Artist Gee Horton on What It Means to Be Unapologetically Black

After helping the downtown Black Lives Matter mural come to life, his current project goes a step further by offering an evocative take on his identity.

Gee Horton says the Black experience doesn’t need to be filtered, but instead “just needs to be as it is. I want to offer that to the world as complex as it may appear.” The self-taught artist, whose graphite drawings explore the African-American experience, was one of many contributors to the “BLACK LIVES MATTER!” street mural that debuted downtown on June 19.

Photograph by Shay Nartker

Horton teamed up with Alandes Powell and Brandon Hawkins to organize the street mural and recruit 17 Black artists who specialize in diverse art styles, from abstract to hyperrealism to graffiti. Each artist was paid to design a letter, and with the help of community volunteers they were able to complete the project in just three days.

Photograph by Damon Wilson

Instead of incorporating his typical hyper-detailed drawings, Horton designed the “L” to feature a quote from a 1926 Langston Hughes poem. “The poem portrays American racism as experienced by a Black man,” he says. “[It] argues that racism involves a willful refusal to acknowledge that Black people are just as American as anyone else. The poem encourages Black people to persevere and to deepen and extend their contributions to American life and culture until those contributions are impossible to ignore.” Below the poem, red handprints symbolize the “forensic signatures” of those who helped Horton paint the letter. “This wasn’t just me, it was a collective who helped bring this piece to life,” he says, adding that the mural serves as a daily reminder that Black lives really do matter. “Art is a vehicle that invites certain people to get a snapshot of what my reality is and what the reality is of so many people who are out on the streets protesting and fighting.”

Horton grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood of Louisville. He became the first in his family to graduate college and later received a master’s degree in social work. Throughout his academic pursuits, he was an avid drawer with a natural ability to mimic still images. “I picked up a paintbrush as an outlet, and that opened up a portal to art,” he says. Charcoal and graphite pencil would become his preferred medium. “The charcoal allows me and challenges me to make the subject look as real as possible,” he says.

After serving as a women’s collegiate basketball coach in Cincinnati for 10 years, Horton spent the next two years working for a local nonprofit and then entered the corporate world as a recruiter for an executive search firm, where his passion for connecting people to their ideal vocations brought him success. When COVID-19 hit, self-reflection compelled him to return to his artistic roots and quit his job to finally give art a shot. “This is my search to get reconnected to that young boy who just loved to draw,” Horton says.

Photograph by Shay Nartker

His hyperrealistic drawings convince viewers they’re looking at a still photograph, but they also reveal a story of the human experience. In his current Coming of Age portrait series, Horton divulges his own experience. “As artists, we have a responsibility to imitate life, and I want my art to imitate my own,” he says. “I want to stretch the imagination and really debunk some of the perceptions and stereotypes that have been attached to this identity. My mission is to really invite the viewer to look at Black male life in a unique and different perspective.”

In collaboration with photographer Jason Carter, Horton has created three portraits for the series, with nine more in the works. The completed drawings portray a 13-year-old African-American boy bearing an ephemeral confidence, but when studied closely you notice tension in his brow, an angst to break away from his own skin while simultaneously holding on to this cloak of greatness with grit in his teeth. “I am telling his story in his quest for love, acceptance, self-worth, and struggles with peer pressure and other environmental issues that surround him,” Horton says. “I want you to look at this kid and wonder where he is from.”

Horton’s use of African beads and tribal paint reaches toward his own heritage. “What we did was pull images from different tribes all throughout history in Africa,” he says. “This is my personal conquest to connect to a land that is so foreign to me and packaged in this story of a modern African-American boy who is searching for what it means to be a man, and the complexity centered around that.”

Photograph by Shay Nartker

Using the graphite pencil’s granular tip allows Horton to zero in on his subject, focusing on details that are often glanced over. “Sometimes we’re trained to overlook things, and we’re also programmed to overlook people,” he says. “What resonated with this series is that the medium forces me not to do that, because of the type of way that hyperrealism works. I have to pay attention to every pore, groove, kink and curl in his hair.”

Ultimately, Horton’s work is meant to be inclusive, allowing the viewer to stand in front of these images and have their own interpersonal experience. “There are distinct differences between us that carry so much weight and really block the fact that our similarities may actually dominate,” he says. “The beautiful thing about it is that art allows all of that to come full circle.”

The Coming of Age series will be his first gallery showing, and it’s expected to debut in 2021 at a space to be determined.

Horton is also working on a commissioned project as the featured artist-in-residence at the Mercantile Library, where he’s drawing a 6-foot portrait of the library’s first African-American member in 1872, Peter H. Clark. Every Wednesday from 11 p.m. to 5 p.m., you can visit the library to watch Horton fill in the canvas with the detailed likeness of Clark, who was an abolitionist, writer, and advocate for education in the Black community. The Mercantile hopes to reveal and celebrate the finished portrait in early 2021.

Watch the downtown Black Lives Matter mural being created in this video produced by Alan Haley and AGAR on behalf of Procter & Gamble:

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