An Artist is Reborn from the Cotton Fields

The News Journal

Damian Saunders stands in the basement of his mother's house in Wilmington, pointing at one of his recent oil paintings.

It's a multilayer abstract with rows of boxes painted over thick brush strokes painted over a wash. The canvas is punctuated with light, airy strokes that look like snowy white cotton, growing on the plant. In another painting in the series, the boxes are red, gold, blue and green, the colors of the Microsoft Windows logo.

"These are my footprints through corporate America, how I was sitting in these boxes," says Saunders, 27. "I didn't want to be a part of that world. Who wants to be at a job that you hate?"

An off-the-cuff remark at work got Damian Saunders fired from his bank job. It also led him back to painting and gave him inspiration for a series of paintings, "New Cotton Fields," that he finished this month.

Over the last decade, Saunders has worked in a handful of banking call centers in Wilmington, handling customer service and sales. At his last banking job, Saunders says, he was fired last year for making cynical comments about the work area. He said: "This is just like the new cotton fields. Look how our computers are lined up in rows."

Saunders was unemployed for several months until he got a holiday season job at in New Castle, filling orders by taking products off the shelves. "It was like picking cotton. We were going down these aisles," he says. He worked on the late shift, finishing at 6 a.m.

One morning, he couldn't sleep. He couldn't get the idea of cotton fields out of his head either. So got up and started painting, something he hadn't done in more than two years. What came out on canvas was a whole new style for him -- bright and whimsical yet serious at the same time. Saunders says he has been influenced by Van Gogh, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Larry Rivers and Jacob Lawrence, and it shows.

Cotton and boxes are the recurring motif. Otherwise, each canvas has its own combination of a wash layer covered by thick and thin brush strokes. On one canvas, the first layer is a Confederate flag covered with a dark wash. The flag was something that Saunders, who is African-American, says he had wanted to paint for several years. "It felt strange," he says. "My mom said, 'Why are you painting that?' "

After the holiday job ended in December 2005, Saunders kept painting. Now he has finished the series of 12 paintings and has plans to start a new series called "Black Tax," inspired by his recent reading of "Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America," (New York University Press, 2000) by Jody David Armour, and Ralph Ellison's 1952 classic, "Invisible Man."

Saunders has also started looking for a gallery to exhibit "New Cotton Fields." "It's like applying to college," says Saunders, who hopes that the series will be exhibited in New York or Philadelphia.

In the meantime, he's unemployed. But that doesn't mean that he's without a vocation. "I know that this is my job," Saunders says. "I'm an artist."