Artist Spotlight: Devon McKnight

Note: Be advised there is strong language in this piece.

In the Artist Spotlight series of blog posts, the Layered Onion highlights an artist in the community. We’ll get a chance to learn more about them and their work.

In this post we are featuring Devon McKnight (they), an artist based in North Carolina.

Devon is a prolific painter with an innovative eye for color. Devon describes their work as coming:

“out of a history of formality and a desire to break apart the structure of a system, specifically Painting. I question what makes up a painting: how it is formed, what it can be, what it can mean, where it comes from.

I consider the formal in its most basic existence, separating line, color, shape. Using these elements I arrange and rearrange, coming upon more questions within these fragile relationships. There is a lot of looking that takes place. After putting down paint, I sit and look, trying to see the forms and spaces that have been shaped and those that could be.

I try to stay in this liminal space of transience. It is a place of wonder and precarity, lines and forms falling apart, barely stable. To not know, to be insecure in meaning, draws out openness and a welcoming of fear and doubt. There is strength in the pursuit and in the mere existence. There is energy in the endless exploration that transfers to and draws from everyday life and I hope enters the lives of those that encounter this work.”

Devon McKnight hails from Greensboro (Climax, really), North Carolina where they studied Painting at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. They traveled to California seeking a new landscape and completed their Masters of Fine Art at San Jose State University in 2015. After graduating Devon lived and worked in East Oakland but has since returned home to North Carolina where they help run a community arts organization. McKnight’s work has been shown throughout the United States, as well as Australia. Their practice comes out of a history of formality within painting and a desire to break apart or unmap the structures of our dysfunctional systems: social, artistic, political, educational. Devon has curated their own and other artist’s work through an artist collective called Spare Room and is a contributing writer to The Coastal Post.

Devon did a Q&A with The Layered Onion, talking about their art and community work:

What first drew you to art?

Art has always been embedded in my life. Our house was filled with art, no actual paintings that I remember, but reproductions of Georgia Okeefe paintings, I think I remember a print of a Bruegel painting?, weavings, a family photo wall, and hella books. Going to see films as a family was a thing, even as a child. My mother taught high school English so the arts were always being discussed.

Both of my parents are creative, my mother as a teacher and writer and my dad in less obvious ways, in his ability to fix anything and build anything…he’s into woodworking now after retiring from being an electrician. The way he thinks through a problem…I remember when he’d help me with my math homework, he never did the steps like my teacher taught us but he still got to the right answer. And music, my father taught me about music. We grew up listening to it all, and talking about it.  My Aunt is a doctor but she’s an artist. When I was little she was making ceramic jewelry and now she’s a pro knitter and even my grandmother was making ceramic pieces when I was a kid. It fed into my brothers as well. One is a creative director and has been one all of his life even before being paid and given the title. The oldest is a botanist that works as an urban designer/city planner. He’s the otherworldly type, always spaced out studying the flora and fauna. So all that, to say I don’t think I was really drawn to art, rather, it is of me. I don’t know what it’s like to not have a world centered around the arts…books, music, film, stories, poetry, painting, all of it.

I was a kid that played outside, so I wasn’t really painting or drawing early on, but I was deeply imagining. As a visual learner, I was probably thinking creatively from an early age, but I didn’t really step into capital A art until college. I was probably making art in various ways and just didn’t consider it art; playing guitar in high school, cutting down a tree and carving a totem pole for my senior project, writing poetry and participating in writing contests, helping create the yearbook each year, designing layouts. However, I remember struggling in my art classes in high school, lacking the skills to achieve what I had in mind.

Devon McKnight, untitled. 8x6in, pigment and medium on panel. 2022.

You have an eye for color and texture. Why painting?

I want to say it’s what I’m good at. To get your BFA you have to take courses in all the mediums and I struggled with all of them except painting. Everything except painting had too many steps between me and the surface, me and the thing. I like that with painting it’s very direct and immediate. And the colors, I could just eat them. They’re so beautiful and full and I can literally feel parts of my body tingle when I use certain colors. I remember first learning to mix colors with oil paints, like truly. I would spend whole days just preparing my palette for a painting, mixing the colors I’d need, each shade, each tint, 10 shades of red, working with the cools and warms, realizing how much a speck of white can alter a color, making your own black from blue, yellow and red. It’s fucking incredible. The way colors sit next to each other and adjust or how they shine through one another on the canvas, I mean you see all of that in nature when looking at tree leaves for example or in us as people and how we shift next to each other. Painting changes the way you see the world, the way you relate to it.

