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Donovan Durham's 'Fantastic Print Show'
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The crowd gathers at Highpoint Center for Printmaking for the opening of 'Donovan Durham's Fantastic Print Show.' (MPR Photo/Marianne Combs)
One of the perks of being an artist is sometimes you get to name your own show. Painter and sketch artist Donovan Durham called his: "Donovan Durham's Fantastic Print Show." It turns out his life story is just as fantastic as his art.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Donovan Durham wants to go to arts school.

"I'd learn how to sketch, paint, design, and do some photography," says Durham. "And I'd go to different countries. Someday I may be rich!"

Durham, a 44-year old black man with a sweet baby face, may not need to go to arts school to achieve all these things. He creates portraits of singers from the late 1950s and early 60s, landscapes he remembers from his youth, or images of places he'd like to visit someday. He draws cartoon-like storybooks about a character named Dobby.

His drawings and paintings have already appeared in numerous group exhibits, and on this day he's preparing the final prints for a solo show of his work at Highpoint Center for Printmaking.

"There's gonna be alot of people there looking around, eating," stutters Durham. "There's gonna be food, music and entertainment. Everybody's going to be at my show, well not all people, but just a thousand will be at the show - people from my church, my staff - I'm really excited about my show."

Durham suffers from both paranoid schizophrenia and sickle cell anemia.

As a small child growing up in the south, Durham saw a doctor who encouraged him to draw to help him express his feelings. But when the doctor put his work in a group show, and it received high praise, Durham's parents took issue. They were extremely religious and believed his drawings offended God. They withdrew him from the doctor's clinic, forbade him to draw, and soon after moved out of town. But Durham's love of art persisted.

"I like to do backgrounds, design, shadow and shade and I do paintings too," says Durham, "Paintings with color, lakes and trees and water and everything, everything."

Durham doesn't talk much about what happened to him in the decades that followed. Eight years ago Durham showed up alone in the Twin Cities and plugged himself into the local mental health system. The staff there encouraged him to join Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Interact is a center that helps artists with disabilities develop their craft and make connections with the professional art world. For the last three months, thanks to a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Durham has been spending his Mondays at Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis. He's learned how to make prints of his drawings, and unique color monoprints.

Highpoint's Artistic Director Cole Rogers says in many ways Durham has been easier to work with than other artists because he's so confident.

"He's not at all concerned about whether or not it looks correct in a specific way," says Rogers. "I should say he's unburdened by too much academic schooling."

Rogers says Durham's work is of high quality; it clearly expresses a fresh personal vision. In just a dozen Mondays Durham churned out over 20 prints, with a focus and energy most artists would envy. Highpoint Managing Director Karla McGrath says she's amazed at how Durham has risen above his health problems to succeed.

"He will tell us that he hears some people talking to him or he'll mention that he just doesn't feel very good but he's still in here doing his work," says McGrath. "Donovan knows that for him making artwork is pretty much essential to his well-being."

Highpoint Center for Printmaking will take several of Durham's prints to a show in New York in November, where they will be seen by art dealers from around the world.

This is big news, but it's not the first time Durham's caught the attention in New York. Interact Center for the Performing and Visual Arts often puts on group shows of its artists' work in its gallery space. It was while preparing for taking one of the shows on tour that Exhibition Program Director Jennifer Schultz stumbled across Durham's name in the catalog of a 1993 exhibition.

"The show was called 'Unsigned, Unsung, Whereabouts Unknown' and it was an exhibition of work that had been curated by a professor of Florida state," says Schultz. "The reference to Donovan mentioned his hometown, gave his date of birth... there just aren't that many Donovan Durhams out there."

Schultz learned that while Durham's parents had destroyed most of his art, his doctor had kept several of the drawings, and later sold them, believing that Durham was probably dead. Schultz says originally she was very excited for Durham. She says she assumed that since he'd been recognized in an academic exhibition he would have the support of the art establishment.

"As we've gone along and I've found out what has happened to some of the work that he did as a child, I'm also a little bit concerned for him," says Scultz, "because he really needs business representation. He really needs somebody who can help him manage his career, he needs to understand what has happened to his work and we need to find out what his rights are in regard to his work that has made its way out into the world now."

According to art dealer Gene Epstein, it's unlikely that Durham has any rights. Epstein is the director of American Primitives Gallery. He specializes in folk or outsider art. He started collecting Durham's work about 25 years ago. He says he's sold Durham's drawings to some high profile collectors, including director Jonathan Demme. He's seen some of Durham's recent work, and he says he's not nearly as impressed.

"I honestly don't think they're in the same ballpark as the early ones." says Epstein. "They're not as interesting, they're not as good, they're not as focussed."

Epstein says Durham should find someone to represent him, but he himself is not interested. Epstein says this is not the first time one of the artists who's work he sells has come back from the dead. He admits, a living artist tends to complicate things.

The opening night of Donovan Durham's Fantastic Print Show arrives. Durham is dressed for the occasion, in black slacks, a sharp blue shirt and a white rose boutonier.

To celebrate, Highpoint offers some of Durham's favorite foods - green bean casserole, jello with whipped cream, and cupcakes. They're a big hit with the crowd.

Durham greets everyone with a handshake and offers to show them some of the details of his paintings and drawings. While the attendance probably didn't reach the one thousand mark, it's still a good turnout.

Matthew Grenz works across the street at Rex Hardware. He stopped in on a whim and says he's glad he did.

"The childlike innocence of it is really great," says Grenz. "It's one of those things where you can see he's obviously doing subjects he loves and really developping that. It's got a simple quality to it that's good to appreciate, really good to see."

Grenz says unlike many schooled artists, Durham's work is obviously from the heart. Interact's Jennifer Schultz says it's that heartfelt passion for his work that's going to take Durham far.

"He's so driven and he has such clear goals as to what he wants to learn and accomplish," says Schultz, "that I don't doubt he will find a way and he'll help us find a way to allow more people to see his work and for his work to ultimately become a main source of support for him."

Schultz says Durham's outgoing nature is helping other artists like him gain public attention and support.

Meanwhile, Donovan Durham is clearly thrilled at having his own "Fantastic Print Show."

"Fantastic! Excellent! Very, very excellent!"