On South Burdick Street, in the yard of a house right next to the southern end of Mount Ever-Rest Cemetery, there’s an enormous green object, gradually turning brown from the effects of rain and snow, that looks like a giant has taken a bite out of it. In front of the house there’s a gazebo and a wooden easel as tall as a semi-truck. A bright yellow SUV with the words “Mr. Caution” emblazoned on its side is parked in the driveway. Welcome to the art studio of “Artist SinGh.”
Artist SinGh is Gurmej Singh, a painter and sculptor born in India who now lives in Kalamazoo and so far, in the nine-year history of the annual ArtPrize competition, is the only artist to ever be banned from participating in the Grand Rapids event. But Singh was getting noticed for his eye-catching and often-controversial work long before that happened.
Singh, who won’t give his age, says he has been creating art for decades. As a boy in India, he did what he calls “stunt paintings,” sitting on tree branches or hanging from ropes while wielding a brush because he sold more paintings that way, he says. Evidence of his antics are on his YouTube channel (youtube.com/artistsingh), where one video shows him hanging by his ankles from the roof of the Park Trades Center, in downtown Kalamazoo, painting a canvas as an audience watches from the ground below. The video features plenty of cheering and comments about the spectacle — not about the artwork. Another video shows Singh standing on everything from basketballs to the top of the Fountain of the Pioneers, the controversial statue in Bronson Park, as he paints.
As a teen, Singh’s family moved to find work in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he got his first job in the marketing department of Al Nasr Leisureland, an amusement park with everything from video games to an ice rink. Singh says he put his mind for promotion to work, recruiting Leisureland’s engineers and even chefs to help create a winter scene out of Styrofoam to promote the entertainment complex. That was in the mid-1990s.
After that, Singh decided he wanted his artistic specialty to be glassblowing, and he moved to the U.S. to attend classes at Emporia State University, in Kansas. After talking with teachers, though, he settled on painting instead and decided to make use of his history as a stunt artist. He decided not to keep hanging on ropes as he painted, though, and sought notoriety in other ways. In 2013, he was recognized by Guinness World Records for the “Largest Painting by an Individual”: It was 11,302 feet, 2.11 inches, or more than two miles, long. The colorful painting of downtown Grand Rapids, displayed at ArtPrize that year, took 38 days to complete, he says.
Banned from ArtPrize
You can’t see his work at ArtPrize, anymore, however. While planning the epic-sized painting for 2013 ArtPrize, Singh violated a written agreement with the city when his work crossed sidewalks and streets rather than just being confined to the park space he was assigned. That’s according to Kevin Buist, exhibitions director for ArtPrize, who says it was the last in a series of confrontations ArtPrize had with Singh. The year before, another Singh display, a sculpture of Saddam Hussein, was dismantled before ArtPrize even began. It was set to be shown at the B.O.B., a popular restaurant and nightclub, but the establishment’s owner removed it, claiming it was too controversial. Singh later set fire to the sculpture in protest. Buist says Singh is now permanently banned from ArtPrize.
Singh has turned the ban to his advantage, however. He mentions that he’s the “Banned ArtPrize artist” in a section labeled “Fake News” on his website. In September, he self-published X The Art Prize, a 112-page book that’s part personal manifesto (he discusses “ArtPrize’s rich and famous backers who can buy media favor”) and part clues to finding $1 million he claims to have hidden in Kent County. Specifically, that’s $100,000 in cash and $900,000 in “art collectibles.” The book itself, even as a PDF, sells for $39.99.
“My story is incomplete without discussing my ban,” Singh says.
He calls the decision by the ArtPrize staff “unfair” but says he’s now spending more time offering private shows to art collectors. The Largest Painting, the work that got him shut out of ArtPrize, has since been split apart and sold to his customers in New York, Dubai and elsewhere.
“Kalamazoo is not my market,” Singh says, noting “there aren’t enough buyers here.”
He moved here in 2000 to be close to his brother and his brother’s family. He initially worked out of the Park Trades Center, where he also owned a store called Art of Framing. He says he did that to build his name recognition. In 2003 he earned a business degree from Western Michigan University. Art of Framing continues now as a framing service at Singh’s Burdick Street studio.
“Everything is about making money and getting attention,” he says.
Thanks to the internet and contacts Singh has developed over decades, he has regular buyers interested in his work, he says, no matter what he does. His work typically sells for between $3,000 and $10,000, he says, depending on what it is and who’s buying.
Most of Singh’s paintings are of landscapes, often in reds, oranges and blues. He enjoys using oil paint, but says a lot of his work is done in acrylics or watercolors. He uses inks for his “LatroArt” images, which he describes as drawing and painting using the principles of spider web construction.
Singh says he deliberately tries to be controversial and eye-catching simply to build awareness of his art. He leaves his paintings in his front yard when the weather isn’t bad. The green object on his lawn is a massive pear that he wanted to use for a display at ArtPrize. Before it was a pear, it was a large black cartoon bomb: what he calls an “International Peace Bomb,” which was part of an exhibit in Grand Rapids. Now it sits outside waiting for him to figure out what to do with it next.
“You never know what will get you attention,” he says.
Speaking of which, what’s with the Mr. Caution car? “That was a branding test in Canada” to increase his audience there, says Singh. “It was inspired by construction sites — the word ‘caution’ is always there.”
He used the “Mr. Caution” title to promote his sign art, illustrations made to look like traffic signs (one promotes himself and looks a little like a missing person announcement with the letters “mis” scratched out to leave “sing,” as in “Singh”). Mr. Caution is now another name Singh uses to promote his work, and his LatroArt, landscapes, sign art and more can be found under both names.
Singh calculates he has created some 7,000 artworks in his career. He now has five college-age assistants who help him set up and sometimes paint some of his art.
“This is their opportunity to test their skills and find their strengths,” he says.
In addition, Singh is following up X The ArtPrize with a second book he’s working on. He expects to call it My Experiments With Art. It will feature two of his favorite subjects — marketing art and developing painting and sculpting skills. He also plans to launch Artist SinGh Academy, where he’ll teach via YouTube videos. Singh hopes to ultimately offer online classes and one-on-one coaching, especially in marketing.
Marketing for artists requires creative people to tell others what they’re working on and to become comfortable with criticism, he says.
“A lot of artists are really good. They just don’t know how to promote themselves,” Singh says. “The commentary (criticism) is going to happen no matter what you do. You just have to live with it.”