Shawn Theron is out to make the world a better place, one painting at a time. So far, the world is proving remarkably responsive. To call him an overnight sensation would not be an overstatement.
"I've been unbelievably lucky," he says.
Consider the evidence: A guy with no formal art education or training beyond high school—who's been earning a modest living bartending and waiting tables—takes up painting in his 30s. He is immediately offered an opportunity to display his work publicly, which he accepts, selling two paintings within half an hour.
By the end of his first year as an artist, he had sold more than 1,000 pieces.
This summer, less than 30 months into his new career, he says he surpassed the milestone of 5,000 works sold.
"That's pretty amazing," says Judith Page, a New York City artist who teaches a Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) course on professional and business practices for visual artists. "Those numbers are staggering, actually."
Without Theron doing any marketing, seven stores in three states now carry his work—including Sideshow, the gift shop at the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) where he works; Red Tree in Hampden; Art & Artisan in Ellicott City; the Funky Beehive in Federal Hill; and 2910 on the Square in Canton. He is frequently asked to donate work for fundraisers, including an auction this year at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
Word of mouth and visitors to AVAM have spread Theron's work all over the globe. He says he has heard from fans in Paris, London, Tokyo, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Rome, Venice, Seattle, El Salvador, Alaska, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Vietnam, Germany, and South Africa.
"It's without precedent. I don't know anybody who's had that level of success," says Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM's founder and director. "People make pilgrimages to Sideshow just to see Shawn."
Theron regularly receives requests to commission paintings, and, via his website, he often gets gushing emails. "Wow, where have you been my whole life? I absolutely love your work!" one woman wrote in July.
Wrote another in April: "Just wanted to let you know how happy your paintings make me. I was 'only browsing' at the Red Tree in Louisville [Kentucky] when on my way out I was stopped by two of your paintings hanging inconspicuously in the stairwell. I instantly knew I had to have them… I had a party shortly after the purchase and several of my guests made comments about how cool they were."
People seem taken with Theron's signature style. His pieces, which consistently convey a sense of exuberance, burst with color. They suggest microscopic images or floral patterns against washes of bold color. Accessible and warm, they are abstract art for people who don't necessarily like abstract art.
It's hard to believe the art sprang from sorrow.
Theron had the kind of childhood that can leave a person scarred for life. His mother was 17 when he was conceived in 1972, his father just a few years older. She developed a serious drinking problem soon after they married. Between working to support his young family and going to college to improve their financial situation, Theron's father wasn't home much. The marriage ended when Theron was in his teens.
"Mom, when she wasn't drinking, she was a very sweet individual," he recalls. "She was a great cook. And then other times, she was passed out on the sofa with food burning on the stove. She could be very mean and self-destructive. I joke that the first six years of my life, I thought my name was 'son-of-a-bitch.'"
In school, Theron struggled with what he believes was an undiagnosed learning disability. Reading, writing, and arithmetic all gave him trouble. Art was the one subject he excelled in.
He graduated from Parkville High in 1991, but just barely, he says. He had no desire to go to college.
Despite the challenges, Theron, now 35, grew up to be a naturally outgoing and upbeat adult, warm and accessible like his paintings. He realized at an early age that he was gay but says that never presented any difficulties. He says his family seemed to acknowledge and accept his sexual orientation from the beginning.
But in early 2003, his life spiraled downhill when he learned his grandmother was losing her struggle with cancer. He maxed out his credit cards to buy a video camera and tapes and spent the next two weeks recording their final conversations as they said goodbye.
They hugged for the last time on Valentine's Day. Then she slipped out of consciousness, and his world crumbled. "She was my mother, my best friend, my savior many times," says Theron. "And sometimes she played the role of movie star. She was like an icon."
Whatever traumas he faced as a child, peace, comfort, and love were always available to him a couple of miles away at his grandmother's home. He would ride his bicycle over, or she would come and get him if he called.
He nicknamed her "Red" because she lived in a red house, drove a red car, and wore her hair in a red beehive. "To me, she was the very color itself in all its vibrancy," Theron says.
It's no coincidence that red is a prominent color in a lot of his work.
Today, Theron lives in her house, a dark, red-shingled Cape Cod with white shutters on a cul-de-sac in Cub Hill. In an undated black-and-white photo of her in the dining room, she resembles a 30ish Elizabeth Taylor, whom she admired. She has dimples, full lips, an impish semi-smile, and sparkling eyes.
In addition to security, Red also represented glamour, fun, and adventure to Theron. For example, she loved taking day trips at a moment's notice.
Her loss caused "a massive rip in my soul," according to Theron. But it also created an opening for a major transformation in his life. That transformation began with a mysterious message.
Theron signs his paintings "SOGH" and usually declines to explain why, for fear of sounding crazy. But three days after Red died, while he was in a dream-like state, Theron says, she returned briefly with an emphatic message: "She told me, 'S-O-G-H— remember it. Know it. Find it. Live it.'" However, she didn't explain what "SOGH" was.
Theron filled hundreds of pages in his journals trying to discover the answer to that riddle. Because he tends to think visually, he also took thousands of photos in an effort to achieve some sense of clarity.
Then he began experimenting with painting. It was a way of honoring Red and his mother, who had died of alcohol-related problems. In Theron's early pieces, the women's ashes were mixed into the paint. "Some people might find it morbid," he acknowledges.
For him, though, it was a way of giving them a different life that continues into the future. The "burial" paintings, as he calls them, will never be for sale.
But Theron's other paintings sold at a remarkable clip. Part of their success is no doubt due to their affordability—a concept Theron is committed to and passionate about.
"Why should only rich people be able to have art in their homes?" he says.
Prices for his smallest paintings start around $15. Even the largest paintings can be had for a few hundred dollars, although the most complex pieces top out at $1,000.
To keep costs low, he uses materials like scrap wood, house paint, car paint, and spray paint. He has recently started painting on discarded old windows.
He shops at discount big-box stores and salvage lots. People give him leftovers from home remodeling jobs. He has also found it profitable to Dumpster-dive at the new Ritz-Carlton going up across the street from AVAM.
But MICA's Page says prices alone don't account for Theron's popularity: "People aren't going to pay $15 for something they don't like. So his work must also be very desirable to people."
Page was not familiar with Theron before being contacted by Baltimore but agreed to look at his website and offer observations. She says people probably respond to his work because it's accessible and expresses optimism. "There's some sort of universal message," she says. "Rather than a dark vision of humanity and the universe, it's a positive vision. He seems like someone who wants to spread happiness. You can't argue with that."
Page says she found the work displayed on his website full of potential but added that she hoped Theron would explore some new directions and push the envelope more.
Two other MICA professors were less impressed, one calling Theron's work "uninteresting," the other dismissing it as "superficial."
Page says there's often resistance from classically trained artists toward so-called "outsider" art, not to mention a tension between popular and critical success.
With his customary optimism, Theron dreams of succeeding in both realms.
"Van Gogh, Pollack, Warhol," he says on his website, "I love your work! Now, if you guys wouldn't mind making some room on the walls. I have a SOGH to hang!"
If Theron achieves his ultimate goal, his body of work will provide a trail others can follow that leads from emotional devastation toward a sense of spiritual renewal.
"I want it to scream of beauty," he says. "I want it to scream of hope."