If you’re familiar with Columbus’ art scene, you’ve probably come across Percy King’s portraits.
He’s this former football player who made the transition to artist after playing for OSU, a brief stint in the NFL, and a career in the corporate world. He was into art as a kid, drawing and sketching for fun, but ended up ditched it for sports once he got into high school.
Now post-football, he returns to this childhood hobby with different perspective, and a new talent, working with a medium that appears largely untouched.
Percy’s work has been featured heavily around the city, including at Art of Republic, the Heart of it All Fashion Experience in October, as well the Harlem Renaissance Festival preview in November. In March, he’s set to work with another Ohio State alum for Abstract Athletes, a show highlighting athletes turned artists, including an NBA player and two major league soccer players.
The irony of an athlete turned artist is not lost on him. It’s through family friends and former classmates at Ohio State, however, that he was able to find footing in this new and exciting world.
The motivation behind Percy’s unique portraits came from a desire for representation and some divine influence.
Life for Percy post-football gave him much more free time, and with it he took up carpentry, a skill he inherited from his Alabamian father. Later, carpentry would give way to furniture, leading him to become somewhat of a student in contemporary furniture.
“I got to the point where I can look at a table, and I can tell you where it’s from, roughly. Like, I can tell you whether its got German influence or French,” he says. “I’m not an expert but, you kind of just pick up things.”
But the more he learned, the more he realized black folks were missing from this world.
“There’s really no black American style of furniture. There’s black carpenters, but there making what everybody else makes,” he says. “There’s African furniture, but that really wasn’t my flavor.”
He laughs as he admits he had no idea what Black furniture looked like, so he ended up putting his own spin on the pieces he was building. He started working on an entertainment center, and got the idea for an inlay image of Bob Marley on the door.
Then one night, he explains, he got a message and a sudden burst of creative impulse.
“I’m sitting at home one night, and it’s like 1 o’clock in the morning, and something just told me, ‘Go outside and start stacking the pieces,’” he says. “If we were in church I would tell you it was the Holy Spirit.”
After creating the original portrait, Percy starting creating portraits of his top hip hop artists, including Jay Z, Pac, Ghostface, and Lauryn Hill. In turn, his work gained attention and momentum, as he made use of his network and had his pieces showing in more places.
Each piece, which takes about a month to make, is a sophisticated and detailed portrait of hip hop royalty. They represent a mindset that is exemplified by other contemporary artists like Kehinde Wiley, known for painting portraits of everyday black people with regal or heroic repositioning. Percy says, this positioning changes perception of what is beautiful.
This idea is somewhat lost on the older generation, he says, who don’t necessarily find Tupac and Biggie as legitimate figures. They speak about times in which it was difficult to get black art up. Now, it’s a question of what is valid. Hip Hop, to them, isn’t.
But that’s exactly what Percy’s work sets out to prove. He points to a trip to the Lourve in Paris and seeing universally-lauded, larger than life pieces that in person were much smaller, portraying regular people. “Things are larger than life until you experience them,” he says.
Today, we can create our own icons, he says.
“And they’re legitimized because one, look at their record sales, look at cultural contributions, and just the state of hip hop today, what all hip hop is and how many cultures that includes, and the fact that the music’s spread across the world.”
“Why not rappers? Why not our people?” he says.
Looking ahead, Two former OSU classmates have come on as his agent team, and through those contacts he’s looking forward to getting more into the corporate art lane. Because his creative process is so lengthy – 12 hours and day, over the course of about a month for each piece – selling individual pieces just doesn’t reap the effort being put in.
One disadvantage of getting into the art industry so late in the game is that, at his age, he can no longer play the role of “struggling artist.” With a wife and kids, and a mortgage, he now has major responsibilities younger artists typically don’t have.
With that being said, he’s looking into art shows in LA, Miami, and Las Vegas. He hopes that getting his work known in these scenes will spur into large public commissions. Which leads me to ask if he still feels he is making art for arts sake.
“No matter what direction I go in, whether its corporate business or personal commissions, or just even series, every time I finish a portrait, it’s the first time it’s ever been done,” he says. “So it still gives you that fire and that drive and excitement each time you finish a piece, ‘cause you’re looking at something like, ‘Wow, no one in the world has ever seen this.'”
“That’s where the passion still comes from, because it’s a technique that I’m still continuing to refine, continuing to get better at, regardless of the subject matter,” he says.
As our conversation trails off, I ask Percy what his top 5 is. Somehow, he gives me 6: Biggie, Pac, Nas, Ghostface, Mos Def, and Lauryn Hill. I wasn’t prepared when he asked mine, but I mustered up a few: Jay Z, Andre 3000, Eminem (pre Relapse), Lauryn, and a wildcard, Kendrick. I expressed my displeasure for being judged on my top 5, but he said something earlier that no longer makes me second guess it.
“When you’re establishing who is an icon and who is not, it’s who’s relevant to you, and who impacted your life and who impacted your generation,” he says. “So if it’s J Cole or if it’s Gucci Mane, people will laugh at it now, but you’ll soon see these dudes are gonna stick around and 20 years later you’ll look back like, these dudes changed the way we think about music.”