“Whatever path an individual artist chooses, their efforts are woven into the society and cultures that cultivated them and they carry an important role in representing that society’s life cycle.”
Patrick Earl Hammie (born in 1981) is a visual artist and professor at the University of Illinois in the United States. Hammie grew up between Connecticut and South Carolina, and traveled the east coast frequently with his family. He graduated from Coker University (2004) with a Bachelor of Arts and the University of Connecticut (2007) with a Masters of Fine Arts degrees. Hammie’s first solo exhibition, Equivalent Exchange, debuted in April 2009 at Wellesley College. Hammie accepted a faculty position in the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois later that year and moved from Connecticut to Illinois. Hammie has been a professional artist for about 12 years, but before that had amazing creative experiences such as being a nationally ranked martial artist and singing at the White House and Carnegie Hall with his college choir. Hammie describes himself as a nerd, tennis enthusiast, and cinephile, and says these experiences and interests inform who he is and what he does today.
“I hope to add some form or idea that is significant in telling a coherent story from our time.”
Patrick Earl Hammie uses figuration, across traditional media (oil painting, drawing, sculpture), and through portraits and allegories, he examines past and present black diasporic experiences and thinks through themes related to cultural identity, social equity, narrative, and the body in visual culture. He is influenced by traditions of Romanticism and Expressionism, serial forms of storytelling, and grand narrative formats such as Mozart’s Requiem, as well as mythology, cultural lore, and modern media.
Patrick Earl Hammie’s works of art are able to tap into our deepest self, evoking such emotions that somehow transports us to the story that is taking place. As if we are part of the story, we experience a moment where we accept what is occurring without any doubt or hesitation. We are simply drawn into an emotion and provoked to feel with intensity and magnitude. Certainly, without the need for limitations. Through his art, Hammie gives us intensity, emotions, and thought-provoking moments.
Q. What role does the artist have in society?
A. To just clarify, artists are not a homogenous identity. We’re as diverse as the many types of medical professionals in the world. Some artists are critics, knowledge keepers, mouthpieces for nation-states and corporations, cultural mirrors, and activists. Whatever path an individual artist chooses, their efforts are woven into the society and cultures that cultivated them and they carry an important role in representing that society’s life cycle.
Q. Tell us about some of the highlights of your artistic career, such us memorable shows or publications?
A. Having the honor to see people connecting with my work is a primary highlight. Years ago, a group of young black art students attended an opening reception of my work in a city where the black population has been historically dismissed and ignored, and disproportionately persecuted and murdered. Watching those students react to seeing themselves reflected in artwork and talking with them later about what it meant to them moved me. I treasure the relationships I’ve fostered over the past 10 years with artists, former students, and colleagues across the U.S., and in the U.K., South Korea, Singapore, Nigeria, Iran, Italy, Germany, and France. Part of sharing my ideas is making the artwork, but collaboration with other art professionals and academics is key to connecting those ideas to audiences. I’m proud to have been included in important exhibitions such as The Intuitionists at the Drawing Center (NYC), a project curated by Heather Hart, Steffani Jemison, and Jina Valentine inspired by Colson Whitehead’s novel; Portraits of Who We Are at the David C. Driskell Center (Maryland), an exhibition curated by Curlee R. Holton and Dorit Yaron that surveyed 150 years of black self-portraiture; Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth., a traveling exhibition produced by the Smithsonian Institution that featured 25 black men who’ve changed American culture, reflected through the works of 25 visual artists.
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. Dinner! My dad was the primary cook. My mom, dad, and I would eat dinner together almost every evening before watching primetime TV. One rule was we that we couldn’t eat until I finished all my homework at the kitchen table. Dad would help me with math and mom with spelling and grammar when I needed. Some of my favorite dishes that he’d make were Salisbury steak and corn on the cob, pork chops and mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, and spaghetti Bolognese.
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. I grew up on Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica reruns and had my eyes on being an astronaut, then an animator or illustrator after falling in love with anime and comic books around age nine. During my early teens I thought I’d own a martial arts school someday. I’d competed in national tournaments for years and was inspired by my sensei and professionals I met along the way, but by high school my passions shifted toward other sports, musical performance, and visual art. I thought a practical choice was to be an art teacher. That was my thinking during a time when I knew what art was but didn’t yet know what an artist was, or could be.
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. My mom kept my first scratching in a family photo album, if you count that. But, the first things that seemed like considered expressions were drawings of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that I did when I was about six. Donatello was my favorite turtle because he was a nerd, but Leonardo was my favorite to draw because he had a blue mask and katanas.
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. I took my art classes seriously, but for most of it I was focused on being an art teacher. I didn’t form a deep interest in Art until after I’d graduated college: without assignments and the oversight from instructors, I further researched artists and movements and incorporated my interests in my work. In college, I concentrated on drawing more than painting. After, I wanted to learn how to paint. Over the next two years I studied how European and American artists from the 16th to mid-20th century painted, and I practiced painting in their manners. I was curious about their substrates, the chemistry of their paints and mediums, and application techniques. These formal studies led me to their subjects, and then to the context in which they were creating works (patrons, politics, social dynamics, etc.). I also took on portrait commissions to give myself deadlines and test my new skills. In graduate school I was introduced to the profession and economics of being an artist and an academic. It helped that my graduate art program was closely connected to the art history program. That proximity and those relationships furthered my appreciation and premeditation of the layers and scope possible in an artwork and a practice. I was also geographically close to New York City, which meant that through seminars and on my own I was in the city frequently visiting artists’ studios, galleries, and project spaces. Those were some valuable experiences.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it?
