Interview with Kevin Sampson

Kevin Blythe Sampson is a retired police officer and award-winning artist whose work has been featured at the Carnegie Museum, Mariposa Museum, The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, the Gregg Museum of Art & Design, the Edlin Gallery and Newark Museum of Art. The following is our conversation with him about art and life in Newark.

Where are you from originally?  What brought you to Newark? Are there any other places you call home?

I am originally from Elizabeth NJ, born and raised. I have lived in different parts of the state including 15 or so years in Old Bridge/Englishtown.

How would you describe your work/artistic vision?

I have been painting and making art in one form or another for all of my life. I’m an artist that works with many mediums, I don’t separate my artistic skill sets into sections. My sculptures are my painting; my murals are my sculptures; and they are all one and the same. So I can’t imagine not using everything in my arsenal; all of these engines fire at once when I am making work. Boats and vessels have been a recurring in my sculptural work for many years, and my drawings and painting tend to be more socially conscious.

I don’t work in a vacuum and I spend a lot of my time walking around my community, not only to obtain the found objects I use in my work, but to keep running conversations going on with people. Recently, my work increasingly speaks to my approaching middle age and changing life. My work has become even more focused towards, “where do we go from here?” My work becomes my island in a sea of dissolution. My work is made of reworked and transformed found objects including cement, bones, tiles, fabric and various painting mediums including acrylics, oils and stains. These objects, the bones, the tiles, the tiny specks and leftovers from day-to-day living, are poetic archaeological elements that I see as part of a conceptual vocabulary of impermanence and memory.

You are known as a sculptor. Are there other areas you work in that people may know less about?

Although many may think of me as just a sculptor, I graduated from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art after studying pictorial illustration. I also taught air brushing tech and three dimensional designs there for over 16 years. I have also done about five murals around the city of Newark.

Photo (left) courtesy of Kevin Sampson. Animation (right) courtesy of the producers at Arthur

How has living in Newark inspired you creatively?

I consider myself to be a community based artist, my community and the community at large, its joys, pains hopes and dreams have continued to be my ultimate muse. Newark’s people, rawness, and realness continue to inspire me.

Any idea of what your next projects might be?

Poet Danny Simmons and I are inviting artists and poets of all ages and abilities to “Make Something Beautiful.” Stay tuned for a call for entries for sculpture and poetry from artists — including you — as we launch this project. Photographs of all entries will be featured in a virtual exhibit!

Tell us about a show or event you attended recently that you’d like others to know about.

Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, and being over 65, I haven’t ventured out much at all this year. But I have been a gallery artist with Cavin-Morris Gallery for over 25 years. I would advise any one show hopping in New York to stop in my Gallery their shows are always amazing.

If you could revisit a past project or redo a finished work, what would it be? Why?

I created a 14 foot installation in 2018 at the Mystic Seaport Museum. I would like to return to the seaport and create an even bigger installation one day.

Where are some of your favorite places in Newark to hang out and why?

I spend a lot of time hanging out in one of Newark’s oldest woodshops, which is located directly above my loft. I learn so much from the master carpenters at Old Fashioned Windows and Millwork. I love hanging out at the Paul Robeson Gallery at Express Newark and Akwaaba Gallery as well.

You have a background in detective work. Do you see any connection between that and your current projects?

I am the first African American uniformed police composite artist in the country; this has afforded me an amazing skill set when it comes to talking to people. And since a lot of my work is inspired my community, these skills come in handy.

What would you advise someone who is newly coming to the process of art-making? People start making art at different points in their lives—anything you learned that you’d like to share with others?

I would tell any one interested in art making to firstly be true to yourself, don’t worry about what others are doing, and most of all to learn your craft.

What was it like appearing on Arthur? What was your role in shaping your representation?

On Arthur I play myself, teaching “George” to let go, be himself and make some art. I had tons of contact with the writers and producers over a two year period. I got the script, learned my lines and did the voiceover at a television station in New York. It was exciting and fun. The best part was showing the cartoon to my seven-year-old granddaughter, Nora.

Tell us something about you (or your work) that few people know.  

I believe in magic. When I use found objects, when I find them on the streets, I believe that they hold residue memory of who ever owned them. So I believe that this memory, this magic powers my creations and gives them a life of their own.

You can follow Kevin and his work here:

Instagram: kevinblythesampson

Featured photo by Cesar Melgar