A SOGH Story

“There are a kazillion self-taught artists out there, and I don’t have an idea of others that have the same sort of demand from the public.” -Rebecca Hoffberger, Founder and Director, American Visionary Arts Museum

“I don’t think [his art] is particularly challenging, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be challenging.” -Cara Ober, Publisher, Bmore Art Blog

“There’s something kind of soothing about them. Like they’re almost contained explosions, or nuclei, or something.” -Lindsey, visitor, American Visionary Arts Museum

“I promise to use my superpowers for good.” -Shawn Theron

All Photos Courtesy of SOGH

Shawn Theron just finished his 15,000th painting. He started painting in early 2006.  His paintings, done in house- and car-paint on scrap wood, feature luminous orbs on bright, chromatic-faded backgrounds. Every single one is signed with a cryptic, four-letter word: SOGH.

You can find Shawn Tuesdays and Saturdays in Sideshow, the American Visionary Art Museum‘s art/gift store, jubilantly greeting customers as he sorts through boxes of temporary tattoos. “Hi, how are ya?” he asks. “First time here? What brings you here from Boston?”

Directly outside Sideshow’s door, in the entrance ramp to the Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), an entire wall is covered in Shawn’s paintings and photographs–12,290 photos, actually, taken over 365 days. Shawn listens to why they’ve come from Boston. He grins and laughs at almost everything they say. “Oh, neat! Well, have a look around, and let me know if you have any questions.” Old ladies love him.

According to Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM’s founder and director, Shawn has sold more original works than any other artist in the history of our state (as far as duplications go, Sandra Magsamen and Joe Sheppard still have him beat.) He cranks out about 300-400 paintings a month, and has a three- to four-month waiting list for commissioned work.

What Weekly has covered Shawn’s story before, but it’s worth retelling.

Shawn is an artistic force. He says he has sold 15,000 paintings (and counting) in a studio in his back yard in Carney. And the engine behind all these is the primary relationship in his life: his relationship with his grandmother, Red.

Red and Shawn were, for all intents and purposes, mother and son; he dislikes calling her his grandmother. Growing up in the 80’s, young Shawn faced a mother with addiction issues, and a father working hard to put himself through school. Shawn was raised by his grandmother in the red house north of Parkville where he lives today. Red had a red beehive hairdo, a red car; he called her Red. “[She was] my one true love, my best friend, the closest person I ever had in my life,” Shawn is quoted on the plaque by his exhibit in AVAM.

In 2003, Red was dying of cancer. She and Shawn knew that Red had little time left, so they decided to sit down at her dining room table and film their last moments together. Over the last two weeks, Shawn and Red filmed long discussions in which she gave him instructions on what to do with his life. “Some things were very abstract, some things very pointed,” Shawn said.

Most of the instructions Shawn will not disclose, but among the final things Red said to Shawn was “SOGH.” It rhymed with ‘frog.’ She spelled it out.

“I was instantly aware that it was something,” Shawn told me, standing in that same dining room where he and Red said their goodbyes. To him, SOGH meant, “whatever you were doing before this in life, here’s what you’re doing now.” Red passed on March 1, 2003. Shawn set out to find what SOGH was, with furious prolificacy.

Having purchased a digital camera on his thirtieth birthday, December 29, 2002, Shawn started constantly taking photographs. He captured nearly every moment of his life over the course of a year, from mundane events (there are more than a few “myspace” poses), to birthdays, trips, weddings. In fact, of the two weddings Shawn captured, one featured a bride who would murder her groom, an AVAM employee, two months and thirteen days later.

Shawn’s 12,290 pictures, the first exhibit visible upon entering AVAM, take up a space 28 feet long by three feet high. They are about 1″x.6″ each. At 4″x6″, if one were to stack the photos end to end, they would be taller than 4.2 Empire State Buildings.

This was not enough for Shawn. On December 29th, 2003 he completed his first painting since high school art class. On a canvas Red had bought him when he was a child, Shawn threw down four bold red letters.

Then, for two years, Shawn didn’t complete any more paintings (though he has never stopped photographing everything in his life). He worked as a manager at the Joy America Café on AVAM’s third floor until its close in 2006, dealt with family issues, and attended to the mysterious instructions Red had left him. Then, in late 2005, he began to paint in earnest.

His first paintings featured rough-stroked one- or two-color backgrounds. They bore dark-red blots, some ringed in bright white, many of which were burial spots containing the ashes of Red and her best friend Sophie.

In early 2006, he had only been painting for a few months. He had moved from his job in Joy America Café to working at Sideshow downstairs, a job he tackled with characteristic exuberance, when one day he was approached by Sideshow owner Ted Frankel. Frankel asked Shawn if he wanted space in the store to sell a few paintings, and Shawn obliged.

