Urban lifestyle and the African American experience inspire the work of this South Side-born artist
Chicago-born artist Paul Branton’s work would brighten the walls of any space lucky enough to be graced with it. Even in our spacious, light-soaked 5000 sq. ft. art gallery in Wicker Park, it inserts a bold pop of color to the nook where it hangs.
From a distance, you see one story, which is often a livelier take on black and white portraits we’ve seen over the years. A re-imagination of a famous photo of Miles Davis with a horn, his hand held in the air as though it just flicked away a cigarette. A mixed media version of a headshot of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Then there are the less famous subjects, such as a couple, looking forlorn and exhausted, leaning against one another for support. But as you zoom in more closely to each piece, a deeper story unfolds.
“I am a storyteller at heart,” he said. “So I invite a viewer to look closer and examine – then re-examine later to find other layers of meaning.”
The longer you look at Branton’s pieces, the more you learn about his subjects.
“When creating figurative work, I approach my art in two distinct ways: first is very traditional in composition, line, forms, shapes, contrast, etc,” he said. “Other-times, I find that particular figures need more context because their figure and being tell a larger story than their flesh.”
Inspiration from other artists
His work spans a wide-range of subjects that embody the African-American experience in America. There’s a young black girl apparently in front of a chalkboard, with birth certificates and slave papers layered in the background. There’s rappers, hip-hops artists, jazz musicians, a former president. He’s even dabbled in abstract art. Even then, you see the unmistakeable powerful and fearless colors of Branton’s brush.
“Although we do not express ourselves in the same genre, I pull so much from their artistic practice and work,” Branton said.
When you see a Branton piece, you are getting a peek into the art that has mattered to him over the course of his life.
“When I choose a subject matter in terms of portraiture, more times than not it’s a figure that either inspires me or has great importance in this vast journey,” Branton said. “I rarely draw or paint anything that I don’t have a personal connection to.”
This drive to depict deep and layered pieces forces the wheels of Branton’s mind to be forever in motion. He’s in the habit of working on multiple pieces at once, leading to many sleepless nights.
“I hardly sleep, which is extremely unhealthy. And that’s not to say I’m creating art 24/7, but my mind never takes a moment to pause,” he said. “I’m always thinking of what to add to current pieces and what is needed on future pieces. I’m never working on one piece at a time.”
For Branton, the hard work pays off when he someone connects with his work. It’s never intentional of course, never the goal to inspire someone in particular. But nevertheless, it happens. Often he inspires young artists, but there’s also those random people in the universe who connect with his work on a deep, personal level.
“It always amazes me when people tell me what a painting means to them and express ideas that I never thought of during the creative process. As if my body was a vessel to create something that uniquely speaks to that one person in the world.”
And because of that, the work continues.
“I’m juggling my personal art, commissions, murals and family. It seems like an infinite cycle,” he said. “And in this cycle I have to make sure my art is staying at a certain level and not regressing.”