On one wall in the lobby of the new Stanley Museum of Art, an intersecting kaleidoscope of colorful, angular lines stretches from floor to ceiling.
The non-representational mural is the first artwork to be installed in the newly constructed building, and the artist behind it, Odili Donald Odita, has his own abstract connections to the University of Iowa.
Odita was born in Nigeria in 1966. Soon after, his parents fled the country because of Nigeria’s civil war and emigrated to the United States – where they first moved to Iowa. Odita’s father studied design and printmaking at UI, while his mother studied social research. The family later moved to Columbus, OH, where they spent the rest of Odita’s childhood.
TIED TOGETHER: A first look inside the new building of the UI Stanley Museum of Art
The young artist lived in Iowa City for a few years and only returned years later when he was contacted by the Stanley Museum of Art to design and paint a mural in their future lobby.
His mural entitled vicinitydesigned to reflect one of the most famous pieces in UI’s 17,000-piece art collection – Jackson Pollock’s 1943 masterpiece, muralis considered one of the artist’s most seminal works, marking a transition from representational art to the fully abstract “splatter” style for which he is known.
The Pollock painting will be on display as part of the new museum’s inaugural exhibition, which will be shown in one of the second-floor galleries in time for the building’s opening on August 26.
When Odita saw it mural for the first time in person and in colour, after years of viewing Pollock’s work solely from black and white photographs in art textbooks, his view of the painting changed drastically.
Odita first viewed mural He called the intense design and apparent lack of balance of the huge piece one of Pollock’s “problematic” works – but after seeing it in colour, the artist said it made “complete sense”.
“I understood how he used color versus drawing, the intensity of the yellows and whites to complement the structure of the drawing,” Odita said. “It made perfect sense in terms of balance, it was just really impressive.”
Odita’s work will be the first in a series of artworks to be displayed in the lobby and the museum will be titled “Thresholds”. Due to the expected sunlight entering through the lobby’s large windows, it will only be a temporary display to prevent the bright colors from being damaged by sun exposure.
It is expected to stand for a number of years before being painted over.
When it comes to larger projects and murals or murals, Odita says he sees the space in which the mural exists as just as important as the piece itself. He thinks about how one’s body feels in the same space and time how the art might feel.
“Whatever the space is and wherever the space is, it’s definitely an important factor in the work and a part of the work,” Odita said.
TIED TOGETHER: Photos: Stanley Museum of Art Tour
Although the style for which he has become best known is decidedly abstract, Odita’s work did not always adopt the often angular and prismatic patterns seen in it vicinity. Growing up, the artist was largely inspired by comic books and the paintings and artwork his family kept around the house.
His Nigerian heritage also greatly influences his interest in art, Odita said. He describes his childhood as one surrounded by art and art history – his father patronized much of the material that made Odita run, including pieces of African art, various prints and art books on subjects such as the Renaissance or Picasso.
“When I was a kid, my dad had these prints, I’m not sure what they were or what they were for, but I spent my time just copying them one page at a time until I fell asleep,” said Odita. “When I think back to all the stuff I’ve watched, it’s just interesting to see how it turned out.”
Odita said he always knew he wanted to do something with art, having previously been interested in avenues such as photography, illustration and graphic design. Ultimately, however, he said he doesn’t have enough patience for such approaches and simply prefers a larger scale – although he has respect for artists who “bring the diligence” into this type of medium.
The painter’s true “turn” to abstraction, as Odita describes it, happened during his undergraduate years at Ohio State University, when a fellow student told him to find his own style.
“There was someone whose work I admired at school, and you learn by copying, so I’d always take from work that he was doing – one day he came up to me and said, ‘Hey man, you’re copying mine Style, you gotta find your own thing,'” Odita said. “It was very hurtful in a way, but it was very helpful because it just made me think about my own path, and I slowly became an abstractionist from there.”
Odita has been teaching at various institutions for almost 20 years and has lived in Philadelphia since 2006. Odita currently works as an Associate Professor of Painting at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, although he is currently on unpaid leave while taking on personal projects.
While he’s only visited UI a few times to visit faculty members or speak in lectures as a guest artist, Odita said his mural at the Stanley pays tribute not only to Pollock but also to the museum and its rooms. He noted that his various visits took into account Iowa City’s seasonality, resulting in a piece he hopes people will enjoy watching.
“I really wanted to do something here that was dependent on the environment, because I’ve been to different places in the city when it’s been freezing cold as well as when it’s so nice this spring and summer,” Odita said. “I hope it stands up to audiences and makes people happy to see it.”