An Interview with Folk Artist Panhandle Slim
His paintings are everywhere. Well, everywhere in our town at least.
If you’ve lived in Pensacola and bothered to step out of your house, there’s a good chance you’ve come across the work of artist Scott Stanton—otherwise known as Panhandle Slim.
Often painted on pieces of discarded wood, old maps, and sometimes overtop of other paintings found in thrift shops, his images of iconic figures usually with a quote beside their head are both distinct and ubiquitous throughout the community.
A longtime fixture in Pensacola’s subcultures, Stanton first made his mark as a professional skater (sponsored by Zorlac, he even had his own board design). Following that fame in the ‘80s skate scene, he fronted several bands over the next two decades (Plaid Girl, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, and Causey Way to name just a few). He also assisted legendary musician and longtime friend, the late Wesley Willis. Since Willis’s 2003 death, he somewhat reinvented himself—from Scott Stanton the skater/musician to the folk artist who goes by Panhandle Slim.
Panhandle Slim paints constantly, producing dozens of works annually. Currently living in Savannah, Georgia, Panhandle Slim draws his influence from Southern folk artist Howard Finster—as well as those he paints. The diversity of his subjects stretches from Dolly Parton to Malcolm X, from the Pope to Bill O’Reilly, and so on.
Panhandle Slim’s distinct style—head shot and a quote—pushed his work into many unlikely venues. The art lovers are just as likely to see a Panhandle Slim show at a gallery as they would at a restaurant like Sluggo’s. From classrooms to bars, his paintings are literally everywhere.
While well known in certain communities, images of Panhandle Slim’s paintings went viral after he memorialized the nine people shot to death in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last June. After researching the victims and creating nine very poignant works of art, he delivered the paintings directly to the church and quietly left them by the memorial. That’s his style: Humble and unpretentious; powerful in simplicity.
Though his paintings are everywhere, interviews with Panhandle Slim are rare. For many who are used to seeing quotes painted by Panhandle Slim, this interview will be the first time they’ve read his own words. In this interview, Panhandle Slim describes his art, the Charleston shootings, his family and his hometown of Pensacola.
Inweekly: Your paintings of celebrities are all over town, from numerous bars to my son’s first grade classroom. Where did you first get the idea to paint pop icons?
Panhandle Slim: I saw a Howard Finster painting that I wanted but couldn’t afford. I went home and made one to the best of my ability. Taking my jigsaw and cutting out the wood was the easy part for me. The painting was the new venture for me.
I painted Dolly Parton as my first painting. I had so much fun doing [that painting], I did more and more. From Hank Williams to Malcolm X, [these] were some of my first paintings. It was not until later that the voice or spirit of Wesley Willis told me to start painting lyrics and stories on the paintings. So my love for music and my days of loitering in this pop-influenced world shaped my adventure in painting.
Inweekly: What inspires you to paint?
Panhandle Slim: The urge to create. The drive to learn something new every day. The passion to spread a message from the past. The desire to connect with other people who might be thinking as I do, as well as the desire to connect with people who may not think like me. The idea of creating a little piece of art that was not with us yesterday inspires me. The idea that after someone throws away some old wood, I can take that wood, paint something on it, and someone hangs that painting in their personal space: that inspires me. The smile on a person’s face inspires me.
Inweekly: After your years as a professional skater, singer for numerous bands, why decide to go with this somewhat-new persona—Panhandle Slim?
Panhandle Slim: Good question. I’m not really sure, but I believe there is some psychology behind it. Maybe if I approach this as a “different person”, that protects me from Scott Stanton, the real life person. [The name] allows me to be and do what I want. Real life, work and the competitive nature of life can bring pressure upon an individual. Approaching something with the idea of having, for a while, satisfied one’s soul is very healthy to me.
Creating a new “character” gives one a clean slate to approach the river to “row, row, row, your boat.” I don’t think “Scott Stanton” would have taken all the art chances if I didn’t go at it as “Panhandle Slim.” Scott might have let the fear of “you don’t know how to paint” and “you are not an artist” stop this mission dead on the track. But then again, I’m not really sure. But I bet there is a good answer.
Inweekly: Where did you come up with the name “Panhandle Slim”?
Panhandle Slim: The first few paintings I did were signed “Scott Causey.” [Note- Stanton was the lead singer for the band Causey Way]. That’s what Wesley Willis used to call me… [Then] my buddy Jody Bilinski from Pensacola, who was an old bandmate, came up to Michigan to visit me. He was wearing a western wear shirt called “Panhandle Slim,” and I said, “I like that name. I’m going to sign my painting with that name.” I started that day. I thought, I am from the Panhandle of Florida.
