On July 3rd 2014 I stood inside the Raw Space of Harlem art gallery, in front of artwork comprised of 10 panels pieced together to illustrate an image of Stevie Wonder. Printed on the image was: “Just because a man lacks the use of his eyes, doesn’t mean he lacks vision”. For a few minutes alongside another onlooker I stared, taking in the unexpected details of the piece. Plaid fabric wrapping each panel reminiscent of prints you’d see in the 70’s. Music notes made of leather. Gold paint outlining each note. “So, what do you think?” I asked the gentleman standing next to me. “He might be a genius.” he responded.
The “genius” in question is visual artist Ronald Draper. Along with dozens of other supporters, I was there for his art show #TheRiseoftheCreatives. Shortly after the event I was honored to have a moment in the artists’ home and learn more about the man many have heard of, but have never truly seen.
With walls adorned with artwork of his own and others, I stopped to stare at a mirrored ode to Keith Haring, laced in black and gold paint.
“That put me in the hospital. They’ll have to bury me with it when I go” says Draper about the piece perfectly positioned above his sofa.
Scrolling through web images from #TheRiseoftheCreatives, it’s apparent that event-goers were not only impressed, but appreciative of the display. While Draper’s artwork was the main attraction, the artist brought together a group of his peers to assist with the event. “My entire following is creative in some sort. So although it was my show, I had the opportunity to say hey this is what they do too.” The event offered a photo booth, food and swag bags filled with everything from nail polish to body scrub.
“I needed this show to be different.” said the Harlem native. “Those pieces were personal. Each one told a different story. For one of the pieces I sacrificed my drop cloth… everything I’ve ever made was made on that thing. I pushed it. I challenged myself with different details, and sizes. My favorite one to do was the Stevie Wonder. I’ve never done anything that huge. It wasn’t that long ago I was doing small pieces with glass lips on them [laughs]”
Those small pieces were “the beginning” of Ronald Draper, who just two years ago found himself stuck in his Harlem apartment during Hurricane Sandy with “nothing but wood, some spray paint and glass”.
“I’ve always been an artist, but I didn’t expect it to be this big. I put those first pieces on Instagram and people wanted to buy them. I was like really? I would use the money I made to pay for more supplies so I could make more art.” A few months later, the artist left his job at a Wall Street law firm to commit to his artwork full time.
As a mixed medium artist, Draper frequently uses a unique blend of materials to bring to life quotes from icons across fashion, music and more. His artwork has featured influences including Ghandi, Coco Chanel and Michael Jackson. Although they may differ by craft, each person commonly reflects some sort of advocacy for social change and growth.
While the quotes used in his artwork vary, Draper admits that pieces illustrating musicians tend to be the favorites of his audience.
“I don’t mind it. I’m a musician at heart; my mother’s a jazz singer. I don’t purposely look for quotes from any particular musician though. I search based on the theme of the piece I’m working on. What’s the message? What do I want to say? During my searches I’ve found that some awesome unexpected people have said some ill s**t. So I use that”
If you take a look through Ronald Draper’s Instagram page, you’ll notice that no two pieces are the same. Despite his growing popularity, Draper has managed to maintain his commitment to making each piece one of a kind; tailoring not only the art, but also the experience he delivers to a client.
“I won’t recreate work. People ask, but I won’t do it. I’m inspired by stories. So I have to get to know a client before I can make something for them. I ask a million questions. When your piece is done you’ll feel good knowing that’s yours and only yours.”
One element that does remain the same? The gold paint seen on every Ronald Draper piece is an ode to his girlfriend of 4 years. A “thank you” for her unwavering support.
Ronald Draper is currently preparing his next art show (dated for December 2014) and the release of a coffee table book, featuring his work over the past 2 years. When asked what he wants people to take away from his art, Draper responds, “I want to make people think. I want people to learn how to look beyond the surface and understand the message beyond the paint. That’s all. ”