Step Inside the Studio of Painter Odili Donald Odita, Who Couches Political Issues in Colorful Abstractions

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Many of Odili Donald Odita’s abstract paintings contain joyous bursts of color, organized into geometric harmonies. Others collide in sharp forms and carry undercurrents of conflict.

The Nigerian-born, Philadelphia-based artist sees his paintings as mirrors of these mixed realities of life. In a show opening on January 10 at Jack Shainman in New York, Odita’s paintings reference political uprisings, including the January 6 insurrection and the American Civil Rights movement.

Odita invited Artnet News inside his Philadelphia studio to take a peek at how he’s preparing for a full calendar of shows coming up in 2023.

Photo: Natalie Kahn.

Tell us about your studio. Where is it, how did you find it, and what kind of space is it?

My studio is in Nicetown, a section of Germantown in Philadelphia. I was lucky in my search to find a new and larger studio that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. Northern Liberties, the neighborhood where I had my old studio, was changing. I lost the amazing westerly view of Philadelphia that I had for more than 10 years with all the gentrification and building going on, and the landlord of my old studio wanted to drastically raise their rent to “market value.” I now have a studio with more than double the space and even more room for storage for just a bit more than what they were asking for in rent at my old studio.

What is the first thing you do when you walk into your studio?

I walk around the studio to assess the day’s work, and then I just try to chill. It is important for me to not feel overly anxious about what I need to get done in a day. I try to let myself acclimate to the studio space. I remember in my earliest studio in Brooklyn, I used to fall asleep after entering my studio in the winter months just to acclimate to the cold temperature before working.

What are you working on right now?

Currently, I am working on the last paintings for my one-person exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery, which opens on January 10, 2023. I am also working toward my solo exhibition of smaller and mid-scale paintings for the Stevenson Gallery in Amsterdam. And soon I will begin making work for a major one-person exhibition at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles in November 2023. And of course, there are scheduled wall installation commissions to work on and I’m making work for specific art fairs in between.

Photo: Natalie Kahn.

How many hours do you typically spend in the studio, what hours do you work, and what activities fill the majority of that time?

This depends on how much needs to get done at a specific time. We normally work a six-hour day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Just yesterday, though, I was in the studio for 24 hours because I needed to prepare for an upcoming guest visit and then work on paintings for my exhibition in Amsterdam. I need to keep pace with my assistants so that we can get this work done in time for the photography, crating, and shipping.

Is there anything you like to listen to/watch/read/look at etc. while in the studio for inspiration or as ambient culture?

I pride myself on my library of CDs that I have collected over the years. I love music and listen to just about everything. There was a time when my painting practice was growing along with my experience of listening to key music—late Miles Davis (Fusion), New York No-Wave, and late 1960s music from New York and the world that inspired these forms. The music I listen to ranges from classical, jazz, Afro-beat, punk rock, indie rock, and back again. Music is the energy and heart of the studio during the work day. I encourage my assistants to select music to play from my CD collection as well as to bring in their own music, so I can hear and learn more about what’s out there.

Photo: Natalie Kahn.

What tool or art supply do you enjoy working with the most?

I work with acrylic paint. I love using this painting medium. I continue to learn about all the different things one can do with acrylic paint by using various mediums at my disposal to do what is specifically needed in my painting process. I have spent time learning more about the different paint brushes that a painter has available in their tool kit as well as understanding the give and take of various painting supports. Whether I am painting on canvas, plexiglass, wood, or the wall, I am continually learning how paint reacts differently and specifically in each of these situations. I have become more technical in my painting process and, I believe, a better technician in the process.

How do you know when an artwork you are working on is clicking? 

I know it’s working when I reach the space of unexpected actions, when the work is speaking to me and guiding my next moves. In these instances, I am not sure what’s going to happen next, but I know I can trust my steps—what I know and have learned—as I move forward within the working process.

How do you know when an artwork you are working on is a dud?

When I am doubting myself and what I am doing, and most often when I am overthinking and trying to get to a solution that other people would approve of. Things don’t work when I feel too anxious and when I don’t feel in sync with my work process. I have learned over the years to work calmly and not let myself lose myself. When I am relaxed, so much more comes to me in the moment, as I am better able to see. I need to make something that I feel I have not seen before. If it’s been done by me before, then why do it again? It needs to feel new and enlightening.

Photo: Natalie Kahn.

Where do you get your food from/what do you eat when you get hungry in the studio?

I like to eat healthier than what I can find near my studio, so I often like to bring dishes that I got from home or the market that I can heat up when in the studio. There are just a few places to get food where my studio is located, so getting food delivered is a big deal when considering more options. My studio assistants have a great method of getting food for the group to eat together. I normally supply coffee, tea, water, and snacks for the studio, and I also like to bring in the occasional candy and chocolate treats for everyone to eat.

What’s the last thing you do before you leave the studio at the end of the day (besides turning off the lights)?

I walk through all the stations I had worked in during the day to make sure that I am not leaving anything behind like work papers, or my cell phone, for example. I try to throw out any open food and I like to put any stray coffee mugs into the sink. I turn off all unnecessary electrical appliances, and I set the AC or heating accordingly for the night. Lastly, I always make sure my keys are in my hands before locking the studio door to make sure I can get in again the next day.

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