Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on July 7, 2015. Some formatting and style changes were made since the original publication.
Jonathan McAfee made a big splash last summer with his What People Like About Me Is Indianapolis exhibit at Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. The show featured 15 portraits of Indy’s most famous author. Half of the paintings sold during the exhibit’s opening reception, and the rest sold within a couple of months afterward.
“I had painted him a few times, and people would buy him. He’s got a great look to him. He looks like a cartoon,” McAfee says. “Indianapolis, in general, is just really all for Vonnegut. They just really like Kurt.”
The success of his Vonnegut exhibit — his first sold-out show — gave McAfee the confidence to quit his job in PR at Bohlsen Group. So in January he began to pursue painting full-time. He believes the work he’s producing now is the best of his career, as he focuses full attention on furthering his style and technique.
“I’m taking way more time on my pieces,” he says. “I still paint pretty quickly, but I won’t say a painting is done now until I am 100 percent happy with it. Before, I would not wait until the last minute, but I’d book a lot of deadlines and have to get things done. I wouldn’t give it the same attention that I’m giving things now.”
On Friday, McAfee will debut 16 new paintings in a show at 3 Mass Gallery for Emerging Artists. The show will feature four portraits of local hip-hop musicians Oreo Jones, Sirius Blvck, John Stamps and Grey Granite. The idea came to McAfee as a cross-promotion of Chreece – a hip-hop festival in Fountain Square that Jones is organizing as a benefit for Indiana music archive and nonprofit Musical Family Tree.
“I had painted a bunch of different celebrities and icons over the years,” McAfee says. “I had grown pretty tired of doing that. I didn’t feel like I was getting to the spot where I was growing as an artist. I still enjoy painting people, and I had been interested in what these guys have been doing locally. I just feel like they have a really neat aesthetic going on. I like their style; I like their music.”
McAfee often listens to hip-hop music while painting in his home studio near Garfield Park. He prefers to paint along with music that has a strong backing beat. He says the music occasionally bleeds into the color choices in his work. “When I hear music, I see colors,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s influenced by the album art itself, but, typically, whatever I’m listening to I focus on those colors because of the album or maybe a music video associated with it.”
Beyond the appeal of McAfee’s new subject matter, Friday’s show is significant, because it will be his last solo exhibition as an Indianapolis resident. McAfee will move to Denver with his wife at the end of the summer. “I feel like I need a change,” he says. “I’ve grown complacent over the last several months to where I need to go somewhere and start fresh, make new contacts. It’s scary, because I don’t know anybody out there really.”
McAfee and his wife chose Denver after falling in love with the city during a visit in March. His wife has a background in parks and recreation management, and the couple was looking for a city with more outdoor amenities. While visiting Denver, they stopped in a gallery at the suggestion of friends. McAfee introduced himself to the gallery’s curator, and told her he was a painter from Indianapolis who was considering a move. Much to his surprise, the girl enthusiastically confessed to being an Indy ex-pat. McAfee showed her a few postcards featuring some of his work, and that’s when things got really weird.
“I showed her the postcards and she looked at it for a second and she goes over to her computer and says, ‘Is this you?'” McAfee recalls. “I look at it, and it’s an image I painted — a portrait of the painter Basquiat. It was hanging at the restaurant Pure in Fountain Square. Her dad, who must still live here, snapped a photo of it, sent it to her and said ‘I think you might be interested in this guy.’ It was really kind of serendipitous, because this was the only gallery that I went into, and she kind of had heard of me in a sense.”
Though McAfee is scared and intimidated at the prospect of starting from scratch in a new city, he’s hoping the move forces him to kick his painting into high gear and work even harder. In the meantime, he is excited about sharing his latest work and celebrating some of Indy’s most talented, up-and-coming rappers. “Maybe I am painting some icons that are in the works right now,” he says. “Contemporary icons. I think they’re going on to do some pretty rad sh_t. Who knows, maybe I’m the first one to paint their portrait?”
Stop by 3 Mass Gallery on Friday (July 10th) at 6 p.m. for McAfee’s exhibit entitled Peace-key Whees-key. The event is free and open to all ages. Or find out more info via Facebook. For more info on Chreece, follow along with updates from the Aug. 29 festival via Facebook and Twitter.
Written by Rob Peoni