Freak Flag #2015 by Steve Simmons

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy

Acrylic, tempera, spray-paint and fiberglass on canvas
42x52 (approx.)
July 4, 2015
A few thoughts from the artist, Steven J. Simmons:

When I discussed the possibility of writing an article about my work with the editor of this magazine, she reminded me that the purpose of this publication is to use art to promote social justice.  Initially, I found this request a bit daunting because I do not consider myself an expert on social justice issues. “I’m only partially qualified, I’m just a painter,” I thought. Maybe I should bag the idea? But then again, perhaps my painting of a piece called “Freak Flag #2015” had already bagged me into doing this.

If all of my works are unique, this piece is ultra unique. Something about this painting pulled me away from a family gathering on our nation’s birthday and into my home studio so that I could finish it, specifically, on the Fourth of July. Perhaps this “pull,” this current, was fueled by the climax of a few national issues during the week or so before, including the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and the confederate flag controversy in South Carolina, including the shootings of innocent people during a church service.

I am an artist. I am an American. I love my country and I respect our flag. But I wanted to paint my own flag last month. So I did. Here are a few highlights about the details of this piece:

  • It was painted on raw, unstretched canvas, which naturally reminded me of a flag, especially when holding it in my hands.  Hence the initial idea for the title.
  • There are a total of fifty (50) red, white and blue hearts and peace symbols representing each of our fifty states. 
  • The stripes in this piece come in many colors, shapes, textures and sizes, representing the vast diversity among the residents of this country.
  • The drops of red paint splattered about represent the sacrifices made by those who have suffered for the freedoms that we are able to enjoy.
  • The square in the upper left hand corner represents the true melting pot that we are as a nation, all connected and surrounded by a sea of blue. 

This work also made me think long and hard about the “bigger picture.” The title comes from one of my all time favorite protest songs, “Almost Cut My Hair” by Crosby, Stills Nash and Young. I actually keep my hair short, so what exactly does this piece mean, in the bigger picture?

First, Freak Flag #2015 is a protest against the constant divisiveness, labeling and social competition that pervades our country. When I look around, I see a nation that is constantly at war with itself, divided on issues of politics, race, religion, individual rights and more. This constant bickering and "us vs. them" mentality is enough to break this artist's heart, every day.  Too many people draw lines and bitch and sometimes much worse, before they consider the alternatives. 

Accordingly, Freak Flag #2015 is also a battle cry, a call to arms to all of us, myself included, to fight a different kind of war: the battle for peaceful coexistence. There are two key components to this initiative: the first is individuality.  

I have always been a huge proponent of individuality. We are all freaks, even the most allegedly conservative folks out there. If you believe in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, as I do, then we all have a right to be ourselves, to wave our respective freak flags, peacefully, right? So the question remains: how can we achieve this right to individuality, collectively, respectively, without stomping on each other along the way?
This is where the second component comes into play: a commitment to mutual respect.  Accept the fact that we are all freaks. All individuals. Embrace this essential fact. Love yourself for it and be at peace with that notion. Let your freak flag fly. What could be more American than to exercise this right? However, don't stop there, instead, start there.  

When you look at your neighbor (and this is the hard part), this is the real war that we have to fight with ourselves: no matter what he or she looks like or sounds like to you upon that first often highly judgmental glance or sound bite, see he or she as you see yourself, not as a member of some enemy division, but as a human,  a neighbor. 

Your human neighbor may be more or less conservative or liberal than you, they may be more or less white or black or brown than you, but I bet that if each of us took the time to get to know that person, even a little, that you would see that he or she has experienced loss, heartache, disappointment, challenges, obstacles, maybe some triumphs too, just like you have. Perhaps the other guy, the one you wouldn’t normally associate with, worries about his family, his jobs, paying bills, whether he has enough time or money to fix his car, or not, just like you.
Love yourself a little for your individuality, then be at peace with it. Then try, just once, to look at your neighbor as an individual, and be at peace with the fact that they are not like you. Then smile,  say hello, and listen to your heart for further instruction ...
Peace and love.
Steven J. Simmons

Photo of Steve Simmons in front of one of his art works of colorful green, blue and yellow/orange waves/tendrils.

Photo of Steve Simmons in front of one of his art works of colorful green, blue and yellow/orange waves/tendrils.

As a youngster growing up in a rapidly decaying rust belt city, painting was a very special part of Steve Simmon's world. He could not afford art supplies. Fortunately, his next door neighbor had a paint set, but he could only use it  when he was not misbehaving. Also, at the age of ten, Steve was one of only a small handful of inner city children to receive an invitation to take classes at the Toledo Museum of Art (his only formal training, otherwise he is entirely self-taught). This experience exposed Steve to Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields With Reaper.” The bold colors and dizzying movement of this masterpiece are powerful influences on his works today, which reflect a child-like fascination with waves, water, wind, nature and the cosmos. Steve supplements his use of acrylics with a variety of gels, heavy gesso, sand and what he refers to as the "surfer's essentials": liquid, fiberglass and plenty of stoke. Currently his work appears in private collections in over 15 states and three countries.