ALTOONA, Pa. — To sit down for a conversation with Steven Sherrill is to open yourself to a diverse discussion about art — not just writing, even though he says, “I consider myself a novelist,” but also music and painting. Sherrill is full immersion — he writes, he plays music, he paints. He also teaches at Penn State Altoona as an associate professor of English and integrative arts.
Sherrill’s office is small, off in a corner of a classroom building, with the requisite papers and books, art, and office equipment of a college professor. The chair for a visitor is squeezed into the only space available, between the desk and wall. Even though it is merely Sherrill and the visitor in a discussion, another presence is felt, a large one, lurking. It’s the Minotaur. Although it’s been 15 years since Sherrill published his first novel, the main character — the Minotaur, or “M,” as he is known — never left the author’s side.
In Greek mythology the Minotaur is a beast who has a human body with the head and tail of a bull. He first came to Sherrill most unexpectedly.
“As a writer I pay a lot of attention to the nonsense in my head,” he says. “Anyone who’s been creating for a while understands a gift from the cosmos. I was starting my second year as an MFA in poetry student at Iowa, standing on a bridge and smoking a cigarette, and ‘the minotaur takes a cigarette break’ fell into my head. That creature was gifted to me on that bridge. It felt good, there was energy there.” From those words came first a poem and then the first novel, "The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break."
Referring to his writing, Sherrill says, “I’m willing to show my horns and point out the horns of other people.” He has accomplished that in five novels and a collection of poetry that have been described as “thoughtful,” “bleak,” “humorous and dark,” with an “outsider aesthetic.”
That last label is very accurate. Sherrill dropped out of high school after failing 10th grade and eventually studied welding at Mitchell Community College. His inauspicious entry into the writing field started when “I wrote a poem published in the local newspaper about getting my first tattoo. I found that I could actually say things with words.” That might have been a turning point for him as a writer but it still “took a long time,” he says. “I didn’t finish college until I was 29,” when he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in English literature at UNC-Charlotte.
Music, for Sherrill, is a more casual pursuit and yet as deep an interest as writing. “I’ve had a roving musical ear forever,” he discloses; at a time when his teenage classmates would have been listening to possibly the GoGos or Blondie, he was developing a more unique appreciation: “I found an LP of African talking drums at a flea market.”
He’s not joking when he says he has a “whole interest in the canon” and rattles off names and genres: Blind Willie McTell (blues and ragtime), Dave van Ronk (folk), Indian classical and ragas, Jolie Holland (Americana), and one on everyone’s iPod, Hildegard von Bingen (liturgical). Then he throws in Snailmate (electronic thrash) for good measure. He doesn’t need flea markets anymore; exploration comes in the form of a streaming service: “I love Pandora because it plays things I haven’t heard before. You can put in a song and it chooses things for you.”
Sherrill also plays instruments and sings — again in unexpected genres, such as sea shanties (to see one of his sea shanty parties, visit YouTube) and shape note singing. “I did not have the discipline for practice, but I was moved by the old gospel sound. [Shape note singing] is not an audience-based experience. In the movie "Cold Mountain," Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are shape note singers. That was my introduction to it. Because it’s not performance based and enthusiastic participation trumps skill, I was able to open up to it. It was my door into music as a performer.”
For instruments, he started with a ukulele, moved on to banjo and guitar, even making some instruments: “I don’t think I’m particularly good, but I don’t care. It’s not about precision. It’s about performance.”
Music is where the Minotaur returns — remember the Minotaur? Musician Harold Taddy contacted Sherrill about working together and they wound up putting M to music. Their effort, Cluck Old Bull: A Soundtrack (made with the support of the Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities) is best described by Sherrill himself:
“'Cluck Old Bull' tells the story of my Minotaur through sound and song ... It is experimental. It is Folk, Americana, Old Time, Electronic, and more. The Bull struggles. The Bull yearns. Succeeds and fails gloriously. There are banjos aplenty.”
There’s also the possibility of a "Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break" opera (yes, opera), which Sherrill says came out of an email from a composer in the United Kingdom — no banjos in that one.
And of course the Minotaur is present in the most recent of Sherrill’s paintings.
He says about his method, “I worked my way into a process, using oil on gessoed board.” Ideas come from diverse sources, leading to series such as “Dear Abby,” “What I Did Last Summer,” and “Knew Testament.” For someone who admits to a short attention span, the work is quite labor intensive: “I cut the boards to size, nail them to the inner frames, then roughly and hurriedly knife gesso onto the panels. Initially, I spend months gathering pictures, pieces of pictures, and ideas for pictures from which to compose the paintings. I pin them all to my studio walls, then begin to whittle the mass down, selecting and combining, building my compositions.”
At this point, with much time already invested, he hasn’t even yet put paint to board. Finally he starts the part of the process people think of as painting: “One by one, I draw the preliminary sketches (wholeheartedly embracing technology), then hang all the drawings so that the walls of my studio are mostly white-space. The next step is to paint the visible flesh on all the figures. Then some substantial color in the background, then an article of clothing, and so on. Piece by piece the paintings march toward completion. Color takes over the white space of my studio walls. The last stages involve final color choices and objects or details that I hope enrich the potentials in each picture.” Right now he’s “working on a series all of one aesthetic piece — eleven Minotaur paintings all in that same vein.”
But the modern-day Minotaur is not satisfied to be just rendered silently in paint. In Sherrill’s most recent tale, "The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time" (2016), M has moved from his southern trailer park of the first novel to a motel in Pennsylvania, still working, still looking for love with what New York Times reviewer Allan Gurganus calls “a forlorn Buster Keaton dignity.” As with the first work, “Sherrill populates his novel with a colorful cast of weirdos and eccentrics,” says Publishers Weekly, “Readers unfamiliar with Sherrill’s first novel will still appreciate the wit and poignancy of this follow-up.” The Minotaur perseveres.
And so M’s presence is felt, acknowledged, respected in that college office, those works of art, the music, and the written words. “And let it be known, we are not finished with this old man beast,” Sherrill says on his website. Take him at his word.