Studio Visit – Brandon Donahue

Brandon Donahue moved to Baltimore early in the pandemic. He and his partner are now both faculty in the Art department at University of Maryland. Since then he has been recalibrating to the life changes, getting to know the city, and producing a body of work for this upcoming exhibition at Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia. Brandon and I spoke at his home studio in February of 2022.

Interview between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Brandon Donahue

Amy: Where are you from/ where did you grow up? Do you feel like your formative years influence the art you now make?

Brandon: I was born and raised in Memphis, TN. I lived there the first 16 years of my life. The majority of my family lives there actually. After my parents divorced, My mom, brother and I moved to Nashville, Tn where I graduated high school. I did a semester at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I ran track (110 high hurdles, and 400m hurdles) and attended the Art Foundation. I dropped out of school for a few months and eventually attended Tennessee State University. 

In terms of art, I was introduced to the airbrush at age 12. Airbrushing taught me some important things early like social skills, business, and responsibility. I had other jobs as a teenager, but I only did those to support the airbrushing business. I airbrushed t-shirts in high school and ended up making a little over $2000, mostly $10, $20 and $40 t-shirts. After high school, I continued to freelance in t-shirt shops, traveling to paint at carnivals, clubs, bday parties, and bar mitzvahs. 

I definitely can make the connection to my younger years and how it influences my approach to my current work and job as a professor.

A: Where is your current studio and how long have you been there?

B: I have a hybrid situation going on right now. In the living room of our home, I do assemblage work. To me, it’s similar to quiltmaking and I prefer being at home when I make those. When it comes to painting, which often includes the airbrush or spray can can for me, I’m in the CopyCat building, where I’ve been for about six months. 

A: There are so many sports references in your work, can you share a little bit about what that means to you?

B: I often get the question, “ Are you a big basketball fan? Or did you play basketball in college or whatever? I am not your biggest bball fan, I love the sport but I do not follow it as much as I used to. I did play in high school, and I played religiously in my earlier years. I was a gym rat for real. Weekends, week days. On my 16th birthday, I remember crashing at least 5 separate playgrounds to play pickup games. I was obsessed.

I’m into the metaphors of sports, the wordplay, symbols, the objects–especially the objects. I discovered the basketball blooms while in grad school at UT Knoxville back in 2011. I would play on weekends in local parks and playgrounds, and I realized there were a lot of deflated basketballs around. 

I was already in that hyper aware headspace in grad school–questioning everything. I’d see these muddy basketballs in corners or gutters and viewed them as pretty charged and powerful objects. I had a studio visit with Willie Cole, “The Transformer”. At the time, he shared his latest works using women’s high heel shoes that he transformed into African masks, along with other organic forms. It was the coolest studio visit, I felt like we were related in a weird way. In my studio at the time, there were tons of hubcaps that I was unsure of what I was doing at the time. I had been collecting from the streets. He explained to me that “objects have a history and you really have to listen to them and let them tell you what they want to do.” I was pumped! After putting this into practice, hubcaps, car bumpers, and especially sports objects made more sense to me. I began asking myself the simplest questions, to get deeper. How do these basketballs bounce? What materials are they made of? How many people have touched them and where all have they been? 

A: Your material range is quite vast, how do you choose the medium for each piece or body of work?

B: In my earlier days of airbrushing, I would get bored with canvas, and cotton t-shirts. The repetition would drive crazy. I believe the way that the airbrush could paint on a surface without physically touching it made it easier to imagine what would happen on other surfaces. Airbrushing, dyes onto foods, airbrush tattoos, and automobiles sparked my interest in materials. I ventured into dumpsters diving for materials, abandoned buildings, street signs, etc. Knowing that materials come with a pre-existing history through the manufacturing, transporting, and use is very exciting to me.

A: What does the perfect studio day look like for you? 

B: There hasn’t been one in years! The perfect studio day has to be timeless enough to turn a perfect studio week. A day isn’t long enough lol. I need to lose track of time.

I’ll share a good day though. I wake up early, kiss my wife, around 6am, go for a run to get the endorphins poppin, eat something wholesome and healthy, get into the lab, close the door and turn off the phone and work. Maybe take a nap around 1 or 2pm for about 45 min, wake up and finish the day strong around 9 or 10pm. I would close the day with a good 45- hour youtube binge and fall asleep. Wake up, start the whole process over again. 

A: What do you do when the studio gets tough; do you have any coping mechanisms? How do you combat the negative inertia that can take hold of the best of us?

B: I like to go running, or do some sort of cleaning as artist Tom Sach’s called “Knolling”. I might also start eating crunchy foods. That crunch crunch gets me in a good mood.

I’ll also go for a walk or run. I try to remember to rely on my body to keep me in tune. I know something’s off. Lately with airbrushing, I’ve been conserving the use of my wrist and forearms as much. I’m aware of overexertion, trying to prevent the potential of carpal tunnel. Lil Wisdom.

A: Do you have any hobbies outside of the studio?

B: I’m a plant guy. I’m learning how to curate indoor plants for the best home energy. I dabble a little bit in music. I have a MPK mini that I am learning how to manage to create/organize sounds. Beat making basically.

I’ve been dancing around the house. In Memphis we have this dance culture called Jookin or Gangsta Walkin, it’s like poppin but slightly different. I find it great for your joints, like a faster but choppy tai chi. I do it in the kitchen while I’m cooking or in the studio when no one’s looking.

A: What are you currently listening to or watching?

I read a lot of books over this past Christmas break. “The Courage to Create” by Rollo May, 

I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, 

“Striking Thoughts” by Bruce Lee, 

“The Heritage” by Howard Bryant, 

 “Dilla Time” by Dan Charnas.

“We Speak for Ourselves, A Word from Forgotten Black America” by D. Watkins 

I read Will Smith’s book “Will”, which I appreciated; the topics of unconditional love and death really resonated.

At the moment, my podcasts are “My Mama Told Me” with Langston Kerman, and “StarTalk” with Neil Degrasse Tyson. 

I’m mostly on youtube looking at meme compilations, wildlife or deep sea creatures, or keeping up with the James Webb Telescope.

A: Do you have anything coming up you’d like to promote or another artist you think we should be watching? 

B: Most definitely! both.

March 11-April 23rd, I have a solo show at Pentimenti in Philadelphia. I just submitted the title for the show, which is “Rebounds and Assists”. I’ve been reflecting on my process of “searching for and finding” the basketballs that I use in the bloom series and how they parallel the rules of the sport. The majority of my solo shows have pun titles or corny wordplay from sports terminology. 

Brandon in his studio, 2022

I’ve also been working on a collaboration with my wife/partner, Jessica Gatlin. We work together under the name Tithes and Offerings (TaO). You can see documentation from our most recent project on our instagram (@taoprojekt). In 2020, we were awarded a grant to start our collecting & exhibition project, Abode. Driven in part by increased time at home, we wanted to find ways to honor both our creative histories while challenging the hierarchies of high art, low art, and craft. The show takes into consideration both of our personal creative histories, such as my custom airbrushing practice, and JG’s familial textile traditions. Driven by increased time at home, “Abode” takes an inventive approach to the ideas of exhibition and gallery space.

A piece from the Abode project in Brandon’s home
Inertia Studio Visits