I remember when I was 16, for my birthday I got to go see the Monet exhibition at the local museum. I was floored. I mean come on, the color! I see his paintings as color, period. Sure it’s cathedrals and hay stacks, but what makes your heart explode is the way he puts down color, which is texture, the marks. When I go to see paintings, I go for the marks. I want to see how it was made, how the artist put down their marks and wonder why. It’s like studying their imprint, reasoning, choices, and it’s all tied to their environment, time period, personhood.

Halfway through undergrad I got really depressed. I was attempting to major in Graphic Design, which I was failing at. I knew I was creative, but I didn’t know how to move forward with it and I thought graphic design was the ticket to a job in the arts. I was terribly wrong. I stopped going to classes and barely left the house. Then, a friend said she was going to Europe for a few months, sort of tagging along with a study abroad group and I decided to go with her. I cashed in stock that had been building since my birth to support the trip. We backpacked through Europe for a month and then lived in Prague for 3-4 months. When I got back, I switched my major to painting. I’m not sure if it was the exposure to Art centers (and art colonizers) of the world or the adventure and independence I experienced that gave me permission to follow this path. The genius thing about art making is that it’s so of the self. You gravitate to what works for you like a magnet, if you allow it or are able to make space for it. For me, I want to put down color on a surface. I want to see the mark that my brush makes. I could do just that for multiple lifetimes. But it took me a long time to be okay with that. To own it. Even with 2 degrees in painting, I still feel shy about it.

You talk about line, color, and shape – sitting with them and rearranging them. Do you have a specific process that you go through?

I’m in it for the process. Painting is the making, not the thing.  I’ve moved through different mediums: oil, watercolor, acrylic, found materials, collage, but the process is the same, always about using the elements of composition: line, color, shape, to ask questions or question things. So I’ll put down a mark and then I’ll react to it. The idea is to get to a space where I’m not thinking, I’m painting. It takes a lot of work to get to that space. There’s so much time spent on fretting, failing, faking it, realizing I’m faking it and covering it up, being insecure, getting hella mad and frustrated and doubting myself, asking questions, reading, listening to other artists, looking, a lot of looking, wondering, pep talks, and of course all that feeds into the work. So once I’m in that non-thinking space, it can kind of just come out. There are some days where I walk in and I can step right into that space and there are some spans of time where I stay frustrated for days on end and usually that means I need to switch things up, try something new or it’s just working things out. I work pretty quickly because I’m after immediacy or of the moment, but this happens over long periods of time. Like right now I’m working on maybe 20 different paintings all at once. But I’ll probably be moving around them for a month or so. Some paintings are done in 5 minutes and some months and months.

Because I’m in the thick of the process currently, I’ll use “now” as an example. I switched up my mediums when the pandemic hit and I got a new studio space. I wanted to move away from watercolors on paper, which I’d been working with for the past 5 years. Acrylic has always been difficult for me, so I wanted to lean into that and see what I could discover. There’s been a long process of figuring out materials, learning about them and what I want from them, experimenting, finding the right brushes and surfaces and how to make all of that conducive to supporting an output.

So I landed on pure pigments, liquid pigment (the color is unbeatable) and I mix them with clear mediums that have a matte finish. This sort of “fixes” them to the surface. I had to learn that. Then I lay them down on wood panels. I can buy panels somewhat cheaply, but I’ve been working with my dad to build them out of Luan, a super cheap plywood. We buy huge sheets and cut them down to whatever size I choose and then he frames them in wood. They become these precious objects, handmade. I live with my dad so I’ve loved having this relationship with him as we troubleshoot. I can tell him what I’m needing and he can problem solve. Like, for a while we were using scraps from our wood floor to frame the panels. The finished pieces just look so interesting with that flooring on there, it’s hilarious to me, and one of a kind.

