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An Interview with Portland Book Festival Guest Artist Daren Todd

Artist Daren Todd, known for his bright colors and abstract work, is our 2021 Portland Book Festival guest artist. We recently spoke with Daren about his work and what he loves about Portland.

You’re a musician, songwriter, and visual artist. Do these different creative pursuits inform each other? What advice do you have for other multidisciplinary artists?

I’ve been so blessed to do visual art as a full time job for a year now—I’ve always considered myself creative, but it wasn’t until I took that leap of faith into full-time freelancing that I noticed things begin to change. This leg of the journey started during the pandemic and since then, it’s really taken off.

It’s hard to say if my different forms of art inform each other, but they draw from the same well. The zone of focus and creative flow I get into when I write a song feels like the same zone that I draw or paint in—I still feel that flow today. I see art as an outlet, like a journal, using it to explore feelings and ideas I can’t always articulate. Sometimes when I’m making music, I’ll brainstorm the album art or the accompanying visuals—so the art and the music do inform each other, if I really think about it.

Last year, you opened the Downstairs Gallery, with a goal of providing “support for artists based in and around the Portland Metro area who identify as BIPOC, LGBTQ+ or disabled, and maintain a creative practice relevant to the current time.” Tell us about that experience—what drove you to open the gallery? How’s it been going?

It’s been a “little stream leads to a river” kind of experience! I painted a mural in the summer, which led to more. The third mural was for a yoga studio downtown in the building, Yoga on Yamhill. They’d boarded up their front windows and asked me to beautify the boards, and also offered me the opportunity to hold an art show of my work in their downstairs area. The show went really well, and from there I was able to expand the idea and invite other artists to show their work in the space. We changed some paint, switched out the lights, and fine-tuned how we were gonna hold shows in the space during a pandemic and as things began to reopen. I reached out to my community, looking for artists who needed representation and contacted them about doing some group shows. Since then, it’s slowly grown to 55 artists on the roster. It’s been a slow boil, but it’s getting better and better each time—our last event in July was great! Right now I’m taking a short break to catch up on a few projects, but I’m in talks with a few different organizations who want to use the space for different creative projects, and there will be some exciting things coming up next year!

What are some of your inspirations and influences when creating art? Has the pandemic shifted your process?

My influences include popular art movements like the Bauhaus, cubism, and modernist art. I remember knowing about Picasso, Braque, and cubism back in high school, but not understanding how different eras in art have built upon each other. Picasso’s art was only 100 years ago—he was alive in the 70’s! Somehow that doesn’t seem so long ago anymore.

I’ve learned so much by running an art business this past year, specifically learning how to value my time and price my work and services in a way that supports me. I was able to really slow and embrace the solitude of the pandemic and use the time to figure out what kind of life I wanted to have, and what steps I needed to take to start living that way. I’m so thankful for all of the opportunities that have continued to come my way.

Much of your recent art features abstract designs and bright colors. What draws you to this form? Is there a particular project you’re working on that you’re excited about?

I’ve always been into patterns and stripes, bright colors, and graffiti art in high school. I thought I was going to be a graffiti artist but never had the money as a teenager to buy spray paint—my mom would freak out when I painted walls in my room instead. The question was always, how can I cover big spaces and leave a mark? My appreciation of graffiti art led to an appreciation for other pattern based art—there’s so much in fashion and textile design that’s pattern based, which is really nice because it gives a three dimensional application to two dimensional art. I grew up in a really small town outside of Santa Barbara that was super country and suburban. There was not a lot of culture, taste, or art, so I was obsessed with San Francisco and Portland. I wanted to get to places that look and feel cool, where the place could inform my art. You can see my early forms of expression in the painting on the wall behind me. I realized I’ve always drawn these shapes I find in the world. I draw them in the margins of my notebooks, on dinner menus, everywhere. It’s really organic to me to draw curves mimicking human bodies and things in nature. I find myself drawn to crowds, buildings, angles, lines, and patterns in nature and man-made landscapes.

Portland Book Festival 2021 art

We’d love to hear more about the process of making the art for the Portland Book Festival.

I definitely let graphic design and working for clients inform my artistic process. I think of a creative brief trying to solve problems through a creative lens, and this process guides my work. For the Portland Book Festival, I brainstormed ideas for a week or two, and had a couple meetings to discuss—it was really helpful to have a client with clear directions and ideas! I want the work to speak to what it’s being used for, but still have elements of my own creative voice. I asked myself, how do I continue in this tradition of excellent work but preserve my own style? I really like the final artwork, it makes me think of an endless shower of good books falling from the sky.

How long have you lived in Portland? What do you enjoy about working and living here? What organizations have you worked with here in Portland?

I love it here. As my first “big city,” at least compared to the town I grew up in, I love it— and it feels very accessible. If you come with passion and drive, and know what you’re trying to get into, there’s an opportunity to get into anything. I originally came here to visit a friend in June 2017, and never left. The community opened up to me—working in restaurants, you instantly make friends for life. I love the city. This will always be like home.

I’ve worked with Forward Together Action to fundraise for past legislation helping marginalized folks—it’s a way to be politically active without feeling like I have to run for office, and I can use art and creativity to draw people in and raise money to help. I’ve also worked with Blanchet House on art shows supporting houseless folks in the city, as well as my record label It’s Future Time, a talented group of crafters, makers, painters, and musicians. Someone can come to us with a crazy idea and the group comes together to make it happen.

I love the city. This will always be like home.

Do you have a favorite author? What about an all-time favorite book?

When I think of my favorite book, I don’t read too much fiction—I always put things on in the background using audiobooks, and I think it’s like a cheat code on life if I can learn something audibly while I’m also working on or practicing art. One audiobook I listen to again and again is Seth Godin’s The Practice; it’s basically his ideas about how to manifest and harbor creativity when you’re not feeling inspired. I love the practical bite sized pieces of advice on how to stay productive. It’s both inspirational and practical.

What’s a book you have read recently? Do you have any recommendations?

Another book about art history that changed my view of what has happened in the last 150 years is What Are You Looking At? by Will Gompertz. It goes through the last 150 years of modern art, and adds a narrative to the famous names we all know like Picasso and Braque. There are so many chapters in there on how modern art came to be, and this book helped me realize how absent books on Africa’s influence in modern art currently are.

About the Artist

Daren Todd is a young Black creative and entrepreneur based in Portland, Oregon. As a queer, trans, Black artist, he is constantly seeking out new opportunities to create work that aligns with his person, inside and out. He believes as creatives, it is our duty to make work that speaks to the world around us and helps everyone envision and move towards creating a version of the world where people like him not only have equal rights and support, but are encouraged to flourish and thrive. Art in all of its forms has a singular ability to affect change in spaces that are often hard to reach or overlooked. He uses his creative voice to speak for those members of his community who feel silenced or unheard, to educate people around him about the experiences, struggles and triumphs of his intersectional communities, and to advocate for social justice in all of its forms. As an illustrator he likes to use bright colors, organic shapes and unique symbology to connect the dots for his audiences, and provide a ground work of understanding and storytelling in order to convey the themes and ideas his clients seek to get across. Find his work at artlargerthanme.com

This year’s Portland Book Festival will present virtual programming, brought to you by Bank of America, the week of November 8–12, 2021, and in-person events on Saturday, November 13, 2021 at Portland Art Museum and Portland’5, as well as in-person writing workshops at our downtown Literary Arts space. 

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