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Telling Stories: Trei Ramsey, March Featured Artist

At times both playful and unsettling, Trei Ramsey's paintings display themes of childhood, nostalgia, and complicated power dynamics. A trained actor, he is finally pursuing his lifelong dream: painting. Read on to learn about his journey thus far and his most recent work.

Trei Ramsey in his studio at 52 O Street Studios.

Whether he is acting, drawing, or painting, Trei Ramsey is telling stories. As a kid, he was fascinated by the illustrations in cartoons and comic books. As a teenager, he acted in plays at school. When it came time for college, he knew his parents wouldn’t support a degree in art, so he did the next best thing: film, and eventually, acting. 

He attended Howard University, where Ramsey excelled in acting but was always drawing in the margins of his notebooks. Studying the cultural impact of African Americans, and specifically Howard as an institution, gave him a broader perspective on how history and creative expression are interconnected. Even though he loved acting, he wasn’t doing what he wanted, thinking “this is awesome, but I still don’t know what to do with it. I’m still not painting.” 

After graduating, Ramsey bartended around the U Street corridor, and once had his picture included in a photo exhibition titled DC Institutions. While the photographer intended it to be a complimentary commentary on how reliable and beloved Ramsey was, Ramsey never intended to be in DC permanently. He was so shocked that he had become an "institution" that he immediately made the decision to pack up his car and move to LA. 

Chatter, 2024. 18"x24" multimedia (ink, color pencils) on 300 GSM Paper.

While building a career in LA is far from easy, Ramsey had a penchant for acting and quickly made connections. Within six months of living there, he had formed a relationship with a casting director and got cast in indie films and as a recurring villain in the 2010 video game Front Mission Evolved. “I loved being in LA - I loved the sunshine and cheap food. But what wasn’t fun is that you don’t get paid right away. It usually takes a couple of months. So my plan was to come back to DC to work for a little bit and make money - next thing I know, I’ve been here for another ten years” 

While back in DC, Ramsey was still sketching, but it wasn’t until his brother and sister-in-law gifted him a set of paint and canvas that he began painting. He worked from his bedroom on small pieces, then began to increase his scale around 2016 when he moved into an apartment with a larger living room. 

Ramsey points to a range of influences: pop art, manga and comic books, and surrealism. But underlying his artistic interest is a desire to tell stories. As a kid, he was fascinated by cartoons and fantasy, always interested in different worlds with different colors and strange creatures. 

So what stories is he telling now? “As a kid I was kind of an outcast, which allowed me to observe things from the outside and gave me a different perspective on things.” His recent show at Thundershark Gallery dealt with notions of communication and anxiety. “With every piece, there are stories being told: stories I intend to tell, and stories that I don’t intend. I want to make things that are approachable, so even if you don’t get the layered meaning, at least you have some fun with it.” 

3AM, 2024. 30"x40" acrylic on canvas.

Layered stories in what seems on the surface to be simple or childish is a key concern of Ramsey’s. Cartoons, for example, are often loaded with social norms, prejudices, and even outright propaganda. This was a focus of Ramsey’s 2022 show at Homme gallery called Problematic Cartoons. “It’s about indoctrination, and the things that we learn through the media we get as kids. Things we think of as harmless, but turn out to not be if you look at them with any sort of critical eye. But at the same time, they’re nostalgic.” 

Ramsey also brings up the notion of representation and what it means to his practice. “I try to tell the story from my own perspective, which is not necessarily a perspective that everyone gets. Representation has been a big buzzword for the past 5-10 years - the whole idea of, I want to be able to look up and see me - well, no matter where I go, I’m not going to be able to look up and see me unless I make me seen. And seeing me means that you see the world through my lens. Just because you grew up with me, doesn’t mean you know me. Just because we have shared experiences doesn't mean that my experiences are the same as yours. So, if I paint about it, maybe you’ll get it.” 

Polyphemus, 2024. 12"x16" Acrylic on canvas (top). Surrealist Object, 2024. 9"x12" acrylic on canvas (bottom)

Ramsey is also invested in making art accessible for children and anyone who may not have had formal training or education. “I want a point of entry for all kids. Walking into an art space can be intimidating.

When you walk in, what do you latch onto that makes you feel comfortable and expands your world?” One of Ramsey’s goals with his work is to show people that following your creative passions is achievable - he did it, so you can too. 

“Art is gatekept, but so are many things in life. And sometimes the only way you can get through those barriers is to keep chipping away at them the way you know how to.” A little bit of encouragement goes a long way. 

Critical to his development as an artist was getting a space at 52 O Street Studios. “I’ve been here since 2022. Having a studio is the first time that I’ve been able to let canvases sit. I’ve also noticed that my skill has improved because I can take my time and let the paint teach me.” Ramsey has his plate full of things for 2024. He is participating in Artomatic, and will be a future featured artist at the new Palette 22 location in Union Market. 

He is optimistic about the future, and has sketchbooks full of ideas waiting to be put onto canvas. “I feel like whatever I do is going to be fun,” he says as a final note. “And fun to look at.” 

To learn more about Trei and his work, check out his Instagram and Website.

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