Philly painter heads to big-time art expo

Posted: January 15, 2014

YOU HAVE to respect a man who's about his hustle. I'm talking about the kind of guy who's not too cute to pick up a broom if that's what it takes to make things happen.

Take, for instance, Oronde Kairi Johnson. From midnight until 7 a.m., he's responsible for keeping things clean outside an office building at 15th and Market streets, even in subzero temperatures. This menial labor, the likes of which a whole lot of people think they're too good to do, provides him with pocket money to finance his real profession as an up-and-coming artist.

A prolific painter who graduated from the University of the Arts in 2003, Johnson, 38, describes his artistic style as "stylized realism."

One of his best-received prints, "In Daddy's Hands," shows an African-American father sitting on a stoop fixing his daughter's hair. Johnson also has done portraits of rapper Rick Ross, aviator Charles Lindbergh, jazz great Miles Davis and pop legend Michael Jackson. For Christmas, I bought a giclee reproduction of Johnson's portrait of the late Nelson Mandela. An original can go as high as $7,000 but prints as low as $20.

I'm no art connoisseur, but his work reminds me of the elongated images created by the late, legendary artist Ernie Barnes.

Keep an eye on this guy.

Johnson is definitely on the come up, as they say. He has a 2014 calendar out showcasing his work, and the New York Art Expo recently invited him to show his work to art buyers from around the world on April 4. Johnson, who paints under the name Oronde Kairi, two weeks ago launched an online fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.com to raise $6,000 to showcase his art to its best advantage.

It has taken him years to get good enough and to have the right inventory to show. The only thing standing between him and the expo is money to pay for lighting, transportation and other related costs.

"The whole concept of doing this show is, you've got to go where the people are," he told me last week.

By people he means art buyers. The kind with deep pockets who won't try and haggle with him over the price of a $50 print.

Early brushstrokes

The son of a correctional officer and a stay-at-home mom who lived in Mount Airy, Johnson's artistic talents began to emerge at about age 10. He was that kid with stacks of loose-leaf paper containing sketches of Transformers and Scooby-Doo.

He began getting serious about art after meeting Dawud Anyabwile (then known as David J.A. Sims), the creator of the groundbreaking "Brother Man" comics series and the owner of a now-defunct comic-book store on Washington Lane called Big City Comics World Headquarters. When Anyabwile organized art classes, Johnson was the first to sign up.

"He met him and got so involved in the arts by looking at his comic books and David had so much patience teaching him," recalled Oronde's mother, Dianne Johnson.

While attending William Penn High School, Johnson also took illustration classes on Saturdays at Moore College of Art & Design.

After graduating in 1994, he held menial jobs and briefly considered following his father's advice to join the military. Johnson spent a few years at the Art Institute of Philadelphia before transferring to the University of the Arts. His major was illustration, but his true passion was painting.

"For me, knowing how to paint and making it realistic, that meant you were an artist - even though that's not true, that was my thinking," Johnson recalled.

After graduating in 2003, he continued to take classes, including one taught by famed portrait artist Marvin Mattelson at New York City's School of Visual Arts.

These days, Johnson has a considerable inventory. When I visited his makeshift studio in the basement of his mother's cozy Mount Airy rowhouse last week, there were oil paintings casually stacked up against one another all around the space.

My eyes had a hard time deciding where to land. I'd look in one direction, only to be distracted by another image across the room. After spending a few hours there, my favorite painting wound up being an oversized canvas featuring several people in vintage swimwear, called "Two by the Hips." An old sepia-toned family photograph plucked from an album showing long-deceased relatives served as his inspiration.

As I pointed out earlier, I'm not an art expert. But Brother Man's Anyabwile is, and he also is a fan. When he saw "Two by the Hips," he told Johnson, "Man, you're getting crazy with it. That's drawing from your soul."

"I came to Philly recently and I saw the work in his basement and I was blown away," Anyabwile added. "I said, 'You are doing it, man. Keep it up.' "

Johnson has come this far, so there's no stopping him now, especially since the only thing standing between him and the New York Art Expo is about $5,000.

To contribute - and come away with some artwork - find the campaign at http://ph.ly/kairi.

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