Portrait of the Artist: an Interview with Gee Horton
Artist Gee Horton calls Cincinnati his home base now, but he grew up in the West End of Louisville, Kentucky. After receiving his Master’s of Social Work from the University of Louisville, he went on to coach division-1 women’s basketball at the University of Louisville, Furman University and Xavier University. While the coaching was successful and rewarding, Gee was drawn to social work, and abruptly walked away from coaching to work at a local non-profit, and eventually settled in the corporate space as an executive recruiter for a spell. Although a full-time career as a practicing artist seems like an odd move given his previous employment history, creating art was actually a passion that Gee began cultivating at a young age. Having only ever taken one art class in his life, Gee is an autodidact, and is always working on perfecting his craft. Currently, Gee is staying busy in his full-time role as CEO/Founder of Gee Horton Studios.
Talking to Cincinnati artist Gee Horton for any length of time is a very rewarding experience. Gee is one of the most positive forces in the local art scene. He is confident about his skills, visionary about where he would like to take his work, and justifiably amped about the exploratory route he will use to get there—in short, Gee knows where he’s at, where he wants to go, and is having a great time embracing the journey. We recently had the great pleasure of sitting down with Gee to talk about his career as an artist, Cincinnati, and music, among other things.
In a rare turn for an independent, self-taught artist, Gee has rapidly become a household name here in the Queen City. In 2020, he made his debut at the Cincinnati Art Museum where “If I Ruled the World…”, a realistic, detailed graphite and charcoal portrait of Gee’s nephew, was shown in The Black & Brown Faces exhibit. He has also been featured at the renowned Cincinnati Music Hall and The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. His work has also been integral to collaborative activist projects locally, including serving as artist recruiter for the now famed “Black Lives Matter!” mural in downtown Cincinnati, in which he also designed and executed the art for the letter “L.” Currently, Gee is the artist-in-residence at The Mercantile Library of Cincinnati where he is working on a six-foot portrait of the famed Black abolitionist and writer Peter H. Clark.
We are more than honored to host Gee in the taproom at Rhinegeist every Thursday for the entire month of October, creating art live from within a custom-constructed mini studio. Gee Horton Presents the Studio Box Powered by Rhinegeist is a continuation of Gee’s “Coming of Age,” a series of hyper-realistic graphite and charcoal drawings depicting the African-American experience. In addition to watching Gee create art live in the taproom, guests at the event can expect a champagne toast, drink specials, bites from our downstairs neighbors at OTR Chili, and live sets by local DJs selected by Gee himself. This is the first time we have hosted an art event of this capacity at the brewery, and Gee is a perfect fit. Read on to get to know Gee a little more before The Studio Box kicks off in the taproom!
What inspired you to become an artist? What continues to inspire you and keeps you going?
Wow (laughs). What inspired me to be an artist? I felt like I’ve been an artist since I was a kid, honestly, I think growing up and experiencing life, I was kind of suffocated if you will, but now, luckily, I’m in a place now where I’m starting to rediscover who that artist is, piece piece by piece and day by day.
Are there any artists that inspired your career that you still find influential?
I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a famous artist who I grew up, you know, wanting to be. Honestly, just meeting local artists here in our city. If I can give a big shout out to one of my really good friends, Patrick Penny. He is no longer in Cincinnati—he’s moved away—but Patrick was one of the first local artists that I met when I was trying to figure out this lane. Meeting other artists within our community is inspiring—everyone is different, but we all have similar stories and those types of relationships, which has really inspired me to say, “Yo, let’s do this.”
Your work has been described as “hyperrealist,” and exhibits a fidelity to the human form that is expressive and vital rather than merely representational. What is it about the human form as a subject that continues to inspire you? Why is working in a realist tradition more appealing to you than abstract or non-representational traditions?
I love working with the human form because I think we all can relate to it in some way. We all have a personal connection to people. Behind each person, there’s a story to tell. And I love, as an artist, the opportunity to try to recreate or reframe stories through my subjects. And honestly, from a technical perspective, working within representational art and hyperrealism is the pursuit of perfection. I get obsessed. I fall down these rabbit holes of trying to make each subject as realistic as possible. So there’s this journey to be perfect and create work that honestly looks like a photograph. I guess the biggest compliment is when someone says, “yo, is that a photograph?” So I stay the course towards perfection.
You typically work in graphite and charcoal—why is this the medium of choice for much of your work?
So I tried painting and I suck at it (laughs). I’m terrible. I’m just not a great painter. Honestly I feel like a pencil is like a super power. It’s my version of Thor’s hammer. I can get away with so much more with a pencil—it allows me to have so much control over my work. Charcoal and graphite is a forgivable medium, unlike paint. If I mess up with paint, I have to paint over it—chalk on graphite, though, all I gotta do is erase it. This medium allows me to make as many blemishes and mistakes as I need to, but also cover it up, which is, honestly, a metaphor for life. It allows me to play with it spiritually, but from a material standpoint—it’s just so beautiful to me. And also what I’m learning with graphite and charcoal are the different shades of black. So many people think black is just one color. There’s so many different shades and variations of black to learn.
Can you talk a little bit about your series “Coming of Age” and how the upcoming “The Studio Box” at Rhinegeist fits into the series? What initially inspired that work?
