STYLE: Artist Marvin Espy

He waited three decades before he chose to chase his artistic dream
Marvin Espy studied art in school, “but in the mid-’80s just wasn’t advised to pursue art.” Now, at 55, he paints for a living.
JONATHAN COOPER

Marvin Espy’s studio at C3 Lab is crowded with brilliantly colored canvases. Shades of blue dominate a large portrait of Cam Newton wearing the silk Hermès head scarf that sparked an uproar on social media last fall. The Carolina Panthers quarterback was mocked on Twitter for his “granny look” and applauded by style arbiters at Vogue. Troubled by the free-for-all, Espy picked up a paintbrush.

“I wanted to do it in a classical, post-impressionistic style that would resemble a Monet,” he explains. Dressed in a plaid shirt, Espy sits on a stool, his olive green suit jacket placed carefully to the side. “Just to make a statement that a person can wear what he chooses.” He speaks slowly, thoughtfully.

Espy, 55, is just two years into his painting career. The Cincinnati native held corporate jobs for nearly three decades. “I had an art education, but in the mid-’80s just wasn’t advised to pursue art as a passion,” he says. “I was encouraged to ‘be responsible’ and ‘do the right thing.’ So I did ‘the right thing’ for 27 years.”

He dabbled in art, posting on social media and even garnering a Best of Show award at NoDa’s Hart Witzen Gallery in 2013. In May 2018—after his daughter graduated from Meredith College in Raleigh and with the support of Tracy, his wife of 29 years—he left his job, rented a studio in this South End coworking space, and started painting. By July 2019, he’d caught the attention of Hannah Blanton, owner of Sozo Gallery, where visitors now come to buy his colorful, light-filled cityscapes.

Espy still employs some of the disciplines he learned in the corporate world. On business days, when he markets his artwork or manages his business’s finances, he wears a suit. He dresses to paint on painting days. Today, he’s in a suit.

His cityscapes range in size from 18 by 24 inches to 48 by 72 inches and are priced between $800 and $7,000. “I’m a mark maker,” Espy explains. He starts in the dark and enhances brightness as he paints. “The marks get smaller and more brilliant as I move along,” he says. “White is usually the last thing I paint.”

He learned the technique from artist Henry Koerner, best known for his drawings of Nazi war criminals for the Nuremberg trials and portrait covers for Time magazine. Koerner was nearing the end of a long and distinguished career when Espy studied under him at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in the early ’80s. “He had a profound impact on what I do now as a painter,” he says. “A lot of artists will draw out their work and then paint it in. He didn’t do that. He would apply paint to his brush and apply that paint to the canvas. It was a placement of color.”

In his studio, the Cam Newton portrait dominates a wall, but propped on an easel near the front is a smaller portrait of a man with a steady, dignified gaze. Espy recalls the night this stranger approached him in the parking lot outside his studio. He assumed the man was homeless, but the man didn’t ask for money, just a prayer. Espy asked if he could take a picture of the two of them as a reminder.

After that shot, the man paused and asked if Espy would photograph him alone. Espy took out his phone again. The man removed his cap, stood tall, and Espy clicked. Then the man turned and walked away, disappearing across the street. Later, as Espy studied the picture, he was struck by the stranger’s presence and felt compelled to paint him. The result is an intimate portrait marked by bold strokes of purple. “It’s the color of royalty,” Espy says as a smile of respect crosses his face.

Categories: Arts + Culture, The Buzz