Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Danny O'Bryan interviews Louisville artist Stephen Irwin - July 28, 2002

D. O. Where did you grow up?

S. I. I’m from Vine Grove, Kentucky. I loved growing up in a small town but like they say, there is "one" in every town. I was probably the most obvious because of my refusal to conform. That’s in Hardin County about an hour from here. About 2,000 people.

D. O. When did you discover your difference?

S. I. Real young, by the time I was 12 years old. But I never had any problem with feeling outside of things. I was never really made to feel that way.

S. I. So you vented your difference through art?

D. O. I think that’s the choice most creative people have to make to conform or go on and do what is their natural inclination. I never had any doubt that I wanted to do creative work, I always wanted to be an artist.

D. O. How old are you?

S. I. I'm 43 years old.

D. O. You don't look 43.

S. I. I wish I could blame it on clean living. I think most artists have a child like way about them a Peter Pan syndrome. Whether it shows physically are not, but you can see it in the eyes the windows of the soul.

I went to school at Murray for fine arts my parents died when I was in my teens. I wasn’t a very good student but Murray had a great atmosphere it was a great fine arts school and really opened my eyes to a lot of things.

I moved to Louisville because it was a big city I’ve never been intimidated by Louisville.
I still feel like its just a big small town. I moved here in 1984 and went into retail and I worked for Ben Synder’s department store I ran their visual merchandising department. I ran like 13 stores but I refused to buckle under to the corporate structure after they were bought out by Hess.

But it was a good outlet, it taught me a lot about people and selling and changing things rapidly upon demand, which i think is one of my strengths

D. O. Are you an Underground artist?

S. I. Under ground above ground all around ground! I’ve always been able to move through several different worlds at the same time, it’s one of my strengths. I can go from working for large corporations to working for somebody like Bim Dietrich at the Red Lounge. I work for the Kentucky Arts and Craft Foundation and film maker Archie Borders. The range of people I work with is pretty broad.

D. O. Where did you get your unique style? The first time I went in the Red Lounge I told Michael, the bartender, "I've been here before. This looks like Sparks nightclub!"

S. I. I’m fairly well educated visually and I’ve lived in urban areas like the Market St. area for most of the time I’ve been in Louisville. I’m sure that makes a huge impression on my aesthetics.

D. O. What kind of theme do you work with when designing a place like Sparks or the Red Lounge?

S. I. The only constant at Sparks was change It was about responding to the zeitgeist. It was constantly changing and developing.

D. O. I especially remember the swinging metal door that led to the uni-sex rest room.

S. I. Everything about Sparks was omni-sexual. Straight people called it a gay bar and gay people called it a straight bar. Actually it was a beautiful mix. I created it, worked and ran it for almost ten years I did it successfully for only five years before I got tired of that life style.

As I neared my 40s, drugs and alcohol and the idea of standing at the end of the bar doing Ecstasy and wearing baby gap was less appealing. We used to do foam parties, that was ten years ago. We would fill the place up with sprinklers and get two or three feet of water in there and go crazy. People would show up in their swim suits.

What about your work with Archie Border's new film "Paper Cut?"

S. I. Working on "Paper Cut" has been about looking back to 1992 which is when I was really excited about Sparks. So, I’ve revisited a lot of those memories and for the first time I’ve felt a little nostalgic about that time. All of a sudden I realized it was the most decadent place this town has ever seen. It was like Berlin in the 1920s I think we needed places like that in the early 90s. It was a time of great energy and expression. There was a sort of fearlessness going on.

D. O. This is starting to sound like the sixties,

S. I. We were in the last decade of the century. I got the name "Sparks" from the old Traffic song.

D. O. Did you have anything particular that you wanted to do there?

S. I. I always felt that growing up, being in my early 20s and coming to Louisville I only had a few places I could hang out in. There was City Lights and the old Downtowner or the Discovery drag bar. Gay people didn't mix at all in a drag bar.

One of the things that was very important to me was answering the question, "Where do all the freaks go!" A place where sexuality doesn't matter but it's all about the people who go there, like an island of misfit toys! I felt like it was very important to this town to have a place where all these different kinds of people could sort of collide.

I think when you look at my work its about how different materials and different surfaces and ideas collide. Startling juxtapositions. In my personal art work it is somewhat the same, I draw very delicately and precisely on plastic, which is a very unforgiving surface and then I heat it, so there is really no control of it. A 3-D effect, graphite on plastic. I’m currently in a show at the Speed museum called "Other Bodies" and I’m Exposition Coordinator at Zephyr Gallery.

There is a hard and soft thing about me that can be seen in everything I've ever done
masculine meets feminine and hard meets soft.

In the Red lounge you have a concrete floor and button tufted booths, a steel wains coat balanced with padded walls and very evocative nostalgic light boxes with photo prints in them.

The photos are from my friend John Larr who I worked with for years He is a very well known commercial photographer. Those are photos that he took in Europe They seem to describe another time and place without being specific. They really could be almost anywhere at first glance but all of a sudden you wonder, where are they exactly? There is a strange dis-association about them.

Our culture is really big on black and white and it’s not that way. There are so many shades of gray. I always felt that the best thing I could do for the community is to encourage young people to be here and stay here and contribute to the artistic climate of this town.

People aren't leaving Louisville like they used too. They have discovered this is a pretty good place to be. The cultural climate has improved for artists and designers and as a consequence this town is a much more exciting place to live in.

There has been more artistic activity and growth here in the last five years than there has been in the last 20. It’s a real exciting time and for somebody in my age group. In some ways I feel like I've been able to contribute to that.

D. O. What is the strangest thing that ever happened in Sparks?

S. I. Funny you asked that, just the other day Mistress Atiegar asked me, "Do you remember the time we turned Brandy into a human chandelier, hung her from a beam and plugged all her orfices with candles and lit them?"

I told her, "Well I was trying to block that from my memory but now that you mention it, it all comes rushing back!" That's when I decided I couldn't use any of my personal experiences in Archie's movie "Paper Cut" because nobody would ever believe it. The things we did and got away with.

S & M was part of the zeitgeist of the early 90s. Of course our entire culture was built on the principal of dominance and submission.

We always had "Mother" working the door, this enormous drag queen who everybody loved. Nobody had ever seen a drag queen working the front door of a bar. Drag was booming then. Drag had never been out in front of people the way it was in the early 90s.

To me Sparks was a place where people could come and express themselves.

One of my friends once said “Stephen you can take credit for ruining an entire generation of young louisvillians. But I don’t think I ever made a dime and I’m sure I gave away more liquor than I ever sold.

But it was a damn good ride, it was like an E ticket ride at Kings island.

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