Onicas Gaddis has only one photograph from his childhood. “This is me and my two brothers, Bart and Phillip, and my sister Josephine – before I was taken away,” he said.
The photo is blurry, his siblings’ faces like a misty dream. When he said good-bye to his family, he had only his memory to keep them. Today, faces are frequently embedded in his paintings, many of them larger than life. It is one of the elements that make his work so compelling.
“The faces represent the past. The next chapter in my life. The people that I interact with on a daily basis,” said Onicas. “My children. Love. Some people in Pittsboro have shown themselves in my work.”
His difficult past led him to become an artist. “It’s how I get rid of all the pain that could have destroyed me,” he said.
Onicas was born in Alabama in 1975 on his mother Mattie Pearl’s birthday. She struggled to raise 12 children on her own and, as a young boy, he and his three youngest siblings were placed in foster care.
Conditions with his new family were unbearable. At times Onicas was so hungry, he stole scraps of food from the dogs. Brutal whippings were frequent. Feeling hopeless, he attempted to take his own life. Eventually he was removed and he spent the next several years in various group homes.
When he was 16, he went to live with his two brothers Phillip and Bart and their foster mother Margie Lee. By this time, Onicas already knew he wanted to be an artist. He would skip the usual high school parties to stay home and sketch pictures from the family bible.
Community college followed high school. Then an opportunity to paint with the Sarah Carlisle Towery Art Colony in Kellyton, Alabama affirmed his path. A group of artists, including the Colony’s namesake ‘Miss Sarah,’ met weekly at an old middle school in the gym. “Artists would set up their easels and enjoy hours of classical music, painting and each others company,” Onicas said. “I used this time to learn and to not think about the finished piece – just joy and discovery.”
A desire to be near his two children, Royal and Roman, brought him to North Carolina. A desire to live in a creative community brought him to Chatham County. Here he has been quickly embraced as a painter, a poet, an author and a rapper.
“I use the term ‘spiritual expressionism’ to describe my work…My work is honest and every stroke of the brush or pen is true.”
From the artist:
Full name: Onicas Gaddis
I currently live: one day at a time.
I grew up: with a strong passion for art.
A childhood memory I cherish is: leaving my first foster home.
I knew I was an artist when: at age seven, someone sat me down at a table and drew a cowboy and an Indian in front of me. I never looked up to see who it was but I can remember it like it was yesterday. At that moment, I decided that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.
My childhood impacted my art in that: it gave me thick skin. The art world can sometimes be a harsh reality. My childhood prepared me for some tough times to follow.
I am currently working on: convincing the North Carolina Museum of Art to show my work. Publishing my second book.
I’d like readers to know: I’m 41 years old. I am a descendant of the Florida Highwaymen (S. M. Wells). I am also known as “Red Leaf, The Poet”
I am most proud of: that I never gave up on my art.
I paint and play music because: I love to dance while I’m painting.
I am inspired by: my desire to provide for my kids.
Most people don’t know I: have a painting priced at $1,000,000 (it’s in Blue Dot Coffee now) and another one priced at $200,000.
Ten years from now you’ll find me: painting in Paris.
View Onicas’ art:
The Red Door Books in Saxapahaw is featuring a gallery of his work through October 2016. A painting titled “Onicasso” is currently hanging in the Jackson Press shop in Pittsboro. You’ll also find his art at 580 Craft Beer, Blue Dot Coffee and The Mod in Pittsboro.
Read his books:
Onicas’ autobiography is titled “Who Am I?” and is available on-line. His second book, “From the Beach, to the Bricks,” is scheduled to be published soon. It will describe his move from Florida to North Carolina.
Listen to his music: