Photo: Dan Snyder
Stylist: Julia Englhardt
Stylist Assistant: Michael Grayer
Photo Assistant: Kevin Tecson + Cole Ackerman
Words: Conor McKeon
Brooklyn, 2023

We spoke to Brooklyn-based painter Taylor Simmons following a photo shoot at his Clinton Hill studio. Working predominantly with archival imagery, the Atlanta-raised artist uses rich, vibrant coloring to capture the emotional and physical essence of his subjects. While touching on everything from Allen Iverson to Abstract Expressionism, he was as candid and thoughtful as his work would suggest. Check out our Journal for the interview and shoot. and give Taylor a follow here.


APRIL 2023

Conor McKeon: Your work approaches history in such an interesting way, in that I think of you as much an archivist as an artist. Do you think growing up in and around Atlanta, a place with such a strong sense of its own history, helped form your style?

Taylor Simmons: It definitely plays a major role. I use a lot of archival references in my work because I've always loved looking at old pictures, like old Americana. And it got me thinking about Atlanta or in the South, how there’s a lack of records or archives for certain communities or cultures. We rely so much on oral tradition. And it's a shared thing throughout every neighborhood, every community, there are these similar archetypes and recurring characters. I think it's interesting to record them and create a mythos around them.

CM: There’s a timelessness to the clothing choices in many of your works, too. I’m reminded of the book Black Ivy, did you read it?

TS: I've seen it on bookshelves, and I think I lowkey used to follow his tumblr. I used to work at the Polo in Atlanta, because I appreciated that kind of stuff. There were a lot of Atlanta OGs that would come and tell me about being Preppy in the 80s and 90s. They would still be Polo’d down.

CM: There's a sense of subversion to the kind of style you're talking about, right? People outside the white masculine monoculture adopting and transforming its aesthetic.

TS: For sure.

CM: Were you encouraged to be subversive as a kid?

TS: No, not at all. I think it's just a natural thing to me, to push buttons, you know? I think it's really important for all of us to subvert and question, not necessarily to be a contrarian, but more out of curiosity.

CM: I know your father’s a Deacon and you grew up in the Catholic Church, do you still go to church when you go home?

TS: No, no, I don't. I had a reckoning. Catholicism isn't for me. I mean I respect it, and anyone who follows it, and I still have my little routines and prayers. It’s just not for me. I get it though. it makes sense for some people, you know?

CM: Of course, and the art is so gorgeous. That visual mythology.

TS: The church that I grew up in is in Atlanta’s WestEnd, Saint Anthony of Padua. It’s kind of famous for its windows. These beautiful stained glass windows. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of a starting point for my love of painting. Those colors and those images, all that storytelling and mythology.

CM: It’s apparent in your work, subtextually but also pretty overtly. I think about a piece like 8:30 Mass.

TS: My best friend said the face reminded him of how we’d be at 8:30 mass and ready to go. It’s like that with a lot of my paintings. I do something that resonates with me and then I figure out why I made it afterwards. It's like a psychonautic thing, I'm delving into my own psyche to figure out what I'm thinking about. A lot of my stuff right now is sort of like having a conversation with 14 year-old me.

CM: That’s about the age we start to develop our own self-mythologies, huh?

TS: Definitely, it’s when we fall into the Jungian idea of a hero's journey, right? I was very much trying to understand my place, socially and otherwise, and dig deeper into the idea of individuation. And some of my actions, my projects, go back to a time before art was an object or an idea or career, when you’re working purely out of curiosity.

CM: What do you think your 14 year old self would say about your work now?

TS: I think he’d be stoked, you know? I mean, I probably wish I was a bit more established, but at that age you think you’ll just get right to your goals, and move in one direction. But that’s not how life goes, in reality you just kinda bounce and bounce around.

CM: I think the non-linear path makes you a fuller human, and a better artist in the long run. The emotionality resonates more.

