Brush with success
When Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe would go to the movies growing up in Accra, Ghana, he was most fascinated by ... the paintings.
Theaters in Ghana employed artists to paint scenes from films being shown that week as a form of advertisement. The artists would take the most exciting moments from the films and add their own style to the hand-painted posters. Often, the artists worked on their latest piece in the lobby of the theater.
Seeing those hand-drawn creations sparked something artistic in Quaicoe.
"I was always mesmerized seeing people who draw, watching them paint scenes from movies," he said.
That fascination blossomed into a lifelong passion for Quaicoe, who cultivated his artistic talents in Ghana before moving to Gresham a little more than a year ago.
While he works across a variety of mediums, Quaicoe has become best known for his powerful portraits. He paints people he meets — friends, family — and he also does self-portraits.
His subjects depend on the theme he is working on. He has painted about politics, homeless children, women, nudity, obesity, hairstyles, race — and even more unique topics. He was one of a few artists selected for a UNICEF exhibition in Accra meant to raise awareness of open defecating in Africa.
Right now, the 30-year-old is painting a series on freckles, diving into perceived imperfections and what makes people unique.
"Not everyone feels confident about themselves, but you shouldn't be ashamed of who you are," he said. "When I first came (to Gresham), I learned that people are more ashamed of bodies and how they look."
Quaicoe also is creating a series based on racial issues and the connections between people who may look different on the surface. "Blackish" features portraits of people he has met around the world.
"I am portraying people I have encountered, who they are," Quaicoe said. "Put images of black people on canvas and showing the courage and uniqueness of that person."
Coming to Oregon
Spurred by those movie posters, Quaicoe first started sketching when he was 11 years old. His first drawings were of landscapes, inspired by the beautiful scenery surrounding his hometown. Quaicoe lived a short walk from the beach, so often he found himself drawing with his feet in the sand.
Art was something new within his family, though they always supported his interests. His father even takes some credit for his son's talents.
"My dad used to tell me he would draw in school and was the best," Quaicoe said with a laugh.
Wanting to continue to grow as an artist, Quaicoe attended the Ghanatta College of Art & Design, where he received a bachelor's degree in fine art. In school he found a passion for photography, which led to painting portraits.
"In the photos of people there was an intensity," he noted. "I wanted to bring it to the canvas."
Most of his work is done in acrylic, though he also paints with oil. Early in his career in Ghana, his art was entered into several shows. It was during one of Ghana's biggest art festivals where he met his wife, a photographer from Oregon. She was the reason he moved to the United States in 2017.
"She had visited Ghana twice, so it was my turn to move," Quaicoe said. "Being here is like starting all over. I am getting connected to local artist communities."
In Gresham, Quaicoe paints in a small studio he set up in his garage, but during the winter months he retreats to a corner of the much warmer kitchen.
So far his work has been displayed multiple times in the Gresham City Hall Art Gallery, most recently as part of the 2018 "Agony & Ecstasy" show. A member of the Gresham Art Committee, he helmed a booth during last year's Gresham Arts Festival.
"It's not about where you paint," he said, "but what comes out of the studio."
Butterflies and blossoms
As Quaicoe paints his subjects, he likes to hear their life stories. One friend shared his struggles when he first moved to America.
The friend went to a school that had only three black students and was bullied because of his skin color. Even at those lowest moments, his friend was able to rise above it and is now an accomplished model. When Quaicoe painted his portrait, he added a flower to show how his friend had blossomed.
"I never used to like portrait painting because it was just a person," Quaicoe noted. "But you can show a story. They talk about people's journeys, struggles and fears — but also their courage."
Quaicoe likes to include images and backgrounds, like the flower, to help illustrate those stories. One of his favorite things is to surround his black subjects with butterflies. The incorporation illustrates how they felt unwanted and alone when they were young: pushed aside as useless caterpillars, then growing into beautiful, beloved butterflies.
Often his subjects are his friends or people he has met online. When he paints the portrait, he said he focuses on their eyes because they reveal the most about them.
Quaicoe's advice to young artists is to find their passion. For him, art is a release. When he feels stressed, he paints.
"You have to be ready for criticism," he said. "Explore, and go for it when you have an idea."
Quaicoe has experienced ups and downs in his career and faced plenty of criticism as an artist. Most of it has been constructive, though occasionally he gets strange responses to his art.
"One guy asked, 'Why do you paint black people?'" Quaicoe said with a smile. "I was surprised, but not bothered by it."
"They have stories people want to hear."
Otis the Artist
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