When Tyler Gordon paints, he starts with the darkest and most defined facial features: the line of the eyes, the structure of the jaw, the shadow from the chin. He continues with the medium-shaded areas, lips, hair and nose, then finishes with the lightest surfaces, like the cheekbones and smile lines. In about 30 minutes, he can create a portrait that might take other artists hours.
A video Tyler posted to Twitter on Nov. 22 shows a time-lapse version of this process from start to finish. Tyler sits by San Francisco Bay with his easel and canvas, the Golden Gate Bridge behind him. At the end, he stands, gives a thumbs-up and shows the final painting, revealing the face of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
“I’m overwhelmed by the magnificence of your artistry,” Harris told Tyler in a phone call after the video racked up more than 1.5 million views. “You really have a gift, my goodness, such a gift.” She closed by saying she hoped she could meet the 14-year-old San Jose artist one day.
Like other teenagers, Tyler loves video games, doesn’t always clean his room and is adjusting to distance learning. But, aided by social media and a message about overcoming significant physical and social obstacles, he also commands a $3,500 starting price for portrait commissions and is getting national attention for his portraits of celebrities such as Harris, comedian Steve Harvey and actor Chadwick Boseman.
“I pick people who inspire me,” the Overfelt High School freshman says of his portrait subjects. As a Black teenager, Tyler says he appreciates Harris’ historic significance as the first female and Black Indian American vice president. “Kamala Harris inspires me. She broke tons of barriers, and I have too.”
Tyler describes himself as partially deaf, with a stutter and vitamin D deficiency. He says he has endured years of bullying in school. But this month, he broke another barrier when his portrait of NBA superstar LeBron James was the cover image for Time magazine’s Athlete of the Year award.
Tyler himself was a finalist for Time’s Kid of the Year honor.
“Prodigy is the only way I can describe it,” says Damien Escobar, a musician and gallery owner who has been Tyler’s manager for a year. “He sees it and cranks it out in 30, 20, five minutes. He’s a kid far beyond his years, he knows exactly what he wants.”
After being shown Tyler’s work by publicist Kasey Woods, Escobar gave the teen his first solo show at the Gloria Gail Gallery in Brooklyn in 2019. Upon meeting the teenager, Escobar says, “I knew I needed to put my hands on his career to make sure it’s done right. It’s a big brother-little brother relationship.”
Tyler has been painting since he was 10. His only instruction has been watching his mother, Nicole Kindle, in her painting practice and getting advice from her. Spurred by a recurring dream where “God told me if I didn’t paint, he would take it (the ability) away from me,” he asked his mother for a canvas to paint a portrait of his elementary school principal. The piece took him 17 minutes. He entered it in a school contest and won.
“I put my own art on the back burner when I saw what he can do,” says Kindle, adding that she mostly painted around the holidays to make extra money and that her older daughter is working two jobs to help buy painting supplies for Tyler. “When I saw his first painting, I said to him, ‘This is what you want to do?’ He said, ‘It’s all I want to do.’ I told him I don’t care if I spend my last dollar, you’re going to have your dream.”
Kindle and Escobar struggle at times to describe Tyler’s abilities. It’s not just what he can do, it’s how fully formed his talent was from the beginning. There are times when he paints for hours, with few breaks, and completes several portraits, once finishing 32 in a day. His focus is intense, and his “shadow painting” process consistent.
“The reason I call it shadow painting is because I paint the light and shadow off people’s faces,” Tyler says. “The part of the face with no light gets darker colors first, if I do the lighter colors first, it won’t look right to me.”
Susan Stauter, artistic director emeritus of the San Francisco Unified School District, says there are occasionally young people who come into the world with an intrinsic ability that seems advanced beyond their years — highly developed muscle control, hand-eye coordination, style and an ability to replicate what they see with little or no training.
