Fresh out of art school in North Carolina in 2002 Jeremy Okai Davis wanted to book a show, but he knew he needed a body of work and a style all his own. So he grabbed the only thing he had – a bunch of portraits he’d taken of friends on a simple digital camera. He printed them out on his dad’s computer, then blew them up so he could paint them.
And when he blew them up he saw something new: hundreds of pixels; the greens, blues and reds that make up skin tones. Instead of trying to blend those colors back into a smooth, even flesh tone, he emphasized these colorful pixels in a modern take on pointillistic painting. And he created a style all his own.
His pixelated approach gives him a chance to explore the bold, graphic style of his art school heroes Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. But it’s also his attempt to unify people. No matter what the skin tone of his subjects, the pixels show a commonality. “We’re all kind of built with the same material,” Jeremy said.
His new body of work did lead to shows, and for many years a steady gig creating cover art for American Songwriter magazine with portraits of artists like Tom Petty, Blind Boy Fuller, and Taylor Swift.
Since moving to Portland in 2007 he’s had plenty of group and solo shows around town, including an impressive solo effort at P:ear Gallery titled, An Education. The show was his response to both the 2016 presidential election, and the shootings of young unarmed black men.
“It was like self-investigation,” Davis said. “It’s a long form self-portrait without an actual portrait of myself. In that show, there’s pieces of my father holding my big brother. There’s a painting of my mom and my big brother and my sister together. The show ended up being just 10 paintings of different elements that basically fed me as a person.”
Most recently he completed The Presence of Color, through the Stumptown Artist Fellowship program. The show explores the Kodak Shirley Card, the iconic female image used to gauge color in early photography and film. But until the 1970s, the Shirley Card only showed white women.
“So I thought that it would be really interesting to do some research on that idea,” Davis said, “but also end up doing these paintings that I see as basically black Shirley cards.” His six large paintings, drawn from the pages of Jet and Hue magazines, celebrate everyday people who were often featured on the magazines’ covers.
These days Davis is immersed in research, looking for images and ideas that jump off the page at him, just as he wants his work to jump off the canvas for his viewers. And he’s enjoying the steady growth of his career as a painter.
He recalled wisdom from his friend Seth Avett, of Avett Brothers fame. Seth repeated advice he’d heard about his own trajectory: “This isn’t going to be a rocket ship. This ride is going to be more like a hot air balloon. It’s going to be slow, but you’re going to be able to enjoy the scenes and the sights.”