Cover: Artist DonCee is cut from a different cloth

Joel Oliphint

It's New Year's Eve morning, and artist Don “DonCee” Coulter is seated at a drafting table in a cramped upstairs bedroom at his Dublin apartment, staring at a bow tie.

A seamstress gifted Coulter the tie, but not for him to wear. She wanted him to use it in a piece of art. Coulter holds the tie, with paisley-like swirls of black, gold and ruddy brown, against a large pencil sketch of a dapper man holding a trumpet.

Nearly completed artworks lean against the bedroom walls. In “Dance with Me,” a woman beckons to a suitor, but the tattoo of a bitten apple and the gold snake wrapped around her arm would make a wise man think twice. At first glance, the portrait looks like a bright, glossy, finely detailed painting, but a closer look reveals layers of precisely cut and glued fabric — leather, cotton and whatever else Coulter digs out of the huge plastic bins that surround him. One container is labeled “hair.”

Fabric scraps cover the couch and spill out of bags stuffed in corners. Fumes from the bottles of Fabri-Tac and tubes of Barge's cement glue compete with the rich, earthy scent of leather draped over the bedroom door. A smoke alarm chirps intermittently, but Coulter doesn't notice. He places the bow tie below a piece of brown leather cut in the shape of a man's face, then grabs a giant sheet of hunter green leather.

“This will be his hat,” Coulter says. “It'll be like a fedora.”

Coulter grabs a pencil and starts sketching a hat, then places tracing paper over the just-finished sketch. Once the hat is traced, he places the thin paper on top of the green leather and uses his finger to imprint the outline of the hat onto the leather, then grabs an X-Acto knife and briskly cuts along the lines like an overly caffeinated surgeon, emerging with a green fedora.

Coulter isn't sure about the background for the piece just yet. It could be a New Orleans street scene. The man could be returning the gaze of a woman walking by. Or he could stand on his own. “That's the fun part,” Coulter says. “I just do it as I go.”

Coulter, 48, has been using fabric to create portraits, cityscapes and landscapes for more than 20 years, perfecting his process over late nights and long weekends while juggling a 9-to-5 at a customer service training center. While his art isn't unknown locally, Coulter has managed to fly under the radar, even with pieces installed at the Downtown Hilton and the Greater Columbus Convention Center, plus his inclusion in exhibits like “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” at Ohio Wesleyan University's Ross Art Museum, where three of his works currently hang alongside well-known artists of Columbus' past and present.

But in recent months Coulter's work has seen a boost, thanks in part to a piece commissioned as a surprise gift for arts patrons Larry and Donna James as part of Columbus' “I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100” campaign. After marketing firm Warhol & Wall St. requested sketches from several African-American artists for a piece that would honor the Jameses (the two were a driving force behind the Harlem Renaissance community project), Coulter's piece was selected, and in October he presented his artwork to the couple at the Columbus Museum of Art's signature Art Celebration fundraiser. The piece, which depicts the husband and wife on a stoop with a saxophone, now hangs in the James' home as part of a renowned collection.

“It's such an extraordinary piece,” said Larry James, managing partner of law firm Crabbe, Brown & James. “Everyone that walks in is drawn to it. It's almost… living.”

Jim Arter, a former associate artist with the Greater Columbus Arts Council, also recently came to own one of Coulter's pieces. “I have great respect for Don as an artist and a human being,” Arter said, “but besides loving his work, I thought this may prove in time to also be a great investment.”

Lyn Logan-Grimes, cultural arts director at the King Arts Complex, predicts 2019 will be a breakout year for Coulter. “He deserves to rub shoulders with fine artists that are being acknowledged all over the country,” she said. “I think he's ready to move on to that next level, and he's gonna go quickly. It's gonna be fast for him.”

Don Coulter grew up in Southeast Columbus, but in the summers his parents sent him and his sister to live with a family in tiny Hide-A-Way Hills in rural Southeast Ohio. Coulter's father, who grew up in a small town in North Carolina, wanted his kids to experience something outside of their own neighborhood.

They stayed on a farm, complete with pet pig. Coulter even rode a horse named Yankee Doodle into town. “I would come back home to my neighborhood, like, ‘Y'all not gonna believe this,'” Coulter said. “We were the only ones who looked like us in that community. … I think the perception was that our lives were so bad in the inner city. In actuality, I missed playing football on the streets because back then, living in the quote-unquote hood wasn't that bad.”

