As a kid growing up in Oakland, California, Reginald Sylvester II had an interest in drawing and painting but rarely visited an art gallery, let alone saw himself becoming an artist.
“We [Black people] like to aspire to be things that we see around us….,” the 35-year-old told QCity Metro. “So, I didn’t really have the foresight to see what life could be like being an artist because that just wasn’t around me.”
After years of graphic designing and painting, Sylvester would eventually become a full-time artist and showcase his work across the globe.
On Thursday, he will be presenting “Painter’s Refuge: A Way of Life”, his first American museum exhibition at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Art + Culture.
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The exhibition will include 16 original abstract paintings, centered around social reality and spirituality. The name comes from the use of military tarps and tent shells as the canvas of each painting.
Sylvester said while he was always into painting and drawing, he didn’t take art seriously as a career path until high school when a graphic designer came and spoke to his class.
“I just thought that it was cool that at his foundation was drawing, but he learned design in order to design something that was functional,” said Sylvester. “He sounded like he was having a lot of fun doing it so to me that sounded like something that I could maybe do or possibly make a reality.”
Sylvester pursued a degree in graphic design from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California. After graduating, he began working for Gap Inc. as an advertisement designer for Old Navy.
“You’re young enough. If I were you, I wouldn’t get stuck here. I would go and explore,” Sylvester said his boss told him.
While working for GAP, Sylvester would often paint and freelance in his free time. His GAP art director took notice of his work and encouraged him to pursue it full-time.
In 2015, he moved to New York to start his new career. He connected with a local art dealer and rented out an event space to host his first art show. The show, Sylvester said, sold out.
Sylvester said his initial show quickly opened up doors for more exhibitions. After an art dealer saw his New York show, he was given the opportunity to participate in his first international exhibition in Japan later that year.
The international connections he had made at GAP helped him push his work across the globe. He continued to produce a number of museum exhibitions in cities including Japan, Milan, Mexico City, Basil, and Switzerland.
Sylvester said that while he didn’t go the traditional schooling or residency route as other artists, he is proud of his journey and all the things he has accomplished so far.
“There’s a lot of people coming from different backgrounds, different communities and different foundations getting into places in untraditional ways,” he said. “I’m just another individual that speaks to that.”
If you go:
Date: May 5, 2022 – January 16, 2023
Time: Museum operating hours
Place: Harvey B. Gantt Center