A. As an undergrad I was introduced to German Expressionism and artists like Käthe Kollwitz, Gerhard Richter, Max Beckman, and Otto Dix. In hindsight, it’s easy for me to see how my palate for them would also endear me to artists like Aaron Douglas, Alice Neel, Willem De Kooning, Lucian Freud, and Romare Bearden. In graduate school, my interests took me toward Luis Caballero, Barkley L. Hendricks, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kerry James Marshall, Sally Mann, Bill Viola, and Berlinde De Bruyckere, to name a few. I’m also influenced by musicians and the visuals surrounding them (album artwork, music videos, fashion), 90s comic books, and a long list of films that I’ve given too much mental space to. These things have fused into the approach you’ve seen, but it’s still evolving. I introduce new challenges in every project, some are formal (compositional or chromatic), others come from my expanding subject matter.
Q. How do you visualize the textures of your work?
A. Painting to me is similar to making and experiencing music. I’ve sang in choirs since age seven, and have loved dancing since age three rocking to Thriller on TV. When I paint, I build in differing passages of rhythms through faster and slower brushwork, moments that are closer and more impasto, and moments that are further away, just stain on canvas. This performance is my way of bringing a viewer closer and making the experience more intimate by reveling the process, layers, and history.
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. I’m interested in exploring the complexities of identity, emotion, and family by layering existing histories with new narratives and navigating the tensions between feeling and knowledge, power and violence, vulnerability and tenderness. Fundamentally, I wish to share my journey of maturing from the late 20th into the early 21st century, and invite others to engage and reflect on their own journeys. I ask viewers to reconsider what we inherit and how we form values around notions of gender, race, and representation today. For example, in my project Birth Throes, my painting Untimely Ripp’d (2017) brings together many of these ideas. It pictures a Black mother and a team of surgeons performing cesarean delivery in an operating room. The painting combines the professional, economic, and emotional labor involved in modern childbirth. This fusion connects the cultural and critical valuing of black life, in particular its premature ending, through depicting the business of its beginning. The scene of five female surgeons and a mother bearing new life recalls paintings like Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic (1875), and expands examples of active medical professionals and women. The title is a reference to the cesarean-born character Lord Macduff from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who would foil the tyrant that Macbeth would become. This suggestion provides room to consider the coming black body as both a symbol of caution and/or hope, depending on your vantage.
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. Nothing more than another other person finding direction in life. For every choice I’ve pursued, there are tons of other choices that I could have made. Some of them may have led to easier outcomes or relationships, but I don’t look back on those choices with regret. Every one provided different learning experiences and opportunities—some were frustrating and many rewarding. Some believe living a creative life or pursuing art as a profession is a road toward economic struggle or social alienation, but those views stem from an infrastructure that poorly educates about and makes space for the values of these pursuits in our modern economies.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. No. I’ve surrounded myself with a good support system of family, friends, and colleagues. The artistic process is very collaborative, working with curators, institutions, and other artists. No one accomplishes much in isolation. As the artist, you’re ultimately responsible for all of the creative decisions. That can be a burden that you carry alone, but that’s different than loneliness.
Q. Apart from art, what do you love doing?
A. Spending time with my wife and dog, playing and watching tennis, catching up on the shows my friends have recommended and I haven’t yet watched, and still, dinner. I also get time with my mom each week now, since I moved her closer due to her health. None of those are mutually exclusive.
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. I hope to add some form or idea that is significant in telling a coherent story from our time. I also want to open creative/professional spaces that inspire and allow others to explore similar terrain. Lastly, as a professor, lecturer, and curator I wish to nurture and root more historically marginalized artists and leaders—women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and low-income individuals—in greater numbers and positions than when I started.
I’ve had success towards these goals in expanding the examples of subjects and authors that art patrons encounter and identify with in art collections; my works reside in the art collections of David C. Driskell Center, JPMorgan Chase, and John Michael Kohler Arts Center, for example.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by whom?
A. I don’t know if it’s the “best,” but it’s the advice that reoccurs the most for me. When I was in college, I thought being smart or serious and masking my insecurities meant that I had to have all the answers. My professor once told me that I didn’t have to always be right. A statement meant to humble a know-it-all student helped me develop into a man who knows there are more ways to value intelligence and depth than knowledge.
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. Don’t take anything at face value—question everything. But it’s equally important to be humble and seek out mentors, listen to what they say and do, and pay attention to what’s behind what they say and do. Make friends! Work to make connections and collaborate with people who are in or approaching creative and professional spaces you’d like to be in. And, once you have some stable footing, help those behind you follow.