Things began to change in the late '80s and early '90s, when crack hit the streets. It wasn't safe to sit on the stoop until 1 a.m. anymore. Gangs formed. Break-ins became commonplace. One of Coulter's friends got hooked on crack and killed his own mother for drug money.

“I realized this is not the route that I want to go. So art was my haven,” Coulter said. “I could always depend on art.”

Coulter grew up around art. His father and grandfather were both painters, and Coulter can't remember a time when he wasn't drawing or painting. “People will say, ‘Your style looks like Aminah Robinson or Ernie Barnes,'” Coulter said. “I respect those artists, but the people I looked up to were my dad, my grandfather and my uncle. Those were the artists that I knew.”

At South High School, Coulter and his friends got into hip-hop, graffiti culture and fashion. In his initial foray into fabric art, Coulter would go to a Schottenstein's department store to buy partially torn jean jackets, then rip them further and have a seamstress sew canvas into the holes. He'd paint colorful scenes on the jackets (musicians, dance parties) and add his two signature logos: a red “STOP the violence” traffic sign and “12:01.”

“12:01 was a movement,” Coulter said. “It represented a new time of day, a new way of thinking.”

After high school, Coulter enrolled at the Columbus College of Art & Design in 1990, continuing to call for an end to violence through art and music (Coulter released a hip-hop demo tape as “Don Cee of 1201” in 1994). But even as he spoke out against street violence, Coulter said he was often targeted by police.

“One day, I got pulled over three times before I made it to CCAD,” Coulter said. “You never got an apology. ... That anger kind of built up.”

In a painting he made at CCAD, Coulter drew a U.S. map and filled it with a gangbanger pointing a gun, a cop handcuffing a young black man, a crying mother holding her baby and a subtly striking image of a boy watching TV news with his parents while hiding a gun behind his back.

“He sees something he's actually idolizing. He's admiring what was happening,” Coulter said. “In the mid-'90s, there was this ongoing thing about keeping it real. People really liked to glamorize living in the hood. We would see people come from areas like Gahanna, and it blew our mind how these kids from out that way would want to come live in our neighborhood. We were just shaking our heads, like, ‘What the hell?' They got fascinated with the lifestyle. But we were going to funerals, so we knew.”

After college, Coulter did illustrations for publications likeHarambee andYouth Purpose. For a time he worked at Chase, and Coulter's boss sometimes enlisted him to create cartoons for the company. “To be able to get off the phones and do artwork was cool, but then I started to think, ‘Wait a minute. People pay me good money to do art.' They weren't paying me at all,” Coulter said. “They ended up giving me a $300 gift certificate to Barnes and Noble.”

Coulter experimented with textiles, too, but when he showed an early fabric piece to a fellow artist, she dissuaded him from it. “She said, ‘You need to leave this piece alone and just become a serious painter,'” Coulter said. “In her mind, this was more like a novelty.”

Eventually, Coulter decided to buy some art marketing books with his $300 gift card, which led him to bring a dozen of his paintings to an art publisher and distributor in Washington, D.C. in 1999. “The paintings I had were more hip-hop oriented,” Coulter said, “and she was like, ‘That's really not our demographic.'”

But then the woman noticed a lone fabric piece depicting a fantastical moonlit scene with a woman and a man dancing in the treetops. “She was like, ‘What is that over there?'” Coulter said. “So I brought this over, and she was like, ‘I can sell this. If you can work more on this and bring this to the level of your paintings, come back and see me in about a year. This is something special.'”

Coulter honed his craft for the next few years, creating meticulous cityscapes and landscapes, but he rarely showed anyone his fabric pieces. “As an African-American artist, you really didn't know how it was going to go over,” Coulter said. “People's perception is you're not supposed to do this type of work.”

By the time Coulter got back in touch with the D.C. agency in 2002, the woman he'd spoken to had left. But the agency referred him to a gallery in Flint, Michigan, which led to a referral to Detroit gallery Art on the Avenue, which was run by former Michigan State Sen. Henry Stallings.

“I remember sitting the artwork down, and [Stallings] acted like he wasn't impressed, but some customers came in, and they were like, ‘Henry, what is this? This is like 3D! It's jumping out at me!'” Coulter said. “He was like, ‘OK, OK. Let's go to the back.' We came up with a deal.”