On February 2, Shawn brought in ten pieces and hung them up in the crowded store. “They weren’t very big; they weren’t much to look at,” he says. In a half hour, Shawn had sold two paintings. By March, Shawn had sold 59 more. Most artists sell about ten pieces a year. By 2007, Shawn says he had sold 1,357 paintings. His right hand went numb after the Christmas season.

“Instantly, my entire life changed. Overnight.”

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“With visionary artists, ofen we say that when a person experiences something too big for words, it comes out in art,” says Rebecca Hoffberger. Hoffberger is something of a Peggy Guggenheim of her day, collecting and promoting outsider artists, and was one of the first people to encourage Shawn to paint. “He’s such a fan of the intuitive path people take to come to their artwork,” she says. “I think creative people share that, but what is unusual is the degree to which people are responding [to Shawn].”

When you step inside Shawn’s studio, a garage-sized building Shawn’s father built in the back yard for him, your eyes burn from the paint fumes. The walls, the floor, are stacked with paintings in various stages of completion, between glossy, ready-to-hang SOGHs and plain kitchen cabinet doors.

Shawn used to paint his pieces one at a time, until he realized it was much faster to do about 20 or so at once. He currently finishes between 300-400 a month.

Sitting on a stool surrounded by semi-completed works, Shawn explains, “I’ll fill up the whole back yard with scrap lumber.” He waves his hands in a wide circle. “Then I’ll prime it all, then I’ll wet it all.”

Pointing to an individual painting, Shawn explains the meaning of its shapes. “These are points of life,” he says, referring to the bright spheres, “representations of life energy we all have, from a single cell to a human being to a planet.” A bit like the points of life in Shawn’s picture wall. Then he points to the line leading to and away from the sphere: “This is a life path… we can all see where we’ve been going, and a little bit ahead.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Shawn would give the same answer next time somebody asks about his paintings. Indeed, over the times I spoke to him, he gave several different dates for his first painting, and some conflicting accounts as to when he started taking pictures. However, Shawn is not trying to mislead anyone; he just loves to talk. To Shawn, opening up to another human, gleefully sharing stories and jokes is more important than nit-picky-facty-stuff. There’s something wonderful in fuzziness that Shawn wants to keep alive.

For example, as happy as he is to tell where he gets his materials (usually the Loading Dock Inc., near Highlandtown), Shawn is just as eager not to explain how he makes his paintings. “They’re magic,” he says, and lets the word sink in for a moment, grinning ear-to-ear. “When we were kids, the world was a different, magical place,” he explains. “Because of a lack of knowledge, things were different… so I’ve learned not to go into detail about my process.” Again, he’s not being deceptive; he’s really trying to spread the magic.

When I asked Shawn the last time he’d taken a picture, he pulled out his iphone and snapped my face. “Right now.” He explained that he had been in contact with officials at NASA about sending one of his paintings to the International Space Station (the specific painting is on display at AVAM–it’s about 4″x4″ and says “TO DAD” on the underside). He said that he decided against it, and would hold out to have a painting sent to the moon. Does he mean it? Is he joking? And his paintings–is Shawn channeling a psychic force to create them? Is he just making them for fun? He would probably giggle at these questions.

“There’s a magic that he has,” says Hoffberger. “And beyond that, Shawn is one of the genuinely nicest people you could ever meet. That’s a rare form of art in this life.”

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None of Shawn’s paintings are signed with his name. Each is labeled ‘SOGH’ in all capitals. And Shawn says this is because SOGH is larger than just paintings or photographs–he sees it as an opportunity to bring people together for good, an opportunity provided him through Red.

“For me, at least, SOGH links us all together,” Shawn explains. “Everyone can be a part of it; everyone gets to create it.” He is exploring ways to mobilize his art to better the world, but is somewhat fuzzy on how to get others involved in SOGH, other than acquiring his paintings (many of which he gives away, the rest of which are very affordable). As for social change, Shawn says he wants “to start linking all the creative programs in all the schools & linking them on a common website where students can work on collaborative pictures,” but is still working out how to actualize this.

Whatever Shawn wants to do, he is rapidly gaining attention. In 2011, the Baltimore City Arts Council commissioned Shawn for 800 paintings to be given to mayors of cities throughout the country. His paintings have been hauled by fans to the Eiffel Tower, to Afghanistan, even to the South Pole. “To some degree or another, SOGH, life itself, or the powers that be have given me a real-life opportunity to change the world,” says Shawn.

Shawn also acknowledges that, while loved by many, he is not everyone’s darling. “The high end of the art world doesn’t really jump for my stuff,” he says. “They think it’s underdeveloped, maybe.” However, Shawn doesn’t see that stopping him from continuing to spread his work–to carry out the mission left to him by Red, and to make something good of the legacy he is rapidly building.

“Let’s create a bigger, more beautiful world,” he says. “And let’s do it in an awesome, groovy way.”