Aug. 12 2009 12:00 AM

Young artist readies to stretch his wings


Talking with young artist Langston Whitaker about his art, the image of a chrysalis comes to mind. It’s an apt metaphor, as Whitaker’s life as an artist closely resembles that of a butterfly’s life cycle.

The Absolute Gallery in Old Town is featuring Whitaker’s work this month in an exhibit called “20 Years of Music.”

On a lark, Whitaker brought his work in to the gallery in January. “This guy walked in and said, ‘Let me show you my work,’” recounted gallery owner Kathy Holcomb.

He did, and after Holcomb “picked her jaw off the floor,” she realized she could capitalize on a natural tie-in and exhibit Whitaker’s work during Lansing’s JazzFest, which took place last weekend in Old Town.

The tie-in is that Whitaker’s father is Rodney Whitaker, renowned jazz musician and director of jazz studies at Michigan State University.

Contrary to what one might expect, there wasn’t much pressure for Whitaker to follow in his father’s musical footsteps. He studied drums briefly as a young child, but he became more interested in football by age 8. His father allowed him to pursue his passion, a decision that seems easier to make considering that his older sister took up singing. “As long as he gets one that does music, he’s happy,” Whitaker said, laughing.

While he doesn’t play, Whitaker’s work is influenced by classic jazz album covers, as evidenced by pieces featuring Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis. “There’s something about the photographers; it just draws you to the covers,” he explained. Other works feature contemporary artists, like Rihanna and Jay-Z.

Whitaker has sketched and drawn on his own for as long as he can remember, but he never considered art as a field of study. “I never thought about art until my senior year of high school,” he said. “I did it ever since I was 5, but I did it randomly. People would ask me to draw pictures for them, or tattoo designs.”

Whitaker played football throughout high school at East Lansing High, and he figured that he would continue in college.
“Then that kind of fell off, so I thought, ‘Art … why not?’”

Having drawn for most of his 20 years, he delved into painting on a bet during his senior year. “A girl chatted me online, ‘I’ll bet you can’t paint this.’ I painted it, and she said it came out a better than [she] thought [it would]. But I didn’t like it, so I threw it in the garbage.”

His second painting, an image of pop culture icon Iron Man that is included in the exhibit, was more satisfying.

The most striking piece in the exhibit, “Obama,” forced Whitaker to think in reverse, as the piece is white charcoal on black paper, requiring subtle highlights and shading in lighter tones. The tightest piece in the exhibit, it shows the power of high contrast in creating eyecatching designs.

While he works primarily from photographs now, Whitaker realizes he will have to eventually rely on his own creativity. One figural work of a woman came from his mind, and the work shows a good grasp of realistic human anatomy. Another work, a painted collage, relies on photographs for source material, but the design of the collage shows signs of creative planning of space.

After an upcoming second year of art classes through Lansing Community College, Whitaker hopes to transfer to New York University.

Whitaker is enjoying this time, soaking in techniques and ideas like warm sunshine. He notes with a smile, “There’s nothing wrong with that!”

‘20 Years of Music’

by Langston Whitaker Through August Absolute Gallery, 307 E. Grand
River Ave., Lansing Hours: 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday; 11
a.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday & Friday; 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday &
Sunday (517) 482-8845