There’s that part of the process and in tandem, I’m making marks, figuring out how I want the paint to sit on the surface, which is so wild when I really think about it. There’s so much tension and contradiction. I am so in love with the mark that it’s really, really difficult for me to push or edit. I’ve been used to watercolor, which is all about that first mark and leaving it. So I think that has led me to this repetition of mark. But I’m trying hard to let go and dive in. This means, making marks on the surface that aren’t comfortable for me, covering them up, trying other marks, covering those, wiping it out, moving things around. But truly all that is difficult. So much of me resists it. I get frozen and of course I get scared. There’s a lot of fear. And I realize that sounds weird…to be afraid of a mark, but this is my heart, my deepest insides, my truest self that I’m investigating. I want to see something I’ve never seen before and that’s complicated because lots of times that process is really uncomfortable or I’m completely unsure about it and I just can’t tell if what I’m making is crap or I’m onto something. So that’s where I have to do a lot of sitting and looking and asking. And I definitely don’t do this enough. It’s sort of like how we are asked to look at ourselves…we don’t do this enough because it’s exhausting and oftentimes we just don’t want to go there, it’s too much, too painful. I know if you’re looking at my work and the beautiful colors you wouldn’t think pain, but change is painful isn’t it? Growth, that shit hurts and the only way to grow is to reflect.

I want to add that I have had support along the way. I have a mentor and friend who I speak with regularly. She was a professor in grad school and we got on so well we just stuck. She’s a painter too, as well as her son. We three have a regular chat where we share work, materials, artists and ideas. I have another friend who’s a painter and we chat everyday. Most of my friends are artists so that community is vital. I’ve been without it before and it was terrible, I felt lost. That is why I’m so incredibly excited about The Layered Onion and its specific community.

Some of your art seems to deal in symbols. It reminds me of hieroglyphics. Can you describe a little more about these pieces?

Oof, I’ll try. I started making the “glyphs” soon after I moved back to North Carolina from Oakland where I’d been living and working post grad school.

Devon McKnight, untitled. 11×8.5in, pastels on paper. 2019.

I decided to move home for a variety of reasons, but a big one was that my health was declining and I needed a support system. I had become increasingly physically weak, so it felt best to sit at a table and paint with the least amount of movement. I was making really small marks on 8.5×11 inch paper and working in sketchbooks. I found myself sort of grouping these small marks and building lists of them. It was a very repetitive process with small or minimal variances. It really took me out of my head, but also required focus or concentration, the kind I didn’t have to think or worry about. And I remember liking the way they sat together. You could see the individual as well as the grouping. I started to think of them as “in community.” Even within the “individuals” there were parts supporting each other or merging.

Feeling too ignorant about hieroglyphs, symbols and linguistics to really know what I’m talking about, I’ll say it’s on my mind. Hieroglyphs were an alphabet that made up the Egyptian language, right? I like the idea of images as the first written language. I think the paintings of mine you are referring to remind folks, and me, of hieroglyphs or language because of the format they’re in; a repetitious listing. It looks like, reads like, language or categorizing. I think that’s more evidence of process or thought process and maybe a comfortable format for me to work within. Painting is both a safe space of comfort for me and also a terrifying, challenging space that’s constantly shifting and moving and is infinitely boundless. Reflecting now, I started working in this way to form intimacy with myself. I was needing to go inward.  These paintings I make are evidence of what’s going on within me and thus all around me. Trying to make sense of it all, pushing my understanding of existence, questioning everything, and when it’s really good, it’s beyond knowing. Isn’t that what artists do? We observe, take in, and then because we exist in the freedom of what art is, we can go into unknown places and make those places available to others through the work we make. What I love about painting, specifically abstraction, and most especially the work from my favorite painters, is how much we can express, convey, say or present with a color, a form, a line…space. The universality of it is everything.

In tandem with painting, I’m deeply investigating the systems we live within and how they show up in me or how I participate in them. I’m wrestling with rape culture, whiteness, patriarchy, fatphobia, anti-blackness, gender, sexuality, capitalism, ableism, etc. and of course this isn’t apparent in the work, but if bell hooks taught us anything it was to think critically. If we can start there, then it’s sort of like dominos. So when I am making marks, what guides me is the search for the unknown and the continuous and non linear process of getting “there” is what you see and what I believe is at the core of liberation. I love how I can make these forms that seem to exist in an in-between. We are so controlled in every aspect of our lives, but inside we’re limitless, if we want to be, and when we go here or exist in that space, it extends beyond us, radiates out and into others. When I can get to that space in painting, then the painting can serve as a reminder to me (and others) of that possibility.

You display some of your art with quotes. How do you pick what fits with the work?

