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East Side native embeds social issues into his art

Submitted photo James Shawn Crum, a graduate of East High School and native of Youngstown, has shown his artwork at Kent State University at Trumbull, Trumbull Art Gallery in Warren and the McDonough Art Museum in Youngstown.

YOUNGSTOWN — James Shawn Crum recalls playing “the artist” whenever he and his sister played house during their childhood.

Little did he know back then that he would find himself at the legendary Cedars Lounge in Youngstown hanging out with painters, photographers sculptors, musicians, poets and many others who live the artist lifestyle. It was the creative atmosphere of Cedars circa the 1990s that groomed Crum, 53, into the expressive artist that he is today.

“I moved out to California where I did sculpture, and then I dated a local artist named Robert Walker and he gave me paint supplies. That moment was what inspired me to paint,” Crum said. “From that point, I traveled to city to city with my paints, canvases and clothes. I lived in Columbus, New Orleans, San Diego and Brooklyn, New York. I considered that the artist lifestyle, and I showed my art in art exhibitions in all those cities. I think the art community here in Youngstown is friendlier, more inviting and inspirational.”

He grew up on Youngstown’s East Side and graduated from East High School. His parents are James and Mary Crum.

His family left Mississippi to work in the steel mills in Youngstown. Crum’s mother came to Youngstown when she was a teenager and his father arrived in Youngstown on his own. Both of his parents ended up working in the steel mills.

“I was one of those kids who remembers when the steel mills in Youngstown closed and how life changed drastically for a lot of local residents back then,” he said. “I was living on the East Side, and it was a great place to live back then, but then it became poor, and there was a lot of violence, especially during the 1990s.”

When it comes to artistic influences and inspirations, Crum has a long list. However, some of his greatest inspirations include Jacob Lawrence, Jean -Michel Basquiat, Romare Beardon and the Ukrainian-born sculptor, Louise Nevelson.

“I look at Louise Nevelson’s work, and it’s breathtaking. It’s like something spiritual is screaming for my attention whenever I look at her work,” he said. “I was drawn to Jacob Lawrence because his style is very raw, and he tells a story in his artwork. When I look at his work, I understand what his life has been like at the time.”

On Sept. 9, Crum’s exhibit, “Black Noise White Gaze, Paintings by James Shawn Crum,” opened at the Coy Cornelius & Judy Rogers Studios in Youngstown. This exhibit was a showcase of Crum’s collection of acrylic on canvas paintings that are centered around the current socio-political climate. The exhibition addressed the issues of social inequality, African-American cultural and activist history, class, sexuality and race. The exhibition closed Sept. 28.

“My partner, John Noga, who is also a local artist, helped curate the show,” he said. “The theme of the exhibition is inspired by the idea that I have been thinking about our society today and about myself being homosexual and black. With this show, I was able to quietly articulate what it is like to be black and homosexual during this time period and the struggles we face. I felt like I needed to tell my story because everyone feels so powerless right now.”

Crum is a self-taught artist and over the years, has experimented with collage and painting. Crum’s main concentration now is acrylic on canvas.

“I would like to do more collage, and I like mixing collage and painting together. I would also like to get more into print-making and incorporate that with my painting with collage,” Crum said. “I did a lot of sculpture when I was in my early 20s while living in California.”

Crum has shown his art at Kent State University at Trumbull, Trumbull Art Gallery in Warren and the McDonough Art Museum in Youngstown. He also has shown his work at various coffee shops and small art spaces in Columbus and in numerous shows in New York City.

“I think with art, it’s important for people to be comfortable enough to share their stories. I felt that when I was younger, there weren’t enough people sharing their art,” he said. “Art back then was seen more as a hobby. I want young people today to see that art is something to take seriously as a career and to make it a part of their lives. I want to encourage young people that art can be a serious vocation.”

To suggest a Saturday profile, contact Features Editor Burton Cole at bcole@tribtoday.com or Metro Editor Marly Reichert at mreichert@tribtoday.com.

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