When a spy balloon from China drifted across the United States, Hickory artist Paul Hunter Speagle found inspiration amid consternation.
“Quit worrying about what you think they’re getting from us and be more worried about what’s actually going on,” he said in a conversation earlier this month pointing out police violence and wealth disparity were part of the nation’s narrative as the balloon crept across the lower 48. “I felt like the balloon was a fake distraction.”
Speagle’s art can elicit strong reactions, especially his pieces that touch on social issues such as LGBTQ rights, racism, obesity and corporate greed.
Speagle describes his painting style as a stream of consciousness, he paints whatever is on his mind in the moment. This process sometimes results in a larger image filled with smaller images of characters and scenes.
People are also reading…
Speagle was born and raised in Hickory. In 2020, Speagle opened the ATAC Gallery on Third Avenue Drive NW (Old Lenoir Road). In 2021, he began selling his artwork internationally.
Speagle discussed his creative processes and artistic adventures. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Art style, creative process
My studio is pretty eclectic because I bounce around to different ideas. I do a drawing every day when I come in. I do a lot of paintings with figures and a lot of layers. I’m a mixed media artist, but I work predominately with oil paints.
Since I’m selling stuff overseas, the houses are a lot smaller. I’m doing these large-scale paintings, and I will cut out shapes and little pieces to create smaller artworks. When I worked really small, I couldn’t do the large brushstrokes that I wanted. It made sense to work larger and then cut shapes out. (The large-scale painting Speagle is currently working on is stapled to a wall. The canvas spans at least six feet.) This piece will probably be worked on for a full year and then I’ll cut shapes out of it. Once it’s all done, I don’t know what we’ll actually see. (The piece is a collection of figures and scenes. Speagle pointed to an area of the canvas and described one of the scenes.) Like I said, I paint a stream of consciousness. One day I was jogging. The trucks passing by revved their engines and covered me up with a cloud of exhaust. That made its way into the painting.
A lot of people know me for my older stuff, such as my paintings of snakes, alligators and cardinals. Now, I’m developing more ways to tell my story. For example, I did a show at the Hickory Museum of Art in 2018 about the aesthetic beauty of North Carolina. I’ve changed and now I’m speaking and painting about anything and everything.
My work is current and relevant. I can talk about anything I want to as an artist, which is pretty amazing. We should be doing that. Bigger artists are doing more authentic things to tell the story of what’s going on around them versus a lot of North Carolina artists just create things about North Carolina, such as the aesthetic beauty, the flowers, the nature and all those things. I feel like that is just one piece of what makes a culture. As artists, we need to represent all of the culture.
Selling art internationally
I sell my stuff internationally through a gallery that represents me called JPS Gallery. It’s surreal that I’ve been able to be in Hickory and show my work internationally in Tokyo, Japan, Spain and soon to be Paris. It’s been quite a great experience for me.
I’ve been able to just hunker down here. We opened the gallery right before COVID in February 2020. COVID hit and we shut down the gallery. We were making ends meet selling prints and paintings.
The gallery overseas was following me on social media. They liked my work. One of an artist’s dreams is to be signed by a big gallery. I got signed in 2021. (JPS Gallery is based in Hong Kong.) We’ve been doing that ever since.
I currently sell all my work exclusively overseas. I’m going start hosting some nationwide artists that I know from living in New York and other places. Those will hopefully be shown here, as well as local artists.
Reopening ATAC Gallery
We’re reopening the gallery to the public. Hopefully, we get a lot of support from the community. People don’t know we’re here because I closed to the public during COVID. After the pandemic, because of my contract with the JPS Gallery, I had to stay exclusive for a while. Now, I can do things more my way.
Right now, we’re appointment only. We’re also open for events, if someone wants to host an event in the gallery. I will also be teaching some classes.
I did a painting about when the spy balloon came over. Everybody was freaking out about the spy balloon. With this painting, I was talking about how we should have been looking at ourselves and what the spy balloon would actually see. At that time, there was outcry over police beating Tyre Nichols to death in Memphis, Tennessee. I also talk about the hush, hush in religion and corporations. The painting talks about obesity, which is linked to the leading causes of death in the U.S. and is something I struggle with in my own life. I used tombstones shaped like the McDonald’s arches to reflect that situation of the obesity. It also features images related to the separation of the wealthy and poor. It also shows how we are hooked on phones and technology.
