Deserved or not, if millennials sometimes get a bad rap for being lazy or unambitious, they need only present Paducah artist Shanden Simmons as evidence to the contrary.
The 24-year-old has already had several careers, as a waiter, as a construction worker and now as full-time working artist. "I've had my share of different jobs," he says. "This is the best one."
On top of his jobs, he's attended school, earning an associate's degree in fine art at the Paducah School of Art and Design. He's created two pieces of permanent art that will become part of the fabric of his hometown and form the foundation for which he plans to build his latest career as an artist.
As I sit and talk with Shanden at the site where his newest art piece will be installed in the near future, several things become clear about him. He's wise above his years. He seems to never do something without a thoughtful reason. He tells about art school and says that he enrolled not to learn art (though he admits to expanding his repertoire into other mediums while he was there), but to learn how to turn his art into a career.
"I knew art," he says, "but I didn't know how to make it into a businesses where I could actually make money doing it." He talks of an early job waiting tables as Los Amigos Mexican restaurant, which he got because he wanted to learn to speak Spanish and felt that more exposure would be a great supplement to his classroom teachings. Clearly he saw the benefit of learning by immersion because it's a technique that he still employs as an artist today. During the creation of both of his mural projects, he's worked on site at the business, which he thinks helps him make the piece authentic.
"Paducah Distilled Spirits provided a studio space so that I could smell the mash as I worked," he recalls of creating a mural for the downtown moonshine distillery last year.
Shanden was not the only one who benefited from his on-site work. Owner Denise Story says he became like part of her team.
"Having him here with us, it was almost like he was just one of our employees," Denise says. "He showed up every day and went and did his thing and then we'd meet up for lunch. It was pretty cool to have him here every day."
Denise also says that she liked being able to follow the work as it progressed.
For his second large mural, Simmons worked a similar deal with the owners of the Coke Plant so that he could work near his commissioner: Piper's Tea and Coffee. Shanden says that working where passersby could see him took some getting used to, but he found a surprising benefit as he worked.
"The exposure was excellent," he says. "People loved coming by and seeing the development of the piece."
The piece that Shanden has created for Piper's is generating quite a bit of buzz, which is clearly shared by the artist and commissioner when I ask about its creation. He immediately pops open his laptop and his fingers fly over a keyboard smudged with charcoal: his preferred medium. He shows me a photo of the piece and I struggle to take in both his words and the beauty of it at the same time.
He says that he and Peter Barnett, the owner of Piper's Tea and Coffee who commissioned the piece, had nearly "identical visions" for the mural, which will hang in the center of the coffee shop's three-room space.
"We spoke for a long time, Shanden and I, about how we actually source everything. We wanted to, in a nice way, share the struggle that some of the growers go through and the lives that they have that actually goes into the production of that coffee or that tea that you have in your hand," says Peter. "But also, it's not necessarily a painful or bad thing, this is just their lives and they work really hard at what they do, and we work really hard at what we do at Piper's, and we just wanted to put that into a mural to explain the hard work and effort and really, love that's gone into every cup that's produced at Piper's. There's nothing better, we think, than putting that into a visual mural," he adds.
Once those talks were over, Shanden got to work, engrossing himself in the research that he feels is integral to ensuring the authenticity of his work. He sources nearly every image that is part of his murals. That means bringing in models to stand in for people and taking "sometimes hundreds of photos of them" or visiting the library and using the internet to find authentic photos.
This process became quite arduous when Barnett suggested incorporating an image of Luther Carson into their mural to pay tribute to the man who had commissioned the Coke Plant. Carson turned out to be quite camera shy and Shanden spent many hours searching at the library for a photo to use, only to end up drawing his face from a tiny thumbnail image from an old newspaper. For his body, Shanden asked a friend to don a suit and tie and pose.
All of that effort was important to the vision of the piece for Peter. "We wanted that history, the depth of history and that depth of journey, where the building has come from all the way through to the growers and the producers of the products that we use and basically ending up with the future generation, which is displayed by having one of my daughters there to show these depths. We work from history but we also look to the future," he explains.
Of Carson's spot in the mural, Peter also wanted to pay homage to his legacy and its role in Piper's success. "I wanted him to be put in the mural, even though he is long gone, but maybe in some way, he's kinda enjoying what we do, so he's sitting there reading his paper and enjoying his coffee in our mural."
Carson's legacy of creating art for his hometown is something that hangs over Simmons' head as well. "I am pretty humbled and honored to be a permanent part of this historical landmark," he says. "Looking at it panoramically, being my age and having two murals in my hometown, that's a very special thing to get to have permanent art that will stay there."
He recalls another artist who may have had the same experience. "This is a remarkable feeling, it's probably what Robert Dafford felt like with his first floodwall mural. It's pretty surreal," he shares.
True to his nature, Shanden hasn't slowed down after completing his Piper's mural. He's still creating personal portraiture by commission, working on his first residential piece and in his spare time creating album art for a local rock band. If that's not enough, he's also been honing his artistry through music, playing regularly with his band Fairseas and directing a documentary about artistic collaboration with local artists Glenn Hall and Daniel Yocum shooting the film. The documentary, inspired by his work in the Coke Plant, is called "The Rotunda Project" and features a host of local musicians. The group plans to debut the piece late fall at Maiden Alley Cinema.
"I want to keep doing this," he says of his art. "I hope it's not the end." n