“My studio is my church,” says Onicas Gaddis. The spiritual expressionist painter was, until recently, based in the River Arts District, crafting vivid canvases where human faces and forms emerge from entangled lines and abstract shapes. Though now based in Pittsboro, he remains part of Black Wall Street AVL and plans to show his work in the collective’s new 8 River Arts Place location.
For Gaddis as well as many other local artists, faith informs creative output and, in turn, artwork fuels their faith.
“The entire artmaking process, for me, is a conversation with the canvas,” Gaddis says. “I allow it to tell me what it wants to be.”
This approach comes from the artist’s mentor, the late Sarah Carlisle Towery, who instilled in Gaddis a sense of confidence. But long before working with Towery at her art colony in Kellyton, Ala., Gaddis discovered the power of creativity while growing up in foster homes. At 7, he explains, he saw a man sketching a cowboy and Indian and became enamored with the process. Since then, art has helped him through good and bad times.
“God told me to not give up on my art,” he says. “I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for my faith and my belief in my art.”
That dedication eventually led him from Alabama to Florida and, later, North Carolina.
Though raised in both Catholic- and Methodist-operated group homes, Gaddis says his faith extends beyond organized religion. “I’ve always been connected to spirituality,” he explains. “My [style] is called ‘spiritual expressionism’ because I’m not really in control of the work per se. What comes out, that’s what it is. Then, when I sign it, it’s revealed to me what I just painted and how it relates to my life. Once I sign it, everyone else can create their own story from the painting.”
The artist sells his art and has been steadily building a following. But he’s also given away nearly 300 paintings in his life because, he explains, “God wants me to share my work with the world.”
God’s thumbprint on the world
Faith also permeates the work of contemporary landscape painter Philip DeAngelo. “I believe in a creator and then I believe that he has not only gifted us with the talent to create, but the joy of it,” he says. “I don’t put my work on the level of most artists, let alone God, but I sure do love what I do.”
Before moving to Asheville by way of Ocean City, N.J., the artist was a traditional oil painter. “But Asheville was this freeing time,” he says. “It was a great time to start to paint the world as I would like to see it.”
The golden ratio — used for centuries as an ideal design proportion — shows up in much of DeAngelo’s work. “Studied by artists and math geeks forever,” the artist explains, “Da Vinci recoined it ‘the divine proportion.’ And that is my favorite interpretation: It’s basically God’s thumbprint on the world.”
DeAngelo also works with implied symbolism, which he describes as “an always evolving thing.” A tree is iconic for creation, he notes, “but if you mix in color theory, like red, red stands for blood and passion and life. So a red tree, for me, is the tree of life.” Meanwhile, a green tree stands for new beginnings and hope, a little house represents the idea of shelter and refuge, and a small group of houses speaks to community, he explains.
More recently, DeAngelo’s been painting a lot of old barns. In these works, he clarifies with a laugh, “A barn is just a barn.” The artist has worked from a studio in the Wedge Building for 13 years, but he finds a lot of inspiration in rural landscapes. “There’s such an order to nature, which makes me believe it was created with the purpose of being beautiful,” he says. “I believe in a God who’s in love with beauty.”
For about six years, DeAngelo led a Bible study for artists, which included discussion of both creative work and faith. These days, he’s one of the leaders of a group called David’s Men that shares readings, social gatherings and community service. “I’m a Christian who is an artist, [but] I’m not painting typical Christian paintings,” he notes. “For me, I’m just painting.”
Currently, he’s working on sculptural pieces. “That’s brand-new. That’s based on the encouragement of a fellow artist friend of mine,” he says. DeAngelo is known for his contemporary Americana style of painting, but every few years he takes what he calls an “artistic vacation” and paints a series of abstract expressionist works. “For me, it’s just so fun to do that,” he says. “It’s a totally different vibe.”
Setting her sights
Visionary mixed media artist Nancy Moore, whose work can be found at Trackside Studios in the River Arts District, starts each piece with nothing in mind. “Then I make the first stroke of color, and it just feels like it comes through me,” she says. “It’s probably the only thing that I do that’s fast.”
Moore describes her childhood as growing up “free range” on a farm, and says she carries the colors, smells and images of water and trees with her. Currently, she mainly paints outdoors. But, “I’m not painting what I see there,” she explains. “It’s more the energy that I’m picking up.”
That expression of energy also comes through in Moore’s spirit portraits, a practice she started in Milwaukee while caring for her mother. She completed 36 small paintings of and for people she knew “as part of my process of gaining strength.”
She later signed up to be a vendor at a spirit fair, where she created portraits of people who stopped by her booth. It took about an hour to complete each piece, and she did nine on the first day. “I wouldn’t tell them what it meant while I was painting it,” Moore says of that in-real-time process. “I’d show it to them at the end and let them interpret it.”
Like spirit portraits, much of Moore’s spiritual practice has come to her through a combination of exploration and kismet. “Something would come up that I’d be drawn to without knowing why,” she says. A shamanism workshop in Milwaukee led to her involvement with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. She’s also an ordained ministerial counselor through Pathways of Light, a “church without walls,” and a certified InterPlay leader. InterPlay is, according to the organization’s website, “an active, creative way to unlock the wisdom of the body.”
All of these practices, along with her poetry writing, “are opening doors for me to the next painting,” says Moore. And, “I must honor all those who have crossed my path who have been [and] are my teachers, guides, messengers, support, courage space holders and so much more.”