At Cavin-Morris Gallery in Chelsea, two wooden ships can be found stationed on a large white pedestal. “The Madjet,” with its curving stern and sculptural ornaments raised high like royal standards, easily conjures associations with ancient Egypt, with the sleek vessels depicted ferrying deities up and down the Nile. Yet with its metal fastenings, its projecting rudder, and its crisscrossing assemblage of sticks, strings, screws, and woodchips, there is a machinelike quality about the Madjet. Absent of human operators, the ship is animated instead by a force unseen, an energy that gathers its parts and holds them in a dynamic, buzzing tension. “I always try to make everything I do move,” the sculptor Kevin Sampson told me later. “The Kron-Printzen,” also on display at Cavin-Morris, offers another vibrant bricolage of wood and metal scraps, painted rope, iridescent beads, and other vaguely discernible elements, synthesized into a ghostly, two-masted ship. Named after an eighteenth-century Dutch slaver that sank at sea, entombing hundreds of Africans in an underwater grave, Sampson’s Kron-Printzen is layered with histories as diverse as its materials.
These were the first of Sampson’s sculptures I had encountered. At the time, I had only corresponded over e-mail with the artist. Knowing little else about Sampson aside from the fact that he was formerly a police officer and, at any given time, a very busy man, I studied the two ships on display and felt a swell of curiosity about the artist I had yet to meet, about what fascinating combination of grand and personal narratives threaded through these works.
When I asked the gallery attendants at Cavin-Morris what they knew about Sampson, they immediately lit up. They touched and handled Sampson’s sculptures as they spoke about them, treating them not as precious artifacts but as objects that incited direct engagement. One, whose name was Marissa, remarked on how Sampson’s pieces are more robust than they might appear. His strung-up, cement-filled, and screwed-together compositions always made the journey from studio to exhibition space fully intact. As I drew closer to the ships, Marissa explained how she could recognize a system, a unique vocabulary and syntax, in each of Sampson’s sculptures. However chaotic and freeform they may appear at a glance, their interlocking wood pieces, well-placed screws, and assiduous dabs of paint give the sculptures a sense of cohesion. Each individual artwork manages to absorb the torrent of snapped twigs, fraying ropes, and bleached chicken bones, the anomalous furniture knobs and jewelry pieces that appear inexplicably fused into their new contexts. These repurposed materials never completely lose their definition, revealing their tangled past lives in vague but visceral flashes.
It was a chilly January afternoon when Sampson and I finally found time for a studio visit. Sampson, 61, is a father of three. With the untimely passing of his wife, he raised his children mostly on his own. To this day Sampson, a recent grandfather and a teacher at schools and art institutions, radiates parental love and attentiveness. Days, hours, and minutes before our meeting, he sent instructions on how to get to his Newark apartment from Manhattan, proposing at the last minute to meet me at Newark Penn Station where my train would arrive. When I stepped out of the exit he had specified, Sampson, dressed solemnly in a black jacket and a charcoal gray fedora, met my eyes with his. His mouth, tightly sealed and framed in thick, trimmed strokes of facial hair, opened into a smile. He greeted me with a jovial handshake, and I could recognize in an instant the charismatic warmth I had sensed in our correspondence, as well as the melancholy of his art, the dreaminess that seems inextricable from a familiarity with hardship and pain.
“I’ve been here over 20 years, and I still don’t feel like I’m Newark,” Sampson told me as we walked from the train station to his apartment and studio a few blocks away. We were in the Ironbound neighborhood, a community of mostly Portuguese and Brazilian immigrants that weathered the boom and bust of industrial growth as well as the riots that swept through Newark in 1967. As a widower, Sampson chose to relocate his family to the Ironbound from Englishtown, New Jersey in the early 1990s, leaving suburban living for a less conventional residence in an artists’ colony that occupied an old factory space. Sampson had decided to leave law enforcement to pursue art full-time. With a long career as a composite sketch artist, he studied illustration at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts — soon teaching there — and took classes at Parsons School of Design and the Art Students League in New York. The pen and ink illustrations he showed me are arresting, many resembling poster and mural designs, with their animated lines of text and whimsical, often eerie, imagery of faces and machines. Sampson has in fact worked on a number of publicly commissioned murals in the area.
But Sampson prefers working with three-dimensional media. While illustration, for him, requires prolonged contemplation, sculpture has a spontaneity that currently holds greater appeal for Sampson. “I’m a total process-oriented artist,” he told me. In this sense, art and life seem inseparable for the sculptor, who considers his time spent watching the news (“before CNN got so bad”), walking down the street, talking to people, and collecting discarded objects, to be part of one continuous artistic act. With his ships, Sampson will often build a basic framework for each vessel with materials from a hardware store and then set off on an Odyssean journey around the neighborhood to collect the centerpieces and accessories for his vessels. Sampson has often felt predestined to find the things he finds. When asked how his sculptures are made, he responds by saying they were made “out there,” out in the world beyond his studio, where he has often chanced upon exactly the objects and conversations he had been searching for. “I remember something Randall Morris said that really stuck with me,” Sampson recalled of the cofounder of Cavin-Morris Gallery and an early supporter of his work. “He said that artists like me live with their work.”
Sampson currently lives in an open, second-story space above a large Brazilian restaurant. He built the interior himself, starting with an empty, stripped-down shell. Over the years, his residence has filled up with created, inherited, acquired, and found objects. The first large room hums with the rhythms and melodies of Sampson’s own sculptures. Other seafaring vessels — including the satirical “U.S.S. Sarah Palin,” bedizened with toy figurines like a nightmarish parade float — can be seen alongside Sampson’s earlier works, his polychromatic, modified musical instruments as well as the shrine-like memorials to friends, family, and loved ones. Sampson had initially turned to sculpture as a private activity, a means of dealing with personal tragedies as well as the impact and aftermath of the AIDS and drug epidemics in the 80s and early 90s. Now, when Sampson’s sculptures are not being displayed in galleries and museums, many of them hang on the walls or sit on the floors and tables of his apartment, where they commingle with a sundry collection of busts, statuettes, icons, and dolls.
Sampson apologized several times in advance for the “total mess” in his apartment. His tone, however, was more playful than apologetic. Implicit was a respect for his way of working, of finding meaning amid apparent disorder. Indeed, his apartment reverberates with a contained chaos. Nothing feels superfluous, nor essential or permanent. Objects glow with the potential for use and change, from the wall of books slightly obscured by larger artworks by Sampson’s friends, to the boxes of cleaned chicken bones for his sculptures, to the jars of homemade pickles on the kitchen counter, repeatedly replenished for friends, family, and current and former students that regularly come through Sampson’s home. Sampson is clearly a dedicated father, grandfather, and community organizer, effortlessly adopting the traits of his own father, who was a prominent civil rights leader. A photograph of Stephen Sampson at a demonstration hangs by the door to his apartment.
“I was the black sheep — or white sheep — of the family,” Sampson joked. His father, a Sunday school teacher and independent scholar of black history, wanted his children to be well-educated and empowered members of their communities. Unable to identify a career path early on, the young Sampson devoted himself to law enforcement because he had to “do something.” Though he made bold decisions and concerted efforts to shift his focus to art, Sampson expressed that his recognition as an exhibited artist seems to him almost incidental. He still thinks little of his success as an artist, despite having often found himself in the company of elite politicians, artists, actors, and other members of what seemed a distant world. “I came into the art world after Basquiat, Keith Haring, all the drug addicts. I think the galleries and the museums were just happy to have a functional person,” Sampson said, chuckling at himself. “I still feel more policeman than artist.”