Carney painter takes his show on the road in an art truck

Contact ReporterNortheast Booster Reporter
Shawn Theron drives his galloping gallery of paintings to farmers markets and festivals.

As a painter, Shawn Theron thinks he is unique, not just in his art style, but the way he sells it.

"Not many artists can say they have an art truck," said the Carney native.

At the American Visionary Art Museum, where he also sells his paintings, AVAM founder Rebecca Hoffberger agreed that a gallery-on-wheels for a single artist is an unusual concept.

During a phone interview she turned to some visitors from Chicago to ask if they had ever heard of an art truck — "like a food truck, but selling art." Nope, they hadn't.

Yet the concept makes perfect sense to the hundreds of buyers who have picked out a canvas — or a painting on an old door, a piece of scrap lumber, or some other odd item he likes to paint on — when his truck turns up at farmers markets or street festivals in Hampden or Patterson Park in Baltimore or in Philadelphia and Washington.

"People, no matter where they are, love art. But they may not go to museums. I take the museum to them," Theron said.

The route to becoming a professional artist has been unconventional for the 42-year-old Theron, a 1991 graduate of Parkville High School (where he used his original last name Turkington before making his middle name his last name for professional reasons). He was a self-described "horrible" student ("I think I had dyslexia") and took some art classes in high school and at Pine Grove Middle School, though he did not envision art as a career at that time.

After school, he went into restaurant work, waiting tables and tending bar in Parkville and White Marsh.

It was his grandparents, Fran and Russell Turkington, who turned his life in a new direction. His grandmother, nicknamed "Red," dying of cancer, asked him on her deathbed to embark on a "journey."

"She asked this as her last request — and as a mission or goal for me — and we named the journey Sogh. The name has nothing to do with art. It's an abstract thing. It's four random letters that come together. It's not in the English language," he said.

The word Sogh, which has no meaning outside Theron's personal grasp of it, is always prominent on his truck and his website, http://www.sogh.org.

A few years later he tried his hand at painting.

"It ignited something in me," he said. "I wasn't a painter yet by any means. I did some canvases. I went and bought some cheap paint."

While working in the restaurant on the top floor of the American Visionary Art Museum in Federal Hill, AVAM's Hoffberger offered him some wall space to display a painting, he said.

"It was unreal. I put two things up. I sold a painting. I was 10 years old again," Theron recalled.

Within a single month, he said, he sold 61 paintings at AVAM. By February 2007, he said, he had sold 1,357 paintings.

"My hand got numb from painting. It just kept going and going and going."

His style is a combination of the graphic and abstract and reflects his fascination with round images. "I love circles, as you can tell," he said.

Hoffberger said it was her pleasure to give Theron his start.

"I have a very soft spot in my heart for Shawn. He started out as a waiter in my restaurant," she said. "He is very consistent about following his Sogh, his journey."

One of his fans, Amy Gober of New Market, estimates she has 50 of his paintings in her house and home office. One piece is a kitchen cabinet door she gave him to paint, then rehung on the cabinet. She has given away more as gifts, she said.

"They are just beautiful. They make me smile. They're unique and bright," Gober said. "They are affordable — $25 to $30 for a nice size painting. And you don't have to worry about framing it."

She said she first came across his work at a boutique in Ellicott City and bought two pieces. Afterward, she met the artist, became friends and now follows him on Facebook.

"He's so sweet. Over the years he's given me at least 10 paintings. He's a warm and generous person. If he has a fault, it's that he gives away too much of his stuff," Gober said.

Brigid Wethington, an interior designer who lives in Columbia, said she first saw Theron's work in the Hampden store Trohv. She contacted him and they developed a professional relationship. She said she sometimes buys from him in bulk, often to give as gifts.

"I send a lot of clients to him. His work is approachable, affordable and colorful. His work is so vibrant. You can look at his art and know he did it," she said.

His work also fits her design philosophy of keeping it local. "I don't want to see art from Bed, Bath and Beyond. I want to see pieces from local artists," she said

Theron lives on a quiet cul-de-sac with his husband, Chris Palmeri, in a house off Summit Avenue that was formerly his grandparents'. He paints in a shed in his yard. He likes to say his commute is 50 feet and he often goes to work in his pajamas.

The downside of painting is that it's a solitary life for a gregarious person like himself, he said. Also, he said, carting his art — some pieces are heavy— in and out of galleries for showings was wearing him down. Noting the crowd at a food truck rally in Patterson Park, he got an idea.

"I'm going where the people are," he said.

In 2013, he discussed the art truck idea with his father, Craig Turkington, who said he would keep an eye out. Almost immediately, his father called. "I found your truck," he said.

It is a 1983 Grumman Olson step van, a former bread truck. Theron bought it and turned most of the conversion over to friend Kevin Hessler, who installed doors, a skylight and more. The conversion to art truck cost $15,000, he said.

He does a summer circuit of festivals and farmers markets in Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. He delights in the reactions, even from non-buyers who just want to use his truck as a backdrop for a selfie.

"I love to meet new people. I go out there and have a blast," he said.

Being unique no longer interests him. Now, he's considering the idea of helping other artists get art trucks.

"We could do a caravan," he said.

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