“Coming of Age” is really a story. It’s a personal story that I’m framing and telling for the audience by way of framing family members as my subjects. In this particular chapter of “Coming of Age”, I’ve engaged my 13 year old nephew who is basically replicating me as a 13 year old kid. And the whole concept of “Coming of Age”is a story about this young boy and his transformation. It allows the viewer to slow down this transformation. You know, we don’t talk enough about how kids grow up, especially in American culture: we just grow up. You go from a teenager to an adult, and I really want to highlight this transitional period in this boy’s life and make statements through art that allows a person to say, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” And hopefully strike up a conversation.
The Studio Box is basically a representation of my childhood within a box. it’s this safe space that allows me to get connected, not only with my subject, but just with the inner child that is an artist. The box represents the seclusion protecting me from the rest of the world, but also allowing the rest of the world to see what’s going on and get engaged with the box and engage with me (up into a certain extent). It creates this way to engage between two worlds.
Do you see “the Studio Box” as a durational performance art piece (akin to Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez de la Peña, or Marina Abramovic, or Tilda Swinton, or others) set in a cage or a cube? How does this piece fit in this larger conversation?
I do see this partnership as a form of performance art. As a studio artist, I’m doing the same thing that I typically do in my studio, but by creating a space still that I can do it in front of people, I’m also creating an opportunity to one showcase my skills and tell the story—raising awareness around what this show is all about. I hope that, through this performance, maybe there’s an artist who’s on the borderline of deciding if they want to pursue a path in art. And hopefully this could be an opportunity to encourage someone in that particular case, but also maybe it’s an opportunity to draw more people to learn a little bit more about this work.
If I could give a big shout out to my wife, the box was her idea. A couple years ago she said to me “I think you should draw in a box.” And I was like, what the hell? She planted the seed, and then my mind automatically went to David Blaine. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with David Blaine, the magician, but he did a stunt where he was suspended in the air maybe a hundred feet, and he was trapped inside this glass box with no water, no food for, I think, 70 plus days. And that was the performance piece. And when I saw that, I was like, oh yeah.
So that was the initial idea. And then I started to make meaning and connection to my work and the purpose behind it. And that’s why I directly connected to my childhood, because the box in so many ways a protector. And honestly, my work is all around preserving and protecting the innocence of this young boy and children in general.
Much of your recent work has been associated with or taken place at important or notable Cincinnati landmarks and institutions. Has Cincinnati been a good place to call home as an artist?
When I first started drawing, I didn’t really do it in order to display my work to other people. I just felt a need to create. And so initially I didn’t see the need to have my work out in the world, but gradually I’ve discovered that one of the roles of an artist is to create work that can be shared seen throughout the community. And I’m really grateful that Cincinnati is getting an opportunity to see my work up close and in so many different places. As an artist, I think the goal is to get your work out there—get it out there so as many people as possible can see what you’re doing. Hopefully inspiring as many people as possible. The Studio Box is a lead-up to a show of my work debuting November the 19th at the Weston Gallery (next to the Aronoff center in downtown Cincinnati).
Are you a beer fan (ours or otherwise)? Has beer played a supportive role in your career as an artist?
I love beer! I don’t drink it as much as I would maybe want to. I’m not just saying this because I’m partnering with you guys, but Rhinegsit is by far my favorite beer. I was having drinks with a buddy once and he purchased a Truth for me. That was my first interaction with Rhinegeist. At the time I wasn’t really a beer drinker, but after that, I was hooked on the Truth and I would go to different bars and that would be the only thing I would order.
What’s your favorite sandwich?
My daughter and I love an egg and cheese sandwich on a croissant. I prefer mine with a little hot sauce, but she’s not ready for that yet. Maybe throw some extra stuff on there. If you want to be fancy, you know, avocado tomato or something like that.
What have you been listening to lately while you work?
Oh, my God—all of this is inspired by music. That’s a tough one. Let’s see, I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop. Honestly my taste of music is ranges the whole spectrum. It could be John Coltrane on Tuesday, Radiohead on Wednesday, Tame Impala on Thursday, Kendrick Lamar on Friday. I’m all over the place with music. A lot of this work has been inspired by hip hop and hip hop. As I go back into the story of “Coming of Age”, hip hop has been a consistent influence throughout his transformation.
Any advice for aspiring, younger artists? Particularly younger artists of color.
Protect your dream. I think the biggest challenge for artists is, and this is just my opinion, you know, staying out of your own head and with that staying out of your own way. What I mean by protecting your dream is: not everybody needs to know what you’re up to. Not everybody needs to know the ins and outs of what your goal is and what your plans are. Just work—work in the dark and don’t give up. It’s worth it. The last piece of advice you can take to the bank is: find a regimen and schedule, and stick to it. Some people need to work when they’re inspired—and I feel that, but I also think you gotta put it in the schedule.
As an artist of color, what do you hope that people who don’t identify as POC or minority take away from your work?
I hope that this work draws curiosity—I think we need curiosity without judgment. A lot of my work is real, it’s raw, but I want it to draw you in and spark an appreciation of the artistry behind it. Also, the story that I’m trying to invite you to participate in—just come and interact with this, and I will guarantee, regardless of where you come from, who you are, what you believe in, at one point in your life you were a child, and that’s something we can all relate to.
Gee Horton Presents the Studio Box Powered by Rhinegeist is happening in the taproom every Thursday in October from 6-9pm.