Mercantile Library Artist-in-Residence Gee Horton Showcases Black Beauty Through His Hyperrealistic Art

Horton, currently at work on a portrait of Peter H. Clark — a 19th-century abolitionist and the library's first Black member — also steered the creation of the letter “L" on the Black Lives Matter mural downtown

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click to enlarge Gee Horton - Photo: Mackenzie Manley
Photo: Mackenzie Manley
Gee Horton

It’s a Wednesday afternoon in early July at downtown’s Mercantile Library. Light slinks in from tall arched windows and stretches along the space’s hardwood floors, casting dreamy warmth onto its many bookshelves. Highlighted by one slice of sun is Gee Horton, the Mercantile’s current artist-in-residence. Stationed in the left corner of the library, a large easel sits before him. The canvas depicts an in-progress, hyperrealistic portrait of Black abolitionist, writer, educator and famed Cincinnatian Peter H. Clark — the Mercantile’s first Black member.

Horton began work on the 6-foot piece, which was commissioned by the library, in late 2019. He predicts that he’ll be finished by October of this year. Though tentative, the residency has been extended into 2021. (Patrons can find Horton working on Clark’s portrait every Wednesday at the Mercantile from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

From the entryway, as Horton works, one can see the steady gaze of his subject peeking above him. Rendered in black-and-white using graphite and charcoal pencils — Horton’s medium of choice — he trains his eyes on the portrait. 

“I think there's just a love-hate relationship I have with my work. I'm so obsessed with the process of working on it that I don't see what (others) may see when (they) look at it,” Horton says.  “I think that's what excites me about the type of art that I do — I know how I'm going to get there, but the journey of getting there is such a challenge.”

Prior to the pandemic, Horton brought the portrait to the library once a month. When the Mercantile closed its doors in mid-March, the piece was taken back to Horton’s home studio — where it stayed until the first Wednesday in June. After reaching out to the Mercantile’s Executive Director John Faherty and Literary Programs & Marketing Manager Amy Hunter, the work has since resided at the library, where it will remain permanently.

click to enlarge Gee Horton at work on his portrait of Peter H. Clark - Photo: Mackenzie Manley
Photo: Mackenzie Manley
Gee Horton at work on his portrait of Peter H. Clark

As the afternoon shifts during the interview, sunlight and shadow filters through the 11th-floor space and hits the portrait in different ways. He moves back from the drawing, standing at a distance. Certain details, he remarks, are lost when not up close; he wants to sharpen them.

“That's a beautiful thing about the residency,” Horton says. “It's like the piece is coming alive and the environment is affecting how you create it, how you approach it, how you finish and how you execute it." 

Horton is self-trained. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he found his way into the Cincinnati art scene around three years ago. Along with his Mercantile residency, he also serves on the board of ArtWorks and is a co-host of the Urban Consulate. He first came to the Greater Cincinnati area while pursuing a psychology degree at Thomas More University. After receiving a Master’s of Social Work at the University of Louisville, he reconnected with the Queen City when he took a job as Xavier University’s assistant women’s basketball coach.

His need for a creative outlet initially came in the form of painting. But when he reconnected with graphite and charcoal, he says it was like unlocking a superpower. After researching other photorealistic artists’ techniques and honing his talents, he grew into the path he’s currently on, one that has led him to pursue his craft full-time.

His move to being a full-time artist is recent. Prior, he woke up most mornings at 4 a.m., a time set aside solely for his art. The rest of his days were spent juggling a nine-to-five job, being a dad and roles at other organizations.

When COVID-19 restrictions led the Mercantile to close its doors for social distancing, Horton saw a positive: It would give him the ability to spend “unlimited” time with the Clark piece.

“As the world was changing, so was my own world. Looking back, and I say this with the sincerest sympathy, coronavirus has really devastated everything you can think of,” Horton says. “I’ve been trying my best to look at the bright side. And it’s pointing me directly to my art.”

