When University of Mississippi art graduate student Vitus Shell was 3 years old, watermelons and pickles grew on trees. At least, that’s what he thought. The unusual “fruit trees” were among his favorite subjects to illustrate.
“I didn’t know back then that watermelons didn’t grow on trees; that was just my thing,” said Shell, now 28 and in his final year of UM’s Master of Fine Arts program.
Since those early drawings, Shell’s “thing” has certainly changed, transitioning from the desire to be a comic book artist, to the mixed-medium paintings and prints depicting African-American stereotypes and struggles that recently earned him a $15,000 Joan Mitchell Foundation grant.
The Louisiana native is one of 15 MFA students nationwide to receive the prestigious award this year. He said some of the funds would go toward a wide-format printer to increase both the size and quantity of his work, helping to make his message more widespread. “I’m excited about the grant,” Shell said. “I plan on making my work bigger, and doing that, I can address the problem (of African-American stereotypes), and it could be more in your face, kind of like how the problem is for me.”
The grant was awarded as part of the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s 2007 MFA Grant Program, which was established in 1997 to help graduate students shift into art as a career. Shell was nominated for the grant by UM printmaking associate professor Sheri Reith, who taught him as an undergraduate at the Memphis College of Art and encouraged him to enroll at The University of Mississippi.
While Shell was surprised when he received the phone call informing him of the award, others were not.
“I think (Shell) is very aware of what is going on in the contemporary art world, and he knows where he fits into it,” said Philip Jackson, assistant professor of art. “It doesn’t surprise me that he received the grant, because he’s a very talented individual. I see a lot of things to come. He shows a lot of promise.”
Shell has shown his artwork in both solo and group exhibitions, and his pieces, such as those in the “SlimCrow” and “Brown Paper Bag Test” series, address past and present issues in African-American culture.
“My work is really dealing with the black experience, but it is not just for black people,” Shell said. “It is just making people re-examine what they think black is, and even black folks rethinking what was considered black. My work is kind of playing around with those stereotypes and how people are perceived.”
Shell’s latest series, “Derty South,” places colorful images of people on a backdrop of faded, photocopied, vintage 20th -century advertisements, to create a parallel between old culture and new.
Shell graduated from the Memphis College of Art in 2000 and, after numerous exhibits, enrolled in the MFA program as a graduate printmaking student in 2005. An exhibit of his work is displayed at Oxford’s Southside Gallery.