Three years ago, Rodney King was painting in his garage in Tacoma. In those days, he worked fast, using bold colors and block designs to evoke themes of the Black experience, often turning around works in a day.
Three years later, the prolific artist — whom Real Change commissioned for its 2022 Juneteenth cover — has his own studio space in Belltown, unveiled his first gallery show at Taswira in May (see adjoining article) and has more irons in the fire than there should be time in the year:
A mural project set for the side of a Seattle building.
Simply Soulful starting May 15.
Art Noir, which kicked off May 17.
Federal Way’s Art Explosion in June.
A hip hop show in July.
A vendor spot at a VALA Eastside event in Redmond.
A project to teach art to youth in the Central District during the summer.
“Last weekend, the first weekend in a while, I was going to go to a barbecue, and my wife told me, ‘You need to relax. You don’t know how to,’” King said.
He sets aside a few weekends to stay at home, decompress and barbecue while his wife and kids go to a baseball game or some other adventure.
“Just got to find that balance,” he said.
King got his start painting, in part, because he found it quicker than inking his visions on paper. He draws on life experiences and cultural influences from the Jazz Age — “Before they spelled jazz with a z” — to hip-hop to civil rights icons, jotting down new ideas in his ever-present journals as he moves through the world or finds new inspiration in books.
While King’s subject matter has stayed largely the same, his style has evolved. Pieces take him longer these days as he focuses on cleaner, more defined lines, embracing a cubist look. Jazz music plays in the background as he paints, calming him and centering his focus on the work: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis.
Every painting tells a story, King said, one meant to grab the attention of the audience. His gallery debut at Taswira, a Black-owned space that sells art made by women in Africa, put paid to his success on that score. Viewers floated through the gallery, drinks in hand, stopping and staring at the large pieces with the bright colors depicting people and places mostly gone but not forgotten.
King is not an artist to avoid controversy. One painting, which he calls his “GOATs piece,” shows Black athletes and artists at the top of their game, but also his favorite rappers — shown in order of preference — on the sidelines.
Jay Z. Snoop Dogg. Kendrick Lamar. Andre 3000. It’s sure to start a conversation, anyway.
“Everybody got a different list,” King said.
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Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News.
Read more of the May 24-30, 2023 issue.