COLOR FROM THE GRAY
An interview with artist Purnell Gray (better known as, Purnell the Painter).
At first glance, one might think of 20-year-old Purnell Gray as your average young adult. Like most young people, he’s navigating the seas of life, discovering himself along the way. However, unlike most people his age, Purnell has already explored the harsh realities of growing up on the east side of Baltimore (which has a violent crime rate of 1,417 per 100,000 residents) and almost immediately after speaking with him one can easily hear the words of a young man with wisdom far beyond his years. In a time where there is an unquestionable amount of pressure on young black men to live with discernment and find ways to protect themselves from a world that often seems pitted against them, he has learned to channel his power and intellect the way he knows best – through his paintbrush. Yes, Purnell has found something truly remarkable within himself, a gift that allows him to create incredible works of art that speak of his resilience and desire to overcome all odds. The self-taught artist with the infectious smile and honest-but-optimistic view of the world around him makes him a truly fascinating individual (with equally fascinating works of art).
Purnell, tell me a bit about where you’re from.
I was born and raised on the east side of Baltimore. At a young age I was exposed to gangs, guns, violence and drugs and the reality that it’s survival of the fittest. (like it is for most people born in urban environments). My parent did there best to keep me from seeing certain things but it’s only so much they can do when thats whats around you.
What was life like from the start?
At birth I was overdue, my umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck and I was being poisoned because I pooped while I was still inside the womb so of course my mother needed a c-section. Before I even got to see my first glimpse I was facing a life or death situation, not including the fact that my mother wasn’t suppose to be able to have anymore children. Nonetheless, on March 11th, 1996 I was born, considered a miracle baby. I guess that goes to show I think I was always meant to overcome obstacles (since I was facing them before I could even see).
What are some of your memories of growing up in Baltimore?
A simple way to sum up my life is like my father said, “better than some, worse than others.” Growing up in the city forces you to grow up quickly. My parents, like any other parents, did their best to raise me and tried to keep me from seeing certain things and certain problems. They always put food on the table and I always had a roof over my head. At a young age I was exposed to gangs, drugs, guns, etc. and dealing with all of that you have to learn how to react to certain situations. For example I was only in elementary when I was almost jumped for the first time and had a knife pulled on me plus other situations I witnessed happen. Things like this happen everyday in the city I’m from and now I feel like it’s getting a little more out of hand because kids are getting shot just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These situations teach you your own lessons in your own way and like my father taught me, to always be aware of my surroundings. I was a busy-body though and I was always traveling around the city from east to west to downtown . I love my city but with that love you have to understand that that living in an environment with that much pressure can be the downfall of a lot of people. You can either have the right amount of pressure that helps you find your lane and push you to grind harder to get out, or too much pressure that can catch up to you before you know it. I know people that have been killed or committed suicide before we were juniors in high school. I’m blessed enough to be here myself , I’ve been in a situations that could’ve turned bad. But to us these things are common, and when I say us I’m talking about anyone from any city or hood. I’m one of the few in my family who’s been able to keep a clean record and I’ve been blessed enough to keep it that way (but that’s an everyday battle for anyone here). I could go on for days about the things I’ve experienced but the point is that so far I haven’t fallen victim to any of these things or circumstances. Through all of it I still have my love, a passion to create and the hunger for what I see in my future. I still have my family Both of my parents which I think plays a major role in who I am. These very things are the reason behind my diamond paintings. Simply because diamonds form under extremely high temperature and pressure and I feel like it’s an exact replica of what we go through everyday. Baltimore isn’t the easiest place to make it out of and those that survive and make it out are the diamonds.
When did your love for art begin?
Art has always been apart of my life as far back as I can remember. When I was a kid my parents would buy me tons of coloring books and I would color in them all the time. Eventually I transitioned from the books to doing my own sketches and I remember for the longest time I used to always draw cars and characters. That was around 3rd and 4th grade when I started doing my sketches and people in my class would always ask me if I was going to be an artist.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist for a living?
Well, at that time I didn’t know what I wanted to do so my answer would be things like “I don’t know” or “naw it’s just something I do in my extra time.” All I knew was that I wanted to be my own boss. When I was in middle school I started to make the transition from paper to the walls. I don’t know what it was but it’s just something that happened naturally so all my sketches started turning into more street/graffiti style work and through graffiti I met some of my closest friends while hitting the streets. Around 8th grade is when I realized that this graffiti/art world/lifestyle was more apart of me than I thought. That’s when I realized what it was that I wanted to do, I mean I always wanted to be my own boss but that’s when I figured out exactly what it was that I wanted -to be an artist. I didn’t know how I was going to do it exactly but that wasn’t an excuse for me to pass up doing what I loved. From that point on I was doing whatever I could think of to promote myself and get my work out.