Near his work station, a large print from his Coming of Age series awaits pick-up. Pre-social-distancing, Horton and I discussed the same piece — “Me Against the World” — in mid-February at BlaCk Coffee Lounge, where it was displayed along with several of Horton’s works, including “The Butterfly Effect," a portrait of Muhammad Ali, and “Mortal Man," another work in Coming of Age inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly.

In collaboration with photographer Jason Carter, the series is autobiographical and navigates experiences of Black adolescence. (Carter takes photographs in coordination with Horton, who then translates them into black-and-white drawings.) His nephew from Louisville acts as the series’ model, a stand-in for Horton’s younger self.

pencil drawing on paper! #workinprogress / progress shot #4 . . 📷: Collab: @eyeshotem . . #art #artist #worldofpencils...

Posted by Gee Horton Art on Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Coming of Age is all about adolescence and social development and retelling it from a place of an adolescent's need for love, attention, self-worth and the complexity of being a teenager,” Horton said in the previous interview. “You’re not having folks who really understand the struggle because I think it’s such a critical age (where) you can go left or you can go right. In American culture we really don’t cultivate that time period.” 

He references various indigenous African cultural ceremonies in which teenagers transcend from childhood to adulthood. It’s a communal expression: the society and individual merging to recognize the change.

Horton has woven an homage to these ceremonies in his series via the recurring element of white tribal paint — an external acknowledgement of this transformation — which line and dot the subject’s face.

Horton recently diverged from his hyperrealistic approach while working alongside over 70 artists on creating the “Black Lives Matter!” mural in front of Cincinnati City Hall on Plum Street. (The mural was pitched and executed in a week’s time.) He steered the letter “L," choosing to fill it with the words of Harlem Renaissance giant Langston Hughes’ 1926 poem “I, Too.” Backdropped by black, it sprawls across the pavement in red, yellow and green.

“When you read the poem, it’s beautiful,” Horton says. “Because I think it talks about how beautiful it is to be Black and still not be seen for just how beautiful you are.”

Showcasing the beauty of the Black community is a mission of Horton’s — one that he says was reconfirmed by the pandemic. While there are moments in an individual’s life that they have little control over, he says “everything happening right now” has validated his efforts. 

When first embarking on the Peter H. Clark portrait, and doing initial research, Horton says he was excited because he realized how important Clark was to Cincinnati. He references historian Nikki M. Taylor’s biography America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark. After reaching out to Taylor, Horton was able to discuss Clark’s life and work with her.

Born in Cincinnati in 1829, Clark held many titles in his life. Known as America’s first Black socialist, he ran for congress under the Socialist Labor Party of America in 1878. In his lifetime, he also worked under both the Republican and Democratic parties.

“He was fearless. He took no shit,” Horton says. “He was a man of his word. He was a complex man. Some people liked him and some people really didn’t. But he was unapologetic in his approach and was an advocate for what he believed in. That type of bravery — I admire that.”

click to enlarge The in-progress portrait of Peter H. Clark - Photo: Mackenzie Manley
Photo: Mackenzie Manley
The in-progress portrait of Peter H. Clark

His namesake is carried by Hyde Park’s Clark Montessori High School. And for good reason: He became the first president of the segregated Gaines High School in 1866 and, while there, founded a union for Black educators. But his 1882 move to the then more conservative Democratic Party lost him much support; four years later he was fired by the school board over politics. He’d later move to St. Louis, where he died in 1925.

Horton says that, less than two centuries ago, he wouldn’t have been allowed inside the Mercantile as a Black man. Now, the space is like a second home to him.

“I feel connected to (Clark) because he paved the way and god knows what kind of challenges he went through when he was becoming the first African American member,” Horton says. “So for me to be the first African American resident, I feel like this is a second home. Even when I’m done (with the residency).”

And Clark, too, has found his home within the Mercantile, his portrait soon to hang among its hushed walls.

Learn more about Gee Horton and his art at The Mercantile Library is located at 414 Walnut St., 11th Floor, Downtown. More info:

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