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Nick Davis has a quiet, patient air about him. When speaking — which he’s had to do a lot lately — he seems to understand that his “job” these days includes explaining how a young artist from the black neighborhoods of St. Pete creates such stunningly beautiful images.
Recently Davis has gained a lot of attention for his striking digital images — the glorious expressiveness of his vantablack subjects have grabbed and held captive a growing audience of fans. He’s even started to get commissions to bring his skills to family portraits.
With nearly 10,000 followers amassed on his Instagram page, NDArtlife, Davis is an example of a new crop of artists whose work melds long-held spiritually and politically empowering messages disseminated through the digital ethersphere.
The page reveals the bulk of his ever-growing collection, along with his artistic statement:
The influence of painter Kerry James Marshall, one of Davis’ favorites, is obvious — his subjects’ ebony black skin echoes Marshall’s trademark use of the same uncut black in his work over the decades.
But the similarities stop there. The sharpness of Davis’ digital art, the intense focus on the large, bright eyes, almost geometric angles and perfect curves to hair, hats, and jewelry — and the splashes of color in his subjects’ fashion-forward attire — brings a joy that is easier to find.
Indeed, if Marshall’s black is dense and heavy, Davis’ black, while sometimes haunting, feels almost mischievous, lighthearted, whimsical in his use of ultra-rich sable skin-tones. Davis’ clothing and ornaments always add a dash of pleasure for the viewer:
A haloed Shirley Chisholm looking stylish in gold earrings, a black turtleneck and white coat. Painter Kerry James Marshall, one of his heroes, in a jaunty maroon cap as a painter applies even more black on his velvety skin. A monarch butterfly perched on the long silver hair of a grandmother in a red neck-scarf, a ladybug adding a dash of color on her forest green sweater.
“I’ve always been inspired by people like Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley,” acknowledges Davis regarding the artists who’ve sparked his interest. “And I’ve been intrigued by finding my own style.”
He is often inspired by music. “I start off with a song in my head, I listen to music while I draw — and different ideas flow.
“I want to encourage people with my art — show them black is beautiful.” Starting as soon as he wakes up and drawing into the evening, Davis creates up to 15 new works a week.
Davis credits his wife, Tiffany LaRae Davis, for both gifting him the iPad that set him on the path to his prolific level of production — and inspiring some of his subjects’ striking and memorable hairstyles.
“My wife is a hairstylist, so that’s always a reminder on the side,” he chuckles. “But I’m big on natural hair. I always try to show different Afrocentric hairstyles. I’m big on being yourself — you don’t have to cover it up with makeup, with wigs. You can just be yourself. If people don’t accept who you are — that’s them.”
Undoubtedly, Davis’s philosophical composure comes from his own personal struggles. Raised in a family of artists, he was prone to anxiety and depression. After he began experiencing seizures a few years ago, stuck at home and unable to work, the iPad — and the creativity it encouraged — was a blessing.
While he had been drawing since he was a child, the art form took on a new vitality and importance once it became the only way for him to deal with his new reality of being homebound twenty-four-seven.
“With my drawings, it’s a way for me to express a lot I can’t say, as a person who deals with depression and anxiety,” Davis acknowledges.
Whatever pain or depression Davis experiences, the beauty and joy in his paintings are what “speak” the loudest. Whether they display a black man in tears, an elegantly dressed woman or a spunky schoolgirl with pigtails — each work is filled with an immediacy and a life that seems to reach beyond the confines of the image.
It might be the eyes. “Usually it starts off with the eyes — I know they’re going to be looking at [the viewer] or they’re going to be telling a story,” the 28-year-old artist explains. “And I go for an almond shaped eye, or a wide-eye, that connects more with the person [looking at it].”
Almost as exciting as the hairstyles of his subjects is the array of colors, fashions and looks Davis gives to each. Although he says he never thinks too hard about what his subjects will wear, he is aware that, while they all look different, they are all “representations of myself, in a sense.”
“If you see me, and you see my art — it’s almost like two different people,” Davis muses. “I’m just the guy who wears a black v-neck shirt every day with a ball cap. With my drawings, it’s a way for me to express what I can’t say. Or I draw different images of what want to be, or what I wish I could have portrayed.”
Another striking element is his use of halos. Sometimes they symbolize death, in the real. In other drawings, a halo clearly points out the danger, fear and sorrow surrounding those in his environment.
“With the halos, sometimes they are just representations of the lost generations,” he offers. “It’s the lost generation, a recognition of our own community and how we’re losing young people — we’re losing our own generation to violence, lack of education, and lack of love.”
Davis returns to the things he sees in the community that motivate him, and it’s clear there is an activist sentiment within his works as well. “I believe our community lacks mental health [awareness],” says the artist, who attended Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School. “And I want to encourage people to let them know they’re not alone.” Among his dreams is to one day start an art school for youth.
He feels there is room for improvement in how those in the community treat each other. “I see people who are struggling, and I see them just wanting to change their life. With art, especially in St. Pete, I feel like black artists and black people who want to use their creativity are limited by discouragement.”
Davis says his art has given him a sense of freedom, and an ability to not care what others say — and that’s an important mentality for him to keep — because his choice to portray his subjects with truly black skin has occasionally caused negative comments. “I have to stay positive, and remember my mission is to let people know that black is beautiful.”
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