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WYSO's Studio Visit is about Miami Valley contemporary artists and the ideas that inspire their work. The series is produced by Susan Byrnes from the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices

Columbus artist DonCee Coulter uses fabric to create intricate portraits and cityscapes

DonCee Coulter in his studio.
Susan Byrnes
DonCee Coulter in his studio.

The Dayton Art Institute has a new work on display by Columbus artist Don Coulter. From a distance it looks like a painting. Step closer and you’ll find that what you’re seeing is something different. Producer Susan Byrnes visits Coulter in his home studio to see his unusual process in action.

Growing up, Don Coulter, who goes by DonCee, was heavily influenced by hip hop. Not just the music but the fashion too.

“It started out with just getting jean jackets and we would just paint these scenes on these jackets but then I had to take it to another level. I started sewing in different fabrics with the clothes so that really got me in the habit of utilizing fabric.”

In art school, he took a fashion design class, and later, he studied color concepts. In that class they made paintings that broke an image down into flat shapes of solid colors, kind of like paint-by-number. The technique resonated with Coulter. He even experimented with cut pieces of construction paper to make the shapes. But he wasn’t happy with the limited colors.

“So I’m thinking man if I could get more colors, I could do something really great with this and then it came...ding ding ding…the fashion design course. Remember you used to create clothing? You went to the fabric store.”

Fabric became his medium. He developed a way to make elaborately detailed portraits and cityscapes out of layers of cut cloth. At his house, Coulter works in a small upstairs bedroom piled high with bolts and swatches of colors, patterns and textures.

“I typically start with a line drawing….”

The Seventies Groove painting.
Chris Casella
DonCee Coulter
The Seventies Groove

Coulter draws a design on tracing paper and transfers it to fabric. Then he starts cutting. He uses an X-Acto knife the way a painter might wield a brush. After that he glues the shapes together.

“That process to me is fun, it’s actually therapeutic for me, what I do. A lot of people look at me and say ‘man that’s so tedious you sit there and do that’ I’m like you don’t understand, man, that takes me into another world.”

He got to explore another world in Dresden Germany last year as an artist in residence. He fell in love with the baroque architecture and the human figures carved into the building facades. He realized those figures told stories. So he made a piece to put his own spin on what he saw. It’s a violent scene of a king struggling between heaven and earth. It’s called Turmoil.

“Here’s a picture of a gentleman with wings. He’s on top and he’s trying to help someone and this guy’s going to actually have a knife in his hand and it’s going to represent the person that you’re helping is actually going to be the one that’s going to stab you in the back. There’s other people trying to get to the king as well, and then you have these angels on the side kind of pushing them away. Are they trying to protect the king or are they trying to secure their position? You have these other two angels on the side kind of turning their eyes away and they’re going to have blindfolds on kind of like blind justice.”

Susan Byrnes
Turmoil detail in progress.

“I think that this story was really reminiscent of a lot of stories I was hearing from Germany and their past. A lot of times how they talk about how there were good people but good people who kind of turned their back to a lot of evil was happening.”

When Turmoil is finished, he hopes to show it in Germany. But we can see his work much closer to home. The Dayton Art Institute recently purchased Coulter’s vibrant streetscape called The Seventies Groove. He started it to cheer himself up during the pandemic.

“So I started creating this piece it’s going to be this fun-loving piece, I even put images of my family in there, and then I remember getting a call one day where someone called and said ‘Did you see it?’ And I was like no I didn’t see, what? And he was like ‘Turn on your TV, there’s this guy named George Floyd. He got murdered on TV.’ “

After that he couldn’t work on the piece. But then he went back to it with a different intention.

The finished work that hangs in the museum still portrays bright colors and people in iconic 70’s style, but subtle details, like a license plate that reads "BLM" or the number “846” on a taxicab warn of darker times to come.

Susan works as visual artist, arts writer, teaching artist, and audio producer. She lives in Cincinnati now but loves, misses, and often visits the Miami Valley. You can find her visual and audio works on her website www.susanbstudio.com.