Julian Gaines has a question: “How do I paint Oregon black?”
In a cavernous studio on a weed farm in Forest Grove, Oregon, halfway between Portland and the Tillamook State Forest, Chicagoland-born and raised artist Julian Gaines creates a body of work dedicated to living black Americans.
He starts his workday at 9 a.m. and continues 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 about 2% of the population, according to the United States Census Bureau.
“I can’t complain about an environment I’m in without trying to change it,” said Mr. Gaines, 30, who moved from Illinois in 2016. “I come out here and see that the “Oregon is culturally inept. It’s like a blank canvas. I’m thinking, ‘How can I leave 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 sounds of fellow Chicagoan Curtis Mayfield. An American flag occupied part of a 30-foot wall. Mr Gaines raised the flag to reveal two austere paintings which appeared to depict lynchings. They were part of a recent series, “Under the Flag”. On the other side of the room was a 14-foot-wide canvas titled “Better Timing.” It showed the face of Emmett Till, the black boy from Chicago who was lynched at age 14 while visiting Mississippi in one of the most brutal hate crimes of the last century.
Mr. Gaines caught the eye in 2020, when his “KAREN (S)” series was featured on the cover of New York magazine. It was Pop Art with a political edge – a bold image of a white woman holding a phone to her ear, her expression stern, a tear rolling down her cheek. He referred to a series of incidents involving women who had called the police on black passers-by: a bird watcher, a man entering his apartment building, an 8-year-old child selling water.
‘KAREN(S)’ owes something to an experience Mr Gaines had after a neighbor damaged his car two years ago, he said. When he asked the neighbor, a white woman, for information about his insurance, she threatened to call the police and report him for elder abuse, he said. As she approached him, fuming and pressing a finger to her chest, he recorded her with his phone. Once the officers arrived, Mr. Gaines was able to show them the footage on his screen. The neighbor eventually admitted to the police that she had caused the damage to the car, and the officers left soon after.
“If I hadn’t had this video, who knows what might have happened?” said Mr. Gaines.
After the incident, the woman sent Mr. Gaines a note of apology: ‘I am sorry for my actions and inappropriate behavior,’ she wrote. The note hangs in his studio.
Mr Gaines has a key supporter in art collector James Whitner, the managing director of the Whitaker Group, the company behind fashion brands A Ma Maniere, Social Status and APB. Works by Mr. Gaines, including “KAREN(S)”, appear in Mr. Whitner’s home 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,” Mr. Whitner said in an interview. “Some people don’t necessarily understand Julian, but I get Julian because for years people didn’t understand me.”
Last summer, Mr. Gaines presented his first solo exhibition, “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 sale Phillips Charity Auction.
Mr. Gaines was born in southeast Chicago and grew up in an apartment building owned by his great-grandmother, Gladys Pelt. His mother, Pamela Robinson, still lives there. An image of the building is tattooed on Mr. Gaines’ right wrist.
He was born in a city and a world where Michael Jordan, whose Nike Air Jordans had become a streetwear staple, was everywhere. As a boy, Mr. Gaines loved Nikes, but he only got one pair a year, usually Nike Air Force 1s. He started expressing himself artistically at 13, when he painted his Nikes to camouflage wear. In high school, he persevered, decorating his classmates’ sneakers and T-shirts, sometimes for a fee.
He was also deeply involved with the Trinity United Church of Christ, where a young politician, Barack Obama, frequently attended. Mr. Obama’s rise to the presidency has helped Mr. Gaines see history as more than an abstraction.
“My church family was really the first person 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 partial scholarship to play football at Northern Michigan University. He thought he had a chance to make it to the National Football League, and he saw himself following the path of Ernie Barnes, a professional football player and artist who was often fined during his career. for drawing when he should have been in training. Mr. Barnes went on to earn more than $100,000 a year from his art after 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”.
Injuries ended Mr. Gaines’ dream of turning professional. So he concentrates on his art. “I got to see 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 really grateful for this injury.
An older classmate offered to buy one of his paintings for $300. Her pastor and family members had previously purchased her artwork, but this was the first time someone with no clear interest in her success had become a patron.
After graduating, he moved back to his great-grandmother’s house and used the apartment with the garden as a place for artistic creation. “I wanted to paint myself out of there,” he said in his studio, before taking a whiff of the joint.
In 2016, before marijuana was legalized in Illinois, he was pulled over during a traffic stop after a police officer said he smelled like marijuana. During the brief period of his detention, he decided to leave his home country. “I can’t be as creative as I would like living in an area where my freedom has been taken away from me because of my smell,” he said.
Nike, headquartered in Beaverton, Oregon, figured prominently in his thoughts. He moved to Portland in 2017 and made regular visits to the Beaverton compound, walking seven miles there and back and having cafeteria meetings with anyone who saw him. In his studio, he keeps a sneaker box filled with 80 visitor badges from the era.
“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 they weren’t able to give me a job.
While trying to join the company somehow, he was building 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 specifically for people in creative fields.
“What I brought to Nike, and they were kind enough to believe, are shoes to create,” Mr. Gaines said. “It’s a shoe that embodies me, where I can feel comfortable and stand in the shoe all day.”
He worked with two Nike models, the 1982 Nike Sky Force ¾ and the 1985 Nike Air Vortex, and called the collection Game Worn. Nike released it, in a limited edition at a Chicago boutique, in 2018. LeBron James and Russell Westbrook have since been spotted wearing his designs. As part of the sneaker release, Gaines led a week-long workshop, supported by Nike, that included art classes at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago.
“I wanted to do something for the kids in my community,” Mr. Gaines said. “Often Chicago kids live so far from where people are having these events that they can’t pay $50 or risk their lives taking public transportation to the North Side.”
Now he is focusing on his art as he prepares for a solo show scheduled for August at the Russo Lee Gallery in Portland.
“He does it his way,” said 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, thinks there may be something missing in Mr. Gaines’ work – and that once he gets it, his paintings could become even more interesting.
“I don’t think Julian allowed himself to be vulnerable,” Mr Whitner said. “I don’t even think Julian has reconciled his feelings about coming over from Chicago. And I’m curious to see how that manifests in his work once he starts to really reconcile those feelings.