David Buttram: Master Controller
David Buttram estimates that he went 42 years without having a solo show: between a 1982 exhibition at Karamu House (during which he says he sold every painting) and one in 2022 at Framed Gallery on Waterloo, he appeared regularly and was even sought-after for group shows, but didn’t get the spotlight himself, to present a broad collection of his own distinctive work. The artist paints in oil, starting from photos of vernacular city scenes, and captures peaceful life, without drama or trauma. Look closer into the paintings—especially into the hoods or fenders or windshields of cars, you can see dazzling abstraction in the reflection of light. In Fall 2023, Framed Gallery presented his second solo show in two years. He’s painting as fast as he can these days, working on two canvases at once. “Now I’m a painting junkie,” he says. “Do you know what a junkie is? When I don’t paint, I don’t feel right.”
Buttram is the first Cleveland artist to have solo shows at Framed, a gallery that deals in works of African and African American artists from around the US and the world. That long hiatus in his record of solo shows is especially surprising considering how familiar Cleveland artists and curators have been with his work for decades. Artist Johnny Coleman, who is also associate professor of Art and African American Studies at Oberlin College, calls his work “incredibly rich and resonant with the specificity of Place.” Coleman adds, “While the illustrative beauty of the work sometimes has me reflecting upon the feeling that I experience in front of Jacob Lawrence’s panels, this work brings me back again to (Harlem Renaissance photographer) Roy DeCarava’s seminal influence, and the earlier work of Carrie Mae Weems, alongside of Dawoud Bey’s work in Harlem—the intimacy of a space within which one feels themselves to be at home.”
For his own part, Buttram says he admires the work of Vincent Van Gogh, who of course is famous for and inseparable from his brush strokes and thick impasto—though the Cleveland artist uses paint much more economically. It’s easier to see the influence of the Ashcan School, which he also credits as inspiration.
If artists draw on their lives for motivation or inspiration, Buttram has lot of material available. Born in 1947 at St. Lukes Hospital, he grew up in the post-WWII years, in housing projects in the integrated Cleveland neighborhood that had once been the Village of Miles Heights, before his family moved to Glenville. So he saw a time when the city of Cleveland had something of a Black middle class, and over the years he saw that erode.
Fresh out of Glenville High School and looking for work, Buttram joined the Marines and went to Vietnam in 1966, where he served thirteen months and two days. He was still a teenager when he went through basic training at Camp Pendleton in California, and then trained in counter guerilla tactics on Okinawa. He then was deployed to South Vietnam. For the DD214 Chronicle—a newspaper for Northeast Ohio armed services veterans—he described serving as point man, spotting booby traps on night patrols in “Antenna Alley.” After that he was transferred to the Demilitarized Zone, where—despite that word “demilitarized”—a North Vietnamese shell killed a close friend. So he’s been through some things. These stories are not told in Buttram’s paintings. In a 2008 interview with Lauren (Hansgen) Murray, for the Each in Their Own Voice: African American Artists in Cleveland, 1970 – 2005 series, he describes war as “honorable, but not a good thing.”
The artist paints scenes of the inner city, but not the kind you see on the news. His brush strokes capture busses and bus stops, blacktop pavement with tarred lines of repair, people, buildings, cars and bicycles. There are groups of people hanging out, and greeting each other, and tinkering with cars and bikes. There are skeletal trees, and the dramatic lines of shadows they cast.
“That is what I see in the inner city,” he says. “I won’t paint things that are dismal. Bikes are there. Fire hydrants, telephone poles. I really like painting brick walls. You don’t have to paint every brick. It’s brush strokes: the suggestion. Sometimes every detail is not a good thing. It’s the way light falls. […] I like to paint people so I can get emotions, but if it is a rainy day or a sunny day, that works too. There’s a story in the people, their lifestyle. I am interested in reflections, shadows, and light.”
His brush strokes capture those things with a photographic sense of perspective and composition that somehow belies the source material for his art, which is in fact photography. He drives around the city for hours at a time, taking pictures, and says if he gets one photo of 100 that’s good for a painting, he’s doing well. But the camera is only a tool. If someone says it looks like a photograph, he says, that’s almost an insult to the painter. “I want people to see brush strokes.”
When painter Rhonda Brown was first considering a move back to Cleveland, she took note of David Buttram’s work. His paintings “do show you neighborhoods that have been disinvested, but within them you are seeing community. You are seeing all the things that are the opposite of what we are told on the news. There is so much beauty in community, play, laughter, just being.” Brown has since relocated to Cleveland to serve as the city’s first Senior Strategist for Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy.
Buttram knew since childhood, when he was captivated by the animations of Walt Disney, that he liked making art. He traveled a long road, though, before he could become a painting junkie. After his military service, he worked at a machine shop at the long-shuttered General Electric plant in Collinwood. He earned a diploma at the now defunct Cooper School of Art, and also took classes at Tri-C. With all that credit behind him, he was able to enroll as a fourth-year student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he earned a BFA in illustration in 1989. That enabled him to leave the machine shop behind and work as a substitute teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools. But substitute teaching is a rough career path, and so he took night classes to get a teaching certificate at Notre Dame College. And with that certification in hand, he was able to get a full-time job teaching art at his alma mater, Glenville High School. Even then he continued to study, earning a masters degree at Kent State University. While his subject by day and by night was art, he still had little time for his own painting. He taught at Glenville for twenty years, retiring in 2015.
“I didn’t believe in being a starving artist,” he says. “So I worked.”
All that work was certainly one of the factors that kept Buttram from doing solo shows for so long. No doubt the challenges Black artists in Cleveland have faced for decades played a role, too. Nonetheless, while teaching and making “fewer than half a dozen paintings a year,” group shows put him in good company. One of them, Various Realities, at the Great Northern Corporate Center Art Gallery in the early nineties, put him alongside Shirley Aley Campbell, George Kozmon, Phyllis Sloane and Phyllis Seltzer, among others. In reviewing Various Realities, former Plain Dealer art critic Helen Cullinan suggested, “perhaps it’s time to update that list” of artists considered part of the “Cleveland School.” Buttram was part of a show at Malcolm Brown Gallery once. There were group shows at the Cleveland Artists Foundation (again in great company, including Laurence Channing and Thomas Roese, among others), and Heights Arts, and a two-person show with Deborah Silver at ARTneo in 2018. He was part of CAN Triennial 2022. For all those intervening decades, though, solo shows were elusive.
The artist paints in an upstairs room of his Cleveland Heights home, where he’s lived since 1975. Whatever has gone on for all those years since then, there’s something in his basement—the place that years ago served as his studio—that reminds him of the role he plays as a painter. Sketched on a panel behind a can of rubber cement and a jar full of artist’s paint brushes: it’s a pencil diagram showing a triangular relationship between the painting, the subject matter (for reference only), and the artist, who—as the diagram spells out—is the master controller. He is the one who is in charge.