Hiahli. Contributed photo / Hiahli
Franklin Ugochukwu is drawn to grandiose expressions.
The 27-year-old Moorhead-based Nigerian American searches for these expressions in the faces of people significant in his life. Then he paints those faces into bold, often bright, portraits that embody dramatic juxtaposition.
“A lot of the characters I paint are friends — people that have personally impacted my life, men and women that inspired me,” Ugochukwu said.
Though he’s often focused on capturing beauty and joy, Ugochukwu’s work also addresses the moral tug-of-war between power and vulnerability, grace and resistance.
“I think my work speaks to the love of my skin color, my culture, my people, my joy and my humanity,” he said. “My inspiration also comes from the desire to grow, empowering others and the fulfillment that follows.”
Ugochukwu was born in Kano, Nigeria, where he graduated high school in 2013 and moved to the United States in 2014. He now commissions art and art projects, and is a part-time teaching artist at Plains Art Museum.
Ugochukwu is a Minnesota State University Moorhead visual arts graduate and lives in Moorhead with his partner Valerie.
Practice makes portraits
Ugochukwu has worked in ceramics, drawing, printmaking, photography, drawing and large-scale mural projects. But his bread-and-butter medium is portraiture and oil-based figure painting.
“Nothing comes close to the love I have for oil painting and portraits,” Ugochukwu said.
Finding his niche has been a journey full of challenge and self-discovery ever since Ugochukwu started studying art at the highest level in 2016. His earlier experiments were in landscapes, animals and abstract imagery.
Admittedly, he said it took some time and lots of practice for him to land on where he’s at now with his stunning portraits, but the effort was worth it.
“As anyone would expect, portraiture was very difficult for me in the beginning. But like most things, the more effort you put into it, the less difficult it becomes over time. Now I can’t stop painting faces,” he said.
His best-known portrait to date, “Lottie Adams,” is a painting of the region’s 19th century Black socialite by the same name. The work was exhibited at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County in 2022 for its “Stories of Local Black History,” which focused on African American citizens of Fargo-Moorhead from the late 1800s to the present.
Large-scale community impact
He was also instrumental in Project Art for Change, a mural project at Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead where he was a co-lead artist in charge of designing and producing large-scale pieces for the center’s residential common areas.
“Painting big-scale portraits and making the designs were a challenge, but it was a welcome one. I feel it evolved my art style, and how I see my work interacting with the world,” Ugochukwu said.
His work was also chosen for “Our Whole Selves,” a social practice project led by North Dakota State University Memorial Union Gallery Director and Instructor Anthony Faris, that was designed to broaden access to fine art among food-insecure patrons in Cass and Clay counties.
‘An illustrious platform’
Painting portraits has taught Ugochukwu that art is a practice meant to be shared. He took his craft live as an artist in residence at West Acres in 2021, a local hotspot he called “an illustrious platform,” on Instagram.
West Acres is home to the region’s largest collection of regional art, as well as the creator’s colony, Aptitude creative arts studios.
“Painting in public is starting to become my new favorite way to share a part of myself with people. It creates an invitation for people to share their stories/experiences – about their creativity and life in general. It also helps build my confidence and social skills,” he said in an Instagram post.
Ugochukwu is also the host of the Franklin Ugochukwu Podcast, a podcast that “captures everyday moments and relatable conversations.”
As in his art, growth, mental health, passions and aspirations are frequent topics up for discussion on the podcast. Many guests are friends, colleagues, many of whom Ugochukwu is able to engage deeply with an intensity that leaves some of them in tears.
Yet another medium for Ugochukwu to demonstrate his craft is on TikTok, where some posts have been viewed by almost half a million people, like this one where he addresses the devaluation of art by social influencers.
Rising to the occasion
Ugochukwu’s energy is abundant and vast. His portraits, community projects and the podcast have all come together in the past two years, and the artist has little plans of slowing down.
On deck for 2023, Ugochukwu will expand his large-scale projects to include murals and other community-based projects.
“Imagine big, colorful portraits with floral designs on the walls downtown. That’s my goal for the new year,” Ugochukwu said.
Meanwhile, he’s thankful to live in a community that supports him and local art. “I love that our community is very art positive. I feel seen.”
Also on deck: growing as an artist and human.
“Growth finds its way into my life, and honestly, the inspiration is all around,” he said. “The list goes on and on. Growing and developing in my craft is a big inspiration as well.”
About the author
Lonna Whiting is a freelance writer and owner of lonna.co, a content marketing and communications agency located in Fargo, North Dakota. She is a frequent contributor to The Arts Partnership’s content library and also provides strategic communications consultation to the organization.