The memorial service for Regis Shephard — son of Seminole, Texas, a painter, musician, and draftsman, an educator and a self-proclaimed geek, a Hawaiian-shirt enthusiast, churchgoer, hugger nonpareil, and fan of the local hip-hop scene as well as Portishead, anime, and contemporary Swedish fiction — commenced at 10 a.m. on Monday morning. The Watson Fine Arts Building Theater was three-quarters full, or a little more. There were photographs of Shephard. There was a beautiful a-capella gospel performance and musical tributes by the Fine Arts faculty, emotional and celebratory speeches by two pastors of Eastside churches Regis attended, and moving words by colleagues and one of his students.
“To sit in an auditorium full of people who loved somebody you loved is incredible,” mused Kimberly Aubuchon, gallerist, fellow artist, friend, and archivist at Artpace. “And I was looking through … so many pictures I’ve taken of him over the years, and to see that Regis smile … how comfortable he was being there, how cool he was with being himself. … I wish I’d said to him, just once, ‘I think you’re so awesome. I love what you do and who you are.’”
That gut-punched woe coursed through a lot of us in the little art world when Shephard died suddenly Tuesday, July 27, at the age of 39. The news became phone calls, tweets, and Facebook posts, ran through the whole postmodern circuitry of discourse, knocking the wind out of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of friends, family, students and ex-students, community activists, and followers of SA’s contemporary-art scene. A recurring response: “Is this a joke?”
People gathered their thoughts on his Facebook page, on which the last status he posted was “Art Time!” Many, many people expressed shock and outrage, confusion and disbelief that first evening, then the next day came more sorrow and nostalgia and memory, and after that the reflections and photos and respectful, compartmentalized good tidings for the afterlife, a position which must be much more painful to maintain faith in than it looks.
After the service, St. Philip’s students, administrators, and faculty headed back to work or class, others in the crowd headed into the parking lot. Artists Beto Gonzales and Vincent Valdez paused on their way out and discussed increasing their output, how to do what they do better, and spoke about how they thought more deeply now about legacy, the evidence of history and perspective that Shephard left behind. How do you build that?
Lloyd Walsh, an artist and teacher and another attendee, was always amazed at the sheer proliferation of work created by Shephard, “`who` chaired the `art` department `at St Philips`, who had a heavy teaching schedule … who was active in his church. … I’d say to him, ‘Regis, how do you make as much art as you make?’ He just astounded me. The answer, I guess, is that he worked hard. But even then … ”
I interviewed Shephard in winter 2009 for a story about the much needed — and growing — art departments in the San Antonio Community Colleges. I’d talked to him about the topic a lot as I was putting the story together; how valuable, how underestimated and underfunded, these programs are (particularly at St Philip’s). He’d promised me 20 minutes to interview him during a typically hectic day — we talked instead for nearly two hours. We had space enough for only a fraction of that conversation in the article `“Art missions,” January 28, 2009`. Shephard told me about the interplay between teaching and art: “I’ll often start drawing with the intention of concentrating on the figure, or purely on elements of composition,” he said, “but it always has a strong political side. You can’t teach these students without being aware of `the politics inherent`. … Also, I’m more aware of history — If I hadn’t been teaching art history, I might’ve been aware of maybe the last 30 or 40 years. But instead, I’m aware of all of art history, right back to the Greeks.”
I had expected to hear, ‘Oh, I do morning pages, I devote every Wednesday night, it’s part of my weekend/summer/process …’ type stuff, and instead got a glimpse into how multi-faceted, thoughtful, and complex a man my friend had become. When I first met him, he was 22 or so, an art star of the first order grappling with satire, social justice, and the embattled elements of black masculinity. He was in grad school at UTSA and already teaching at St Philip’s. I had no idea what another 17 years of teaching would do to him, or how much he would devote to the college.
Teaching art at St Philip’s made Shephard ever more aware of the politics affecting the East Side; his art was informed by African-American civil-rights history, and he still bore witness to racism, brutality, and self-hatred, the Great Society seemingly at a standstill around St Philip’s. We talked about the prevalence of the military in San Antonio; he was deeply troubled by losing young men and women to deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan. He maintained hope, was an Obama convention delegate in ’08, held his Christian faith deeply and quietly, never evangelizing or seeming to judge.
Yet he wondered, agonized over, played with the why of it all. Did the oppression come from without, or within, or both? And he put all that investigative, unflinching passion, as well as his deep knowledge of art history, into his work. When I asked how, physically, he got the work done, he answered, “I start drawing, and nine, 10, 13, 14 hours have gone by. I couldn’t tell you how, it’s just —.” Then he shrugged, as if to say, if you’ve got all that in you, what else can you do? In addition to Shephard’s grin and hug and laughter, that half-exasperated, half-world-weary shrug will never leave me.
