Stumptown Artist Fellowship: Jeremy Okai Davis

Nov 08, 2019

Jeremy Okai Davis is the latest recipient of the Stumptown Artist Fellowship program. Davis’s solo exhibition, The Presence of Color, is on view at the Downtown Portland café from September 12th through November 13th, 2019.

In this collection of large paintings, Davis uses the history of "Shirley cards" as a vehicle for the exploration of racial bias and cultural injustices. Shirley cards were used as a visual reference for calibration of skin tones during film processing starting in the 50s. The typically solitary Caucasian female depicted the “standard” for skin-color balancing. As a result, disregard was shown toward darker complexions being photographed. This bias serves as a platform for Davis’ recent work and as a microcosm of a wider prejudice in the world at large.

Davis has employed his signature drips and pointillistic approach in an attempt to propagate a more inclusive narrative. In juxtaposing everyday African American women of the era with public figures and more recognizable subjects, he hopes to adjust the focus of the past. The bold graphics and color bars of the Shirley cards make appearances, but are also filtered through the lens of Davis’s aesthetic. In The Presence of Color, the strong gazes of Davis’s subjects attempt to make a case for inclusion.

The Fellowship's curator, May Barruel of Nationale, interviewed the artist.

May Barruel: Jeremy, until November 13th we will be showing your newest series of work, The Presence of Color, as part of the Stumptown Artist Fellowship at our Downtown café in Portland. Can you tell us a little bit more about how and why you started working on these large portraits?

Jeremy Okai Davis: As a pastime photographer the history of it has always interested me. I'm not sure when it was but at some point I came across "Shirley cards." They were cards used by Kodak in house to calibrate for skin tones. At the time, the standard they used was a fair skinned Caucasian women. With that in mind I've been interested in exploring that and in essence doing a little course correcting.

Shirley card, 1978.Courtesy of Hermann Zschiegner

MJB: I love that you featured both well known African-American figures, such as Angela Davis and Shirley Chisholm, and anonymous women as well. What was your process like choosing your subjects and what were you hoping your audience would get from seeing this wide range of portraits?

JOD: When I started creating this body of work I knew that I wanted to prop up people whose voices have been unheard, namely African-Americans but more specifically Black women. Using the Shirley cards was the vehicle for doing this. When doing research I noticed that some of the early Johnson Publishing magazines like Jet, Tan & Hue would feature everyday people on the covers so I wanted to juxtapose them with Angela & Shirley to make the viewers think about who they are looking at a little more intently. Also, the woman used on the Shirley cards were somewhat anonymous so I wanted to play with that idea, too.

Jeremy Okai Davis, Metering, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

MJB: These new portraits are very much in line with your earlier works. Upon seeing the pointillism, the drips, the fractured background, if one is familiar with your style, one immediately knows that these paintings are yours. Yet, I've noticed a few details that felt very new to me, less controlled, more abstract. Can you tell us more about your process in the studio, your approach to paint itself? I'm also curious about the kind of pressure you put on yourself as an artist to not keep doing the same thing. I would think that being mostly a portraitist can be daunting in that regard. How do you keep finding new ways to represent people?

JOD: A lot to break down in that question. I love the history of painting and I'm forever influenced by it, so some of the loosening up in the backgrounds on these paintings came as a sort of sly and sometimes not so sly homage to Abstract Expressionism and pre-Pop artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. I was looking at images from the late 50's and 60's, so I wanted to insert some art history references to that time. When in the studio and not working on the more representational elements in my paintings, I love seeing what the paint does when you add in a little chance. In turn that typically influences the approach to the portraits and more straightforward parts of the pieces. It can get a little daunting and challenging to just do portraits but honestly, even if I describe myself as a portrait artist, a lot of the times the portraits are just a vehicle for story telling. So if I have a message to convey, the subjects are just used to service that. So the idea is paramount: if I feel like it is strong enough and if I'm excited enough about it, the process never gets stale for me.

Jeremy Okai Davis, Dufay, 2019, acrylic and oil on canvas, 54 x 54 inches

MJB: I know you have a dedicated studio practice and are also very present on social media, where you share not only finished pieces, but also works in progress and scenes from your studio. How do you reconcile with the "business" of being an artist when it takes you away from precious time in the studio. How much do you think that aspect of an art career dictate successes?

JOD: I personally love seeing other artists' processes and WIPs. It sort of removes the veil of creating a painting or artwork. 9 times of 10 my paintings early on are at a stage that I wouldn't want to share with anyone but there is sort of a relief in letting go and showing them. For me it's sort of an exhale that allows me to say "ok, that stage is complete, let's really get into this." These days, social media and creating for a lot of artist are 1a and 1b. It sounds kind of dirty to say it out loud but that doesn't make it untrue. I attempt to keep them separate and not let "likes" influence what I do, I've done pretty good at it but it's pretty hard not to let it slip its way into your mind. So long as you're attempting to be authentic with the work and what you post, I think that comes through, and that's all that matters at the end of the day.

MJB: Over the past eight years that I've known you, I would say that you are hands down one of the most supportive artists in town: you always go see other people's shows, you give shout-outs on your Tumblr — which seems entirely dedicated to sharing other people's work — and Instagram feed, you often exchange studio visits with your peers. Can you share with us what you learn through this, how that approach has served you as an artist?

JOD: Since college I've loved sitting with artists or visiting studios. After college I went on a school trip to New York and we visited Arnold Mesches's studio. At the time I enjoyed it and found value in it but it's only recently that I've been able to look back at that experience of, again, the veil being removed and that I realized how paramount it was in my growth as an artist. In a way it levels the playing field and humanizes the paintings we see in galleries that are "finished products." You get to see the hand, the splatters, the false starts and some of the tricks. It's inspirational. On top of visiting studios, going to the art shows of peers just feels like what we're supposed to do as artists. Offer support, feed others and be fed, it's a give and take like everything in this world. I genuinely enjoy it and have always wanted to lift others up and do whatever I can to spread the word of art and people I believe in, hence the Tumblr page. I've been posting about other artists for years. If I find something that inspires me it feels selfish to not in turn share that with others.

To see what inspires Davis, check out his amazing Tumblr, This Looks Okay, which will turn 10 next month!