Visual artist Troy Gua lives and breathes pop culture, and through his paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media pieces shares his interpretations of the world around us. The Seattle native–based still in the city famously known as the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix, Starbucks and grunge music, as well as being the locale where Ray Charles and Quincy Jones cut their teeth as young musicians–has spent the past several years creating cutting-edge and somewhat quirky collections inspired by the interplay between the personal and the public, with a keen focus the ways in which everyday people are affected by television, music, social media, and technology. And while his expansive body of work has been featured in galleries and special exhibits throughout Seattle and amassed a stunning amount of press coverage, one particular series has introduced Gua to a whole new audience: “Le Petit Prince” (aka, LPP or Little Prince).
I can’t recall exactly when I first became aware of “Le Petit Prince,” but I was immediately intrigued by the series for two reasons: 1) It featured my favorite musician, Prince, and 2) The title of the series is also that of one of my favorite books, Antoine de St. Exupery’s Le petit prince. Perusing the LPP photo galleries on Troy Gua’s website and Facebook page, my heart swelled with glee as I clicked picture after picture of this perfect Prince figurine, bearing such a striking resemblance to the real man that it left me awestruck. The details–everything from the coifs to the threads, the come hither facial expression to the gorgeous doe eyes and trademark beauty mark on his left cheek–were so spot on that it was abundantly evident that the artist had gone to painstaking lengths to get them right, and spared no effort. And then the outfits–those iconic fashion statements that very few men could pull off and even fewer would dare attempt. From Controversy to Purple Rain to Lovesexy, the slightly obscure NPG Exodus album and beyond, Gua captured some of Prince’s most memorable poses, outfits, album covers, and eras in his series, and Prince fans across the globe ate it up. Gua began selling merchandise based on the Le Petit Prince series (t-shirts, calendars) via his website, an enterprising move that, unbeknownst to him, stirred the bee hive.
In mid-November 2012, Troy Gua received a cease and desist from Prince’s attorneys, ordering him to discontinue the LPP series. He was instructed to stop production of the series, remove all photos of the series from his website and Facebook page, and prohibited from including his creation in exhibitions. Basically, LPP would cease to exist, as though it never had. Coincidentally, the series was to end on November 16, which happened to be the day our interview was originally scheduled to take place.
After a bit of rescheduling on both ends, SoulTrain.com was finally able to catch up with Troy Gua to talk about his life and work as an artist, from his first artistic encounters as a child up through this latest engagement with his greatest musical hero.
SoulTrain.com presents this eye-opening interview with Troy Gua, the first non-musician to be featured in our exclusive Artist to Artist series.
SoulTrain.com: Tell us your story. Who is Troy Gua, and how did you get started as an artist?
Troy Gua: That’s a good question. I’m inspired by popular culture. I don’t like artistic labels but, if I have to pick one, I’d like to call myself a “pop culture regurgitationist.” I take in as much pop culture as I can stand and I regurgitate it in another form of art. I’ve always been completely obsessed with rock stars and movies and TV, all of our great American media. It’s really influenced my work and my sense of style, the way I look at the world. That’s basically the crux of my artwork, where I’m coming from as far as my art goes.
I’ve always been artistically inclined, since I was a little kid. I was given a pat on the back as the artist in the class, and I’ve been chasing after that pat on the back my whole life. It’s a joy to make things that give other people joy; to put smiles on peoples’ faces [because of] something that I’ve made is incredible. I love to do that, and I’ve always had that inclination. I went through a period of time in my 20s and early thirties when I was a pretty bad alcoholic and substance abuser, and I kind of lost my way. I got married pretty young and let my dream fall to the wayside, and life got kind of bleak for awhile and everything fell apart–my wife left me, my dad died, I lost my house. It was just a series of unfortunate events.
I was on Match.com and met this girl, and she seemed really into me. We hit it off, and she was a partier, too. We partied hard for about a year and then realized we enjoyed each other’s company too much to continue to destroy ourselves, so we got sober together and got married about a year later. She convinced me to follow my dream. That was in 2006, and I’ve been pushing it pretty hard ever since.
SoulTrain.com: You bring up something that I think is often a common theme for many artists, how they deviate from their passion for some reason–maybe they think they can’t make any money doing what they love, or because it’s not a traditional life and they think it’s not possible to have a family and a successful career in the arts. But it also takes a special kind of partner who understands your creative life, that it’s largely who you are.
Troy Gua: Absolutely!
SoulTrain.com: You said you’ve always been artistically inclined. Do you remember the first painting, sculpture, or other work of art you saw that fully enveloped you? What was it? Share that experience with our SoulTrain.com audience.
Troy Gua: That’s a good question. I think the closest I can come to that is the King Tut exhibit that came through town when I was about seven. Aside from album covers, that was just an amazing visual spectacle for a little kid to see.
I’d hang out with my older brother and we would listen to his records, and I would study his album covers. That was art to me; that was my introduction to it. We were suburban, blue-collar folks–not super cultured. My parents didn’t take me to the museum or anything, so my art experience came from pop culture.
SoulTrain.com: And now we’re living in a time where album artwork is virtually non-existent in that form. We don’t get to have that tactile connection anymore.
Troy Gua: It was a such a ritualistic experience, it was such a tangible thing. Everything is so ethereal and in the air now…it’s not a real thing now. And that made it a real thing–this material object contained the music you listen to.
Troy Gua: [Colorbandz] is a really fun series for me. Some of them look so much like the subject–it’s like, ‘That really does look like Donald Trump,’ and all it is is stripes of color. The way that came around was completely accidental. It’s meant as a portrait at the speed of technology. Where I got it was a spinning class with my wife. I was sweating profusely and looked over at her. I didn’t have my glasses on and sweat was running in my eyes and she was kind of blurred, into stripes. I was like, ‘Wow, that’d be a cool portrait!’ I tacked on the concept after [laughs]! But it’s like you’re streaking by this person at Mach 1, that’s the vision you get.
