As a former program director at Groundswell, Patrick Dougher was the creative force behind a number of the city’s best murals. He is the drummer on some of the best-selling reggae albums of all time and has performed at many of NYC’s iconic music institutions. He’s brought art therapy and healing to thousands of children through his work with Kings County Hospital and BRIC Arts Media. He was even once featured as a Human of New York. And he’s a lifelong Brooklynite, born and raised.
But somehow we didn’t know about him until he left a (not entirely supportive) Facebook comment on one of our stories. Though he may not have loved our article—to be fair, it was a fashion piece, and Dougher has style for days and days; any comment from him at all in this department is a compliment—we immediately fell in love with his art. A self-taught artist who depicts everyday people of color as gods and goddesses, even when their images are transposed on flattened soda cans from the trash, Dougher’s work is bold and powerful and reflects his fascinating, if turbulent, Brooklyn upbringing.
Read on to see why Dougher is, in his own words, an “OG who has seen a lot and been there for the birth of cultural movements.”
What Should We Do: You’re involved in so many things, professionally and artistically. When people ask you what you do, what do you say?
Patrick Dougher: I have been a creative person all my life, but only very recently have I allowed myself to be called an artist. In the past, when people would refer to me as an artist, I would quickly correct them, saying, “No. I make art, but I am not an artist.” I think I didn’t feel worthy of the title because I didn’t go to art school and didn’t speak the language that artists speak.
WSWD: But you’ve been creating art your whole life, right?
Dougher: I started making art as a child. My father worked in a paper mill. He brought home lots of different kinds of paper, so I remember drawing/doodling and experimenting from really early on. I think this journey of becoming an artist has been very organic and divinely guided for me.
As a young man, I took any kind of work I could get. Often I got “hooked up” by friends who would refer me for jobs. At 16 years old, I got a gig working as an assistant to a fairly well-known artist—who shall remain nameless because it turned out that he was racist and abusive—who had a studio in SoHo. This was in the late ’70s/early ’80s when the NYC art scene was just beginning to enter a golden age, so I got exposed to a lot of art and up-and-coming artists.
I was naturally interested in art, but I was really just trying to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. It just happened that I got jobs that educated me and exposed me to the arts.
WSWD: You still seem hesitant to call yourself an artist.
Dougher: Well, selling art is currently my sole means of income, so I guess that makes me a professional artist. I do commissions only if I’m allowed total freedom of expression. I recently did a cover for a CD released by the Smithsonian. I took the commission because it paid well, but most important, they gave me a wide berth and allowed me to create what came from my soul.
I am not represented by any gallery, but I’ve had several solo exhibitions that were well attended and received accolades. I have also had my work in several group shows. I am very grateful for the amount of attention that my work has received in a relatively short time. I’ve only taken art as a career seriously for less than two years and so much has happened in that time.
WSWD: What and who are your artistic inspirations?
Dougher: I’ve certainly been influenced and am in awe of the talents of artists like Romare Bearden, Kerry James Marshall, Kehinde Wiley, Charles White, John Biggers, Barkley Hendricks, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Jean-Michel Basquiat. I could go on and on. I’m also really inspired by graffiti art and the DIY art that came out of the early punk-rock movement, and, of course, children’s artwork. I think children are the purest and most uninhibited artists.
WSWD: Your work has a lot in common with the work of some of those artists you listed. You depict everyday African-American people with reverence and dignity.
Dougher: I think the main point of my work is to call attention to the divine nature, the beauty and nobility of “everyday people” and people of color in particular. I have been drawn to religious icon paintings all my life. This influence may stem from attending Catholic churches with my father as a youth. The sacredness of the work moved me, but I always felt disconnected with the people depicted in the images because they didn’t look like me or most of the people in my life. In my early teens, I was influenced by the philosophy of the Five Percenters and Rastafarians that spoke to the divinity of people of color, and later by the Hindu belief that we all embody God.
My work is about connecting to the God within and outside of us. My hope is that by representing people of color in ways that highlight our beauty, nobility, and divine nature I am in some way contributing to the uplifting of the community—providing a visual source of pride. I use normal, everyday people as my subjects and inspirations because I want black people and people who are underrepresented in traditional art to recognize how powerful and beautiful we are and how blessed in spirit we are.
