At first, they thought it was a scam. A famous movie star wanted to buy ceramics from a Cincinnati artist through the Weston Art Gallery? Really?
It began with a private message on Instagram sent to Terence Hammonds from an account the printmaker neither followed nor recognized: “How does one purchase your work?”
“I didn’t know who it was,” he says. “It’s not her name, so I was like, ‘I’m busy, and almost all of my inventory is at the show, so you’ll have to contact the gallery.’”
Hammonds chuckles recalling that the sender turned out to be actress Jamie Lee Curtis, known for Halloween and other films as well as a series of children’s books. She ended up buying all of the remaining pieces of his work in a group art show, UnFunction, held in fall 2017 at the Weston, downtown.
Curtis was drawn to Hammonds’s cups and vases bearing images of his heroes from radical American subcultures. He sold all 34 pieces in the series, with Curtis buying the last half dozen or so. She could certainly afford them—the cups were inexpensive by gallery standards, ranging from $50 to $150 each. Hammonds wanted them priced “to populate them out in the world,” as Weston Director Dennis Harrington puts it.
It’s a good thing, according to fans of Hammonds’s work, because the 42-year-old Over-the-Rhine native has something to say. “He takes on his difficult subjects in a kind of calm, thoughtful way,” Harrington says.
One cup in the UnFunction series, for example, featured an image of Angela Davis, the African-American educator and activist who became a member of the Black Panthers and the Communist Party USA. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in an area known as Dynamite Hill, named for dozens of documented incidents of explosives being launched at houses of black residents between the 1940s and 1960s. The Ku Klux Klan burned front doors. Police turned a blind eye. Ponder that while enjoying a cup of coffee and seeing Davis peek up at you.
Hammonds’s work is spreading out into the world in new ways lately, beyond a private Hollywood collection. In the fall, he was invited to be the artist in residence at the Ifö Center in Bromölla, Sweden, which is dedicated to culture, tourism, and the arts. The center’s director, Teresa Holmberg, says Hammonds “was our obvious choice.”
“We did some research online and found a video where Terence speaks about his art and his heroes,” she says via e-mail. “It was very moving.” While in Sweden, he created a series of ceramic discs that will be a permanent part of the center’s Outdoor Gallery. He’ll return this spring for a solo exhibition.
“It is very easy and fun to work with Terence,” Holmberg says. “He is always very kind and considerate, with a great sense of humor. We have come to think of Terence as a friend and miss his presence here.”
Hammonds is, in fact, super nice. It’s a defining characteristic. On the day he planned to show me his process of handmaking wallpaper—one of his trademark techniques—he instead needed to finish screen-printing shirts for some church ladies who were hosting a cancer walk for his mom, who is a survivor.
It might surprise those who know him to learn that he threw a chair at a teacher in the third grade and for a while was considered an “angry kid.” But he worked through the tough times thanks to art—and a fair amount of punk rock music.
We’re on the third floor of the downtown library. If Hammonds had to choose a place that inspired him as a child, it’s here in the stacks where the music books used to live.
He doodled a lot as a kid, but music grabbed him. On most days between the ages of 13 and 15, he’d spend a couple hours parked at a table in this section of the library reading about punk rock—music zines, biographies, whatever he could get his hands on. He once asked about a Playboy magazine featuring an article on Sid Vicious and the murder of Nancy Spungen. He was told the library didn’t carry the publication, though teenaged Terence saw it listed in the catalog card file.
Honestly, says Hammonds, his initial interest in punk “was that it was loud, fast, and fun. It was the energy and the rebellion, and I think at the age that I found it, it was what I needed.” He says he was “having internal struggles that had nothing to do with anyone else but me.”
He grew up in a two-floor apartment at 1208 Main Street with his mother and four siblings. He jokes that you can probably find his DNA in the baked goods at Allez Bakery, now occupying the building’s storefront. His mother was a nurse at Veteran’s Hospital and took advantage of cultural opportunities around the city, Hammonds says, taking him and his siblings to places like the Cincinnati Art Museum on free nights. She always encouraged his artistic abilities.
Over-the-Rhine was quite different then, in the late 1970s and early ’80s. “My sisters and I joked that 13th Street was where people would go to bleed, because you’d see random patches of blood on the ground,” he says. You stayed off of Broadway. Pendleton? Never. “But I was a child,” he says. “I have romantic memories of OTR.”
