Art is in his blood. Music is in his soul. Giving back is in his nature. And Steven Lopez just found the valve that taps all three. The energy rushing out of that floodgate has put the swing in his song and passion in his painting. It’s produced his most prolific series to date, afforded him spirit-nurturing opportunities to help others and, most importantly, finally made him comfortable in his own skin.
“I can never get this project off my mind. I think about it all the time,” Lopez beams inside his Pasadena studio. He’s referring to his After Midnight series – a body of work featuring the R&B and soul singers that have given him his groove over the years… musicians like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Chaka Khan. After studying their photo archives, discography and live performances, Lopez gives their images and messages new meaning on canvas. Working fast and full of purpose in a sleeveless shirt, the southpaw begins with a base of yellow. “I just gravitate to that color,” he says. “The yellow gives the art its energy.” Purple is the perfect compliment according to Lopez. He slaps it on creating neon-looking outlines of familiar faces. Features and expressions then become accentuated as he digs deeper into his palette, defines shape and shadow and gives the subjects their voice. Along the way, he adds words from his favorite songs to the borders like “Strength, Courage and Wisdom” on his India.Arie portrait… “The song helps me reflect on my own hardships and rising above.”
While the rhythm of Lopez’s life looks like a pendulum swing now, it used to be charted through readings from a seismograph. Steven was born and raised in L.A. and felt art’s power at an early age. His mom drew cartoon characters that commanded his youthful attention, downtown murals left him downright spellbound, and by middle school, art had become his obsession. The fitting in card never got turned over on the deck he was dealt. Instead, Steven discovered his identity in the rattle and release of aerosol art. “I found one of the best ways to make a statement was with a spray can” – an experiment with language that for him began in 7th grade. That sub-culture gave him strength, but because it led to school suspensions and other trouble, his family saw drawing as a distraction.
“My whole world was based on fear,” Lopez says. “Fear of not achieving, fear of not being accepted. A lot of my motivation came from fear. That road, however, led me to a dead end.” Relationships with women were a struggle, his career goals were a case study of conflict and his mind was as full of blame as L.A.’s atmosphere is with smog. So after high school, Lopez packed up his things and headed to Eugene, Oregon. He found his calling in duck country by enrolling in college, immersing himself in art and breathing in the hip-hop and b-boy lifestyle. He brought along a new moniker, as well – Frustr8. The tagging card was an acronym for “Forever Running Under Stressful Times Righteously Attributed to Ethics.” Lopez’s alter ego gave him a newfound sense of entitlement, and graffiti became the spit he spewed on the numerous flaws he saw in this world. “Words have a vibration and I was dirtying the water with mine,” Lopez admits. Graffiti gave him pride and a feeling that he was contributing to society, even though the art was created on the side of a railroad track. Police thought otherwise. Arrests, though, only gave him more motivation. His peers encouraged the lifestyle, and Frustr8 found that control had slipped further away than Mars.
By 2004, he wasn’t talking to his parents, had cheated on yet another girlfriend and cared about as far as he could stretch his middle finger. “It was everybody else’s fault but mine,” he recalls. “But then, one day, I was lying on a couch, Thanksgiving was around the corner and I realized I didn’t have any place to go. My whole identity was, ‘I’m the spray can guy.’ Everything I was doing was just to say, ‘Look at me.’ I had created this entirely destructive path and knew it was time to make major changes.” So that day he put down the paint and picked up the phone. Lopez called Mom and Dad first, and together they dug a six-foot hole in the backyard for the hatchet. Then he got out the black book and dialed up every one of his former flames, and found extinguishing pain was as simple as saying, “I’m sorry,” and meaning it.
Lopez turned the page that day and titled the new chapter in his life Unselfish. He began developing close relationships with good people who showed him how to love – starting with himself. With clean ears he finally heard the advice from wise professors who had stressed giving back to his community, not pillaging from it. He traded in aerosol cans for paintbrushes and began working on canvas instead of buildings. He watched his signature geometric style evolve as themes of anger were replaced with serenity. “Life was my biggest inspiration for change,” he says. “I didn’t truly become an artist until I shed Frustr8.” The timber of his past thudded for the final time in the forests of Oregon, as Lopez set off for rosier pastures in Pasadena.
Elements of jazz, soul and R&B began appearing in his art, and Lopez embraced those influences. He nurtured it further by taking a gig painting in front of a live jazz audience at the world famous Mint Club in Los Angeles. And then, one day, it just clicked… the perfect synergy between his music and art worlds. After Midnight was born, immortalizing his favorite singers like Sade, Minnie Ripperton and Jill Scott in animated and defining portraits. It took him between three and five hours of non-stop painting to capture the women the way he saw and heard them. Lopez videotaped the experiences and time-lapsed them to fit into a montage with the songs that inspired him from each artist. It’s the old Bob Ross artistic theory of video evolution with a modern-day Dan Dunn “Paint-Jam” twist.
The breakthrough was cemented with the completion of a portrait of Erykah Badu. “She understands the healing power of sound,” Lopez says, and it was his objective to create a piece of art that was as soothing as her music. He posted a picture of the finished work on Badu’s MySpace page, and within a couple days, her management team reached out to the painter. Shortly after that, Lopez was sitting in the living room of Badu’s Dallas, Texas, home. She was so moved by the work that they started a partnership to raise money for her charity funding community-based programs for inner-city youth. Both artists signed 100 Giclée prints that are now for sale. “My music and his art have married,” Badu says. “When I saw Steven’s work, I was very, very impressed. The way he demonstrated it through time-lapse – you could see the whole thing come together. Layer. Layer. Layer. It’s like how I write music.”
Lopez just turned 34 years old, and is still wrapping his head around all that’s happened during his young, but eventful, life. “I can’t hate on the past I’ve lived,” he says. “Without Frustr8, this would never have happened. Graffiti is not wrong – it’s just that the mentality behind it can be destructive. The artwork can be very self-serving. They say art done on the street is the only way to keep it real, but the truest art is loving somebody.”
Steven’s mom is now his biggest fan, and he’s been dating the same girl for the last four years. “I do not paint to be somebody greater than myself. I’m a son, brother, lover and friend first. The real work resides in the relationships I have with people, and what I learned from them is the substance of my work.” In addition to the charity efforts with Erykah Badu, Lopez went back to Eugene last winter as a guest of the city. It had commissioned him to create a large public mural, and in order to complete the 75-foot project, he enlisted the help of two-dozen area high school students. Lopez showed the kids that following their dreams is worth it no matter how crooked the path. “What makes a person powerful is not money or job status – it’s someone who realizes that they have a shared responsibility with society to help make the world, and those living in it, better.”
Written by: Ben Bamsey
Artworks Magazine: Summer 2009