My hope is that by representing people of color in ways that highlight our beauty, nobility, and divine nature I am in some way contributing to the uplifting of the community—providing a visual source of pride.
WSWD: Can you tell me about your “art cans“?
Dougher: They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Growing up with an impulse to create art but with little or no money, I began using ordinary and discarded objects to make art and to see art all around me in things in my urban environment that are often overlooked. At one point in my life, I was homeless. A friend let me stay in his recording studio in Greenpoint. The studio was next to a metal recycling yard. There was a lot of old rusted metal and flattened soda/beer cans on the street. It was there that I began making sculptures influenced by traditional African art using pieces of found rusted metal.
I’ve always done collages using Xerox copies, cutting and rearranging the copies to make new images. This idea for me was similar to what DJs were doing at the time: mixing, cutting, and sampling old records to create new music. I used Xerox copies because I often worked in places where I had access to copy machines and could make copies for free. Transposing Xeroxed images on the found flattened cans seemed like a logical progression. The cans provided a free canvas and also spoke to the idea of repurposing ordinary objects and flipping them to create new work.
I was also beginning my journey to become sober at that time, which I call my second chance at life. By repurposing the discarded cans and metal, I was saying that these things are valuable and also deserve a second life. It also conveys the idea that we are not disposable, and that beauty and value can be found in even what is considered worthless.
I was beginning my journey to become sober, which I call my second chance at life. By repurposing the discarded cans, I was saying that these things are valuable and also deserve a second life.
WSWD: As an art therapist, how do you feel your art can heal?
Dougher: I worked as an art therapist in the early 2000s at Kings County Hospital (where I was born). I worked with HIV+ children and children with AIDS. Of the many, many jobs I’ve had, it was the most impactful, most challenging, and most rewarding. I wouldn’t go so far as to say art by itself healed those young people from their maladies, but I know for a fact that giving them the opportunity to freely express themselves helped to ease their suffering. I certainly did art projects with my kids, but really I did anything I could to get them to express what they were going through and to create a safe space for them to laugh and yell and be silly and cry and be heard and simply just to be kids. Not sick kids, not dying kids…just kids. I created poetry with them, played all kinds of games with them, acted like a complete clown, and very often simply sat and had conversations with them. I have never met better human beings than those young people.
WSWD: Your work as program director at Groundswell must have been very rewarding, too. Why do you think murals are so important to an urban environment?
Dougher: I oversaw more than 300 mural projects throughout the five boroughs. They were youth- and community-led murals that dealt with topics that ranged from gun violence, gentrification, and celebration of community to diversity, immigration, women’s empowerment, and the negative portrayal of young men of color. I had days were I spent the morning at Gracie Mansion with Mayor Bloomberg discussing the inequity and injustices of the stop-and-frisk program, and then spent the afternoon on Rikers Island running workshops with incarcerated youth. I think murals leave a (hopefully) lasting legacy in a city that’s changing so rapidly. I think they beautify but also are a means to educate and inspire. Important stuff!
WSWD: Do you have any favorite murals?
Dougher: There are too many murals that move me to mention, but I will shout out some of the amazing muralists whom I’ve been blessed to work with. Muralists who have created amazing bodies of work throughout the city. Check out Chris Soria, Danielle McDonald, Misha Tyutyunik, Crystal Clarity, Esteban De Valle, Paul Deo, Marina Perez-Wong, Vince Ballentine, and Angel Garcia.
WSWD: You’re also a musician and drummer. Do you still perform?
Dougher: I am a self-taught artist and drummer. I got my first drum kit as a gift for my 17th birthday from my high school sweetheart. I spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, and years practicing and learning how to play. I played in ska bands like the Boilers and Toasters in the mid-’80s and got a chance to perform at some of NYC’s iconic revues like CBGB (many times), the Roxy, B.B. King, the Limelight, SOB’s, Wetlands, Webster Hall, and many more. I also got the chance to play a gig with Sade that aired live on Top of the Pops on the BBC back in 1993 and perform at Nell’s, with Prince in the audience.
I played drums and percussion on Easy Star All-Stars’s Dub Side of the Moon, which is one of the bestselling reggae releases of all time. I think that recording was some of my best work. I never toured with Easy Star or played any live shows with them. I strictly did the studio recordings. I also played on their later release, Lonely Hearts Dub Band.
