Southern comfort

Student Damian Stamer shares North Carolina’s rural heart with New York’s art scene

Three o’clock in the morning.  It’s quiet and there’s no one around.

A dim light emanates from beneath the studio door. Inside, among scattered books and photos, Damian Stamer puts the finishing touches on a painting titled Matinee, in which a remnant of a barn appears through a mysterious portal.

Stamer’s first solo art show in Manhattan is three weeks away at the popular Freight + Volume gallery.

He’ll show 14 pieces. He still needs to finish two. Luckily, he doesn’t mind painting through the night. He actually prefers it.

Stamer, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) student at Carolina, spends a lot of time in rural Durham County (NC), where as a kid he tromped through forests and farms, tinkering with rusted-out equipment and exploring abandoned barns with his twin brother.

He snaps hundreds of photos, looking for something visually striking or nostalgic. “I never know what I’ll use until I get back to the studio,” he says.

. . . a hay bale, a tobacco shack

The photos are for inspiration. Stamer studies them, and then picks one—a hay bale, a tobacco shack. He dons headphones, puts a few songs on repeat, and then, trusting his experience and knowledge of technique, he paints.

“I think I make my best work when I’m not really thinking at all,” Stamer says. “It may sound odd, but I think it’s like an athlete being in the zone.”

Stamer uses oil paints but experiments with other media, such as charcoal and graphite, to help him produce textures and visuals. “I’m always looking for new tools and ways to spread paint,” he says. “I’ve used masking tape, squeegees, heavy-duty paper towels, solvents, and even a frying pan to splatter paint.”

Stamer approaches each painting differently, but each one includes at least one realistic depiction of the Durham County landscape and layers of abstraction to create tension. “Especially with landscapes, you can create this depth,” he says. “It comes out and pops toward you.” Or, in the case of Red State, red splotches frame the landscape, pushing it back as if seen through a window. Red State is the most obvious case, but each painting is like a window into the past.

Abstract and realistic imagery

A product of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Stamer drew inspiration as a youth from contemporary painters such as Robert Rauschenberg. “I was drawn to his combination of abstract and realistic imagery, and how a brushstroke or drip of paint could have as much visual power as an image of JFK,” Stamer says. “Rauschenberg had an amazing compositional touch, and his images never seemed forced or overworked.”

Stamer’s high-school thesis was a series of family portraits with abstract backgrounds, and he continued to combine abstracts with painted depictions of real objects during his undergraduate work at Arizona State and later at two European art schools. When he returned to the United States in 2008, he decided to take on New York’s art scene.

“I felt overwhelmed at first,” he says. But as Stamer slowly met fellow artists and made friends, he showed them his paintings stacked in the corners of his brother’s New York apartment, which doubled as Stamer’s studio. At a party he met the painter John Newsom, who encouraged Stamer and took an interest in his work. They’d talk for hours about their craft. “John became a mentor,” Stamer says. “He’s the one who introduced me to the gallery.”

Freight + Volume liked Stamer’s work. They displayed select pieces and eventually took him on as a featured artist, promoting his paintings at galleries around the country and promising him a show. In the summer of 2011, around the time Stamer decided to seek a master’s degree from Carolina, the gallery made good on its promise. Stamer’s first solo show was set for spring 2012.

For MFA students, a solo show in New York is highly coveted and rare. But instead of pumping out pieces for the gallery, Stamer gave his full attention to school requirements. “I love academia,” he says. “It’s nice to have an intense program where people are invested in your work. They get to know it so well. It’s a good time for growth, and in terms of theory and art history I still have a ton to learn and this is the best place to do it.”

The language of the art world

Cary Levine, an assistant professor of art history, has helped with that. Because of his specialty in contemporary art, Levine works with studio art majors more than other art history professors do. Stamer credits Levine, who teaches a seminar to all MFA students, with closing the divide between creating contemporary art and understanding contemporary art history. “He’s fluent in the language of the art world,” Stamer says. “He’s a great asset.”

In the MFA program’s first semester, professors encourage students to experiment. Stamer enjoyed stretching his imagination, but by the end of the semester he didn’t think his finished products were up to snuff. “There were things to be taken from that work,” he says, “but those paintings weren’t how I wanted to present myself in my first show in New York. So I got really busy over break.”

Stamer does his best work when Hanes Art Center has emptied. Sometimes he’ll paint through the night.

“I like when it’s quiet and no one’s around,” he says.

From December 2011 through March 2012, Stamer painted six pieces for Freight + Volume. He also finished two others he’d started in the fall. To round out the gallery collection, he added six older paintings.

Read more from this Endeavors article.