It's been nearly two decades since Doug Fordyce staged his last solo exhibit, which took place in 2005 at now-defunct Studio 16, a gallery Fordyce owned and operated in Italian Village and later the Short North, and which shuttered its doors later the same year.
For much of the time away, Fordyce said he grew distant from his practice, leaning into his day job as a graphic designer, which left him little free time to pursue creative projects. He also took time off to focus on his mental health, unpacking his history of childhood abuse and seeking treatment for an undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
“I was unmedicated and even unaware I was bipolar,” Fordyce said in an early November interview at 934 Gallery, where “Hills and Hollows,” the artist’s long-in-the-making new solo show, (Friday, Nov. 3). “Back then, the childhood abuse and the bipolar stuff, I really poured that into my art.”
It makes sense then that Fordyce would need to distance from this work, at least for a time, with his creative practice so closely linked to these accumulated traumas. Five or six years ago, though, Fordyce connected with children’s author Julia Applegate, who asked him to illustrate her book “Percy Gets a Family” – an invitation that sparked something in the artist, owing to his deep connection with children’s books.
“I went to CCAD back in the ’80s … and I had lots of children’s book ideas and children’s book samples in my portfolio, because back then that was something I really wanted to do,” said Fordyce, who embraced reading as a form of escape early in childhood, immersing himself in books by Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and Charles Schulz. “I was an only child, and we would have library days, especially on rainy days, and we’d get home, and I’d just scour every book I could. And then I would draw my own books with characters like Snoopy, Pink Panther, Bugs Bunny. And I would make up little stories and tell my mom, and she would write them onto my drawings and then staple them all together, so I had a little library in my room of all the books I had made.”
Fordyce’s return to art making accelerated during the pandemic, first with a graphic novel, Surviving April, which recounted people’s early COVID-era experiences, and then with a series of paintings in which he combined his graphic design work with the more abstract paintings he created in those years before he set aside his brushes.
Growing up in small town West Virginia, Fordyce said his parents were deeply supportive of his artistic pursuits, recalling how his mom enrolled him in an afterschool oil painting class at a community college when he was in fourth grade. “It was mostly retired people and me,” he said, and laughed.
From there, Fordyce continued to experiment, enrolling in courses that allowed him to explore a wide range of artistic disciplines: figure drawing, watercolor, abstract art. “My mom would pretty much pay for one class at a time,” he said. “And by the time I moved to Columbus at 18, I had a pretty nice portfolio built up.”
In the past, Fordyce said his works tended to be darker, colored in pale blues and greens and carrying titles such as “Natural Born Killer.” But the works on display at 934 are more vibrant, painted in reds, blues and yellows, a shift the artist said was reflective of the improved mental state in which the pieces were created.
Even the skulls that recur in this new series are less morbid than one might expect, rooted in positive memories (Fordyce started drawing skulls when illustrating T-shirts and posters for his former partner’s band) and serving more as an exploration of form.
“I just like the shape a lot. And in this series, I really enjoyed dividing them up and playing with complementary colors in some places,” Fordyce said. “My work after college, it’s hard to explain, but I just really felt it, where I would paint a section and smoke a lot of weed and just get lost. With my abstract work, I would get so deep into it, it was like I lived it. And with these paintings, it’s more precise, and I’m more aware of even the coloring. … I take medicine now, and I’m very level, very even, so [the art] isn’t coming from that same place of pain.”