By Ron Wagner
David Onri Anderson was drawn to painting from an early age, but he entered Watkins College with what some might call an elevated pragmatism. Do people make livings as painters, he wondered? Turns out, people can and do, and Anderson is one of them. In fact, Anderson has become one of the most important young artists in Nashville. He may never have started down the road that changed his life, however, had it not been for a couple of firm nudges.
Anderson’s first came as a sophomore, after he’d spent a year majoring in graphic design. Still yearning to put brush to canvas, however, Anderson took a painting class taught by Terry Thacker. “I realized, oh man, I think I want to do this for the rest of my life,” Anderson says. “I switched my degree and became a painter, and ever since then I’ve been painting every single day.”
He went on to graduate in 2016 with a degree in fine arts, but it wasn’t until nudge number two—and the powerful motivation it created—that Anderson began to view his passion as more than a hobby. “I had a job at a deli and pub that I really liked, but I got fired,” he explains. “And I was like, oh man, what am I going to do? So, then I thought I’d get really serious about painting and see where that goes, and ever since I’ve been living off selling my work. It’s nice.”
Nice is one way to put it. Dream come true might be another. But you don’t have to talk to Anderson for long to realize he’s not one for hyperbole. His preference for understatement is reflected in work Thacker describes as “very, very simple, beautiful paintings that are kind of bold and nuanced at the same time.” Anderson has been exhibited nationally in group shows at ZieherSmith in New York, the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center, and Zeitgeist Gallery in Nashville.
“Anderson’s paintings offer an energized combination of technical obsession and offhand presentation, and these colorful, textured abstracts never feel overly intellectual—the kiss of death for visual art—or precious,” art critic Joe Nolan wrote in Nashville Scene, calling Anderson’s Hum exhibit at the Browsing Room in the Downtown Presbyterian Church the highlight of May’s First Saturday Art Crawl. In a feature for Burnaway, he tagged Anderson’s Paper Mind as one of his “favorite painting exhibitions in Nashville” in 2016.
“These are paintings made for their own sakes, and as such, the most important and most impressive details in the show are Anderson’s crystal clear sense of color and his love for painterly surfaces made of lush lines and thick frosted fields,” Nolan penned.
Anderson is prolific without sacrificing quality, an achievement made more remarkable by the amount of energy he expends being a central part of Nashville’s burgeoning arts scene. He is the co-director/curator of “mild climate,” an artist-run space in The Packing Plant founded in 2014 by Watkins alumni. He also operates the Bijan Ferdowsi Gallery, named after his landlord, in the basement of his home in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood he shares with two roommates. And he works as a handler at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts.
Passion is the only fuel that can power such an engine.
“I’ve always been fascinated with painting. I like that it started off in cave paintings thousands and thousands of years ago, and people are still talking about and thinking about paintings today,” he says. “It’s been something that I’ve dedicated my life to.”
Even at an art school, that’s not a common thing. An increasingly digital world has drawn—or pushed, depending on your perspective—students toward graphic design, photography, interior design, or film as avenues for expression and employment. But Anderson has little use for modern technological trappings.
“I find myself to be most at ease when I’m sitting by a body of water looking at some trees. I don’t really want to have the newest item that’s supposed to be the best thing,” he says. “I think that all the new inventions and all the cutting-edge stuff are sort of illusions. It makes everything dated, and I’d rather do something that is timeless and is more about a human interaction with visual expression instead all of these trends of art.”
Anderson paints primarily with oil on just about any surface that strikes his fancy, but he struggles when asked to define his work. “I guess I would say it’s sort of simplicity but also creating a place for the mind to go through looking,” he offers. “But it’s always different, so I can’t describe them all with one phrase.”
A Nashville native, Anderson has an easier time talking about his influences, citing the art of the Pueblo Indians, Giorgio Morandi, Agnes Martin, Shunryu Suzuki and anonymous Tantric artists in Rajasthan as well as eastern philosophy. But he puts Thacker, with whom he’s formed a close relationship since that fateful class, at the top of the list. “Terry Thacker was definitely the guy who inspired me to dedicate my life to painting, seeing as he was an older guy who was wildly creative and passionate about teaching and doing painting actively,” Anderson says.
Indeed, Thacker, Anderson, and Matt Christy, another former Watkins student, are planning a collaborative show. His former teacher is thoughtful and thorough when assessing Anderson.
“He looks and listens to lots and lots of different things, music being a big influence, and lots of art. He keeps his ear to the ground and keeps his eyes and ears open and drinks it in, and I guess you could say he’s very curious about things,” Thacker observes. “At the same time, he’s gently courageous. He’s willing to try anything. You combine someone who’s willing to drink in everything with a willingness to try anything, and you’re going to end up making something of interest I think.”
The Paper Mind exhibit is a perfect example. Anderson stumbled upon a picture of a Japanese paper lantern in a book, and for about a year he has painted the lantern over and over again. To the untrained, that sounds like a pointless obsession. To a painter, it’s a deep dive into art in its truest form, as Thacker explains.
“Jasper Johns is one of my favorite painters, and one of his quotes I pass along to my students is ‘take something, do something to it, do something else to it,’” Thacker says. “And what he’s prescribing by saying that is the initial contact with a thing in the world is in some way beside the point. How that gets translated is what becomes engaging for the artist and the viewer. You begin to see the complexity and variation that can happen within a single thing … and when that happens to a painting it becomes exciting. It becomes lively and animated, and I think David has taken that on as part of his practice.”
And he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.
“It’s really nice to see someone still open to multiple ways of moving and thinking and sort of recognizing early on that they haven’t found themselves and found their style. They almost resist that and resist thinking of themselves as being able to be described within a single style,” Thacker says. “The work is getting lighter and airier and more breathable and more minimal, and yet more playful and whimsical at the same time.”