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From small galleries to primetime TV, Dawn Okoro is shining under international spotlight

Earl Hopkins
Austin 360
Artist Dawn Okoro at her Austin home in March. "I had a vision of what an artist was and I thought there would be less struggle and anxiety," Okoro says about her path to becoming a full-time artist. "But it's impossible not to see art in your life. You really can't avoid it, it's everywhere."

As a "tall, thin and quiet bookworm" with a love for fashion and culture magazines in Lubbock, artist Dawn Okoro said she always felt like a black sheep in the small, northwestern Texas city. 

While others her age played on playgrounds, she spent hours flipping through the pages of Vogue, Essence, Jet and Ebony magazines.

Her artistry blossomed as she studied the covers and spreads of the iconic publications, with the images of models like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banksbroadening her scope and sparking her creative talents.

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"For me, my window to the world was in magazines," Okoro said. "My grandma would get them and my mom had a subscription to Jet Magazine and Ebony Magazine, and every month there would be a couple of pages dedicated to fashion. They featured Black fashion designers and some of the Black models and I would just think, 'Wow.'"

With each weekly or monthly issue, Okoro was inspired to replicate the images captured by editorial photographer Richard Avedon and other creative minds of the time. 

Artist Dawn Okoro paints March 2 in her studio at her Austin home. Okoro's earliest inspirations came from reading fashion magazines while growing up in Lubbock.

In elementary school, she began making drawings of the clothing designs from the magazines, sometimes filling the skin with a mahogany shade where it did not previously exist. And by the time Okoro, 42, was in high school, she took her fashion-centric style to the canvas. 

But Okoro said her family didn't believe a career as a full-time artist was sustainable. 

"Where I grew up, people heard of (Pablo Picasso) or whatever, but my family was kind of like, 'That's a nice hobby, but you need to go be a doctor or a lawyer or engineer,'" Okoro said.

To appease her family, Okoro pursued other avenues. 

She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in psychology and a minor in fashion design. She later earned a law degree from Texas Southern University, but despite the opportunities that bloomed from her academic success, her creative passions were always on her mind.

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After graduating from TSU, Okoro uprooted her life in Austin to start anew in New York with the hopes of making it as an artist in the Big Apple. 

Okoro began meeting with different artists and curators, but after a year, she and her then-boyfriend — now-husband — were forced to move back to Central Texas due to family and financial strains that worsened with the Great Recession in the late 2000s. 

Dawn Okoro paints March 2 in her Austin studio. "I like her confidence and her ability to engage with people, take chances and trust in the process of things," Mauve Doyle, the artistic director at Maddox Gallery in London, says about Okoro. "Her future is really bright and her work is uplifting."

With no interest in practicing law and to please her family, Okoro put her artistic pursuits on hold and decided to start a career in journalism.

"In my heart, I knew I wanted to do art, but there was still that drive to feel like I'm actually doing something with my life in a way that my family would understand," she said. 

'I thought there would be less struggle and anxiety'

While working at Spectrum News Austin, Okoro said, she wouldn't pick up a paintbrush for months or even years at a time. 

"It was a process," Okoro said. "When I moved back to Texas from New York, I just decided to give up on art. I liked making work, but I think I had a vision of what an artist was. I thought there would be less struggle and anxiety. But it's impossible not to see art in your life. You really can't avoid it; it's everywhere."

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Austin-based artist Dawn Okoro takes photos of the Capital Metro bus featuring her artwork after it was unveiled in front of the George Washington Carver Museum in February. Okoro was born in Houston and grew up in Lubbock.

Okoro eventually found time to create new art series and finished paintings she hadn't touched in years. 

Her creative revival came at a time of emptiness.

After experiencing the death of loved ones, Okoro recognized the fragility of life and decided to turn to a paintbrush and canvas again. 

"It felt like something was missing," Okoro said. "After maturing, seeing life and experiencing the death of people close to me, it kind of felt like life really is short and I need to start living and I started small from there." 

In 2018, Okoro showcased her "Punk Noir" exhibit at the George Washington Carver Museum, a show that featured towering canvas paintings inspired by local artists and influencers in and around Austin that exuded a "punk spirit," Okoro said. 

The exhibit also included music from Austin-based band BLXPLTN to coincide with the artist's vision. And with the exhibition's success, Okoro drew the attention of local and international gallerists. 

Among her many admirers was Phillip Niemeyer, owner of Northern and Southern Gallery, who marveled at Okoro's eclectic style. 

"When I first saw Okoro, I thought she was amazing from the get-go, and everything she's doing now is just reinforcing that," he said. "I love the way she's constantly exploring her work. She doesn't stay in one place."

Dawn Okoro, who put aside her art for several years, walks around a CapMetro bus that features her work. Okoro turned back to painting after the deaths of several loved ones and has been a full-time artist since 2021.

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Mauve Doyle, the artistic director at Maddox Gallery in London, said she was drawn to Okoro's transparency and creative mind. 

"I like her confidence and her ability to engage with people, take chances and trust in the process of things," Doyle said. "Her future is really bright, and her work is uplifting."

Doyle said Okoro's background in fashion bleeds into her artwork, with many of her subjects painted in deeply enriched colors and positioned in ways that mirror the covers of editorial magazines.

Where to see Dawn Okoro's work

The relatively withdrawn artist has come into her own.

Since 2017, the Houston-born artist has held residencies and exhibitions in Seattle, Miami, New York and London, and she recently collaborated with PepsiCo to have her artwork placed on the brand's Lifewtr bottles. Her work also has been featured in Season 2 of NBC's "Law & Order: Organized Crime." 

"When I watched the episode where Jennifer Beals said my name and showed my painting, I squealed a little," she said. "I’m happy to see some of my goals begin to come to fruition. There is so much more that I can do with art. I’m just getting started."

Okoro has continued to expand her artistic reach since becoming a full-time artist in August 2021, with works such as "VantaBlack," "Kool-Aid Drawings," and "Crown and Glory."

Along with international exhibitions and TV show appearances, her contributions to the arts also have been recognized by Austin organizations.

Austin-based artist Dawn Okoro documents a wooden bust of her that is part of the exhibit "Peace to the Queen" by artist Jamel Shabazz now showing at the Carver Museum.

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In February, CapMetro placed portraits from Okoro's "Kool-Aid Drawings" project on city buses, and a wooden bust of the artist was placed inside the Carver Museum for the center's "Peace to the Queen" exhibit of work by artist Jamel Shabazz. 

Given her success as an artist, Okoro said her mother and other family members have applauded her chosen path and accomplishments.

"I think they're proud of me," she said. "I think now that I have more opportunities that are more tangible to see, they understand it better now. I think they're happy to see me happy and doing what I love to do."

After her career pivots and periods of artistic inactivity, Okoro said she's now fully embraced her artistry and individuality. 

"It's taken me years to come to that conclusion, and there are still some times as an adult when those feelings creep in again. But I think just doing my art has helped me a lot, and getting my art out there lets me know it's OK just to be who I am," she said. 

Okoro said her goal is to inspire other artists to accept their differences as their superpowers and to add beauty to the world. 

Dawn Okoro, artist

See Okoro's work and latest exhibit information: okorostudio.com.