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Drive On

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_Drive On_, Chris Stain, spray-painted stencil on board, 2006.
  • _Drive On_, Chris Stain, spray-painted stencil on board, 2006.

Chris Stain started as a graffiti artist when he was 11 years old, living in working class Baltimore. He wasn’t interested in sports or any of the other things considered normal for an urban kid, but graffiti offered an avenue for personal expression. “You didn’t have to go by anybody’s rules,” he remembers. “Nobody could say you were good or bad.”

Graffiti gave Stain an awareness of himself as an artist. “I started drawing every day after school. I had a real sense that this is who I am as a person.” He learned screenprinting in high school, a process that begins with cutting a stencil; when he started making his own art, he went naturally to stencils and spray paint.
Soon, Stain’s pictures were appearing around on the streets. While many street artists employ imagery that is purposely confrontational, Stain’s work more often depicts working people like the ones he grew up around. A typical Stain image might portray a longshoreman, a teamster, a factory worker, or a miner, men and women whose livelihood is derived from sweat, muscle, and tedium.

“I look for images that speak to me,” he says. “I grew up around tradesmen. My grandfather was a steelworker. A real Baltimore work-ethic mentality was rampant all around me, and it soaked in.” Stain draws heavily from the history of American labor to express both the burden and dignity of work.

His art is also a way of coming to terms with a life he is no longer part of. As an adolescent, he says, he knew he wanted to escape a blue-collar existence. “I didn’t want to have to go through everything I saw my family go through,” he says, from the back-breaking toil to the alcoholism. “It wasn’t until 1998, when I heard the words and music of Woody Guthrie, that I understood it wasn’t something you had to run from,” he says. “You could work with it.”

Drive On falls squarely in the tradition of Woody. The painting is taken from an old photo of a riveter at the old Bethlehem Steel mill, where Stain’s grandfather worked.

“It’s a real monotonous job,” Stain explains. “The picture has a sense of struggling through each day, knowing you’re going to be doing the same thing under the same odds, and not let your mind get in the way of doing your duty.”

The 34-year-old artist lived in Albany for several years, and recently exhibited his work at Albany Center Gallery. He moved to New York late last year with his wife and two children, where he is increasingly finding offers for commissions. Stain—the name is a nom de arte—has shown in galleries in the United States, Germany, and England. Later this year, he will be part of a three-person show in Paris. A portfolio of work is at www.chrisstain.com.

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