Onicas Gaddis taught himself to draw, and he learned how to paint from abstract expressionist Sarah Carlisle Towery, an alumnus of Black Mountain College whose family launched the Alabama Art Colony. Gaddis’ uncle, S. M. (Sylvester) Wells, is one of the now-legendary Florida Highwaymen — a group of largely self-taught African American painters (including one woman) who, from the 1950s through the ’80s, forged a collective identity, and a living, traveling and selling their natural Florida landscapes.
Gaddis prizes spontaneity in his own work, and refers to his radiantly kinetic style as “spiritual expressionism.” Leslie Rowland (L Rowland Fine Contemporary Fine Art) displayed Gaddis’ paintings at her Riverview Station Gallery when he first arrived in Asheville, in fall 2020. Early in 2021, he moved his works to the YMI Cultural Center in downtown Asheville for a show running through early February; then they’ll go back to his space at Foundation Studios.
Do you remember when you were first introduced to art?
I remember it vividly. I was seven, I think, sitting across the table from this man who drew a cowboy and Indian. I was like, “This is what I want to do with my life, the rest of my life.”
Why did it make such a profound impression?
It was the magic of it, and I was in a group home. I was in a lot of those. One of them was horrible. I took it real seriously, like God was telling me, “This is what you need to do to fight the pain and change your life and history.” Every home I got transferred to they said, “Just give him a pencil and paper and he’ll be all right.”
Art saved my life. Sometimes I’d think, “Am I going to buy a sandwich or a canvas?” — and then I’d think, “I can go hungry another day.” But every now and then, when I only have twelve cents in my account, I’ll sell a painting.
How’d you move from drawing to painting?
Twenty-two years ago, when I didn’t know how to hold a brush, I met Sarah Carlisle Towery. She was 90 and I painted with her for two years. She was my best friend, and the first person to tell me I’m an artist. She said, “Let the painting be what it wants to be, and add colors however you feel.”
Do you plan your compositions?
None of my work for the past eight or nine years is preconceived at all. I just have a brush and a bucket of paint and it just comes out of me. I’m listening to the canvas and the painting tells me what it wants. I know it’s finished when it starts pulsating.
I heard you priced one of your paintings at a million dollars.
It’s on my website, but I took the price off so I don’t scare people off. It’s called “Heaven and Hell.” I consider it my gift from God for me not stopping.
And what keeps you from stopping?
My two children: Royal T. Gaddis and Roman T. Gaddis. To be near them, I moved to NC. Then I moved to Asheville, and it’s creating magic in my life. I know it’s the mountains. They are spiritual. I hope others are affected by them like I am.
Onicas Gaddis, Foundation Studios #7, 27 Foundy St. Suite 210, River Arts District, Asheville. For more information, visit the artist’s website (onicasart.com), Facebook page, and Instagram (@onicasgaddis). An exhibit of Gaddis’ work will be at the YMI Cultural Center (39 South Market St., downtown Asheville, ymiculturalcenter.org) through Thursday, Feb. 4.