SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — Early on a school day sometime in 2014, a retired police cruiser pulled around to the loading dock at Dorman High School.
Strapped to the top of the Crown Victoria were a pair of giant canvases, paintings in progress for Ludovic Nkoth, who was trying, somewhat stealthily, to bring them to school for his senior AP art class.
His teacher, Robert Urban, watched, amused.
“(He) would see me coming in at 7 a.m., 8 a.m. with two canvases tied to the car, and he would be like, ‘What are you doing!?’” Nkoth recalled, laughing at the memory. “It’s a huge car, but the canvas can’t fit anywhere in the car or in the trunk.”
Fast-forward to the Spring of 2022: Nkoth is flying off to London, Paris and a couple cities in Italy for gallery openings and appearances, his finished canvases carefully packed and protected for the journey across the Atlantic.
Nkoth is considered a rising star in the contemporary art world, represented by galleries in Turin, Italy, London and Los Angeles.
His colorful, often oversized, works are in demand in the U.S., Europe and Asia. They evoke his life’s journey, across continents and cultures.
LUDOVIC NKOTH’S JOURNEY TO THE US
Ludovic Nkoth was born in 1994 in Cameroon in western Africa and moved to Spartanburg at the age of 13.
His first language was French, and he spent his first year in South Carolina learning enough English to attend middle school. Drawing was his way to interpret his new home and stay connected to Cameroon. Hip-hop was his soundtrack and helped him master his new language. Even now, he speaks with a somewhat lyrical inflection.
At Dorman, he played varsity soccer and studied music and art. He graduated in 2014 but stayed in Spartanburg to earn a degree in interdisciplinary studies at USC-Upstate.
The university doesn’t offer a degree program in art, so Nkoth created his own course of studies. He took classes in graphic design, art history and arts education, all while painting and creating in his studio space at the West Main co-op in downtown Spartanburg.
He first set up shop there when he was still in high school.
“I needed the space to work. The projects I wanted to make started being more daring and bolder.”
His studio time counted as credit at USC-Upstate he needed to qualify for graduate programs.
“I knew I wanted a career in the arts, so I just started putting everything I could pick up into forming a curriculum or a degree for myself. I created my own program outside of the campus,” he said, joking that he gave himself great grades for his independent studies. “My GPA was amazing! I didn’t really have to answer to anyone.”
After USC-Upstate, he moved to New York City in 2018, and earned a Master of Fine Arts at Hunter College in 2021. Though he now travels extensively, the city is home base and an important source of creative energy.
“I like the chaos that comes with New York and that pace of life,” he said. “It kind of reminds me of back home (in Cameroon) too, because we are always moving — the markets are very similar — like when I walk around Chinatown.”
FROM SPARTANBURG TO INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM
Now that he’s fully immersed in the art world, in New York and internationally, he says he realizes the benefits and the limitations of his experience in the Upstate.
“I felt like I always had so many different perspectives. I could code switch a little easier than most,” he said. “Existing in another world where I had to be as social as possible in school because of sports and living around people who didn’t do anything other than sports.”
He says that not being just around art and artists “helped me to operate very differently. I’m very glad that I got that experience.”
One of his works, “Oasis,” hangs at High Museum in Atlanta. It was the first major art museum Nkoth ever visited - with Urban and his AP art class.
“Going from experiencing that in high school to now experiencing museums as an artist hanging on the wall, it’s just mindboggling and such a warm feeling to me because I connected so much to the High Museum,” he said.
“As soon as I got through the doors, I just got this weird feeling. You know, sometimes you walk into a space where you just feel like you belong, or you feel like you have a connection with the space.”
Urban said having a former student’s work hanging at a premiere art museum like the High is “like a coach having one of their athletes make it to the Olympics or be drafted into the pros.”
Student and teacher have stayed in touch, but, sometimes important details get left out.
“In the fall, Ludovic texted me and said ‘Hey, I’m at the High Museum.’ I said ‘Great! I’m glad you’ve gone back there,’” Urban said, laughing. Nkoth never mentioned that the reason he was at the museum was because it was purchasing his artwork.
Urban learned the news when Nkoth was featured in the USC-Upstate alumni magazine.
“I texted him and said ‘Dude, you never told me THAT’S why you were there!’”
RECOGNIZING NKOTH’S TALENT AT DORMAN
Urban says that even in high school, it was clear that Nkoth was an extraordinary talent.
“He had a certain kind of confidence about him, that ‘Hey, I can do this.’ When you see the portfolio of work that he did in high school, it’s like ‘What? This is a high school student?’”
As the final project for Urban’s AP class, Nkoth did a collection that featured figures in action in sports.
“That was a big part of his world at the time,” Urban said.
The dozen works, most in Nkoth’s oversized format and painted with bold acrylics, evoke the work of famed sports painter LeRoy Neiman, an artist Nkoth says he admires and has studied.
One, “Game Day,” is 20 square feet of kinetic football action primarily in Dorman Cavalier blue — “just because Dorman is playing today!” he tweeted at the time.
Nkoth’s ties to Dorman remain strong. His brothers Serge and Sydney are both students at the high school.
“Serge is a senior right now and he’s playing soccer at Dorman, and I think he’s got an offer to go play at Converse,” Ludovic, the proud brother, says. “Sydney is a sophomore and he’s playing soccer too.”
Would they mind being named in the story? “No. They’ll love the shout-out.”
MAKING ART A FULL-BODY, FULL-VOLUME EXPERIENCE
For Ludovic Nkoth, a day of working in the studio is a full-body, multi-sensory experience.
A glass of red wine, a roaring fire when it’s cold, several paintings in process at once. Often working on his huge canvases on the floor.
But first comes music. “As loud as my speaker will go,” he says.
From his musical childhood in Cameroon to his exposure to hip-hop as a teenager in Spartanburg, his musical tastes are as wide open as his artistic style.
“Lately, I’ve been listening more to jazz and old funk, from parts of West Africa, and a lot of old jazz from here in the U.S.,” he says. “Miles Davis, Gil Scott-Heron, Fela Kuti from Nigeria.”
As a teenager in Spartanburg, new to the U.S., hip-hop helped him learn English.
Now, he sometimes listens to music from Cameroon, which is mostly in French — his first language and the country’s primary language.
“Music is something I already had imprinted on my brain. In Cameroon we learned a lot through music. We sing a lot, oral tradition. So, music was something I just identified with instinctively as soon as I got to this country.”