Quit worrying about what you think they’re getting from us and be more worried about what’s actually going on. I felt like the balloon was a fake distraction.
I do a lot of stream of consciousness paintings that flow from one idea to the next. I had a lot of anxiety after COVID, trying to adjust in society after the shutdown. I started painting situations of anxiety. One painting I did was of the Hickory (Christmas) parade. I was painting these really wild faces and it reflected the way I felt. We were all mashed in there and stuck in that area during the parade. (The figures in the painting are pushing into each other and overlap creating a chaotic image.)
Another painting was about when I took my daughter to the fair. It deals with those crazy faces again. It’s a tripped-out version of the way I felt. I painted sad stuffed animals you could win in the booths with people that were really unhappy working there.
These pieces were addressing the post-shutdown anxiety. These pieces were about coming back into society, trying to adapt and how the pandemic is going to change or affect new relationships and communication between people.
The meaning of art
Art is everything. It’s who I am. For instance, my lady, we’ve been together for 16 years, when I talked to her about my art when we first met, I said, “Listen, this thing (art) controls me.” I have no control over it. I’m not being a cliché or romantic about it. This is what I’m here to do. I’m going to die doing this. It’s the way I deal with adversity. It’s the way I deal with life. It’s the way I understand life. For me, the only way that I can go through life is through painting. That’s what art is to me.
It’s not just the art but it’s the act of making art. I love art. I collect art. But I think I’m more in love with the act of making it. I’m a maker and a creator at heart. I would rather be in the studio than standing in front of my work at a show. I’m constantly making. I don’t stop. It’s just the way I am. I’m 40 years old now and I’ve been doing this for most of my life. I grew up traditional North Carolina style, playing sports and all that stuff. I really started getting into art when I was around 13 years old and didn’t stop. Art was something that was calling my name.
I am originally from Hickory. I spent 10 years in Brooklyn, five years in Savannah and three years in Atlanta. I got my Master of Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. It was important for me to go to Savannah because it was such a good school. Many artists dream of painting in New York, so I did that. I went to Atlanta to work with a company building sets. I returned to Hickory because of my family.
New York experience
New York was amazing. I wouldn’t trade any of it. When I got there, I needed a job. So, I worked for Burton Snowboards making the window displays. After that, I said, “OK, I’m done with this.” I kept thinking about painting all the time. I packed a bunch of paintings up and went to the street. I became a Union Square (a pedestrian plaza and park in New York City) artist. I sold all my artwork on the street for about two years. It became one of the best experiences of my life. I got to meet so many people. I could paint whatever I wanted and sell to whoever I wanted. I could sell things at ridiculous little prices or big prices, whatever I felt like doing and making a living at it. That’s when I really started being like, “Hey, this is something that can work out.”
The Union Square artists got taken down by the corporate world. About 1,000 artists lost their way of living that they had been doing years before I ever got there. I was so happy to be a part of that group for the little time I was. Everybody dispersed and went back to the gallery scene. I would do pop up shows in Brooklyn, because I lived in Brooklyn, and all over the place. I was there at the height of the street art era, Banksy and all that stuff was going on in 2006. I joined in on that with my cardinals and thumbtacks.
I stuck to my guns. I got a studio and then the studio got too expensive. I started building sets and doing backdrops. These artists and furniture workers were all building for crazy hours — 18 hours a day. We were working from 6:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. It became a real camaraderie and fellowship between workers bonding through the struggle to make it in New York. From there I applied to the School of Visual Arts on a whim. My lady wanted me to apply just for the heck of it. It’s really competitive. I got in.
When I returned to Hickory, the museum show kind of kicked it off my career here. I won some grants and got a lot of commissions. That funded us for about a year and then the next year, 2019, I did the “Miracle of Hickory” mural in downtown. After that, I decided to open the ATAC Art Gallery.