Last year I was reading a ton; lots of bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Ocean Vuong and I would pull quotes from what I was reading. I mean, they’re all just so quotable. You want to savor each line because each line is so full. I was bringing these writers into the studio with me and sitting them beside the paintings I was making. Maybe trying to make connections or just seeing how they interacted. It’s more for my personal consumption, to help me in my own thoughts. I did this in grad school with music I was listening to while painting. And then I’ve done it a bit in a book I made where paintings are interspersed with quotes I pulled from my life…things I overheard people say, nothing deep, more like a nod to how we were living at a certain time. I usually have a long list of “writings” or quotes and I think the visual and textual just gravitate towards one another, or it’s a feeling, a curiosity, or a trying-on of sorts. In grad school, you know, we had to produce a written thesis along with an exhibition of works and instead of positioning my work in an art history context, I wrote a sort of memoir-ish prose that sat with the paintings, again, quotes or moments pulled from my everyday and deep past. I reckon I was giving them context. It sort of tied place and memory to all the unlearning I was going through at the time.

Tell us more about the community arts organization. What’s your favorite part about working with it?

I am the art + community coordinator for Center for Visual Artists(CVA) in Greensboro, North Carolina. We are located inside the city’s Cultural Arts Center which is home to 20 or so art non-profits. CVA has a gallery that shows mostly local artists year round as well as classrooms and a ceramic studio that hosts art classes for all ages. We work to make art and art experiences accessible to all.

My favorite part is most definitely the people. I get to work with all different kinds of artists, which can be difficult because so many personalities, but…so many personalities! Most, if not all(?) of my friends are artists and many of them I met or became close with through the CVA. We work with artists of all ages and all levels, so I get the privilege of having a front row seat to this community and I get to support them, shine a light, which most always creates ripples.

In this work I get to see the growth of an artist, their work and themselves. I see the confidence grow, the skill, the joy, the opportunities and in some cases they are growing their families at the same time and it feels full circle. Community is a buzzword these days, but that right there is community to me, to be amongst that growth and to do what we can to provide resources and support so it can continue and thrive. That is the goal. The relationships and community connectedness is life giving.

And my team. As a small organization and team of 3, we don’t have many resources, but we have a lot of freedom in our ideas and are united in our dedication to supporting artists. We continue to try new things, seeing what works, what doesn’t. And we work directly with the community to give them what they need. There’s so much collaboration going on, which is my favorite way to work.

I am a highly anxious person, for a variety of reasons, but when I allow myself to step back, I am reminded that I spend my days talking with artists and working for us. So many artists showed their art for the very first time at CVA, sold their first piece, bought their first piece, made their first piece or gained community. Art makes our world go round and as artists, we are severely undervalued, so to work everyday to uplift artists and art and in the town where I was born and raised?…Wow, what a life.

You also mention writing for The Coastal Post. What kind of pieces do you write?

We do studio visit write ups at The Coastal Post. I started when I was living in the Bay Area after Francesca Cozzone, one of the co-founders, visited my studio in grad school and wrote about my process. I began writing about the work of the artists in my life, aiming to choose artists who I feel could offer something different, whether it’s how they’re thinking or what they’re doing with their work…there’s usually a social aspect. And I look to spotlight artists who are somewhat in their beginnings. It’s been incredible to see them grow.

In Oakland I wrote about self-taught artist Wardell Mcneal who was making these incredible drawings on the subway during his commute and then would turn them into paintings, working in a corner of his tiny bedroom, teaching himself to paint from books. Wardell now has a studio outside of his bedroom and is represented by pt.2 gallery in Oakland. You should go look at his work and do a deep dive so you can see the drawings.

I continued writing articles once I moved back home to NC and I focused on the local artists here. Ashley Johnson is an artist in Winston-Salem and I wrote about her in 2016 after she released a series of incredible photographs, the first we had really seen from her. Then later I profiled an exhibition and performance she presented in Greensboro. She currently has a solo show in Brooklyn presented by The Coastal Post co-founder Nick Naber.

That’s the cool aspect of the Coastal Post. The co-founders bookend us from the 2 coasts, NY and SF, and the writers are dispersed around the country (and abroad), usually focusing on the artists relative to them. Connections get made and the visibility helps the art spread. 

Beautiful and thought provoking, Devon’s art and words draw us in. You can check out more of Devon’s work on their website and Instagram @devonairess. Thanks for sharing, Devon!