Baltimore man goes from museum waiter to museum artist

Five years ago, Shawn Theron was waiting tables and managing the bar of the Joy America Cafe inside the American Visionary Art Museum. Today, his work is hanging on the gallery walls.

He says it's all because his beloved grandmother — who raised the boy and whom he nicknamed "Red" — urged him from her deathbed to "turn on the light."


"She said it many times," says the 38-year-old artist: "'Turn on the light. Turn on the light.' And it had nothing to do with switches."

For the next nine months, visitors walking into the American Visionary Art Museum will see firsthand just how much Theron took his grandmother, Frances Turkington's, advice to heart.


Covering 28 feet of wall space between the ticket booth and the first gallery is a giant montage composed of 75,000 images. The artist began recording his daily activities on Dec. 29, 2002, with a point-and-shoot digital camera that he'd purchased for himself as a 30th birthday gift, and continued for the next 365 days. He shot at least one image every day — and usually, more than one — of what Theron describes as "the most profound year of my life."

There's a comic portrait of Theron and Red (so named because she lived in a house painted red, drove a red car and had red hair), heads jammed together, sticking out their tongues at the camera. There's Red just before she died on March 1, 2003.

The October section contains several photos of Gerald Fields, a waiter friend whom Theron nicknamed "Gus," beaming happily at the photographer on his wedding day.

But there are also photos of Fields' funeral, taken three months later, after he was stabbed in fight. His bride, Robin Fields, would later plead guilty to a first-degree murder charge.

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"Did I call it art?" Theron says. "Not really. I called it one year from my life. Everything was changing. I wanted to record it so I could figure out what I had left."

The exhibit also contains examples of Theron's best-known work, a series of wooden panels on which he has painted bright circles floating in space.

But, it's the photographs over which museum visitors — not to mention the artist himself — linger the longest.

"I didn't have a wall big enough at home on which I could display all of the photographs from my year," he says.


"So I asked Rebecca if I could borrow a wall at the museum for a few hours. She took one look at my images and said, 'This has to be in the show.'

"This week is the first time that I've been able to see it all at once."