I still play whenever I can. Most recently I recorded and did the cover art for the Grammy-winning artist Dan Zanes’s Leadbelly Baby CD. I’ve toured around the country playing drums with him over the past few years.
Fashion is to style as religion is to spirituality. Style is soul. It’s the streets. It’s roots and self-expression.
WSWD: You’ve got incredible personal style. What do you think your style says about you? And where do you shop?
Dougher: Thank you! I have always been drawn to style. I don’t care about fashion much, but style is everything! I always say, fashion is to style as religion is to spirituality. Style is soul. It’s the streets. It’s roots and self-expression.
I think my personal style is a total mashup of everything that’s influenced my life. In the late ’70s I was one of the few black kids in NYC that embraced punk-rock music and ethos. I was an original Afropunk a couple of decades before that term was coined. I caught hell for walking around Brooklyn wearing skinny black jeans with holes in them, so I have to laugh when I see them as a fashion staple now. I also grew up in East Flatbush, which is a very West Indian neighborhood, so I was heavily influenced by the style and swag of the Rastas. Of course, I was also coming up during the birth of what would be called B-boy or hip-hop street style. No matter how punk rock I might turn out, I still have to be fresh and fly. I also really appreciate the mod and skinhead styles and their attention to detail. So mix all of that with some African fabric, some Islamic and Hindu spiritual accessories, and some tattoos and piercings, and you’ve got me on any given day.
I consider myself to be a master at thrifting. I’ve got decades of experience and an artist’s eye. I started going to the Salvation Army back in the late ’70s to get vintage gear when I first got into punk rock. Nowadays, when I do shop, it’s at L Train, Buffalo Exchange, or Beacon’s Closet. But the Salvation Army will always be my favorite.
I think Brooklyn is still pretty fly. As long as people still sit on stoops in the summertime, and as long as salsa, reggae, hip hop, and soul classics get pumped out of cars and windows, then I’m at home.
WSWD: You were featured as a Human of New York. In that interview, you talked a little about growing up in Brooklyn with an African-American mother and an Irish father who “drank himself to death.” Can you tell us more about that?
Dougher: My parents met in Bed-Stuy in the early ’60s. There were African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Irish, Italians, and Jews in Bed-Stuy, and what they all had in common was poverty. Even though the neighborhood was mixed, my parents still had to deal with a lot of adversity, and I feel really proud of them for that. They had a true rebel love. I grew up in Bushwick until I was 10. That neighborhood was mostly Puerto Rican then, but we had German, Irish, black, and Italian families on our block; all of us kids played together without any issues. It was a gritty upbringing, and I got lots of scrapes and cuts, had lots of fights, and even broke a bone, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
My dad died at 38; I was 15 at the time. My family was already pretty dysfunctional: Alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness as a result of generations of untreated trauma really damaged my family. My dad died from a heart attack, but it was from years of alcohol abuse and heavy smoking. By the time he died, I was already getting high and smoking, but it really took off after he passed. It was how I dealt with my grief and loss.
I am nearly 18 years clean and sober today by the grace of God, but I came very close to ending up like my dad, my uncles, and one of my older brothers—all of whom were intelligent, talented, and charismatic and who all died young as a result of alcohol and drug abuse. I am blessed that I’ve been given a second chance at life that sadly they never got.
WSWD: Congratulations on your sobriety. Do you consider that your biggest accomplishment?
Dougher: I do. I simply would not be here now if I hadn’t gotten sober. But beyond that, I think being a father to my son, Omari, and my stepkids, Brittany and Steve, is by far the greatest and most important thing I’ve done. I thank God.
WSWD: How do you think Brooklyn has changed since your childhood?
Dougher: Brooklyn is just a lot softer and less flavorful than it once was. Brooklyn had a certain style and rhythm that I think is becoming a thing of the past. It has lost an important edginess and uniqueness and is becoming homogenized and predictable. That said, I think Brooklyn is still pretty fly and a mecca for what is cool. As long as people still sit on stoops in the summertime, and as long as salsa, reggae, hip hop, and soul classics get pumped out of cars and windows, and as long as Mister Softee trucks play that god-awful tune over and over all summer long, then I’m at home.