Meet the Artist: Elijah Stephen

“Take a Stand” by Elijah Stephen and Gentry Parker, one of the murals in “RESPONSE: Images and Sounds of a Movement” (June 5-Sept. 6 in the Indiana State Museum’s Legacy Theater), features the silhouette of a Black man in front of a silhouette of the city skyline. Above them is a sunflower and the words “Take a Stand.” The man is raising his fist – and serving as an outline for others to raise theirs.

“I want people to take a picture with it,” said Stephen, whose given name is Elijah Norwood. “I want people to insert themselves because it’s a message. It’s a statement piece saying you support this movement of equality. I want people to show their support and hopefully we can start to drown out the hate with some love.”

Stephen, 28, grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Cardinal Ritter High School. He went to college at Western Kentucky University and returned to Indianapolis in 2018. When he’s not painting, he works for Home Advisor in sales and runs a business called 22starvingartist that sells, among other things, shirts with an equals sign, signifying equality.

His plan is to garner enough attention through RESPONSE and from marketing to be able to have a solo show next year. He’s now working on building up a catalog of 30-40 pieces to present. Find his work on Instagram at elijahstephen_.

In an interview, he talked about his mural, which he and Parker painted on the board covering the window at Grand Union Tattoo located on Mass Ave., and why it was lifechanging for him.

 

Tell me about the piece you have in the exhibit.

Gentry, who I did the mural with, had the idea to paint on the boards. Up until that point, I don’t think I’d painted a single piece in about two years. When we got started, he assembled a team of artists he knew, and we all talked over a Zoom call. One of the artists dropped out for whatever reason. Another submitted an idea that I liked, but I felt like it was going to be censoring what the message truly was about George Floyd and that Black lives matter and that this man was clearly just murdered.

So it came down to Gentry and me. I sketched the sunflower, and I had the beams of light coming out. We were going to do George Floyd’s face in the middle of the sunflower and then a cityscape of a bunch of fists at the bottom. We decided not to paint George Floyd’s face because we didn’t want to produce another point of pain. We didn’t want people to see our mural and say, “I’m pissed off.” We didn’t want to bring up the wrong type of emotion. We wanted everyone to know it’s clear where we stand, but we wanted to look into the future and see what a solution could be. If we are part of change, we want to start that. We wanted people to have something to look forward to. What you focus on is what you get.

 

When you were painting on Mass Ave., what were people saying to you?

There was more good than bad. In the beginning, there were spectators wondering what we were going to do. The people at Starbucks really helped us. They brought us water, scones – just offering things to us. Also, the president of The Massachusetts Homeowners Association, Krista Bermeo, was the one who got us approval to do the mural, was with us every step of the way. She was awesome. People on Mass Ave were nice. It was very comfortable. But as the message started getting developed, things got a little tricky. We drew in the fists and people said, “Make sure you paint blue fists and red fists. All lives matter.” No. This is about Black lives. Black lives need to matter too. So obviously the fists were bringing the wrong message. … So, we decided what if we painted the symbol for Black Lives Matter and make that a part of it so that everyone in the community and everyone who interacts with this piece can be a part of it. Every time a new person takes a picture with it, it becomes a new piece of art. We had all different races and nationalities taking pictures with it. And we had all ages too. Then it started to gain more attention. WRTV ran a live story while we were painting. After that, we had people coming to see. It was surreal. We had people crying. (Saying) that it was inspiring. Telling us to keep going. That we were doing a service for our city. And then we had people come by spitting at our feet. Screaming (profanity). Throwing trash. People completely disrespecting the process.

 

What’s it like to have a piece in a museum?

It’s very emotional – one, because it came at a point where I’d given up on myself as far as art goes. I lost my voice. I didn’t know what I would paint. People always say, “Find yourself.” For me, my most powerful journey is to figure out how to get back to myself and move forward. Art is a big part of my life. It is my life. And I love it in every form. To stop for two years was eating at me. I got to Home Advisor and I was like, “I’m going all-in for my family.” We were broke when we first got here. Very broke. I’m glad we had a support system. Now, life has changed financially. A complete 180 because of Home Advisor.

 

So this isn’t just one piece in a museum. This is lifechanging.

Literally lifechanging. My grandfather, before he passed – he didn’t have to do any of this; he was my stepbrother’s grandfather – I showed him some art that I did and he enjoyed it. This man was 80 years old, still driving his old pickup truck, and he took me around to museums. He was an art collector and historian, and he made me see the power of art and what it means to be an artist. He helped me develop my voice. I wish he was here to see this.

Also, it showed me that no matter what happens and where life takes you, what is for you, is for you. My journey up until this point and all the events that happened from start to finish with the mural were all important. If I would not have trusted my gut and spoke up about how I felt about the original design, who knows if we would be here today. I turned down projects, commissions and places to showcase my art for two years and for whatever reason I was inspired to do this project. It’s important to trust yourself and have faith, and as long as you know that you are giving your best every day then things will work workout. I always knew I would get back to painting but didn’t know when, where or how but I kept my faith and I stayed focused and finally an opportunity opened up, and I was ready.

 

What do you want people to take away from this exhibit?

Equality. Equality from a Black man’s point of view. In every form and every fashion. I want them to see that we all play a part in the whole world’s consciousness. I want people to understand that we are a part of the change. Being part of the change means doing real work and taking active steps. It starts with you in your everyday life. And I want people to start focusing on a solution – which we saw the world do.