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Kenturah Davis weaves words into art in Leimert Park




Kenturah Davis with her self-portrait at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
Kenturah Davis with her self-portrait at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
John Rabe
Kenturah Davis with her self-portrait at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
Close-up of Kenturah Davis' monumental self-portrait shows that it's all made up of words she layers on each square of paper. It's part of a new exhibit at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
John Rabe
Kenturah Davis with her self-portrait at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
A monumental drawing of three of Kenturah Davis' friends and acquaintances, showing at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA. It's all done by layering words onto the paper.
John Rabe
Kenturah Davis with her self-portrait at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
Detail of a monumental drawing of three of Kenturah Davis' friends and acquaintances, showing at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
John Rabe
Kenturah Davis with her self-portrait at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
The poem by Kenturah Davis she used to make her self-portrait. Her gallery is Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
John Rabe
Kenturah Davis with her self-portrait at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.
Kenturah Davis starts with photographs of her subjects, many of whom are uncomfortable in front of the camera, as she is herself.
John Rabe


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Off-Ramp host John Rabe talks with LA artist Kenturah Davis about her exhibit of drawings, "Narratives and Meditations," at Papillion Art in Leimert Park in South LA.

A lot of artists incorporate words into their art. Only a few succeed. A painter like Wayne White can plaster cartoony block letters across a thrift store landscape and somehow make it feel right. Kenturah Davis, who has a new show at Papillion Art in Leimert Park, takes the opposite approach, subtly integrating repeated phrases into her huge pencil portraits of African-Americans.

She starts by writing the phrase over and over to form the background of a given drawing, then adds layers of the phrase — perhaps dozens for dark places on the paper, perhaps only one of two more layers for lighter areas. Here's a time-lapse video that shows her process:

Watch her work: Kenturah Davis Draws Troy Davis: "Terminated with Extreme Prejudice"

Davis, 33, told me that she was born and raised in Altadena, "a quiet little neighborhood that's still accessible to the rest of L.A., and a good place to come from." She's the daughter of two accomplished artists: Her father is a portraitist and was an artist for the studios ("Tron" is among his credits) and her mother is a quilter, among other things. Kenturah studied painting at Occidental. ("Go Tigers!")

But Davis came to realize painting was wrong for her, and after quitting all art for a couple years, she began to write and draw in her sketchbooks. One day, she had an epiphany. "Language is so integral to who we are, and experimenting with language and words led me to making drawings a different way." Hence the drawings that seamlessly interweave image and language.

RELATED: Another artist making her own way against type: actor/comedian Charlyne Yi

Her subjects gaze straight at the camera with neutral expressions that let you imagine what they're thinking. They're a mix of men and women, and almost all are African-Americans.

"I start with what I know, and I feel that part of my responsibility as a black artist is to put forth better images of black people, at a time when media doesn't always portray black people in a good light," she said. 

What she winds up with are honest, compelling, intriguing portraits of... people.