artbeat (2006-18)

Sir Real

Steve Ingram re-emerges on the Knoxville art scene

by Molly Kincaid

There is a beautiful woman trapped in Steve Ingram’s treehouse. He’s had her there for 10 years now, since he built the rough-hewn, two-story “sculpture” in his parents’ backyard in Jefferson City, which he still calls home. Painted on a thin piece of plywood, the haunting indigo-faced sorceress had seemed expendable; more useful as a wall in the tree-fort than as a painting at the time.

But now, Ingram’s up on the second level, shaking vigorously and clawing at nails with his bare hands to set her free, mainly at the behest of his friend/manager Brian Irwin, who is cringing, mouth-covered, at the thought of her cracking in two with Ingram’s prying. Irwin, who points out that this is not the first work he’s found lodged in the treehouse, is largely responsible for nudging along Ingram’s upcoming show at Market Square’s World Grotto.

Finally, Ingram jimmies her loose, but he’s knocked backward by the negative impact, chucking himself in the chin with an edge of the wood. “I’m OK,” he declares in his childish exuberance, looking up and grinning, a small trickle of blood beading up on his lower lip.

At first, Ingram is hesitant to show off his treehouse, as he is expressing some of his subjects and past experiences. “Now you know how crazy I really am,” he says regretfully, standing inside the lower room of the place, his moony face shrouded in a bluish light cast from the faded-sheet walls. “I must’ve lost my mind when I built this thing.”

So, while he’s seemingly aware of his weirdness, Ingram doesn’t try to suppress it. His spirit, though rampantly creative and highly functioning, may be too fragile to thrive outside his parents’ house. With a shaved head and skateboard-style clothing, Ingram looks very young, innocently gazing for too long at people and things with his wide blue-green eyes. He speaks slowly and sparsely but laughs a high-pitched maniacal little cackle when he gets tickled with a thought—which he may or may not express.

There was a time when Ingram was part of the Knoxville scene, back in the early ’90s, but many would have known him more for his skateboarding prowess than for his surreal art.

In the finished basement where he sleeps and paints, Ingram shows off his features in skateboarding magazines like Big Brother, as if he’s more proud of them than he is of the many powerful canvases papering the walls and stacked around the floor. “That’s me!” he cries in Christmas-morning glee as he watches a clearly worn video tape of him skating down the Cumberland Avenue Strip. A sprightly younger version of Ingram is seen careening back and forth across the avenue—a feat that would seem impossible amidst the traffic these days, even in the middle of the night. “That’s the Strip, or what it used to look like,” says Ingram nostalgically. As he blithely skids down a frighteningly long stair-rail, several voices are heard in the background blurting, “Holy shit!”

“I used to be wild, but I’ve slowed down a lot,” Ingram reflects with a flutter of laughter. He recalls living on the streets, enmeshed in the skate culture in New York, Seattle, and Chicago—once breaking into the Chicago Art Museum. “I didn’t go to school, but I spent a lot of time in museums, looking at Van Goghs and Gaugins,” he recalls. “I wanted to spend the night in there, so I crawled up through the bathroom ceiling. I had to walk through all the motion sensors and then I hid in a garbage can.”

Finally, due to some prodding on Irwin’s part, Ingram diverts his attention to his paintings. Many are thematically similar, depicting Ras Tafari, “the man Bob Marley worshipped.” There are some posters of Marley, and his voice trickles softly from a boombox in the corner. “I like reggae music,” says Ingram. “It makes me paint.”

Other works are clearly conceived in dreams—some sensuous and some twisted—but all strictly surreal. One depicts a dark woman with heavy, expressive eyes, her hair swirling with thick shiny chunks of oil paint. He calls her his “dream girl.”

Another depicts a young Asian boy entangled in a white swirl of paint, which melds into a ghostly figure exploding at the top of the horizontal canvas, spurting blood on the writhing boy and the ground around him. Irwin coaxes, “Remember saying that’s the way you felt the day you painted it?” Ingram gives a non-sequitur reply, “There’s a demon flying around and the boy is making it explode.”

One of the strangest works is a self-portrait, which looks very little like Ingram, featuring a bespectacled, clean-cut man in a straw hat with a Burger King crown over top. Above his head loom three crucifixions that seem Christian-themed. “I used to be in this cult,” says Ingram. “But they kicked me out because I couldn’t follow all the rules.”

For all his quirks and oddball demeanor, one feels in the presence of genius, perhaps a savant, when talking with Ingram. He’s one of those people who lives inside his own head, but that only makes it more charming when he cracks a joke or relates a story, as if he’s bestowing a gift. Then, just as quickly, he retreats into a faraway land. He hands Irwin a list of titles and prices for his upcoming show, and he’s scrawled across the bottom, “There you go. Take it or leave it. Dirt included.” Then, passing by the freshly-excavated treehouse painting on the way out of the basement apartment, Ingram lets out one more private chuckle.

Who: Steve Ingram