Julian Gaines Has a Question: ‘How Do I Paint Oregon Black?’

In a cavernous studio on a grass farm in Forest Grove, Ore., Halfway between Portland and the Tillamook State Forest, Julian Gaines, an artist born and raised in Chicagoland, created a set of work dedicated to Black American life.

He starts his day at work at 9 a.m. and goes on until work tells him he’s done, creating images of the heroes and martyrs of the civil rights movement, including James Baldwin and Malcolm X, in a state where Blacks make up nearly 2 percent of the population, according to the United States Census Bureau.

“I can’t complain about an environment I’m in but never try to change it,” said Mr. Gaines, 30, who left Illinois in 2016. “I came out here and I saw that Oregon was not culturally good. “It’s like a blank canvas. I thought, ‘How can I keep my lasting mark here? How can I plant my Pan-African flag? How can I paint Oregon Black?'”

On a recent afternoon, his studio was filled with the voices of a fellow Chicagoan, Curtis Mayfield. An American flag occupies part of the 30-foot wall. Mr. Gaines raised the flag to reveal two vivid drawings depicting the lynchings. They are part of the new series, “Under the Flag.” On the other side of the room, there is a canvas, 14 feet wide, called “Better Timing.” It shows the face of Emmett Till, the Black boy from Chicago who was murdered at age 14 while visiting Mississippi in one of the most heinous hate crimes of the last century.

Mr. Gaines gained widespread attention in 2020, when his series “KAREN (S)” appeared on the cover of a New York magazine. It’s Pop Art with a political twist – a bold image of a white woman holding a phone to her ear, her emotional expression, a tear streaming down her cheek. It sparked a series of incidents involving women calling police on Black bystanders: a bird-watcher, a man entering his apartment building, an 8-year-old selling water.

“KAREN (S)” is indebted to an experience Mr. Gaines went through himself, after a neighbor damaged his car two years ago, he said. When he asked the neighbor, a white woman, to provide his insurance information, he threatened to call the police and report him for elder abuse, he said. As he approached her, muttering and pressing his finger to his chest, he recorded her on his phone. When the police arrived, Mr. Gaines was able to show them the pictures on his screen. The neighbor admitted to police that he was the cause of the car’s damage, and officers left immediately afterwards.

“If I didn’t have that video, who knows what could have happened?” Mr. said. Gaines.

After the incident, the woman sent Mr. Gaines a note of apology: “I apologize for my actions and misconduct,” he wrote. The note hangs in his studio.

Mr. Gaines has a key supporter of art collector James Whitner, the chief executive of Whitaker Group, the company behind fashion brands A Ma Maniere, Social Status and APB. The works of Mr. Gaines, along with “KAREN (S),” can be seen at Mr. Gaines’ home. Whitner of North Carolina, with paintings and sculptures by KAWS, Nina Chanel Abney and Jammie Holmes.

“He spoke of the Black experience, and he was not blinded by the institution,” Mr. Whitner said in an interview. “Some people don’t have to get Julian, but I get Julian because in years I haven’t gotten people.”

Last summer Mr. Gaines had his first solo performance, “Painting the Blueprint,” at the Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects gallery in Lower Manhattan. In September, “Benji,” his monochromatic rendering of Ben Wilson, a top basketball prospect killed in his Chicago neighborhood at age 17 in 1984, sold for more than $ 20,000 at a Phillips charity auction.

Mr. Gaines was born on the Southeast Side of Chicago and grew up in a building owned by his great-grandfather, Gladys Pelt. Her mother, Pamela Robinson, still lives there. An image of the building was printed on Mr.’s right wrist. Gaines.

He was born in a town and a world where Michael Jordan, whose Nike Air Jordans have become a staple of streetwear, is everywhere. As a child, Mr. Gaines loved Nike, but he only got one in a year – mostly Nike Air Force 1s. He began expressing himself artistically at the age of 13, when he painted his Nike to camouflage the devastation. In high school she kept it up, dressing up in classmates ’sneakers and T-shirts, sometimes with a fee.

He is also closely involved with Trinity United Church of Christ, where a young politician, Barack Obama, is a constant presence. The rise of Mr. Obama’s presidency helped Mr. Gaines view history as something beyond abstraction.

“My church family were really the first people to let me know I could be a good artist,” he said. “I remember being in the room when Barack Obama was in the early part of his campaign. Just going there and looking at things really laid a foundation for my work.

In 2010, he accepted a partial scholarship to play football at Northern Michigan University. He thinks he has a shot at making it to the National Football League, and he finds himself following in the footsteps of Ernie Barnes, a pro football player and artist who was regularly fined during his career for sketching when he have to practice. Mr. Barnes went on to make more than $ 100,000 a year from his art, after his retirement from the NFL His painting “The Sugar Shack” appeared as a cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album “I Want You” and as pictured during the sequel to the credits of the 1970s CBS sitcom “Good Times.”

The injuries put an end to Mr. Gaines ’desire to be a pro. So he focused on his art. “I see what it means to be a real student and not an athlete,” he said. “In college your time is monopoly if you’re an athlete. I’m so grateful for that injury.”

An elderly classmate offered to buy one of his paintings for $ 300. Her pastor and family members have bought her artwork before, but this is the first time someone with no clear interest in her success has become a patron.

After graduation, he returned to his great -grandfather’s place and used the garden apartment as a place to make art. “I want to paint myself from there,” he said in his studio, before taking a joint.

In 2016, prior to the legalization of marijuana in Illinois, he was arrested at a traffic stop after a police officer said he smelled marijuana. During the short time he was in custody, he decided to leave his home state. “I can’t be as creative as I would like to live in a place where my freedom is taken away from me because of my smelling,” she said.

Nike, with its headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., Caught his attention. He moved to Portland in 2017 and regularly visits the Beaverton complex, walking seven miles there and back and meeting in the cafeteria anyone who sees him. In his studio he keeps a sneaker box full of 80 guest badges from the days.

“You should have returned those badges,” he said. “Most people don’t know who I am. I know three people who work at Nike, and they are not in any position to give me a job. ”

While trying to join the company in some way, he built a reputation as a sneaker artist by selling his embellished versions of the Nike Air Force 1 to his Instagram followers. Nike hired him as a freelance designer to create a collection especially for people in the creative fields.

“What I brought with me was Nike, and they’re very good to believe, shoes for making,” Mr. Gaines said. “It’s a shoe that covers me up, where I’m comfortable and can stand in the shoe all day.”

He worked on two Nike models, the 1982 Nike Sky Force ¾ and 1985 Nike Air Vortex, and called the collection Game Worn. It was released by Nike, in limited edition at a Chicago store, in 2018. Since then, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have been seen wearing his creations. As part of the sneaker release, Mr. Gaines led a week -long workshop, supported by Nike, that included art classes at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago.

“I want to do something for the kids in my community,” Mr. Gaines said. “A lot of times Chicago kids live so far away from where people do these events that they can’t pay $ 50 or risk their lives riding public transportation to get to the North Side.”

Now she’s focused on her art as she prepares for a solo show set for August at the Russo Lee Gallery in Portland.

“He did it his own way,” Gardy St. Fleur, a curator who advises National Basketball Association players on their art collections. “It’s raw and it’s real.”

Mr. Whitner, the art collector, thought there might be something lacking in Mr. Whitner’s work. Gaines-and that once he knows this, his drawings will be even more interesting.

“I don’t think Julian has allowed himself to be vulnerable,” Mr. Whitner said. “I don’t even think Julian has regained his feelings about leaving Chicago. And I’m curious to see how it looks in his work once he starts to restore feelings.

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