More than once over the course of an interview, Frank Oriti Jr. repeated what seemed to be his mantra: “Tattoos, leather jackets, denim, facial hair.” Painting with the detail needed to make those things peel off the canvas is not easy. Frank, through practice, has mastered rendering flesh and fabric.
This local artisan made a name for himself by painting portraits of Clevelanders that hang in London’s National Portrait Gallery. He’s also got a very different project on the way that is an evolution of his style. Frank’s new subjects or studies are transformative for modern fine art, and now this portrait master is ready for his artistic reconstruction.
Frank’s artistic genesis opens on a kid in Parma with some raw talent and the forethought to nurture his gift. How does one go from local kid to world-class oil painter out of Parma High School? Frank matriculated at Tri-C, then Bowling Green, and eventually received a full scholarship to Ohio University to obtain a master’s degree. Frank came home after he wrapped up all the book learning, but not without traditional modern problems.
“I was having the college debt conversation with my brother,” Frank says. “He was in the military and used his GI Bill to pay for all of that.” Frank did have a full scholarship, but he still says that he “had to take out loans just to exist.”
Art is as hard as life. The odds of you making it as a studio or commercial gallery artist are not the best. Even if you are lucky enough to get a gallery gig, the bills don’t stop. Often the pay for unknown artists isn’t enough to furnish them with supplies.
“Making a steady living is not certain unless you want to be an art teacher,” he says. “I know plenty of people that went to school and got a degree in photography that are shooting weddings.”
He’s not taking away anything from those professionals. According to him, painting is just different. When Frank is not busy painting, he has a 9-to-5 job making glass and aluminum wall panels for modern-looking interior designs used in Ivy League schools and national trophy displays.
“I have done painting full-time a year or two at a time and then have always had to go back to (traditional) work,” he explains.
One day, Frank took an inventory of where he was in life. He started looking at just who he’s working with and partying next to in the area. Frank saw that Cleveland had people who were becoming the new blue-collar – hairdressers, tattoo artists, and service industry people transforming the work-a-day landscape. People with their own style and hustle made for natural subject matter.
“Around the time that I moved back to Cleveland 2011, I started making all these paintings of people who were moving back to the suburbs,” Frank says. “People who’d finished service in the military, or I thought people who were just back home because they didn’t have a plan or know what was next. Then it became apparent that people were and still are moving back to Cleveland because they want to be here. I was surrounded by people who were excited to be here.”
Still, artists must grow and change or die. Now Frank is pushing aside the old ways.
“As my situation evolves, I don’t feel as connected to paint these portraits anymore,” Frank explains. His new project is based on a huge underground obsession: sneakers.
Frank claims that he’s not a sneakerhead. Still, the choices for his most recent studies scream otherwise. The Air Jordan 1, the Yeezy Red October. Also, as a shout out to his mantra, the Denim Air Jordan Levis collaboration.
Frank is lending his realism to these shoes to give them a reverence that may make those of us who don’t subscribe to shoes over $80 see the art hidden in those $200 retail, fashion statements. As Frank says, “I’m probably not going to be able to afford $7,000 for a pair of shoes, but those are fucking amazing.”
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James Earl Brassfield or simply JEB is a writer, podcast host, humorist, actor and “Black Hunter Thompson” type madman of no ill repute. Language has yet to evolve fully to describe his unique view of Northeast Ohio and the world. JEB produces work across all media with his original and clearly stated voice. @Jearlbrass