Overstreet Ducasse remembers the first American song he ever heard. He was 6 years old, and it was “Jack & Diane” by John Mellencamp. “Little ditty about Jack and Diane, two kids growin’ up in the heartland” – a quintessential American song about wanting to run away to another place. Ironic, given the circumstances.
Immigrants from Haiti, the Ducasse family came to the United States, as many do, looking for opportunity — better jobs and higher education. Not one member of the family spoke a word of English when they settled in Miami.
“My favorite show was ‘Pink Panther’ because it was mostly music,” Ducasse said. “I went straight to school — a predominantly Hispanic and black inner-city school — into an ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] program.”
Ducasse, now 37, was never fond of school (“school and me just don’t really mix”), except for his art classes. Snippets of memories from his childhood in Haiti consist mostly of street vendors in his hometown, summers at his grandmother’s in the countryside and art.
“Everyone in Haiti is an artist, or at least they think they’re an artist,” he said. “I’d say between 70 and 80 percent of people in Haiti are artists.”
Noteworthy Haitian artists include Gesner Abelard, Rigaud Benoit, Alexandre Gregoire and Petion Savain — visionaries who created folk-slanted scenes of colorful people and animals working alongside the water and in the fields yielding crops, vibrant city life and historic religious figures.
More than 30 years later, Ducasse, who says he identifies more with being Haitian than American, is following in his homeland’s tradition. He’s an artist — an increasingly successful one. Ducasse’s art, thought-provoking and sometimes even controversial, has been shown all over Northeast Florida.
Ducasse’s art is influenced by his life’s challenges — an unfamiliar environment, a new language and a different culture. Much like a palette of paint, these are part of his medium — a part of his expression and communication. The “universal language,” as he calls it.
“The work of Overstreet Ducasse is remarkably different from other art that I have observed on the Jacksonville contemporary art scene,” said Dustin Harewood, who was featured earlier this year alongside Ducasse in “The All Americans,” an exhibit at CoRK (Corner of Rosselle & King) Arts District in Riverside.
“One does not simply look at a painting of his; Ducasse demands that you analyze and decipher. Nothing seems to exist on his surfaces without having a very specific purpose. His work, in my opinion, is a contemporary ‘urban’ take on the language of the surrealists of the early 20th century, i.e., Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico,” Harewood added.
Ducasse has exhibited at Fogle Fine Art, Burrito Gallery, Flux Studio & Gallery, the Riverside Fine Arts Festival and Beaches Fine Arts Series, among many others. He’s also worked in one art-related capacity or another at cultural and educational havens like Karpeles Manuscript Library and Ritz Theatre & Museum.
During an interview, Ducasse sat on a couch in his friend’s studio space at CoRK (his next-door studio was under a thick layer of sawdust from a woodworking tenant who’d just vacated). He seemed to enjoy a walk down memory lane, but he’s looking forward to his upcoming show at CoRK’s East Gallery, with artist-slash-mathematician Stephanie Glen. “The Sum of Cube + Cubism,” which opens July 26 and runs through Aug. 4, explores the connection between math and art.
Ducasse credited hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan with introducing him to something called “Supreme Mathematics,” which is a system of understanding numerals alongside concepts and qualitative representations that are used along with the “Supreme Alphabet.”
“I give them credit for figuring out what and how I wanted to portray my art,” he said. “I started out doing paintings of the nine members of the group. Then, after listening to their lyrics more in depth and living down South, what I thought was New York slang turned out to be a culture.”
This culture, as Ducasse uncovered, was the “Nation of Gods and Earths.”
“It basically states that 85 percent of the people have no idea, 10 percent control the 85 percent, and the 5 percent who are aware — it is their job to teach [enlighten] the 85 percent. But what really fascinated me was the language that I once thought was slang was a sort of secret way of communicating.”
The Five-Percenters is an American organization founded in 1964 in Harlem by Clarence 13X (born Clarence Edward Smith), a former student of Malcolm X. The organization stated that 10 percent of people know the truth of existence and opt to keep 85 percent of the world in ignorance. The remaining 5 percent know the truth and are determined to enlighten the rest.
So Ducasse learned the Supreme Alphabet, Supreme Mathematics and their meanings. The numeral 1 symbolizes knowledge, 2 symbolizes wisdom, 3 represents understanding, 4 designates culture/freedom, 5 represents power/refinement, 6 is the emblem for equality, 7 represents God, 8 represents build/destroy, 9 represents born and 0 represents cipher (denoting absence of quantity).
“Although you were using English words, if you were unable to decode the basic Supreme Alphabets and the Supreme Mathematics, you could not understand what was being spoken,” he said. “Eventually, that would lead to some of the best paintings I have ever created.”
