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Connecting Through the Canvas: Donnie Rogers, Harlem Artist

A famous Harlem transplant once said, “I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.” Almost a century ago, Langston Hughes moved to the uptown New York City neighborhood from the Midwest to spread his creative wings in an era that would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Today, Harlem remains a magnet for talented writers and artists that have a deep appreciation of the African American genre and continue to express this love on the page and on the canvas.

If you’ve ever been to Grill On The Hill, a local sports bar on the corner of 140th and Amsterdam, you may have seen “Who Wins?” on the wall. The painting, which depicts a theoretical boxing match between Tyson and Ali, is one of the many works of up and coming artist Donnie Rogers. As I sat down for a beer with the South Carolina native, he gave me some insight into his journey to the Big Apple’s Black Mecca and how he continues to connect with and impact people through his craft.

Donnie Rogers

Achievement in Every Field of Human Endeavor

Rogers was born and raised in Marion — a quiet town populated by 7,000 souls about an hour’s drive northwest from Myrtle Beach. Sketching since the age of 10, his talent began to surface as he would spend hours filling pad after pad with his subjects of interest at the time: sports figures and cartoon characters.

“I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”

Two and a half decades of practice later (coupled with a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art from South Carolina State University and a Master’s degree in Illustration from Savannah College of Art and Design), Rogers has refined this talent into a career in graphic design and multimedia, painting, and sketching. He is deeply influenced by the use of motion and graphics in the works of Kadir Nelson, Frank Morrison, Ernie Barnes (whose painting, Sugar Shack, holds a prominent place at the end of the opening credits of the popular 70s TV show, “Good Times”), Taiwanese-American artist James Jean, and the surrealist methods of the eccentric Spanish painter Salvador Dalí. His subjects of interest have since evolved to African-American cultural icons and contemporary life, musicians performing (Rogers himself a former percussionist for the SCSU Marching “101” Band), and Black Greek organizations, which hold a special place in Rogers’ life.

“I knew I was going to pledge, and Kappa seemed the right fit for me. The fraternity represents who I am and my ideals, because I aim to excel in everything that I do.” From his impeccable dress to his professional accolades, Rogers embodies the motto of his fraternity: Achievement in Every Field of Human Endeavor. His painting, Kappa Stepshow, a celebration of a deeply cherished tradition, prominently adorns the entryway of the Kappa Alpha Psi Alumni House in Harlem. Rogers was initiated into the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity during his third year as an undergraduate and continues to be actively involved with the organization in New York City.

Gamechanger

Graduation did not come without its frustrations. There were limited job opportunities for Rogers in the South. He spent a year working as a substitute art teacher and a floor salesman at Sears in order to pay loans and make ends meet. Given the circumstances, Rogers decided to pursue a Master’s Degree in Illustration at Savannah College of Art and Design in order to further his education and augment his skills. Preparation met opportunity. Although he would have to continue to work as a salesman for five more months after completing his graduate program, Rogers’ perseverance paid off one fortunate day when he had a conversation that would change his life.

“I knew I was going to pledge, and Kappa seemed the right fit for me. The fraternity represents who I am and my ideals, because I aim to excel in everything that I do.”

“I was 26 years old and working at my third Sears store in Columbia, South Carolina. The district manager approached me and asked me ‘what I was doing?'” in the sense of what it was that I wanted in life. I told her that I really wanted to work in my profession. She asked me for my resume and portfolio and within a day I was on the phone with the recruiter for the Sears Fashion Design Office in New York City. Just an hour after that call, I was told to pack my bags.’’ Rogers was given an opportunity to freelance and prove his merit, which would ultimately result in him obtaining his current position as Senior Graphic Designer of Kids Apparel for one of the largest clothing retailers in the country.

Connecting Through Art

Now living in the City and settled into his new career, the world has become his oyster, and Harlem his studio. “My style is very illustrative in that I want to tell a story,” said Rogers, explaining his technique. Rogers has completed a multitude of paintings depicting Harlem’s iconic sites, such as the Apollo Theater and Rucker Park, adding his own creative twist. One piece he is particularly proud of is Song Bird, which was inspired by the photograph of Miles Davis At Birdland (still located in midtown Manhattan). “When I was finishing this painting, I decided to insert the musical notes and figure of the bird forming in the smoke, giving it its name.”

Rogers loves the connections that he makes with people through his art. “When I finish a piece of art, I’m excited to show it to people to get their impressions. I’m always curious to see if they will see the story I am trying to tell, but I also enjoy when they see something completely different.” He recalled a specific instance of one of those differences that stands out in his mind with respect to a Christmas card he designed showing a baby in a manger. “The baby just happened to have his hand holding up three fingers. A friend of mine sees the card and says, ‘Wow, the baby is holding up three fingers for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’ I just agreed,” he shrugged and laughed.

Painting It Forward

Sharing his paintings with an ever-widening audience has been one of Rogers’ primary occupations as of late. He began to expand his reach through local “Pop-up” shops that would open periodically in venues located in highly trafficked areas. Over the last year alone, Rogers has displayed and sold his work at La Maison d’Art, Maysles Cinema, and the Heath Gallery.

“When I finish a piece of art, I’m excited to show it to people to get their impressions. I’m always curious to see if they will see the story I am trying to tell, but I also enjoy when they see something completely different.”

His art has also found its way outside of Harlem. Rogers’ work was recently on exhibit at a solo show at The Skinny, and you can see him in action almost every Tuesday evening as he paints live at Collage NYC in Manhattan’s vibrant Lower East Side. Given this increased exposure, he has recently been booked to live paint Black History Month themes for a MasterCard corporate event.

Mentors have always played an immense role in Rogers’ life. As the son of a social worker and railroad signal maintainer, he grew up with the values of initiative, hard work, and perseverance. “My parents were always very supportive of my art and constantly encouraged me to improve and appreciate my gift.” He now finds himself mentoring and connecting with the community through talking to kids in local schools about his work as an artist and graphic designer. He has also created a forum to share his love of art with his peers. There is a significant crowd of his followers registering to take his “Thirsty Brushes” painting classes in local bars throughout the City. “I want to bring people together for a fun social event where they can explore their creative side while enjoying their favorite beverage.”

When I asked Rogers where he currently finds himself, he responded with dignified humility. “Even though I was born and raised in South Carolina, I feel right at home in Harlem. Ending up here has been a dream realized. I was given a talent and I want to share it with the world. Harlem gives me the stage. It’s not just a place, it’s a world-class expression of beauty embodied in its landmarks, its history, and its people.”

By Pablo Velez

A self-fashioned “Halfro-Cuban American,” born and raised in Miami, Florida, Pablo G. Velez is an immigration attorney and partner at the New York City based law firm, Velez & Cipriano, PLLC in midtown Manhattan. He is a graduate of the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, with degrees in International Affairs and Spanish Language and Literature and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He resides in the Upper East Side with his wife, Yasmin.