By the third grade, adults decided Hammonds was learning disabled. He was dealing with anger issues, having thrown a chair at a teacher. He saw a therapist. “I was being made fun of because I was different,” he says. “I think I was always different. Kids thought I was gay or something. I’ve always been a little effeminate, and there’s nothing I can really do about that. It’s just who I am.”
As a child, the teasing and tormenting got to Hammonds. “He was angry, but he was one of the most extraordinary kids I ever had,” says John Brengelman, who taught students with learning disabilities at the School for Creative and Performing Arts. Hammonds got accepted there in the fourth grade for his artistic abilities, back when the school was on Sycamore Street just a block from home.
They had a lot of arguments early on, Brengelman says, literally screaming at each other. It was usually over something he wanted Hammonds to do that Hammonds didn’t want to do. “But he had made up his own mind about things, and I loved him for that,” Brengelman says.
He introduced Hammonds to punk rock. “He was a session musician in the ’70s,” Hammonds says, fanboying on his former teacher. “He would hang out at CBGB [in New York City] and was friends with the Ramones. He gave me Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols for Christmas one year.” Brengelman also played in a popular local band, The Modulators.
Punk rock quickly became an obsession for Hammonds. The more he dug and read, the more fascinated he became with the music and the subculture. “The lyric ‘There is no future in England’s dreaming’ means that if you want a better future, you have to make it,” Jon Savage, author of England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond told The New York Times when he was asked to define punk. “Punk’s self-starter-D.I.Y. impulse was its most important consequence, and dissidence was vital, too.”
Hammonds says his art isn’t as much about race as it is about power—who has it and who doesn’t, who is marginalized and who speaks out.
That impulse spoke to Hammonds. A fascination with subcultures grew from there, and began to work its way into his art. “I think he was like a little man walking around, a brilliant kid who looked at the broader picture of things and knew who he was,” Brengelman says. “Terence could relate to everybody, and everybody saw how special he was.”
SCPA was the perfect place for Hammonds. “I no longer felt labeled for being different, but an acceptance for the difference that I felt,” he says. Still, he didn’t think he could afford college, so he didn’t apply.
Instead, Mark Patsfall offered him a job right out of high school at his Clay Street Press, founded in 1981 as the region’s only printer of limited-edition fine art, producing hand-pulled prints using lithography, etching, woodcut, and silkscreen equipment. Carl Solway Gallery tapped Clay Street to make prints for nationally and internationally renowned artists.
Hammonds did odd jobs there at first, but quickly became a print assistant. “He was very inquisitive and pretty much a self starter,” Patsfall says. “He was a good printer who could solve problems and do the repetitive work without getting bored.” Patsfall trusted him with work by great artists like Nam June Paik, the father of modern video art.
Althea Thompson, head of SCPA’s visual arts department, reconnected with Hammonds during this time and encouraged him to bring his work to the next Portfolio Day, attended by scouts from the county’s top art schools. He was accepted on the spot by the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston and by the Art Institute of Chicago, both of which offered him full scholarships.
Fast forward to 2002, when Hammonds was finishing his art degree at Tufts. He won a prestigious fifth-year certificate that came with a traveling scholarship, so he headed to Italy for a month to assist a professor involved in the Venice Biennial, one of the world’s most historic and important exhibitions of contemporary visual art. The professor was Afro-Cuban and involved in a show of African art.
“It was a great opportunity to go with her,” Hammonds says. “She was doing a large room-sized installation. And I was the only person skinny enough to get behind the screen to plug things in. Two weeks of install, then two weeks of official parties. So, yeah, it was fun.”
Hammonds’s art had evolved by then, and he was still obsessing over subcultures, researching them endlessly and listening to music. He began to think about and create family heirlooms these subcultures would carry. For the certificate competition, he created a small section of a living room for the hip-hop movement featuring wallpaper identical to that in the plantation house where Gone With the Wind was shot. He superimposed images of the first 250 people to produce rap music inside the wallpaper pattern. The inspiration came from a music video for Mystikal’s song “Shake Ya Ass,” which had been shot at the plantation. The irony gripped Hammonds, who taped the video on VHS from his television, remade the wallpaper pattern, and built the new scene.
