A “tall, thin, and quiet bookworm” with a penchant for fashion and culture magazines in Lubbock, artist Dawn Okoro said she’s always felt like a black sheep in the small Northwest Texas town.
While others her age were playing in playgrounds, she would spend hours flipping through the pages of Vogue, Essence, Jet and Ebony magazines.
Her artistry blossomed studying the covers and spreads of iconic publications, with images of models like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks expanding her horizons and igniting her creative talents.
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“For me, magazines were my window on the world,” Okoro said. “My grandma bought them and my mom had a subscription to Jet Magazine and Ebony Magazine, and each month there were a few pages devoted to fashion. They had black fashion designers and some of the black models and I was like, ‘Wow.'”
With each weekly or monthly issue, Okoro was inspired to reproduce the images captured by editorial photographer Richard Avedon and other creative minds of the time.
In elementary school, she began making drawings of the clothing designs from the magazines, sometimes filling the skin with a mahogany hue where it didn’t exist before. And by the time Okoro, 42, was in high school, she brought her fashion-centric style to the silver screen.
But Okoro said her family doesn’t think a career as a full-time artist is sustainable.
“Where I grew up, people heard about (Pablo Picasso) or whatever, but my family was kind of like, ‘This is a nice hobby, but you have to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer,'” Okoro said.
To placate her family, Okoro went other ways.
She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in psychology and a minor in fashion design. She later earned a law degree from Texas Southern University, but despite the opportunities that came with her academic success, her creative passions were always on her mind.
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After graduating from TSU, Okoro uprooted her life from Austin to start anew in New York, hoping to make it as an artist in the Big Apple.
Okoro began dating various artists and curators, but after a year, she and her then-boyfriend—now husband—were forced to return to central Texas due to family and financial pressures that worsened with the Great Recession of the late 2000s .
Okoro, who had no interest in practicing law and pleasing her family, put her artistic pursuits on hold and decided to pursue a career in journalism.
“In my heart I knew I wanted to make art, but there was still this urge to feel like I was actually doing something with my life in a way that my family would understand,” she said.
“I thought there was less struggle and fear”
While working at Spectrum News Austin, Okoro said she wouldn’t pick up a brush for months or even years.
“It was a process,” Okoro said. “When I returned to Texas from New York, I simply decided to give up art. I liked making work, but I think I had a vision of what an artist was. I thought there would be less struggle and fear. But it’s impossible not to see art in your life. You really can’t avoid her, she’s everywhere.”
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Okoro eventually found time to create new art series and complete paintings she hadn’t touched in years.
Her creative revival came at a time of emptiness.
After witnessing the deaths of loved ones, Okoro realized the fragility of life and decided to turn his attention back to brush and canvas.
“It felt like something was missing,” Okoro said. “After maturing, seeing life and witnessing the deaths of people close to me, it felt like life was really short and I needed to start living, and I started small from there.”
In 2018, Okoro presented her “Punk Noir” exhibit at the George Washington Carver Museum, an exhibit of towering canvas paintings inspired by local artists and influencers in and around Austin that exuded a “punk spirit,” Okoro said.
The exhibit also included music by Austin-based band BLXPLTN to align with the artist’s vision. And with the exhibition’s success, Okoro attracted the attention of local and international gallery owners.
One of her many admirers was Phillip Niemeyer, owner of the Northern and Southern Gallery, who admired Okoro’s eclectic style.
“When I first saw Okoro, I thought she was great from the start, and everything she does now only reinforces that,” he said. “I love the way she is constantly exploring her work. It doesn’t stay in one place.”
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Mauve Doyle, the artistic director of Maddox Gallery in London, said she was drawn to Okoro’s transparency and creative spirit.
“I like her confidence and her ability to connect with people, take risks and trust the way things are going,” said Doyle. “Her future is really bright and her work is uplifting.”
Doyle said that Okoro’s background in fashion flows into her artwork, with many of her subjects painted in deeply enriched colors and positioned to mirror editorial magazine covers.
Where can you see Dawn Okoro’s work?
The relatively reclusive artist has come into her own.
Since 2017, the Houston-born artist has held residencies and exhibitions in Seattle, Miami, New York and London, and recently collaborated with PepsiCo to have her artwork placed on the brand’s Lifewtr bottles. Her work was also featured on Season 2 of NBC’s Law & Order: Organized Crime.
“When I saw the episode where Jennifer Beals said my name and showed my painting, I squeaked a little,” she said. “I am pleased to see that some of my goals are bearing fruit. There is so much more I can do with art. I’m just getting started.”
Okoro has continued to expand her artistic reach since becoming a full-time artist in August 2021, with works such as VantaBlack, Kool-Aid Drawings, and Crown and Glory.
In addition to international exhibitions and appearances on television shows, her contributions to the arts have also been recognized by organizations in Austin.
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In February, CapMetro placed portraits of Okoro’s “Kool-Aid Drawings” project on city buses, and a wooden bust of the artist was placed at the Carver Museum for the center’s Peace to the Queen exhibition, featuring works by artist Jamel Shabazz.
Given her success as an artist, Okoro said her mother and other family members applauded her chosen path and achievements.
“I think they’re proud of me,” she said. “I think now that I have more opportunities that are more tangible to see, they understand it better now. I think they are happy to see me happy and doing what I love to do.”
After her career turning points and periods of artistic inactivity, Okoro said she is now fully committed to her artistry and individuality.
“It took me years to come to that conclusion, and there are still moments when those feelings creep back in as an adult. But I think just making my art has helped me a lot, and getting my art out there lets me know it’s OK to just be who I am,” she said.
Okoro said her goal is to inspire other artists to embrace their differences as their superpowers and bring beauty to the world.
Dawn Okoro, artist
Check out Okoro’s work and current exhibition information: okorostudio.com.