Sir Elton John was one of the first fans through the door when artist Joseph Guay opened his latest exhibition, "Remnants of the Human Condition" at the Westside Cultural Arts Center in Atlanta this fall. The show, a powerful homage to violence in America created from bullets, gunpowder, shattered high rise glass and motor oil, serves as a memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, the Boston marathon bombing, the Pulse nightclub killings in Orlando and other acts of violence perpetrated in America since 9/11.
John, moved after sitting and taking in Guay's $25,000 sculpture, created with a black hoodie rising above a sea of 9mm casings (and titled "Trayvon Martin"), the iconic pop star went on a shopping spree, snapping up a big chunk of Guay's show.
Championed by high-profile patrons like Sir Elton, the 45-year-old's artwork is now collected by Ludacris, Collective Soul's Ed Roland, The Black Crowes' Rich Robinson and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. With the support of famous fans and encouragement from WCAC's founder Dr. James L. Chappuis, "Remnants of the Human Condition," represents a bold new direction for Guay, who is best known for his portrait photography work.
The genesis of the show began in an Atlanta scrap yard a year and a half ago when Guay noticed a random bucket of AR 15 semi automatic rifle shells for sale. Shocked at how easily he could buy shells, lead and gun powder (he says sellers even offered to change his credit card information in order to camouflage his purchases), the artist decided to try his luck at other metal dealers around the city. When he was able to purchase 1,000 pounds of bullets in a single day and ended up blowing out the shocks on his SUV, Guay knew he had something to say.
"This isn't about being pro or anti gun," the artist explains, standing in front of the exhibition's title piece, a 48 x 48 wall hanging, three and a half inches thick with thousands of artfully scattered AR 15 shells. "The toughest thing to accomplish as an artist is to create an emotional attachment with the buyer. With these pieces, the emotional attachment is already present if you've watched the news since 9/11."
A longtime fan, Collective Soul frontman Ed Roland owns 11 of Guay's pieces and attended the show's opening this fall. Guay has designed and photographed the band's last two albums, including last year's See What You Started By Continuing. Says Roland: "Joseph is on top of my list as one of the purest artists I've met. He has a great eye and more importantly, a great heart. He's the real deal."
Guay, who was born in Maine and raised on St. Simons Island in Georgia, has also been hired to photograph Usher's New Look Foundation nonprofit and the self-taught artist has snapped actor turned bluegrass Grammy winner Steve Martin for Rolling Stone.
"Thanks to Elton, I've had this rock n roll photography career I had never planned on," says Guay. Among his most memorable assignments working with John? Documenting Sir Elton's 2010 album with Leon Russell, The Union. The collaboration reunited the pair of piano men who first met when Russell attended one of John's first U.S. gigs at Los Angeles' Troubadour club back in 1970. The singer would later ask the rising star to open tour dates for him.
Flying back to Atlanta after helping to oversee the London opening of John's photography show "The Radical Eye" last week, Guay learned of Russell's passing at age 74. "To watch them create new music together was a beautiful thing to see," he reflects.
At one point during the recording sessions, Guay got Russell to sit for a portrait. "We could all tell that Leon's health wasn't the greatest. But in the weeks it took them to create the album, his health got better and better. It was magical to watch."
Coming off the most successful show of his 20-year career (selected pieces from "Remnants of the Human Condition" now head to Florida as part of Art Basel exhibition at the Miami Beach Convention Center Dec. 1-4), Joseph Guay is considering expanding his canvas globally for his next show.
He's currently in negotiations to purchase a vehicle bombed in an attack in Afghanistan.
"This show focused on America," says Guay. "Now I'm interested in asking, 'What are we doing to ourselves?' at a global level. I've spent 20 years trying not to offend anyone and trying to please a gallery. But there's too much happening in the world, there's too much at stake. The gloves are off now."