TS: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I needed to get lost to get to this point. I think my work has more life to it as a result.

CM: Thinking about your work Cat’s Cradle, your subject has this sense of total control. Do you always feel in control when you're working on the painting, or are you at the mercy of the process?

TS: It's a pendulum. Chuck Close said, “inspiration is for amateurs”, and that’s always stuck. So even if I'm lost, I know I’m making something I’m supposed to be making, and eventually something will come out. But then sometimes I feel in control and work really fast. Cat’s Cradle was made really quickly. I think I knew what I was doing, what direction I wanted to go, what marks to make.


CM: It shows in the piece.

TS: Right, and that's important for certain things like that. And then some paintings, I’m just striking away, not entirely sure what I’m making, but I know the marks that I make in the painting itself will reflect what it needs to reflect, you know, like, it'll be what it's meant to be when it's done. I'm not always conscious of what decisions I'm making. I'm just making it.

CM: I was watching an interview with (the painter) Raymond Saunders, and he said, “when I’m painting I don't know who I am. I paint to try to access that. And it still don't know.”

TS: That's real. That is a very real statement. It's funny, I just had a studio visit and they were talking about Raymond Saunders.

CM: Do you learn something about yourself with each painting? Are you trying to?

TS: I'm at least trying to say something, and I think in doing that you learn something. Like, anybody who follows me, sees my work or goes to my shows, it's like you're watching me figure things out, what I can do and how I can paint. I'm just like any kid who's learning how to draw.

CM: And so, when you're painting a portrait, are you trying to capture the essence of the subject, independent of yourself?

TS: If it's a friend of mine, I will sometimes try to get The Moment, you know? There are certain things about people that I always try to capture, little things that we all have, like, how you hold your hands when you sit, or where you look, or how you hold your mouth, what clothes you choose to wear. But how the viewer reads it is more important than what I intended for it.

CM: Is that different from self portraits?

TS: I guess my self portraits are more like an act of self-reflection. Like I know my face the best, and there's a level of freedom in that, that I'm trying to get to when I paint other people.

CM: You capture color so well, too. We live in the same neighborhood, and I noticed a lot of the tones you use are similar to the facades of apartments and brownstones in our neighborhood.

TS: Yeah, yeah.

CM: Do you take color inspiration from the world around you?

TS: Yeah, I do. Usually summertime hits and I can go on like long bike rides around this neighborhood, and I try to look at everything. I'm big on taking colors from nature and my surroundings.

CM: I was at the Helen Frankenthaler exhibit at the Gagosian. I don't know if you’re a fan of her work.

TS: Yeah, I love it.

CM: Incredible use of color. The exhibit was called Drawing Within Nature, and one of the things I love about her work is her use of natural colors as a base palette.

TS: For sure. I was watching a doc on Arshile Gorky, and he was making compositions and the whole time he's staring out into a field, and drawing from a field, but the actual drawing itself, it's nothing like the field. I think it's interesting to take your surroundings and use it as an unorthodox way of inspiration.

CM: Are you into the Abstract Expressionists in general?

TS: I am, I’ve been really into deKooning lately.

CM: That’s funny, because I admire the way you both use yellow. Is there something about yellow that you’re drawn to?

TS: Yellow is an interesting color to me. There’s such vibrance to it. There's colors like that, I think are interesting, because depending on how they show up in nature, they mean different things, you know.

CM: The vibrancy adds this dramatic, almost cinematic quality. Do you take a lot of cues from films?

TS: Yeah, I'm big on narrative. I look at a lot of films; I use certain film stills or you know, I like that kind of lighting. You want to tell a story, right? There was a time I thought I’d end up drawing comic books, because I grew up loving old illustrations, like King Arthur. I just loved the drama of it.

CM: It’s interesting you mention comic books, because there’s so much physicality in your work. Vision After the Sermon being a good example. How much consideration do you put into the physicality of the piece?

