Born York(?), Pennsylvania, 1961–2016
Donovan Durham’s creative life flowered in St. Paul, Minnesota, a place he chose, he told friends, because an internal voice told him to move there. He arrived by Greyhound bus from Pennsylvania in 1998, knowing no one. But Durham was as resourceful as he was sociable. He soon found his way to the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in St. Paul, which had opened just two years earlier to support artists with disabilities. (Durham lived with a developmental disability and mental illness.) The studio space at Interact became his anchor. He arrived every weekday for eighteen years, invariably sitting in the same spot with his pencil, charcoal, acrylics, and colored pencils. He spent his time drawing in one of his many sketchbooks, painting, or corralling a staff member to listen to his latest idea. Persistent and prolific, he participated in an estimated forty exhibitions at Interact alone. “He was relentless in getting something done,” says Interact founder and executive director Jeanne Calvit.1
The self-taught Durham liked to paint dense groups of figures, their arms often outstretched, skiing , playing in the snow, sledding, standing amid snowmen or pumpkins, dressed for Halloween , cavorting alongside a stream. Another recurring subject was Donnie Boy , a white comic strip character who likes going to parties and celebrations. In 2004, Highpoint received a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to support a Cultural Community Partnership with Durham. With this funding, Durham was able to create original prints at Highpoint, under the guidance of master printer Cole Rogers and Highpoint print shop staff. The result was a series of lithographs on famous singers, many of them Motown legends, along with other unique and editioned prints of real and dreamed-of places, some inspired by TV travel shows. His one-person exhibition at Highpoint, which he titled “Fantastic Print Show,” attracted a large turnout—Durham was apt to invite everyone he knew—and was featured on Minnesota Public Radio . The response was far different from what he’d known at home, where his art received no encouragement from his family.
Durham, who lived with sickle cell anemia, is said to have died unexpectedly while visiting relatives in South Carolina in 2016. Besides exhibitions at Interact and Highpoint, his work was included in “Unsigned, Unsung—Whereabouts Unknown: Make-do Art of the American Outlands” (1993), Florida State University, Tallahassee; “Dots and Loops” (2008), Midway Contemporary Art, St. Paul; “6x6x2020” (2015), Rochester Contemporary Art Center, New York; and “Miracles and Happenstance: Work by Donovan Durham and Bonnie Thorne” (2016), Soo Visual Arts Center, Minneapolis.
—Marla J. Kinney
Jeanne Calvit, phone and email correspondence with the author, June and August 2020. Calvit knew Durham well throughout his Twin Cities career. ↩︎