In 2016 painter Jeremy Okai Davis changed directions. The election of Donald Trump and news reports on multiple deaths of African American men at the hands of police had an impact.

Davis needed his painting to help him process the wave of emotions he was experiencing. But he also wanted his paintings to be “a response to help others. So I did a body of work that kind of highlighted Black faces.”

In addition to highlighting what was happening in the world, he also wanted his paintings to “show a positivity for people of color,” Davis said. “Young people of color is what I thought about a lot. If they were to see people that look like them in galleries, a certain amount of positivity would spawn from that.”

Four years later, in the wake of  George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, Davis’ work has a new, and not so new, resonance. He posted some of that earlier work on Instagram, “a day after, I think it was Wednesday,” Davis said. “And it felt good that I could put those works back out and people would respond to them. But it’s also unfortunate that they’re still necessary. They still touch on the same things that we were dealing with in 2015, 2016.”

Jeremy Okai Davis with his work-in-progress portrait of civil rights activist Pauli Murray at his Portland, Ore., studio on June 8, 2020.

Jeremy Okai Davis with his work-in-progress portrait of civil rights activist Pauli Murray at his Portland, Ore., studio on June 8, 2020.

Eric Slade/OPB

Davis is encouraged by the protests he’s witnessed in the weeks since George Floyd’s death.

“Some of the images that I’ve seen have just made me feel really good. Being able to see people on TV all over the country standing for the same thing is really important,” Davis said.

But he’s cautious, too, having seen protest movements come and go in the past.

“After things kind of fizzle and die down a little bit, I want that same protest energy to come home with a person in to their grandfather’s house or talk to their children about what they saw,” he said. “It just needs to stay consistent.”

New work by Jeremy Okai Davis will be featured in an August group show at Stephanie Chefas Projects and in a solo show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in October.