An Artist’s Journey
Prolific Artist and Long-Term AIDS Survivor Steed Taylor Opens Up About His Body of Work, and How Spirituality and Helping Others Have Kept Him Alive
by Chip Alfred
As a young boy in rural North Carolina, Steed Taylor liked searching for clay in the woods and making things from it. Born in a small town outside Fayetteville, his fascination with art began with sculpture and led to an enduring career in various media—painting, drawing, photography, printmaking, and public art.
Steed, who recently turned fifty-one, is probably best known for his Road Tattoo public artwork installations, which have been commissioned in more than twenty cities in the U.S. and one in Beijing. But there is much more to this artist than where the tattoo meets the road.
Steed grew up in a devout Southern Baptist home. The son of a career Army officer, Steed quickly adjusted to relocating with his family about once a year, which he believes gave him a unique perspective on humanity. “Moving around a lot, I saw a much bigger view of the world.”
After high school, Steed moved to Chapel Hill to attend the University of North Carolina, where he studied creative writing and studio art. He took a year off to live in New Orleans, and he experienced an epiphany. “I embraced being gay, and I realized I could mold my life into what I wanted.”
He began to mold his life as an artist after graduating from UNC, where his studio artwork focused primarily on intaglio etching, a process dating back to the ancient Greeks that involves making prints from engravings etched into a metal plate.
Steed weaves a common thread throughout the art he creates. “The work comes out in different ways. My goal is that the context and the feel of my art production have cohesiveness or similarity.” Recurring themes in his work are commemoration, loss, and longing.
There was a time when the one thing Steed longed for more than anything was a normal life. After being diagnosed as HIV-positive in the early eighties, his life was turned upside-down. “My friends from college still had that bright sense of the future, that they could do anything,” he says with envy. “I was longing to be able to survive with no real indication that I would.”
“It was very early in the process. There was not much knowledge about AIDS yet,” he recalls. “They told me I was going to die in two years and I should get my things in order. I was really floored by that.”
At that point, Steed turned to his spirituality for support. “What happened to me was to much more aggressively make sense of that information in a spiritual context so it would not overpower me,” he says with conviction. “There were rumors of people that had lived for four years. I held on to that idea and decided to sort of back away from conventional medicine and embrace more spiritual concepts of health and well-being.”
Now, more than twenty-five years later, Steed is strong, healthy, and very much in demand. He says his volunteer work helping others has helped him through tough times in his own life. For years, he has been a Buddy or a support group leader for chronic or terminally ill AIDS patients. “It’s helped me get out of my head and into my heart and the hearts of other people.”
Steed has also volunteered his time for Visual AIDS as a board member. “Visual AIDS brings the message forward that the AIDS crisis is not over, that there are things people can do,” he says. He praises the organization for its archive project, which features Steed’s work among other artists who are living with HIV/AIDS as well as those we have lost. “It’s a tribute to bodies of art by anybody who defined themselves as artists.”
Over the years, Steed’s art has evolved to encompass expressions of himself and his emotions. “You need to bring out what’s inside you or it will take over,” he explains, paraphrasing a passage from Scripture. He started this phase of his career with a series of self-portraits, including a church altar screen with Steed’s image on the side facing the congregation and biblical text for the minister on the other. A series of self-expressionistic projects in other media followed.
Votive is a wax sculpture he created in memory of his father, utilizing flowers as shorthand for grief and the temporal nature of life. Modeled on camellias, his father’s favorite flower, each petal and leaf is stretched and delicately molded by hand, resulting in thousands of fingerprints impressed into the piece.
Survivors Knot is a series of site-specific Road Tattoo installations painted on roads in several U.S. cities, featuring a Celtic knot design appropriated from tattoo art to celebrate long-term AIDS survivors in each community.
Blood Prints is a continuing series of prints made from blood after cutting sacred images or designs of personal significance on volunteers. It’s unique in its use of “the body as a tool to make prints,” he says.
Steed created a series of dye transfer monoprints, taking photographs and using chemicals to reprint them, sometimes using photos of himself, sometimes using a composite of the same image. “What I find evocative about this process is that it can accentuate certain parts of the body and the prints can be translucent,” says the artist.
Reflecting on his most high-profile project, Steed says, “I’m really pleased that the Road Tattoo project is very successful public art and it exists on several levels. It’s more than just a design on the road.”
For a smaller group of people it has special meaning—commemorative, informative, or a dedication. “It gives people a sense of personal ownership of public space.” For others driving on the “tattooed” road not knowing anything about it, he says the reaction may be something like, “What the fuck? This is really cool!”
Steed acknowledges he’s reached a certain level of accomplishment in his career, but still describes himself as a journeyman artist. “I’m not rich from my work. I’m doing it for the love of making art,” he says. “Creating anything—no matter what it may be—you have to love it so much that you want to bring it into reality.”
He believes art is something you’re called to do—much like a priest or minister receives a calling from God. Steed doesn’t envision himself doing anything else. He strives to be an “artist’s artist,” one who can be an inspiration for other artists and “a force for good in the world.”
For more information about Steed Taylor and his art, visit www.steedtaylor.com.
Chip Alfred is an Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist and writing instructor living in Philadelphia.