“Painting came late for me. I was intimidated by it.”
By Joe Miller
Julius DeWitt Hannah always had confidence in his pen.
Capturing the tiniest details of a face in his sketchpad came easy to the 1992 Shaker Heights High School graduate. drawing a fantastical animé scene straight out of superhero lore was a snap.
“Painting came so late for me,” says Hannah, who finally picked up his paintbrush six years ago at the age of 40. “I was intimidated by it, the color aspect, and the craft of it.”
Glancing around his basement studio at his Moreland neighborhood home, it’s clear that the self-taught painter is no longer intimidated. Hannah’s acrylic paintings, mostly abstracts, flood the room with color, teeming with a chaos of brushstrokes and spatters often brought to order by a layer of lines. Other canvases highlight his pen-and-pad roots featuring female figures, African masks, and a hip-hop sensibility from a past career promoting local bands.
It hasn’t taken long for Hannah to find an audience. His pieces have found their way to local art fairs, a solo exhibit at a Larchmere Boulevard gallery, and the walls of Shaker Heights homes.
“The vibrance of the colors just jumps off whatever medium he uses,” says local designer Denise Dixon, owner of Farrow & Wren Interiors.
Dixon has been a fan since she invited Hannah to join a Shaker Arts Council show highlighting Moreland artists in 2016. One of Hannah’s paintings appeared on the show’s invitation; the painting now hangs in Dixon’s dining room, the first of six she has purchased from Hannah. She has recommended Hannah’s work to several of her clients.
“From his portraits to his contemporary art, there’s a depth and energy to it that draws you,” she says.
Growing up in the Lomond neighborhood, Hannah honed his talent with encouragement from family — his Uncle Clifford Collins would bring him comic books and challenge the young boy to draw what he saw — and art teachers such as Lomond Elementary mainstay Jill (Wisneski) Schumacher, who retired in 2011.
“I would gravitate to the drawing. She just noticed and pushed me,” Hannah says. Later, the High School’s art department “was a heavy influence on me,” says Hannah. Teachers, such as former gallery owner Malcolm Brown, and talented classmates showed him the art world was within his reach.
“Shaker High nurtured that art environment,” he says. “Our art program was amazing.”
After studying graphic design in college, Hannah spent a decade designing flyers and T-shirts promoting Cleveland hip-hop groups. When that dried up, he put his art career on hold as he focused on a whole new life as a husband and father. Hannah’s wife Amy is a fourth-grade teacher at Fernway Elementary where their daughter Evelyn is a second grader; son Elliott is a sixth grader at Woodbury Elementary.
Still, art was always on his mind. Something eventually clicked for Hannah when a close friend started painting. “I finally said, ‘If he can do that, then I’m wasting a lot of time not doing it.’”
Hannah studied YouTube videos about stretching canvases. He studied the styles of his idols such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Pablo Picasso. And he experimented with whatever materials he had around his house, from wooden crates to cardboard boxes.
At first he painted abstracts. Hannah’s goal was to “elicit emotions or feelings” from his audience “without guiding them.”
“Once I became comfortable with that, my illustrator side came out,” he says. Hannah started adding lines to his works. “They guide our eyes where to go and break up the chaos of color.”
Hannah never thought he’d go beyond abstracts, but the COVID shutdown has pushed him in new directions. Some of his newer works include pastel figures inspired by old sketches and take on themes such as people’s addiction to social media.
“During COVID, I’ve been trying to say a lot of things that I couldn’t say with an abstract piece,” he says. “It was something I said I’d stay away from, but sometimes art reflects
Samples of Hannah’s work may be seen at jdharts.com.