Finding Something Out of Nothing | An Interview with Seth Prestwood

This story was supposed to run some time ago on This City’s Full. Almost a year ago to be exact. So, I took the liberty to finally give Seth Prestwood some credit where it’s due. The interview and details of his room are still fresh in my mind like I just sat down with him. Not long after, he and I went out to the Belmont area and did shots of jalapeno tequila. Never again have I had a jalapeno shot.

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A place like Dothan, Alabama, isn’t a town that you would expect an artist like Seth Prestwood to come from. His mixed-media, surreal works and sculptures move well beyond the conservative south and outside the reaches of his Southern Baptist upbringing. Dothan is where he grew up, got into trouble, went to rehab and escaped. So, five years ago he set out for Nashville in order to remove himself from a place that he knew would keep him under. With that move he found himself enrolled in Watkins College of Art with a support system the size of his grandmother, Meemaw, and the rest of his family.

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Seth is sitting on a bed with his Basset Hound, Bailey. A walk through his house shows the type of artistic environment that he chooses to surround himself with. Numerous creative works in various mediums, done by him and his roommates, cover the walls. His bedroom is filled with pieces of wood, a handful of blueprints and other potential “canvases” which all lie on the floor around the edges of the room or are leaning against the walls. Many of these findings are from walks through his neighborhood alleys. On a counter against a wall sits a plethora of knick-knacks: A mason jar filled with dreadlocks that he cut off some time ago, a family of miniature porcelain cats, a Mexican prayer candle with an image of the Sacred Heart of Christ on it, and a Ganesh. Above all of these tchotchkes hangs a painting of his grandmother which covers the majority of a wall. In it, Seth’s Meemaw holds a six-shooter with the arm of a crane to the right of her.

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“She wasn’t able to come to my show or graduation. At that point she was bed ridden so I liked having her there on paper overlooking the whole show in her hospital gown holding her pistol.”

 The unspoken understanding between Prestwood and his grandmother gained momentum the last few years she was alive. They began to bond through their heartache and despair. He could open up about his friends dying young and his identity issues and she opened up about her deceased husbands and having to depend on nurses. Prior to those years she was still a main part of his support system. She paid for his college and believed in anything he did.

“I’ve never done wrong in her eyes”, Seth says, “Even after getting my fourth DUI in her Cadillac when I was 19 she still blamed the police.”

Watkins helped him hone his skills in anatomy. This asset paved the way to utilizing the male figure most often in his work. He uses it as a way to explore the insecurities people may have about it while exploring his own sexuality. Prestwood feels the male figure isn’t as appreciated as the female figure due to the male being seen as “lustful or domineering” instead of the female’s “fertility and softness”. While he loves drawing a nude woman as much as a nude man he identifies more with the male figure. Obviously because he is one but also because he has struggled all his life with society’s idea of what a “normal” man should be.

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The most challenging part of his art school experience was his last week. At that time he had his senior show the same week that his good friend and roommate, Alex, had killed herself in his old bedroom. He got so drunk and disoriented that his teachers let finals slide. They understood that a friend taking her own life in your old bedroom is tough. More specifically, Prestwood lost a life-changing friend. She was always open and truthful and that rubbed off on him in just a year and a half. She was one of the first people he told that he liked men. Not even people he has known for ten or more years, much less most of his family, had been told.

To keep himself distracted he skipped town to Europe immediately upon graduation. On this trip he found two of his favorite artists’ (Goya and Dali) galleries in Madrid. Seeing these artists’ pieces on a large scale inspired him to channel his grief and depression into art. He was seeing Alex in everything and it wasn’t always a bad thing.

At that point Europe was more challenging than it had been before when he was with friends in Greece. There he had a friend who spoke a little bit of the language with a mother paying for their lodging. When they went to the airport and he went the opposite direction to Spain he was finally only relying on himself–something he hadn’t ever done.

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Six years ago I was mainly painting Grateful Dead bears and psychedelic Janis Joplin lyrics. Now I’m painting a nude Jesus spread eagle with blue Easter egg balls and pink calamine lotion for his exposed intestines. So I definitely think I’m exploring something.”

With that being said he doesn’t use nudity for shock value. He uses it to portray vulnerability and truth to a region of the country that is highly conservative and relatively in the dark about underground art.

“In Nashville it’ll be so hard to find someone to be critical of your ugly fucking piece”, he says of the small town mentality Nashville has.

In a word-travels-fast place people are hesitant to critique something because they’re afraid to ruin any sort of contacts they have made or might make. So, in an effort to keep artists humble, Seth does plenty of shit-talking at the art crawls downtown. And, he’d expect others to do the same about his work. Without that harsh truth a person’s work can’t grow. That whole idea is rooted in his approach to art. It came to him while he was house-sitting in Belle Meade. He’d go out there to drink and write. One day a statue of a mold covered monk in the backyard resonated with him. That’s where he wrote his first real prose and found beauty that there is growth from decay.

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That “growth from decay” idea can be found in his work and the mentality that led him to Nashville. You see it in his work with objects-turned-canvas that have been tossed out to rot and gather mold or in the obstacles that he pushed through to keep doing art. Through change and the chaos change brings, he lets the struggle between good and evil come out in his work.

Before we leave Seth stands up and snaps off a branch of cotton from the bigger bunch he has hanging from his ceiling. Whenever someone new comes over he gives out some of this Alabama snow. This is just another example of how he takes something he has found and turns it into something meaningful.

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