Inweekly: It suits you. So what made you venture into the folk art style of painting?
Panhandle Slim: I did not really know it at the time, but punk rock, skateboarding and the spirit of doing-it-without-a-guidebook or lessons drove my paintings. Folk art spoke to me. It told me that anyone can create art, and that made me create art. Punk Rock told me that anyone can create music, and I did so. Skateboarding told me that there are no rules or limits in being an athlete. I don’t think folk artists care at all what art coaches think. We just create what comes to our mind, and folks either like it or they don’t.
Inweekly: Your art is seen by many as folk art. How do you see yourself and your work in the long tradition of Southern folk art?
Panhandle Slim: Well, I don’t, but since you asked, I will try to answer. I still scratch my head that I am indeed an “artist” and I’m in a subculture called “folk artist,” and even more specifically, a folk artist from the South. If I had not lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for so many years, I doubt I would have fully recognized my Southern culture and the fact that I am “country,” as the kids that I substitute-taught in Michigan referred to me as. They would ask, “Are you country?” I would enter the school halls at 7 a.m., and the kids in the hall would start saying, “Run, Forrest, Run!” I did not take this as mean spirited, because the kids liked me. I did, however realize that the way a person speaks can represent a full picture to someone else.
The South influenced the way I speak and to a great deal the way I think…for better and for worse. My paintings help me come to terms with that. As Flannery O’Connor said, “Southern writers are stuck with the South, and it’s a good thing to be stuck with.” In the long tradition of folk art, I hope I leave some kind of mark while I document so much of history and pop culture with my paintings.
Inweekly: What about you as a performer? So much of your previous incarnations involved some aspect of performance. How does performance fit into the work of Panhandle Slim? Is it different or is it similar to you as the musician?
Panhandle Slim: Yes. The music was all about playing shows, and the show was very much performance. We used to joke that [the concerts] were a show, not a listen. That’s funny because my painting is so far from that. I have been asked to do events that call for “live painting” and have to kindly refuse. That is the last thing I want to do. The painting part is so personal to me, and I do it alone. I enjoy watching my paint dry; I can’t imagine anyone else wanting to watch. When I was a pro skateboarder, it became a job to go to demos—meaning, I would go skate in front of large crowds. I did not like that at all. When I create a new painting, I very much get that feeling I would get when I created a new trick or maneuver on my skateboard. It was a new creation, and only a select few would get it and appreciate it, and that satisfied my soul.
Inweekly: You gained a lot of recognition for your paintings of the nine people killed in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Why did you want to memorialize these people in your paintings?
Panhandle Slim: Well, like most people with any conscience, I watched the news and what happened at the church in Charleston and was filled with every emotion. I sat and thought, “What can I do?” The whole “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” filled my being. I can start small. I can get to know something about these nine people, and I can paint them. I can paint, and then drive the paintings over to Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, because it’s so close to Savannah, Georgia. Charleston is, in fact, Savanna’s sister/brother city, so I need to do this.
I’m glad I followed through on that simple thought I had. I have made real friends today because of that decision to follow through with an idea. I simply had the nine people, their family members and their church community in mind when I did the paintings and delivered them to the church. I had no idea I would encounter the overflowing love of the people gathered outside the church, as well as the people representing the church. Everyone was there, gathered in love and unity, and it was a moment I’ll never forget and will always cherish.
Some of the family members got the paintings of their loved one. Some of those family members have become my friends. They are deeply spiritual and empathetic towards all humans. They pray for me, and I pray for them.
Inweekly: Were you concerned about any backlash from that community in particular, like maybe your art or your message would be taken the wrong way?
Panhandle Slim: I was not worried about any backlash since I was doing this out of pure love for the family members, the church, and the souls of the nine who transitioned on. I prayed that my intentions would be taken as a love offering.
Inweekly: What do you hope will come from the paintings of the Emanuel AME Church victims, or even the coverage these paintings have received?