TS: I think about the physicality quite a lot, how figures interact with each other. I think the appreciation came after quarantine, because nobody could touch anyone for so long, right? It’s just interesting to think about this idea of touch and physicality and personhood, how our physical selves interact with each other.

CM: To that end, is art the medium through which you feel most comfortable interacting with the outside world?

TS: No, to be honest. I like to talk, I like to speak with people. Art is just something I'm gonna make no matter what, and it's gonna communicate if it communicates. But I love talking, about ideas and concepts and beliefs, all the weird shit that we all think about.

CM: Seems like we both grew up pretty shy, was there a point where you became more comfortable socially?

TS: After high school, like my first little bit in college. I was always quiet and then I realized that I wasn't gonna get anywhere or know anybody or do anything if I was quiet. I think being shy shrinks your life. I got a retail job, then I got into like the hardcore scene down in Atlanta, and just kind of rolled on from there.

CM: Working in retail helped me so much with socializing. Can you talk a little bit about your experience?

TS: I worked at this kind of hippie shoe store. It's in a neighborhood called Little Five Points. I made some lifelong friends, I learned how to deal with all kinds of people, how to suss people out.

CM: This country would be in a lot better shape if everyone worked retail for a year.

TS: Yeah, I don't care what your background is. You need to work a service job.

CM: Back to art for a bit, your work has a sort of surreal, hazy, dreamlike quality. Do you dream often?

TS: That’s funny because I’ve been talking with one of my friends about this, she’s big on recording dreams, to try to dissect them. Lately I can’t remember mine, but I do dream, and a lot of times they’re just hectic shit, it’s just all so dramatic. You know, I’m just a dramatic person I guess, it must be in my blood. I often dream in color and they’re always intense and a little unsettling.

CM: That’s funny, I think these are somewhat accurate descriptors of many of your pieces. I wonder if your dreams are subconsciously influencing your work.

TS: I mean, it must be. I do think a lot of my work is subconscious, like the color choices. I make a point to not be asking why I’m doing things, why I’m picking colors, I think it’s important for me to make the work and then suss it out later. Otherwise I’m too controlled by it, it becomes about ego.

CM: Have you worked on anything recently like that?

TS: I just finished this painting, do you remember Kimbo Slice?

CM: Come on now.

TS: *laughs* alright just making sure. So I went through a thing of looking at all Kimbo slice fights. And a painting I just made was from pausing and taking a screenshot of the people watching in the background. I think those people are so interesting, you know? And so I make the painting and then afterwards, I'm thinking about, why I was looking at this video? And I have to dissect what was going on when I first saw this video, how it was shared from person to person, by someone’s brother’s weird friend. And we were all these people I painted, all watching from the background, so it’s like the art reflected the moment in time in my memory.

CM: I found out about Kimbo Slice around the time I found out about the Unforgivable guy.

TS: Yes. Yeah, of course. Somebody sent that to me the other day and I was like oh it was like what a time, what a time. Just fucking around with your friends, being foolish.

CM: There was this special intimacy to the viewing experience.

TS: We don’t get that anymore. Now I wake up to like 15 tik toks from various friends. And it’s kinda of exhausting. I think a lot of it was, it wasn't made with this idea of getting famous. It was just like let's just be dumb and make some funny shit.

CM: It was all pure, the making and the consumption of it.

TS: Yeah, exactly. I always reference David Hammons talking about how you can always tell when an artist is making something to be loved, or making something just from the spirit. And I think that goes along with everything, even those like funny YouTube videos. You can tell when people were just kids messing around with their friends, or when they’re doing it to be famous.

CM: Now there’s some 15 year old in Des Moines who makes this stunningly brilliant 7 second clip, and it’s like well shit, I guess they’re not gonna be a veterinarian anymore.

TS: He moves to Atlanta to one of those content houses.

CM: You know?

TS: Yeah, I know exactly. It's so strange, it used to be that you could just be funny online and that was it. Like whatever happened to this kid? Oh, I’m a real estate agent now.