So how did you begin promoting yourself and your art? I think this important because I’m sure there are so many inner-city kids who feel like they have a passion for the arts and have no idea how to show people or get started.
The people who knew me had already made it clear that they really liked my work and that I shouldn’t stop. So me and my boy started doing a lot of footwork going to different galleries around the city different small businesses and even some larger businesses just talking to the people that worked in those places seeing if we could hang any work in their shops or paint the walls outside. From that I started meeting different people, putting in applications for art stores so that I could get discounts on supplies (never was hired haha) and when Instagram came out I started posting my work there and was getting nothing but love and respect from people not only from Baltimore but other states as well. I didn’t have tons of followers but the fact that people were contacting me telling me I inspired them to start drawing again or pursuing what it is they really had a passion for, I don’t think there’s any way I can explain how good that felt. Along with that, creating is something that puts me in my own zone, it keeps my mind off of the fucked up reality that we live in and the harsh ways of the world. I guess you can say it’s an escape or a place we can vent our true expressions without worrying about other people’s opinions and people feel that. I get respect from your average joe to straight street cats because I’m in my own lane and I’m true to myself and true to what I do I’m not worried about impressing people. I showed my work at a few events and galleries in the city but nothing that took me where I see myself going. Baltimore doesn’t have a crazy art scene like NY, LA, or even MIA, so anyone who’s in this field where I’m from has to grind 100 times harder… anyone in any field at that because our city is so small.
Is paint your only medium?
As of right now Yes paint is my only medium but of course as I grow I plan on working with new mediums.
How do you usually begin working on a new piece?
I actually don’t have an exact answer to this question it all depends on what comes over me in that moment. My brain is constantly in go mode so anything can run across my mind and I feel like I want to express that thought, vision, or idea. I don’t have a specific method
What people have been influential to you throughout your career?
Well my friends and family are the most influential to me. Without my parents being the people they are showing me how to be a leader and think for myself I probably wouldn’t be the same person I am now and we wouldn’t even be doing this interview. Also my close Friends because I don’t know anybody our age with the mindset and hustle that we have so they won’t let me slack up. So many different people have been influential to me in so many different ways from the “if it dont work out” people to the people who support me all the way. The people who always ask and say thing like “what if?” are influential to me because it makes me feel like I have a point to prove so I have to go 100x times harder than the next man. The supporters are another Key to keeping the machine going because It’s like I know I do this for myself but now I have people counting on me so I can’t let them down
What’s integral to your workflow?
Some Type of background noise whether it’s the breakfast club, music, or the tv.
What role does the artist have in society?
I believe Us as artist no matter what form i.e painters, musicians, poets, ect have to stay true to ourselves and who we are, your craft and passion should come from an Honest place within. Thats all I can say, atleast for other artist, but for myself I feel like my Role is to first take care of my family and find ways to contribute to making my city better. Eventually I want to do what I can to help or contribute to other cities as well because I feel like it’s a lot of problems out here and majority of people complain about the problem but sit around & do nothing about them. I want to be the complete opposite I want my impact to be felt across the world one day.
How has your art changed over time?
With anything thing you do the more you do it the better it gets. I feel like my artwork has matured my techniques have gotten better. The more and more time goes on the more my ideas grow. I also have people around that give me Pointers to help improve my skill level.
Where’s the craziest place you’ve ever created a piece of art?
So far there hasn’t been a place I’ve created a piece that made me think “wow this is crazy” or “I’m the first or only person to do this” hopefully soon I do travel somewhere and create a dope piece where it’s never been done before.
Tell us about your collaboration with the Esoteric Collection, how did that come about?
Well first I’m a hustler meaning I understand that no matter what it is that you trying to do you have to get it out and get around.You can’t make progress if you stay in one place you not talking to people telling them who you are and what you are doing. So I would be up all night sending emails and contacting people I would probably get 2-3 hours of sleep I came across Aaron’s page on instagram and was following because I noticed he was posting dope art work on his page and some of the things he was posting just let me know we had a lot in common so I decided to reach out to him. Long story short I was already planning on going to Art basel in 2015 and and we stayed in contact up until art basel came around he told me he was going to be out there and that was just an extra reason to make sure I made it out there. So I packed a bag and caught a greyhound 27+ hours from Baltimore to Miami (probably the most uncomfortable ride ever) with no place to go and stay and met him at his event in Wynwood and from that moment we instantly connected like family You would’ve thought we were brothers in My Opinion by the end of the night him and his crew made sure I had a place to stay for the rest of my trip so The esoteric collection isn’t just a partnership or business relationship Aaron & Raven are like family and I’m standing behind whatever they do.
