Culture, Architecture & Design // 5 min Read

The Endless Evolution of Panhandle Slim

Written by Barry Kaufman

Jul 14, 2021

It’s as hard to define Panhandle Slim’s journey as it is to define his art.

His work, painted on found materials and scraps of wood, at first glance seems to hum with both a childlike innocence and a punk rock sense of defiance. Looking as much like finger painting as fine art, they nonetheless transfix the viewer with their vivid imagery and simple linework. But then you take another look and see that even though each line forms the simplest of arcs, they capture something in the subject you may have never seen.

It could be a famous face such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Jimmy Carter or a lesser-known muse such as Ben Tucker or Kim Gordon. No matter their notoriety, each looks forth from a Panhandle Slim painting like an icon of a lost age. Like something out of Ozymandias, only their words remain.

From beside her steady gaze, Maya Angelou’s timeless words from “Love Liberates,” “I’m thankful to have been loved and now be able to love,” float in childlike red lettering against a yellow backdrop. Beside the cartoonishly soaring updo of Dolly Parton reads, “Find out who you are. And do it on purpose.” And you’ll find countless variations of the late Justice Ginsberg declaring, “I dissent.”

As an oeuvre, it’s a very simple format, one found on memes across the internet. Which is part of what makes Panhandle Slim such a perfect artist for the moment.

“This simple art that I do connects with people,” he said. “I’ve never been formally trained. It still feels funny to be called an artist. It’s nice, but I didn’t plan on it.”

Whether he finds it funny or not, Panhandle Slim is an artist. And the effortlessly nontraditional streak that informs his art has taken on a few variations along the way.

Panhandle Slim

Movement as an Art

Before he was Panhandle Slim, he was Scott Stanton, a 20-year-old skateboarding phenom who was part of a group known as the Zorlac team warrior rippers. Riding for the legendary skateboard company opened up an entire world for Stanton, who had carved up most of the world’s skate parks by the time his 20s were over.

It was a more physical art form than he currently practices, but it was one that nonetheless informed his sense of style. “It’s very much an art form, too,” he said. “It all feels the same. Creating paintings now, it feels like kind of the same drive. You feel like you’ve created something—painting a picture, doing a new trick . . . it was the same.”

Panhandle Slim Studio

It also introduced him to the underground world of skateboard culture, which offers its own indelible artistic sense of style. Whether spray-painted on private property or airbrushed onto a skate deck, it’s a kind of folk art that carries a harder edge then the serene portraits and landscapes of the old school.

Naturally, you’ll find quite a bit of overlap between the artistic motifs of skate punks and punk rockers. Bridging that gap was a natural next step for Stanton. Along with his wife, Tracy, he formed the fringe punk outfit “The Causey Way.”

Part band, part theatrical event, the Causey Way presented itself as a cult in the same way that the Ramones presented themselves as brothers. Using the stage name Causey, Stanton would serve as the leader of this cult, with the band itself being referred to as the ACE (Aural Communications and Entertainment) division.

It was during his time with the Causey Way that he would meet one of his biggest artistic inspirations, Wesley Willis. A fellow artist on the Alternative Tentacles record label, Willis was famous among certain circles for his meandering childlike songs, each of which usually incorporated some advertising slogan (often just stuck into the middle of the song for no reason at all).

“He was a good friend of mine,” said Stanton of Willis, who died in 2003. “I used to just paint the face of a person and the quotes, and that was kind of a Wesley thing. I’d kind of imagine what he’d say and do.”

Willis’s music and art would serve as huge influences, but it wasn’t until Stanton stepped away from the underground punk scene to get a “real job” that he discovered his true artistic calling.

Artist Panhandle Slim Scott Staton2

Art as a Movement

By his mid-20s, Stanton had moved on both literally and figuratively. He’d traded the balmy tropical climate of Pensacola, Florida, for the frigid temperatures of Kalamazoo, Michigan, where his wife had found a teaching job. He disbanded the Causey Way (using the cover story that Causey himself had been institutionalized) and was instead working as a substitute teacher for a nearby high school.

It was an odd bit of conformity for Stanton, who was still in his mid-20s. And it wouldn’t last long.

“We went up to an art gallery in Grand Rapids, and they had a Howard Finster painting there. I thought to myself, ‘I wish I could buy that, but I can’t afford it,’” he said. “So, I said I’d just try to paint my own. . . . That was my first step on this journey as Panhandle Slim.”

That first painting was of Dolly Parton, although Stanton doesn’t remember which quote it used. Similar works followed of icons including Malcolm X and Jimmy Carter. He also did one of his high school English teacher, just because he liked the quote. To this day, whether a Panhandle Slim painting starts with the painting or the quote is usually a game-time decision.

“Before, it was kind of always the person. Now, I’ll see a quote and see that it needs to be painted,” he said. “I’ll read the paper in the morning; some things just jump out.”

Panhandle Slim Dolly Parton

Selling them just to friends, then taking commissions, then selling them on the honor system from his carport (customers simply pick what they want and then pay through his mail slot), he found his notoriety growing until his works were found all over the country.

He even found one painting winding up in the most unlikely of places.

“Someone sent me a message, ‘Can you do one for Uncle Jimmy?’ I just thought Uncle Jimmy was Uncle Jimmy. Turns out it was Jimmy Carter,” Stanton said. “A month or two later, I got a picture of Jimmy Carter holding my painting of him. . . . When I was starting out, if you were to tell me 15 years later Jimmy Carter would have one, I would have thought you were crazy.”

“In some ways, it seems like the world has caught up to what I’ve been doing in terms of social justice,” he said. “When everything gets figured out, I’ll just paint puppies and babies and cats.”

Until then, the endless evolution of Panhandle Slim will continue.

To view more of his work, search for artforfolk1 on Facebook.

Read the original story in the Spring / Summer 2021 edition of the bluff.