CM: Do you think commerce ruins art?

TS: Yeah maybe. I think it does. It’s a constant debate I have in my head. I make my work to eat, and I don’t know if I’m always gonna be able to, you know? I’m just trying to do what I can right now. But if I couldn’t live from it, I’d still make the work. But then it’s like, would I make the same kind of art? I want to make sure I’m still exploring the same lines, the same subjects. I have to keep in mind when I’m making a painting. It can be a task to remain unconcerned with the market. Even as a teenager I loved making figurative work. I grew up loving Norman Rockwell, which was all narrative, and I wanted to make work like that. And I want to keep making work like that, but in a way that reflects me and feels less…commercial. And working from a place of honesty.

CM: I think if your primary concern is the market, you’re setting yourself up for failure, because you’re always at the hands of an inherently fickle beast.

TS: That's true. But I think it’s important to always be exploring new styles. You look at De Kooning, some paintings are figures, some are really abstract, and it’s a style, yes, but he’s doing what he wants.

CM: He caught a lot of shit for going back to figures.

TS: I think Pollock something along the lines of, ‘you sold out, you've abandoned us.’

CM: The Norman Rockwell thing is so interesting, and makes so much sense. I feel like a lot of what your work is subverting that Normal Rockwell image, in a way Andre3000 was subverting the Ivy style aesthetic.

TS: I guess I've never thought about that, but yeah, a lot of my work right now is thinking about those subcultures, and forms of subversion, and this idea of being a black man in America, and what rules and regulations we have to follow and live up to. I think about this idea of the Pageantry of Masculinity, how black men subvert the Western style, and going against the innate idea of Western Masculinity. Amiri Baraka wrote a book called Blues People where he speaks on how the Blues is almost an inherited music. I read it as like singing songs from home, but in a foreign language.

CM: I’m thinking about the change in the NBA Dress Code during the mid aughts.

TS: Yeah! And why did it happen? You know what I mean? They didn’t like Iverson, how he acted, his clothes were too big and he was getting his hair braided. So they created this whole regulation, this dress code. It’s like how when that song White Tee came out, they banned white tees at school because every black kid was wearing them. It’s like you’re gonna tell kids they can’t wear a blank white t -shirt to school anymore ‘cause it’s gang related, literally because there’s one song?

CM: The NBA shit is funny because style is moving back towards those baggier silhouettes.

TS: It's all just cyclical. the only way to really get around it is to just wear whatever the fuck you think is cool. You can just pull a Tim Duncan, you know what I mean? Wear the biggest, most comfortable clothes, doesn’t matter.

CM: At the MVP ceremony in Dad jeans and Tevas.

TS: Exactly, what an absolute move, big suits. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. Like, I just want to go and get a big suit and some like real Southern gator shoes and just go for it, dress every day like I'm going to Roc Nation Brunch.

CM: Original Kings of Comedy joints.

TS: Absolutely. I remember when I was a real denim boy, everybody was wearing really skinny denim, and I was like I won't wear big pants again. Now I'm wearing big pants.


It’s the same with music. You go from like 80s shit, which was all dancing and fun, and they're subverted by gangster rap, and then that's subverted by like the braggadocious shit, which is subverted by just fun music, and now we have drill, right? And then drill’s gonna be subverted by something fun like TisaKorean.

Music, fashion, art. It’s all cyclical. I doubt the market will stay the same, but if I’m making what I believe then, then it’ll hopefully hold up, and stand whatever test of time, because it’s just me expressing myself. It’s an artist’s responsibility to reflect the time you’re in, right? I’m just doing my best to do that.

CM: I think you’re doing a great job, man. Appreciate you taking the time.

TS: Thanks, man. It's been good talking.


Taylor Simmons is a NYC-based Artist. Follow his Instagram to keep up with his work here, and look out for his upcoming solo show at SIXI Museum, in Nanjing, China.


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