Charleston has never been short on starving artists. Ours is a city of live musicians, painters, and street performers, but 26-year-old printmaker Will Langston has taken working for free to an entirely new level.
Starting back in November, Langston began producing hundreds of woodblock prints of his artwork on burlap and hanging them in the Hill Gallery outside the Halsey Institute. The thick-lined imagery was inpsired by multiple cultures — an Eastern enlightenment face hung between an African tribesman and the outstretched hands of some ancient-looking civilian. Recurring images of faces, nature, and inanimate objects lined the wall in solid black and red. The exhibit from the young artist was clearly a nod to another well known printmaker — Shepard Fairey and his Works Progress meets Soviet propaganda style. But after the opening reception on November 12 Langston did something a little different. He hung a sign next to his prints urging patrons to take a piece home with them.
"On the first day I had prepared 90 prints, and in about two hours they were all gone," says Langston. "I had severely underestimated the rate at which the work would go." He's since done another round of free prints, and they vanished within hours too.
"I love the idea of things in the world beginning and ending. Each time, after the work was hung and taken, I felt enlightened," he says. Although funding for this project ultimately came out of Langston's own pocket, the artist says that the knowledge that his work has improved someone's living space gives him a sense of success.
"It feels wonderful," he says, "I want to be a force for good in the world. It's through sharing and giving that I find comfort. The feedback has been incredible. I just found out the other day that a teacher has one of the prints in her classroom as an example of sharing and design. I just hope that in some way the work can shine a little light into the world."
Langston's interest in giving away his art started with his own yearning for the work of other people.
"When I go into galleries and museums, I find myself saying, 'Wow, I really like that painting, I would love to take it home with me.' And, of course, unless I was looking to walk out of the gallery in handcuffs, this couldn't be a reality. And so, it was through this, that the idea of making a body of work that everyone and anyone could take home came to me," he says. Langston says he was inspired by artists like Bob Ross who, according to the New York Times, never sold any of his 30,000 paintings. After Ross died, his work ended up in the hands of PBS and charities.
But that's where the Ross comparison ends. The 26-year-old College of Charleston Studio Arts grad's style looks nothing like the "happy trees" of Ross.
"I wanted to create work that was simple and graphic. Because we have so much access to all of the cultures in history and around the world, I wanted to combine visual elements of different times and cultures to create a body of work that reflects multiculturalism," he says.
But will Langston's subsequent work continue to be handed out to the community? Though Langston has learned much from his experience with his free exhibit at the Hill Gallery, he admits it's not a sustainable approach. Even artists have to eat — but not quite yet. His exhibit at the Hill Gallery will end on Feb. 3 and all prints still hanging will be given away.