Stallings put some of Coulter's pieces out on the floor, one of which had recently been rejected for an art contest in Columbus. Coulter had been asking $800 for it and assumed he had priced it too high. In Detroit, a woman walked into Art on the Avenue and couldn't take her eyes off the piece. She asked how much, but before Coulter could respond with “$600,” Stallings shooed him away.

“By the time he came back, he handed me a check for $2,200,” Coulter said. “He was like, ‘Son, you got something special here, and you got to realize that.'”

Coulter commuted to Detroit on weekends for the next several years, but eventually the city's economy tanked, and when Coulter tried to reestablish his art career in Columbus he couldn't make any headway. “Among African-American artists, if you didn't have a name, you wouldn't even be considered,” Coulter said. “At that point I was just like, ‘To hell with art.'”

But in 2010 he caught a break when OSU's Urban Art Space offered him his first solo show in Columbus, “Fabricated Art.” After that, Coulter's pieces began making their way into shows at the Cultural Arts Center, the King Arts Complex and more.

Michael Reese of Reese Brothers Productions was the art consultant for the Downtown Hilton and the Greater Columbus Convention Center, and while sorting through the hundreds of submissions, he ended up acquiring Coulter's art for both projects.

“When you look at his work, it's more than, ‘Oh, that's a pretty painting.' You're drawn in because of all the tiny, detailed nuances,” said Reese, who occasionally leaves bags of fabric at Coulter's front door. “They're three-dimensional works that look like one dimension at first glance.”

“I remember saying to him, ‘Don, I haven't really seen anything quite like this,'” said Jim Arter, who met the artist years ago when Coulter helped with a GCAC after-school program. “His eye for very tight detail and sensitivity to light and shadow… I was just blown away by it.”

Over the years, Coulter has become a Columbus artist Lyn Logan-Grimes can always count on for King Arts Complex shows. “I never have to worry about what he's going to bring me,” she said. “His work is the first time that I've said, ‘Wow, that's perfect.'”

By early March the dapper man is nearly finished, and the smoke alarm is still chirping, but the green hat is gone, replaced by a tweed-like fabric to match the jacket. The face now has gold-rimmed glasses and a furry beard. Coulter designed intricate jewelry and a watch peeking out from beneath the sleeve of the arm, which holds a shiny brass trumpet. And it's not quite complete. Coulter still wants to add more details to the belt, more shading underneath the hat.

All of that from one bow tie.

“It's some guy looking deep into himself,” said Coulter, who named the piece “Introspective.” He opted to keep the background simple — the sun, a few leaves, some birds — rather than depicting a busy street scene. “I didn't want anything to take away from him,” he said.

Coulter also opted for simplicity in the piece he completed for Larry and Donna James, though the timing forced his hand. Coulter's pieces can take anywhere from a few weeks to two years, and he originally thought he'd have about a month to complete the James piece.

“Then the following Monday it was, ‘Can you have this done by Friday?' I'm like, ‘What? There's no way,'” Coulter said. But the piece was to be featured on the Art Celebration invitations, which needed to be printed. Plus, the artwork would have an augmented reality component when viewed through a smartphone app, so Coulter would have to take a photo at every step in the process.

“It took me 10 hours just to do the saxophone,” he said.

After taking time off work and putting in 18-hour days, Coulter finished the piece in less than a week. “When I got done, I couldn't even stay here. I stayed at my mom's house for two weeks,” Coulter said. “It was the first time I was happy to go back to work.”

The piece had fewer details than he originally intended, “but it put the focus on Larry and Donna,” he said. “That was the good part.”

When Larry James looked at the piece, he didn't see anything resembling a rush job. “The night of the museum ball, that was when I first laid eyes on it in its full grandeur,” said James, who sat on the museum's board for 10 years. “It was just breathtaking. The closer you got to it, with the different layers… it's like nothing we had ever seen. I still can't describe it in words when I'm talking to family members. … I'm still pinching myself.”

When the Jameses say your art stands out among the pieces in their extensive collection, it could easily go to your head. But Logan-Grimes said there's no danger of that with Coulter.

“Don is very humble. He stays in the background,” Logan-Grimes said. “I think sometimes artists have a hard time understanding that what they're doing is so phenomenal. Maybe now is a turning point for him.”

Through March 31

Ross Art Museum, Ohio Wesleyan University

60 S. Sandusky St., Delaware

“Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”