What themes do you pursue when creating a new piece?
The theme I pursue Most often Is that diamonds form under pressure, and that we are in a world where constant pressure is applied. I think that is the most universal statement or realization that all “classes” of people can relate to because We all face our own types of problems from the top dogs on wall street to somebody at the very very bottom. Yes the type of problems might be very very different and one person may prefer to deal with one type of problem over another but they both share this problem that can make or break them and Diamonds are a perfect resemblance of that.
What is your crew of friends like? How do they support you?
I have a small number of Friends I keep around me and we all have the same mindset, similar goals and see ourselves in a certain position in the near future. We all support each other and try to build each other up because its easy to loose hope, focus and faith out here especially with all things thats going on . We each got our own problems we facing so we need each other because we gotta finish this marathon and if that means pulling each other along the way then thats what it has to be. The thing that separates us from most is that everyone is a “dreamer” but who’s really going to wake up from the dream and go get it? That’s why we are so close because we on the same path thats rarely traveled we not trying to be like anyone else we’re being ourselves
What is it about bright bold colors that you love so much?
Colors are what bring something to life its what captures the eye, draws you in and sets the mood. think of it as the beat to a song the beat is what captures you and draws you and the message is relayed while flowing with the beat color is the same thing for me it sets the mood and captures your attention for whatever I’m trying to relay in the visual
What’s your favorite piece of work thus far?
Most of the time my most recent set of pieces are always my favorite. So Right now the last 6-7 pieces I worked on are my favorites and I’m pretty sure I’m always going to be that way.
Describe a real-life situation that inspired you?
2015 art basel was probably the most inspiring situation I’ve come across thus far because it was my first experience going somewhere that people all over the world come for the same reason I did and seeing the skill level of some of the artist was amazing and I learned so much while I was out there.
Who are some of the artists that inspired you while coming up in your career?
I’ve gotten inspiration from so many different types of artist in so many different ways from contemporary and pop artist to Musicians and graffiti artist. The reason why is because I don’t only look at the finished product I Like to see the story behind them how I can relate and what makes them different. To name a few I would say David choe, Takashi murakami, Gats (PTV crew), PichiAvo, Boogie (sml crew), Swizz Beats, Gary Vaynerchuk (entrepreneur), King saladeen, Boosie (rapper), Meek Mill, Diddy, Charlie Jabaley aka CEO charlie, BK the artist, Hebru Brantley, Floyd Mayweather, Ironeye Retna, OG slick, Kevin Hart, and so many more. The dedication and Love for what they do, the grind and hustle they have is what inspires me It wouldn’t be fair to just name painters because they aren’t the only people I look at for inspiration on a daily bases each of the people I listed plus others inspire me in their own way.
Do you think you see the world from an artistic point of view?
Not only do I think I see the world from an artistic point of view but also an opportunistic, and ambitious point of view. I take time out to just appreciate certain things that others may not. I like to fully engulf myself in certain environments and find peace within myself.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
The biggest thing to me is when I actually was in contact with a financially wealthy individual for a little while prior to art Basel 2015 and prior to me meeting Aaron. That situation I thought was the big move haha the situation ended up not turning out but it was a great learning experience
What do you do when you’re not creating art?
If I’m not creating I’m probably planning things & projects I can do to take everything to the next level or visiting friends and family because that is the 2 most important things. From time to time me & some of my people ride dirt bikes & 4 wheelers or I’m driving all over maryland getting inspiration and looking a properties I want to buy in the future.
In your opinion, how can we help encourage the arts to today’s youth?
If we can show the youth to stick with the things they’re good at and love to do and that it will all pay off if you stay in your own lane and stay focused through the distractions. They will want to stay in tune with that creative side of themselves. I have a ton of ideas of ways to encourage arts to today’s youth but I rather wait until im close to putting them in action before I choose to discuss them.
What is your dream project?
I have about 3 Major Dream projects I plan on doing some day My dream project is to collab and have some type of partnership with chevy and Diamond supply. I also want to do a custom Dirt Bike and atv For Monster Energy and James Stewart.
What’s next for Purnell the Painter? How can fans and collectors get in touch with you?
I just want to keep Growing, keep going bigger & bigger developing my craft and inspire the younger generations coming up. Anyone can find me on instagram @Purnellthepainter or email me at Purnellg3@gmail.com
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