woman, who’s mother died there, she calls me every year on my birthday and sings me happy birthday. Those kind of things are much more bigger than some of the things I would have thought would have been rewarding for an artist to do. Simple, complex things.”
Afterwards, he painted a mural of the slain for the First African Baptist Church in Savannah. They invited him to a Sunday service.
“First of all, I haven’t been to church… it’s not so much my comfort zone,” Stanton said. “But when you’re invited, just like anything, you go. It was very humbling. To be invited up in on the alter in front of the congregation and get a standing ovation is a moment of wow.
“These simple little paintings are something big. It just proves, do something with love, do it from your heart and you never know what it's going to do.”
Furthering his deeply woven connections to his community, a direct result of essentially being a street artist, Stanton will have a special guest for his Sulfur Studios exhibit on Aug. 30.
One day when picking up his kids from school, he noticed in the park nearby a young boy playing guitar under a tree. He said to himself, that kid looks like a young Woody Guthrie.
“He was cool and in his world,” Stanton recalled. “I finally made my way over there and oddly enough he was playing a Woody Guthrie song, ‘This Land is Your Land.’ A first-grader! And good! What I noticed is, he was always there. We kind of became friends.
“He’ll be like 'I got a new song by this guy David Bowie and there’s another version by this band Nirvana and they did it this way.' And he’ll play both versions and explain it to me. He’ll tell me things about sounds. ‘I heard the bell go off today at school and was like, what note is that!?’”
His name is Oz, an elementary student at Charles Ellis Montessori, and he’ll be playing the Sulfur show.
The exhibit is a rarity. Stanton prefers to setup on the street, as he’s always done. But as the balance of things goes, these types of exhibits help offset the cost of the free murals he posts around town. The paintings will each have prices.
The point is simple, if you can afford to pay more for a Panhandle Slim, do so, because that will help him spread more of his art. If you can’t, don’t let that keep you from getting one.
Art is for everybody.