Steve Prince: bringing the Muscarelle to the people

aheymann@vagazette.com

The Muscarelle Museum of Art is closed as the new Martha Wren Briggs Center for the Visual Arts is being built. The art is being stored in a secure, climate-controlled facility that meets museum standards.

While the museum has had its collection removed from the walls, those grey walls are far from empty. Instead, they are covered in large graphite drawings and woodcut prints created by the museum’s first director of engagement and first distinguished artist in residence since the 1990s, Steve Prince.

Were you to walk into the museum, you’d likely find him using it to as a studio. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, he was drawing a large portrait of a friend from college with her baby. He composed the piece to look like the Madonna and Child.

“It’s just showing the Madonna and child, the beauty of us as human beings and all of our multiple ways in which we are represented,” Prince said, as he shaded part of her torso.

Prince said being the artist in residence allowed him to use the space as his studio, even though the museum was not open to the public.

“I believe this job allows me to be more my fullest self,” Prince said. “What I mean by that is I am an educator, I’ve done that the bulk of my career, but I’m also an artist — but I don’t just make things for my own gratification. The things I make speak about the human condition, those things that are going on societally.”

Teaching artfully

One of Prince’s experiences with teaching was at Hampton High School. During his time there, he was named 2010 Teacher of the Year for the City of Hampton.

It is also where, in 2010, Melissa Parris, head of collections and exhibitions management at the Muscarelle, first met Prince. Parris said Prince had a show at the Andrews Gallery in the College of William and Mary.

Parris said she and former Muscarelle director Aaron De Groft were blown away by (Prince’s) work. “So we contacted him to say we’d like to purchase some for the collection.”

After that, Parris said the museum hired Prince to work on the Cultural Arts Experience, a summer art program that exposes middle schoolers to artforms from spoken word poetry to dance movements to the visual arts.

Parris said last summer was Prince’s sixth year with Cultural Arts Experience.

“He’s so passionate about what he does, it's quite infectious, I think people are really drawn to that,” Parris said. “We’ve watched him work with young kids in middle school up through our retiree community here, and I have to say every constituency that he has worked with has really responded to how positive and how passionate he is about teaching about art.”

While the Muscarelle will be closed for at least three years until it moves into its new, permanent space, Prince said one way he and the other staff will continue to share the museum’s art is by having docents bring pieces into local schools.

With his education background, Prince said he will go into schools as well.

“My job is not just as an administrator, even though it has an administrative element to it. I still want to be in the trenches,” Prince said. “My strength is not behind a desk. My strength is out in the field engaging with people.”

“He came here and really hit the ground running and he’s brought a lot of energy to our programming,” Parris said.

Since coming to the Muscarelle full time in October, Prince has held three brown bag lunch sessions. These were a mixture of demonstration and open discussion where Prince revealed his thought processes and methods for creating large-scale works in an open dialogue with members of the community.

“So (guests) get this unique peek into the artist's studio, and in the museum context, get to interact with me directly and I can tell them about all the intricacies of my work,” Prince said.

Outside the museum

This spring, museum staff and programming will move to a satellite location on W. Duke of Gloucester Street while the Martha Wren Briggs Center for the Visual Arts is being built. This means Prince will no longer be able to use the Muscarelle as a studio.

As the museum leaves campus and moves into the community, Prince will venture into Williamsburg as well.

“I want to be able to do (the brown bag lecture series) in other areas of the community,” Prince said. “I will basically create a moving studio.”

For example, Prince said he would set up in the library with a Muscarelle sign and start drawing.

“People will come up to me and engage me. ‘Hey what are you working on, what are you doing?’ ”

He said he’ll start drawing portraits of random people in the community and give them out for free.

“Now I’ve got this direct, personal relationship with this person,” Prince said. “I get to deposit something directly into their life because I’m giving them the portrait … that person is more likely to come to the (Muscarelle.) But I also know the power of exponential is there too — I talked to that one individual they’re going to say ‘hey I met this guy at the library, he works at the Muscarelle Museum, he made this portrait of me and he gave it to me for free.’ I’m going to create those kinds of linkages.”

During 2019, Prince also plans to create a large collaborative piece of art with people from throughout the area.

“I’m going to do a citywide woodcut project working with ages as young as the fourth grade to 100 years old,” Prince said. “We are going to go around the community to different places, community centers, workplaces like go to Home Depot, Lowes, go to the local bank the local market.”

He said each person will create a woodcut to represent something in 2019 and also relating to 1619 when the first Africans arrived in Jamestown.

“We’re going to get people to engage in history through the making of the art, and assess where we are right now,” Prince said.

Each individual piece will connect to make a larger image Prince will create.

Once all the parts are done, the woodblocks will be inked up and rolled over by an industrial-sized steamroller in Merchants Square. Prince said the final piece will be four 4- by-100 feet long.

“I like to think of it like … a choir. Imagine you have four people who couldn’t sing, and they were singing and you could hear them. You would probably say ‘Ooh, they don’t sound that good together,’” Prince said. “Now imagine if you had 200, 300 or 3,000 people sing. It would sound beautiful because it’s the power of the collective.”

Want to learn more?

To keep up to date about future events Prince and Muscarelle are hosting, or to learn more about the museum, visit muscarelle.org.

Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.

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