Glen, the other half of “The Sum of Cube + Cubism,” is a renaissance woman — writer, mathematician and artist. While Ducasse brings thought-provoking visuals to the table and has a deep interest in Supreme Mathematics, Glen is the one who can explain what a hypercube is and why the pair has decided to focus an exhibit around it.
“It’s a very wacky, other-dimensional object that’s hard to see in your head,” Glen said. “Even Einstein had a difficult time with hypercubes. If a line is one-dimensional, a square is two-dimensional and a cube is three-dimensional, then a hypercube is four-dimensional. So if a cube is a three-dimensional square, then a hypercube is a four-dimensional cube.”
For the upcoming CoRK show, Ducasse and Glen had a vision of 36 simple hypercubes lining the walls — different colors and hues. Like many creative projects, the hypercubes have begun to take on a life of their own. There’s a hypercube that looks like a suspension bridge. And then there’s a hypercube drawn to look like a spider’s web.
“We plan on creating at least 36 hypercubes,” he said, pointing to the back wall lined with wooden boards that would be more at home in a woodshop classroom than an art studio. “This is a collaboration. I create the panels of wood, and Stephanie uses a scale or grid to draw everything.” Then, the duo fills in the “hypercubes” with acrylic paint and other mediums.
There will also be a large-scale mosaic made from paint swatches and created especially for this show. “It’s of my friend Brad [Faughn] who died last year,” Ducasse said. “I was kind of like his right-hand man until he passed away.”
“If he’s not painting, he’s helping someone with their car or helping someone with something,” Glen said of her co-exhibitor. “He is incredibly intelligent and one of the most mellow and thoughtful people I know. I’m constantly amazed that two people from completely different parts of the world can have so many similar life experiences. We both grew up in poverty — he in Haiti and me in England — and we have so much in common, from religious views to political views to diet.”
Dressed in a T-shirt from local designer Tact Apparel, navy pinstriped slacks and grey Converse sneakers, Ducasse told his backstory that starts 1,000 miles southeast of here, across the Atlantic Ocean.
Born on Nov. 19, 1975, in Cap-Haitien, a city of about 190,000 on the north coast of Haiti that served as the capital of the French colony of Saint-Domingue during the 1700s, Ducasse was named “Overstreet” after Harry Allen Overstreet — an author his father was reading at the time.
Ducasse’s father, a construction worker, came first to the United States on a refugee raft and settled in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. His mother followed next, and then each of the four kids. Ducasse, the second oldest and only son, said he remembers being picked up at the airport and going out to eat at a fast-food restaurant — “a taste of the American life.”
In the early 1980s, Haiti was in a state of upheaval. The country’s dictatorship, consisting of Francois Duvalier (aka “Papa Doc”) and then his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (known also as “Bebe Doc”), was about to end. Though he says he identifies as Haitian rather than American, Ducasse has returned to Haiti only once, as a teen.
“It was a lot worse than what I remembered,” he said. “It was very scary.”
After graduating in the top 10 percent of his class in high school, Ducasse dabbled at a few community colleges, eventually moving from Miami to Tallahassee, where he fell in with a group of friends who proved influential in his growth as an artist. They would spend every night listening to music and talking about art.
“That’s when this whole ‘becoming an artist’ thing started,” he said. “When I really started to build a style that I’m comfortable with. Everything that I am interested in eventually becomes part of my art.”
Throughout his time as a professional artist, Ducasse’s work has been constantly evolving, from paintings based on Supreme Mathematics to pop culture icons of Haiti to an entire series utilizing the symbol for infinity.
“The art of Ducasse goes beyond the visual,” CoRK’s Tumblr page reads. “His work is captivating, direct and abundant with metaphors and meaning.”
Ducasse’s parents haven’t been fully on board with their only son pursuing a career in visual art. His sisters are all professionals. One’s a doctor, another a professor’s assistant, and the third works in mortgages. He said it hasn’t created much friction with his parents. But they worry about him.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Ducasse said of being a full-time artist. “I’m OK.”
“Growing up, you’re told you can do whatever you want — that you can be anything you want to be,” he said. “And then you grow up, and they tell you what you should choose.”
His parents speak limited English, so Ducasse communicates with them in Haitian Creole, one of Haiti’s two official languages (the other is French), which is based largely
on 18th-century French and some West African languages.
Ducasse, or simply “Street” as most of his friends call him, is the only member of his family who is not an American citizen. He still carries a green card. And though renewing his driver’s license is a “pain in the ass,” Ducasse said he just hasn’t gotten around to all of the paperwork needed for citizenship.
“Really, the only thing is that I can’t vote,” he said. “But I can still live a regular American life.”
Even for someone who says he identifies more with being Haitian.