“Meet Greet Rinse Repeat” came about with the advent of all the texting and emoticons and abbreviations of everything. Our attention span and the time we have to spend on things has decreased so much. It occurred to me that our language and our way of communicating is reverting to pictograms and hieroglyphs and shapes, the most basic of communication elements. I wanted to somehow address that in a visual way, working with other artists in my community. I wanted to create a bunch of shapes that resembled futuristic hieroglyphic shapes, and make them out of this blank white material and hand them off to other visual artists and say, “Interpret this for me, in whatever language you want to speak.” They’d take it, paint on it, cut it up, add things to it, or knit a sweater around it. I had no clue how amazing the whole process would be and how different the pieces would look when I’d get them back. It was really a fulfilling project for me. I got the chance to work with fifty artists and see how they worked, where they worked. Each one of those shapes is unique, they all have a different configuration.
SoulTrain.com: Obviously music as a major source of inspiration for you. Who are some of the artists whose music you listen to while you create?
Troy Gua: Prince–anything from Minneapolis is pretty much always at the top of the list. Anything from P-Funk, George Clinton…I’ve been really listening to Frank Ocean over and over and over. I love that album! With the whole Little Prince thing, that’s been so present. So it’s been a ton of Prince for almost a year. Even now that it’s come to an end, his songs are still playing in my head.
SoulTrain.com: Let’s talk LPP. You received a cease and desist order from Prince’s attorneys effective November 16–the day we’d originally scheduled for this interview. It’s an odd coincidence that we chose this date for our interview, considering that the LPP series was my introduction to your body of work. When you received the order several major media outlets (Spin, for example) broke the story and you issued an official statement via your website and Facebook page. Prince fans have weighed in on blogs and through social media, many expressing their disappointment with the cease and desist order and some saying they understand where it’s coming from. Even ?uestlove expressed his displeasure with this action via his Facebook page and on Twitter. As an artist, and as a Prince fan, how have these events impacted you?
Troy Gua: LPP was never meant to expand the way it did. It started out as something fun that I wanted to do for me, after a long year last year of making art and struggling and trying to figure out how to expand outside the city–trying to make a living as an artist. It was tough. I’d started becoming cynical about the business, and bummed out about how it was such a hustle. I really just wanted to make something fun. Prince has been my hero since I was a kid. I loved the Gerry Anderson marionette movies from the 50s and 60s, and when Team America came out it rekindled my love for that form. So I decided to make the Little Prince in that style.
I wanted the basic Purple Rain outfit, with the purple coat and black pants and white ruffled shirt, but I couldn’t find anything–they don’t make that stuff for Ken dolls [laughs]! I was trying to find someone to sew it for me and couldn’t find anybody. My wife convinced me to do it ourselves. She has a sewing machine and she helped me make the Purple Rain coat. And I took it from there. I’d never sewn in my life! I took a couple pictures and posted them on my website and on Facebook. Somebody on Prince.org saw them and posted them there, then people started contacting me and requesting [versions]. I ran with it and started posting more pictures. I never envisioned what it really ended up being. I got to the point where it was like, ‘I’ve done three-quarters of this dude’s career. I can’t stop now! I gotta close it out!’
It’s still so fresh, I’m not really sure how I feel about the whole cease and desist. There are debates online whether or not I did wrong. I want to believe that, by making available merchandise based on this character I created, I really felt like it was my art. I wasn’t infringing upon Prince. Of course I regret it, I never wanted to get a cease and desist from him. I wanted him to call and say, “Hey man, maybe you can do my album cover”–something like that. But I guess I was walking some pretty risky ground, because he’s got a reputation for being in control of his image. It is what it is. I don’t believe I did anything illegal, but I have zero desire to fight it. That would be pointless and in opposition to what the project was about, which was joy and admiration. This whole project turned out to be such a joyful and fun experience for so many people, that to fight my hero would leave a really bad taste in my mouth.
SoulTrain.com: Did you hear from anyone else associated with Prince about the artwork–former Revolution members or anyone like that?
Troy Gua: A few people…one of his former artists contacted me out of the blue and told me how much he loved it. He’d been making Prince’s album covers for many years, and to get that kind of affirmation from someone I really looked up to was pretty amazing. I heard from a few former band members…Lisa Coleman posted some really awesome comments and positive remarks about the work and about me on Facebook. That was really humbling. ?uestlove loved it! He helped pump this whole thing up.
SoulTrain.com: He was also very vocal when the cease and desist came. I know you were very active trying to get ahead of everything, asking people to keep things in perspective.
Troy Gua: The whole thing was about paying respect and paying tribute to Prince. So to see this project cause all this negativity toward the man that inspired it seemed counterproductive.
SoulTrain.com: Are there any other artists you may do similar series with in the future?
Troy Gua: I don’t plan to do anymore at this point. I don’t want to dilute what LPP was. It was a unique project and a unique experience. If I were to get a commission from an artist, I’d be totally into that. That’d be fun! If I do decide to take on another artist I would definitely approach it differently.
To explore the world through Troy Gua’s art, visit his website troygua.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @TroyGua. All Le Petit Prince photos have been removed from Troy’s website and Facebook page, but the internet lives forever, and a quick search will take you where you want to be to see the incredible LPP series…just not on Troy Gua’s website or Facebook page.
Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA, currently performing with San Francisco-based soul band Midtown Social. Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, check her out on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @wildhoneyrock.