In a cavernous study of a weed farm in Forest Grove, Oregon, halfway between Portland and Tillamook State Forest, Julian Gaines, an artist born and raised in Chicagoland, is creating a work dedicated to northern black life. -americana.
He starts his workday at 9 a.m. and goes on until the job 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 represent roughly 2% of the population. according to the United States Census Bureau.
“I can’t complain about an environment I’m in, but I’m not really trying to change it,” Mr. Gaines, 30, who left Illinois in 2016. “I went out here and saw that Oregon is culturally inept. It’s identical to a blank canvas. I think, ‘How can I leave my lasting mark here?’ How do I plant my pan-African flag? How do I paint Oregon Black? “
One recent afternoon, his studio was filled with the sounds of a Chicago classmate, Curtis Mayfield. An American flag occupied part of a 30-foot wall. Mr. Gaines raised the flag to reveal two raw paintings that appeared to represent lynchings. They were part of a recent series, “Under the Flag.” On the other side of the room was a 14-foot-wide canvas called “Best Timing.” It showed the face of Emmett Till, the black boy from Chicago who was lynched at the age of 14 while visiting Mississippi in one of the most brutal hate crimes of the last century.
Mr. Gaines received widespread attention in 2020, when his series “KAREN (S)” appeared on the cover of New York magazine. It was Pop Art with a political advantage: a bold image of a white woman holding a phone to her ear, her stern expression, a tear running down her cheek. He recalled a series of incidents involving women who had called police about black spectators: a bird watcher, a man entering his apartment building, an 8-year-old boy selling water.
“KAREN (S)” owes something to an experience that Mr. Gaines, after a neighbor damaged his car two years ago, he said. When he asked the neighbor, a white woman, to provide him with insurance information, he threatened to call the police and report him for elder abuse, he said. As she approached him, stripping him and pressing a finger to his chest, he taped her with his phone. Once the police arrived, Mr. Gaines was able to show them the pictures on his screen. The neighbor eventually confessed to police that she had caused damage to the car, and officers left shortly after.
“If I didn’t have this video, who knows what might have happened?” said Mr. Gaines.
After the incident, the woman sent Mr. Gaines apologized, “I’m sorry for my actions and my neighbor’s behavior,” he wrote. The note is hanging in his study.
Mr. Gaines has key support for art collector James Whitner, CEO of the Whitaker Group, the company behind the fashion brands A Ma Maniere, Social Status and APB. The works of Mr. Gaines, such as “KAREN (S),” appear in Mr. Whitner in North Carolina, along with paintings and sculptures by KAWS, Nina Chanel Abney and Jammie Holmes.
“He’s talking about the black experience and he’s not blinded by the institution,” Whitner said in an interview. “Some people don’t necessarily understand Julian, but I understand Julian because for years people didn’t understand me.”
Last summer, Mr. Gaines had his first solo exhibition, “Painting the Blueprint,” at the Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects Gallery in Lower Manhattan. In September, “Benji,” his monochrome rendition of Ben Wilson, a great basketball prospect who was murdered in his Chicago neighborhood at the age of 17 in 1984, sold for more than $ 20,000 at a Phillips charity auction.
Mr. Gaines was born in southeast Chicago and grew up in a building owned by his great-grandmother, Gladys Pelt. His mother, Pamela Robinson, still lives there. An image of the building is tattooed on the right wrist of Mr. Gaines.
He was born in a city and a world where Michael Jordan, whose Nike Air Jordans had become a staple of streetwear, was everywhere. As a child, Mr. Gaines loved Nike, but only had one a year, usually Nike Air Force 1. He began to express himself artistically at age 13, when he painted his Nikes to camouflage wear. He stayed in high school, decorating his classmates’ shoes and T-shirts, sometimes paying a fee.
He was also deeply involved in the United Trinity Church of Christ, where a young politician, Barack Obama, was a frequent presence. Obama’s rise to the presidency helped Gaines see history as nothing more than an abstraction.
“My church family was really the first people to let me know that I could be a great artist,” he said. “I remember being in the room when Barack Obama was in the early stages of his campaign. Just being there and seeing these things really laid the groundwork for my work.”
In 2010, he accepted a part-time scholarship to play football at Northern Michigan University. He thought he had a chance to reach the National Football League and found himself following in the footsteps of Ernie Barnes, a professional football player and artist who was often fined during his career for drawing when he should have been. in practice. Mr. Barnes earned more than $ 100,000 a year with his art, following his retirement from the NFL. His painting “The Sugar Shack” appeared as the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album “I Want You” and as the image shown during the credits sequence of the 1970s CBS sitcom “Good Times “.
The injuries put an end to Mr. Gaines to be professional. So he focused on his art. “I saw what it means to be a real student and not an athlete,” he said. “In college, your time is monopolized if you are an athlete. I am very grateful for this injury. “
An older classmate offered to buy one of his paintings for $ 300. Her pastor and family had bought her artwork before, but this was the first time anyone without a clear interest in her success had become a patron.
After graduating, he returned to his great-grandmother’s house and used the garden apartment as a place to make art. “I wanted to paint myself out there,” he told his studio, before dragging a portion.
In 2016, prior to the legalization of marijuana in Illinois, he was arrested during a traffic stop after a police officer said he smelled marijuana. During the brief time he was detained, he decided to leave his home state. “I can’t be as creative as I want to be in an area where I was taken away because of the way I smell,” he said.
Nike, which is headquartered in Beaverton, Ore., Appeared a lot in his thoughts. In 2017 he moved to Portland and made regular visits to the Beaverton complex, walking seven miles back and forth and meeting in the cafeteria with whom he would see him. In his studio he keeps a box of sneakers full of 80 visitors’ insignia from that time.
“You’re supposed to return those badges,” he said. “Most people didn’t know who I was. I knew three people who worked at Nike and weren’t in a position to hire me.”
While trying to join the company in some way, he was building a reputation as a sneaker artist by selling his embellished versions of Nike Air Force 1 to his Instagram followers. Nike hired him as a freelance designer to create a collection especially for people in creative fields.
“What I wore to Nike, and they were so kind of believing, were shoes to create,” Mr. Gaines. “This is a shoe that embodies me, where I can feel comfortable and be with the shoe all day.”
He worked with two Nike models, the 1982 Nike Sky Force ¾ and the 1985 Nike Air Vortex, and named the Game Worn collection. Nike launched it, in a limited edition in a Chicago store, in 2018. Since then, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have been seen showing off their creations. As part of the launch of the sneakers, Mr. Gaines led a one-week workshop, with the support of Nike, which included art classes at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago.
“I wanted to do something for the kids in my community,” Mr. Gaines. “Many times Chicago kids live so far away from where people do these events that they can’t afford $ 50 or risk their lives on public transportation to get to the North Side.”
He is now focusing on his art as he prepares for a solo exhibition scheduled for August at the Russo Lee Gallery in Portland.
“He’s doing it his way,” Gardy St. said. 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, believes that something may be missing from Mr. Gaines, and once you find out, your paintings can be even more interesting.
“I don’t think Julian has allowed himself to be vulnerable,” Whitner said. “I don’t even think Julian has reconciled his feelings about coming from Chicago. And I’m curious to see how this is shown in his work once he begins to really reconcile those feelings.”