Familiar Faces

Meet Pittsboro-based painter Onicas Gaddis 

By Holly West  |  Photography by Briana Brough

When artist Onicas Gaddis walks up the sidewalk to The Mod on any given day, he is greeted by a chorus of “heys” and high-fives. Onicas, a Pittsboro-based painter, is well-known in the area for his art, which hangs at The Mod and 580 Craft Beer, in addition to several people’s homes. Each painting is unique, but residents might see familiar faces in them – or at least think they do. Onicas incorporates faces into many of his paintings because of his beginnings as a charcoal portraitist.

“I did that for a lot of years and I drew a lot of faces,” he says. “I think subconsciously, it’s people that I know or spirits. Some people tell me when you look at them they look like they’re real and they’re thinking about something. It’s creepy to some people.”

During his training at the Sarah Carlisle Towery Alabama Art Colony, the organization’s namesake taught him to paint what he knew. “When I met Sarah, she said, ‘Just paint and don’t think about it. The painting will tell you what it wants to be,’” Onicas says. “In the paint, I see a lot of faces. I kind of see the painting, and then I make it and figure out what the story is behind it.”

Much of his work is based on emotion, as he used painting to cope with his difficult childhood. One of 12 children, Onicas was placed into Alabama’s foster care system at an early age. “Growing up in foster care there are some really hard days,” he says. “It never goes away, and, if you don’t have an outlet, it destroys you. That’s why I’m so thankful, passionate and serious about my work. I just think it saved my life.”

He has also done charcoal and pencil drawing, but Onicas says painting is the true outlet for his emotions. “I don’t think sculpting and modeling clay would provide that for me. I’ve got action, and I’ve got the music up loud,” he says. “There are a lot of tears in some of my paintings, and a lot of joy.” Both of those things went into “Heaven and Hell,” a 2010 two-canvas piece that hangs at University Place’s The Frame & Print Shop in Chapel Hill, where Onicas works. Onicas has priced the two-part piece at $1 million after originally giving away the smaller of the two paintings and realizing they couldn’t be separated.

Despite the high price tags, Onicas’ art really isn’t about the money, he says. He has given away more than 350 of his paintings. “It became this thing where every time I gave away a piece of art and went back to my canvas, a vision was forming,” he says. “I attributed that to me giving and becoming a better painter in the process.”

Onicas credits his friend Sheila Fleming – a Pittsboro singer/songwriter he met while he was living in Sanford – with helping him get out of a rut. “I was sleeping in my car in a parking lot in Sanford for a while,” he says. “It’s because of her I’m able to take showers pretty much.”

But Onicas’ primary motivation for being successful is to take care of his two children, Royal, 12, and Roman, 11, who live in Lynchburg, Virginia and are impressed by Onicas’ local celebrity status when they come to visit.

“My daughter asked me, ‘Are you a famous artist?’ because everybody in Pittsboro knows me and talks to me. I said, ‘Not yet.’” CM

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