“It’s hard for me to separate `Shephard` the man from the artist from the friend from the teacher,” said Cakky Brawley, who, like Regis, was a Texas Tech and UTSA grad. “He was holistic like that. I can’t isolate any one thing that made him good at painting, or friendship, or caring for his mother … all of the things he did so extraordinarily well. That he made seem effortless.”
In comments on a blog post, in his Facebook comments, in emails and phone calls, friends, ex-students, and colleagues have noted Shephard’s gentle, cool demeanor, his friendliness and willingness to help and to listen, and how this self-possession seemed at odds with the turbulent whorls and dark spaces in his work. “His work was incredibly confident,” says painter and San Antonio College instructor Ed Rodriguez. “He was unafraid to take on sociological themes, and his style — that heavy, really graphic, almost outrageous style he had — it addressed some tough things he’d been dealing with all his life, both in what he made and how he made them.”
Regis was the second exhibitor at Michele Monseau’s Three Walls Gallery, in July 1999. Asked what drew her to his work, she laughed. “It was kick-ass! It was technically great, and he was a great draftsman,” she said, “and he managed to get all these ideas across.” For his second Three Walls show in 2007 (“He’s one of maybe five artists whom I’ve shown twice,” Monseau says), he focused on what he calls, on his website, “Brightly colored, cartoon-like, figurative paintings.” He mounted one with boombox speakers, out of which pumped his own music.
“He was totally self-assured,” artist and colleague Karen Mahaffy told me. “He didn’t divide high and low. He loved superheroes and comic books and anime and … I think he was interested in everything.”
Nate Cassie, Shephard’s friend for many years, and the conduit from St Philip’s to much of the outside world (and certainly the art world) related a lot to me off the record, finally concluding, “I don’t think I’ve processed it all yet… `the college` will have a rough time finding somebody to fill his job. He was just an irreplaceable guy.”
“He was the one who kept our family together,” Roderick Shephard, Regis’s eldest brother, told me. “He kept us all in touch. He was very close to his nieces and nephews, he made the effort … and he was always like that. He was a nice 5-year-old boy, he grew up into a good, caring, intelligent young man. He was always exactly who he is. Always the artist, too, though Jalen `another Shephard brother` might have started before Regis did.”
“Our family was shocked — overwhelmed, at this huge response on Facebook and the blogs and through everywhere,” Roderick said. “We had no idea he was so well-loved and respected, and so important to so many people in San Antonio. No idea. And after this terrible shock, to find that out is wonderful, and a comfort.”
It is comforting, in the horrible absence of our friend, to consider the many, many lives he’s touched. Literally hundreds. Nudging reluctant students, class after class after class, toward higher education, challenging them to work harder, showing tireless support for his friends’ shows and ceaseless curiosity about our heartbroken and funny world.
For his last drawing show, at the Southwest School of Art & Craft, Shephard showed a self-portrait, in which he’s shadowed by Death. He recorded a “voice tour” you could listen to on headphones while you looked at his work. Listening to it a few days ago was some strong medicine. The easygoing voice full of West Texas openness, the informed artspeak that comes across just a tiny bit self-conscious (very rare) and not at all pretentious. About the drawing of himself with death, Regis said:
“The first piece is called ‘Death and the Endless Possibility,’ a self-study. And they all deal with my recent life-and-death experience. In terms of uh, I had, uh, I developed a serious heart condition. So it was a bit unsettling, frightening, humbling at the same time, and it really forced me to re-think, uh, some priorities or values in life. … So this is the first piece that I did, and for a long time I’ve been working with ink, and with that as a medium, experimenting with the language of the comic-book genre, also trying to incorporate classical compositions; the composition in all the pieces that you see is based on paintings by Caravaggio. But this piece itself is again content-wise, you know, is reflecting recent events in my life. And then as far as working with the brush, trying to incorporate the language system of comic book, the heavy use of line, but also I wanted to be very expressive, keep everything flat and close to the surface, as with most things I do.”
Not many artists — not many men — try to be very expressive while keeping everything flat and close to the surface. It’s as if he’s saying that it’s all there — he’s all there — all of his deep personal complexity on every surface he ever made. This makes it no easier to bear missing Regis Shephard, but much easier to find him.
Donations can be made to the Regis Shephard Memorial Scholarship at St. Philip’s College. Send a check to “Regis Shephard Memorial Scholarship” to:
Institutional Advancement Office
St. Philip’s College
1801 Martin Luther KingDr.
San Antonio, TX 78203
Or call the Institutional Advancement Office at (210) 486-2498