Accompanying the wallpaper was a cabinet holding antique dishes that Hammonds found, on which he printed images of breakdancers. The cabinet was propped up by first edition books from the Civil Rights movement. “I just felt like there was so much wrapped up in that,” he says. “Social justice and hip-hop.”
Hammonds always made his art by hand, a process that’s evolved since high school. Brengelman liked to bring in style and music magazines and allowed Hammonds and his friends to cut up them up and collage them into little creations like fanzines, mixed tape covers, and rock posters.
Hammonds’s process today is similar, with amped-up maturity and skill. For his wallpaper, he first decides what he wants to say and then searches for patterns and images at the library and things that pop out at him in his everyday life. “I find old tassels and tapestries, and sometimes I see it in floor patterns,” he says. “Once I pulled labels off hair pomades.”
He likes to hide meaningful objects in his patterns, such as a straightening comb in the hair example. Hammonds wants the wallpapers to look familiar—like something you’ve seen before—but upon closer look something surprises you and might change your initial reaction.
He hand-draws the patterns and objects, then cuts and collages them together to create a new pattern that’s constructed in a square, so it can be computer scanned and repeated over and over. It’s generally the only time Hammonds uses a computer with his art, though he could have done the entire process digitally. “I feel like the work means something more when you can see the evidence of a hand or the way someone’s brain functions,” he says. “It feels more alive.”
Hammonds’s first real public exposure in Cincinnati came just after graduating college, when Patsfall gave him a show at the art gallery in the Clay Street Press print shop. Hammonds made dancefloors with photographs of riots that erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “It’s unexpected,” Patsfall says. “Young people who have no idea what happened in 1968 suddenly have an idea. You can tell them about it, but when they actually see the images it’s a totally different thing. It gives you a whole new understanding.”
Hammonds says his art isn’t as much about race as it is about power—who has it and who doesn’t, who is marginalized and who speaks out. “I think a lot of the work is just monuments to my personal heroes,” he says. “A lot of them are brown, but not all of them. A lot of it is fighting for change for the greater good, even when that means personal sacrifice.” The ceramic discs mounted on the Ifö Center feature people like his mom and Coretta Scott King.
“Undeserved fame is everywhere today and is quite tiresome,” says Holmberg, director of the Swedish center. “A beautiful aspect of Terence’s artwork is that it often has a component of homage to others. He has an eye for people who made a true difference.”
In early 2018, Hammonds left his full-time job with Rookwood Pottery after eight years. He was originally hired to clean tiles, but eventually got promoted to help the company sort through its archive and come up with ways to recreate itself. He collaborated on a fireplace mantelpiece that’s now on display in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s permanent collection.
Hammonds created his own process of printing on ceramics, but he isn’t a ceramicist. When doing the cups, vases, and plates for the 2017 Weston Gallery show, he worked with other artists to complete the pieces. “It’s easier to work with an artist who knows the science of it,” he says. He likes to create cups, he says, because “they’re for sharing.”
These days, Hammonds is finishing up two big commission jobs. The first is a wallpaper pattern for the dining area of a new hotel on the campus of MedPace, the clinical research company near Madisonville. Like downtown’s 21c Hotel, MedPace’s Summit Hotel will be filled with contemporary art. Hammonds’s idea is a pattern of medicinal plants with portraits of key people from Cincinnati’s medical history. The second piece is for the UnMuseum, the Contemporary Arts Center’s educational area for children and families.
He and Paisley Starbuck, his wife of seven years, live in Pleasant Ridge with their two children. To bring in extra money, he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and bartends on weekends at the Ludlow Garage in Clifton.
It might seem that Hammonds has allowed the punk rock grit to wear off over the years, but he continues to live boldly. He quit Rookwood Pottery on Martin Luther King Day, and within six months he was showing artwork in Sweden. He gained a famous fan who, when she learned Starbuck teaches Montessori preschool through Kindergarten, sent them copies of her children’s books with personal inscriptions inside.
“Yeah, I think I’m what all aging punk rockers must look like,” he says, laughing. “Punk is old and has crotch fruit.” Instead of attending Secret ArtWorks, the November fund-raiser to which he donated several pieces, he watched his son Jasper get a yellow belt in tae kwon do and made his favorite meal (handmade pizza) afterward with the family. That’s where he wants to be. “Punk is an attitude, an ethos, a way to live,” he says. “It’s mostly about being true to yourself.”
View more of Hammonds’ work in the gallery below: