Laurel’s outlaw artist adds whimsy to woodcuts

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Photo by Chad Edwards/MCE Photography

Artist Sean Starwars holds the sign to his art studio in downtown Laurel.

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Tucked away on Magnolia Street in Laurel is a corner art gallery and shop called Woodcut Funhouse. The shop’s bright green, alligator-shaped sign lures visitors inside. So does its maker’s name: Sean Starwars.

The name began as a joke, but when relief printmaker Sean Stewart realized the marketing potential for his work, he unofficially adopted “Starwars” as a surname. He is serious about art — even teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi — but Starwars also brings whimsy to the time-honored tradition of woodcutting.

“You’re not puzzled when you walk out of his gallery knowing where this guy is and what he’s about,” said Larry Morrisey, deputy director of the Mississippi Arts Commission. “I think the work is really approachable, too. It’s kind of street art, in a way, even though it’s woodcut. It’s kind of rag-taggy — not a graffiti feel — but it’s very approachable for a lot of people. And he works and does stuff that can be appropriate for kids, and he does adult work.”

Starwars creates unique pieces that capture his eclectic influences, often juxtaposing elements such as pop cultural figures and Southern iconography, and displays and sells them at the Funhouse. He has enough of his own creations to sell and display only his own work.

“He has a very distinctive perspective in terms of how he approaches his work,” Morissey said. “The way he approaches things — the use of pop culture imagery kind of intermixed with folk country imagery  and the play on those between a hillbilly and a hooded Klan member — makes his work very playful but has a lot of insight in terms of his perspective on the world.”

Starwars acknowledges his fascination with pop culture.

“In a lot of ways, it’s all that we have. But it also cannibalizes itself to the point that you have to get around pop culture or at least navigate the fringes rather than the direct paths,” Starwars said. “I have made work about probably every single thing that I’m even remotely attached to, so I’ve forced myself to discover things that I [didn’t] have a real connection with.”

Artwork by Sean Starwars

Pop cultural “pathways” aren’t the only artistic avenues the woodcutter follows. A graduate of Louisiana State University and a resident of the Deep South for roughly 20 years, Starwars is steeped in Southern influences.

“I’ve moved around a lot my whole life prior to this stretch of 12 years here in Laurel, and so I don’t have the same roots that many people have,” he said.

As a teenager, Starwars took a woodcutting class as his introduction to the art form. From then he became addicted to the process.

Photo by Chad Edwards /MCE Photography

Artist Sean Starwars works inside his studio in downtown Laurel.

“The thing that makes woodcutting different is that when you have a block of wood to cut into, you have everything. You could print that block of wood, and you’d have a big black square, and then you cut your image down until you are satisfied. In painting, you have nothing, [just] a blank canvas and you have to keep building [on it] until you are satisfied,” he said.

“The cool thing is that after you have made your unique woodcut, you can print it as many times as you want. Furthermore, you can alter the subsequent prints via paint or layering or continued cutting so there’s no limit to how far you can push the next print that comes from that woodblock.”

In his youth, Starwars became part of an artistic movement known as “The Outlaw Printmakers.” Besides Starwars, other notable members include Bill Fick, Tom Huck and Dennis McNett. A loose collective of artists that found the academic world of printmaking to be lacking in creativity, the Outlaws formed to reclaim the art about which they were all passionate.

“We were all operating at a time when academic printmaking was churning out waves of uninspired students making uninspiring prints,” Starwars said. “There have been super exciting prints being made for hundreds of years, but, somehow, in the early ’90s, there wasn’t much happening in the college classroom or print shop. Eventually most of us taught at the university level and have moved on to working in our [own] independent print shops.

A woodcut by Sean Starwars mixes pop culture with a darker Southern theme.

“There’s a world of difference between working in the safety of a tenured university position and the constant state of panic when you are working in your own print shop. I think there’s a fundamental battle between the academic world of theory and the world we navigate of having to produce work that resonates outside of the classroom. As for me, I got fired about 12 years ago when the school I worked for got extremely uncomfortable with a few of my woodcuts. I live by the credo that if you get fired for your artwork, you are automatically an Outlaw.”

While other members of the Outlaw Printmakers were working as designers for major clothing outlets or being displayed in prominent art galleries, Starwars was in Laurel living in what he referred to as “almost total obscurity.” While some artists might find this depressing, Starwars was inspired by his fellow artists’ success stories.

“The other Outlaws motivate me to keep up with the boundaries they’re pushing,” he said. “I kept waiting on ideas for projects that would be worthy of my status as an Outlaw. I felt lucky and, maybe a little unworthy, to be a part of that lofty circle of artists.”

Photo by Chad Edwards /MCE Photography

Sean Starwars creates a woodblock print inside his Laurel studio.

In 2011, Starwars decided that he needed a way to challenge himself artistically. He dedicated himself to producing a unique woodcut each week.

“It’s relatively easy to make one great thing or to be really good for a short while. That’s why magazines are filled with new, exciting artists each month. But it’s much harder to produce strong work year after year. I realized that that’s what I’d been doing already. A woodcut a week is only 52 woodcuts. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but making a new one every week whether you have a good idea or not is liberating. It doesn’t matter how bad it is on Sunday, because you’re starting fresh on Monday anyway. In the end, it was probably the best year of woodcuts of my life.”

The big takeaway from the experiment for Starwars was that art isn’t a means to an end. It is the journey of creating something wholly unique that is its own reward.

“It did make me realize that the important thing is to keep on cutting,” he said. “So, now, I live by another goal — a woodcut a week for life. And that’s pretty much what I do. I just keep making ‘em.”

Photo by Chad Edwards/MCE Photography

Sean Starwars sits outside his Laurel studio.

A former artist in residence for several colleges and cultural institutions across the country, Starwars is certainly making a name for himself in the art world.

“It’s exciting that Sean Starwars, a Laurel artist, has garnered a national reputation in this medium, producing colorful images infused with pop culture,” said Kristen Miller Zohn, curator for Laurel’s Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.

When he isn’t working on his own art or working at his print shop, Starwars offers instruction and inspiration to the next generation of would-be Outlaws.

“This year, I’m teaching full time at the University of Southern Mississippi, which I love,” he said. “I have time to spend in the studio, and it allows me to spend time at home with my five children and incredible wife, Julie. There’s nothing better than spending time with them and, luckily, they don’t mind hanging out at the Funhouse from time to time either.”

Photo by Chad Edwards /MCE Photography

Sean Starwars works in his studio on downtown Laurel.

While Starwars may downplay his artistic achievements, his fellow Outlaws couldn’t say enough about them. Bill Fick, an educator at Duke University, believes that Starwars’ work encapsulates the medium of woodworking.

“Sean works in these bold strokes that highlight the traits of the piece of wood he’s using. And he uses these bright, eye-catching colors. There’s no mistaking Sean’s art for anything other than a woodcut.”

Art lovers and collectors interested in seeing Starwars’ unique woodcuts are welcome to stop by the Woodcut Funhouse at 408 N. Magnolia St. in Laurel. And those who can’t make it to the shop in person may visit seanstarwars.com and woodcutfunhouse.com.

  • Tiffani Thomas

    Great article, Justin! 🙂