Panhandle Slim: I hope they bring some sort of comfort to anyone who needs comfort in dealing with this horror. The coverage scared me a bit. A lot of people were contacting me from the media. I really did not know what to say at that moment as the story was breaking all over the media. The paintings said it all. The paintings gave a brief insight to the nine individuals. National Public Radio contacted me a few times for an interview, and I finally had to tell them I am not a very good speaker and do not feel a radio interview on this mass shooting is what I should be doing. The nine paintings were my statement. Social media spread these paintings, and I think that was a good thing. I believe it helped people in a small way. It helped people learn a small bit about these nine individuals from Charleston. In doing my research of these nine people and the Emanuel AME Church, I learned a great deal and gained a great deal of respect for the church and their congregation
Inweekly: Outside of the Charleston paintings, back here in your hometown of Pensacola, people really love your art, too. It’s all over the place. How does it feel to go back to Pensacola and see your art in so many different spots?
Panhandle Slim: It feels great! This experience with my paintings has opened my mind a great deal and has led me to new people in Pensacola, my home. I have had so many great art shows in Pensacola and so many people there own my paintings. Growing up in Pensacola, I had many issues and connected them to Pensacola. The problem was Pensacola, not my mentality. I believe most people go through this journey when dealing with their hometown. Having so many great experiences in the last several years going back to Pensacola and having art shows and getting such great support from a wide range of people…leaving town, I would drive over the bay bridge heading east on I-10 and think, Pensacola and the people have really changed. They are evolving.
It then hit me: they are not changing, I am changing. I am changing, I am evolving. My open mind is opening more, and I am accepting. My paintings have connected me with people I went to 2nd grade with when I first moved to Pensacola. They connected me to the Mayor. They connected me to my Mom’s psychiatrist. They connected me to a kid I had a fight with in the 5th grade.
He is now very successful in the world of business. They connected me to my remedial reading teacher at St. Paul’s Catholic School. They connected me with my middle school art teacher. They connected me with relationships gone sour, relationships that went sour long ago.
They have connected me with people who have ideas very different from mine. They have connected me to movements I didn’t know about before painting. In short, this little adventure has opened doors, and Pensacola is a very big part of this adventure. Pensacola is home, and home has shown me a great deal of love and support.
Inweekly: I also see you doing exhibits elsewhere and catch snapshots of you leaving your paintings in various places. How is your art received in other places?
Panhandle Slim: Very well. They are so simple, and the paintings and quotes connect with everyone. The paintings and quotes cover such a wide range of opinions. They usually connect with someone. I really like setting up random art shows outside in cities where no one is familiar with my paintings. I usually meet some interesting people, and they ask me interesting questions, like, “who are you?” “Does the city let you do this?” “Did you get permission to do this?” Then we discuss the paintings and the topics, politics, philosophy of the quotes. I usually go away learning a great deal and making a new friend or two. The internet and Facebook allow me to connect with people all over. So when I am in their hometown, all I have to do is announce it on Facebook and people show up. It is amazing, and I am grateful.
Inweekly: I know your son Tex paints, too. How do your kids feel about your art and having an artist for a dad?
Panhandle Slim: Yes, my sons are quite talented and imaginative. My son Tex is detailed in his art, much like his uncle [musician Kent Stanton] and his great grandpa. I had a show at an art museum in Savannah, and Tex’s class took a field trip to the art museum, and my paintings happened to be there then. When I picked him up from school that day, he had a glow on his face. I could tell he was so proud, and his friends at school wanted his autograph. He told me there was a security guard there guarding my paintings. I think that blew him away because he’s used to seeing my paintings all stacked in the backyard with bird poop and other elements of nature finding a home on my paintings. But really, I don’t think my boys think much of it, because they are so used to seeing my paintings all day.
Inweekly: Is there one story about your paintings that really stands out to you as an artist and speaks to why you continue to paint?
Panhandle Slim: That’s a tough question. Narrowing it down to one story? I would say the Charleston 9 experience. But one thing that led me to that experience was when a person who works for the NAACP out west contacted me and asked me to paint the president of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks. He was coming to Colorado to speak, and they wanted to have a painting of him there when he came. That opened my eyes to how these simple paintings are reaching out farther than I ever dreamed of, much farther. This all started with a painting or two I made to decorate my garage wall.
Inweekly: If someone painted you in your style, what quote would you like to see by your face?
Panhandle Slim: Umm, well if it was done in my style and it has my face…that would have to be a quote I said, so I will leave that to the artist and hopefully I said something or did something they feel like quoting me on. I didn’t really answer that, did I?
Inweekly: That’s close enough. Thank you very much! I really appreciate it.
To follow Panhandle Slim and see his recent works, check out facebook.com/artforfolk1