Painting Conversations

Bill Dallas’ “Artmatism” brings abstract expressionism to life.


Bill Dallas

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

It’s mid-morning, and the sounds of Branford Marsalis’ “A Thousand Autumns” soar through a half-lit Oakland art studio on East 12th Street. Bill Dallas is at work doing what he does most mornings: painting conversations. He may be painting the interplay between the Marsalis’ saxophone and the piano he hears in the tune. He may be painting the interaction he had with a friend yesterday in downtown Oakland’s City Center. He may be unearthing the expressions of a quiet figure in a scripture passage or a moment in history whose voice is there, but hidden. As Dallas paints, the colors on his canvas mingle, forming peaks and valleys in the acrylic substrate that become a swirl of image, sound, and texture all at once.

To step into a painting by Dallas is to be enveloped in a place where art takes command and leads you on a multisensory journey. Dallas prefers the term “artmatism” to describe his style. The term reflects the idea that the process of making art and the finished product are a united whole.

“It’s like taking a road trip,” explained Dallas. “You move along and see things you want to stop and check out along the way. The music tells me what to paint.”

It’s no surprise that voice and music are embodied in Dallas’ art and serve as a soundtrack to his own road trip. Born in 1937 to an African-American family in Kansas City, Mo., Dallas grew up surrounded by the sounds of jazz and blues that proliferated there. At 17, he joined the Air Force, served in the Korean War, and later made his way to Berkeley, settling in the East Bay. Dallas wandered through a series of jobs and life explorations that are as varied as his paintings: playing semi-professional basketball and football, serving as a paper handler at the Chronicle, and being a teaching assistant at a preschool center. His real start with painting came in the early 1970s, when Dallas attended UC Berkeley, graduating with a fine arts degree. But ask him when he began his relationship with art, and he’ll say, “since the womb.”

Shirley Kinsey and her husband, Bernard, became enchanted with Dallas’ artmatism when they first came across his painting, entitled Blue Jazz, hanging at the Thelma Harris Art Gallery in Rockridge. The couple, avid art collectors, have amassed one of the largest private collections of African-American art and historical artifacts in the world. Dallas’ Blue Jazz is a fixture in The Kinsey Collection, which has traveled to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco, and a dozen other museums. Several other paintings by Dallas grace the walls of the Kinsey’s home in Southern California.

“I just love the texture and the technique he uses,” said Shirley Kinsey. “It’s like you don’t just see the painting; you feel it. It evokes a sense of touch.”

Many of Dallas’ paintings feature Asian script and Asian-inspired minimalism, influences picked up during time spent time studying art in Japan. A quiet, soft-spoken man of few words, he is in his 70s and dealing with partial blindness. Yet, he doesn’t let his waning eyesight stop him from making art. Rather, he relies on his other senses and the gentle hand of expression leading him into his next creation.

“Where is the art taking me today?” Dallas says. “I don’t know. I just follow.”

Find Bill Dallas’ paintings at the Joyce Gordon Gallery, The London, and the Thelma Harris Art Gallery.


Published online on Nov. 2, 2016 8:00 a.m.

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