“It’s uncommon,” says Jaime Austin, director of exhibitions and public programming at California College of the Arts. “Tyler is incredibly prolific, but it’s the fact that he has his own style is what I find unique. It would be more common at that age to try on artistic styles. It’s less common for people at that age to have their own style they do and follow through so consistently.”
“It feels like it’s a language of really sophisticated graphic novel portraiture and the great tradition of pop likeness,” says Alison Gass, the director and chief curator at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art. Gass says Tyler’s work has arrived at a moment when portraiture has become a tool of representative equity, and social media have changed the way images like Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama have a life beyond the confines of the traditional art world.
“Social media is a democratizer,” Gass says. “You still need to have the skill and work, but especially during COVID, it’s clear we don’t need to go to galleries or art fairs to discover great new artists. It’s a powerful mechanism to learn about new artists wherever they are.”
Tyler, his mother says, is “the baby” of her five children — even though he points out that technically, he was born before his twin brother, Taylor. Kindle divorced her children’s father while she was pregnant with the twins. Tyler and Taylor were born 10 weeks premature. and Tyler, the weaker of the two, was put on life support.
“They counted him out from the beginning,” Kindle says. After placing the twins together in the same incubation unit, Tyler began to get stronger, but doctors warned he would probably be developmentally delayed and possibly blind. Tyler could see, but when he was 2 years old, Kindle noticed that he frequently held his ears and didn’t respond to her voice. She suspected he might be hearing impaired but was rebuffed by doctors, who dismissed her.
It wasn’t until he started school and a teacher also voiced concern that Tyler finally got a diagnosis of otosclerosis: deafness resulting from bones fused together behind his ears. He was 5 when he had surgery that allowed him to hear.
“I honestly think it was his medical insurance,” Kindle says of the delay. “I was on welfare. He was on Medi-Cal, the cheapest health care out there. The tests he needed would get denied.”
Tyler now uses hearing aids.
Once he began speaking, Tyler developed a stutter, which made him a target of bullies. In junior high, after breaking bones in his legs because of a vitamin D deficiency, he used a wheelchair for two years, making him further vulnerable to taunts and even physical violence from other students. As recently as February, Tyler broke his two front teeth after other students loosened the screws on his desk, causing him to fall and injure himself. Due to appear with the San Jose Sharks the next day to present some artwork, he spent the night getting an emergency dental procedure.
Through it all, Tyler says, painting has been his salvation, a protected place that makes him feel invigorated and that he’s fulfilling his purpose. Celebrity fans of Tyler’s include singer Janet Jackson, 49ers star Richard Sherman, NBA superstar Kevin Durant and singer-actress Janelle Monáe , who commissioned a portrait. Tyler is also a featured artist in “Heirs to the Throne,” an exhibition at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles that also includes work by one of his artistic heroes, Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Along with appearances on programs such as “The Today Show,” Tyler has expanded his presence in popular culture through Twitter and Instagram, platforms where he has about 50,000 followers each. Austin says Tyler’s painting process, and the way it can be shown from start to finish with time-lapse video, is tailor-made for contemporary sensibilities. The artist’s social media strategy is his own design, Escobar says. “He needs very little help with that. The vision is his, we just want to put his visibility on steroids.”
While 2020 has been challenging for Tyler, it has also been fruitful. He loves online learning. He doesn’t have to change out of his pajamas for school and doesn’t have to deal with bullies. Some of his former tormentors have reached out to him since his newfound fame, he says, but he’s not interested in opportunists.
What has been difficult for Tyler is the lack of speech therapy through virtual learning, his mother says. Kindle worries her son’s stutter has regressed without access to in-person therapy, although Overfelt High School began offering virtual speech therapy in November, according to Principal Vito Chiala.
But virtual learning has also given him more freedom to paint. Although Kindle says Tyler finds plenty of time to play “Fortnite” and video-chat with friends, he has also been busy building his career. He says he has his own sneaker collection coming out next year, a waiting list for portrait commissions and a line of apparel featuring his artwork. He is working on a nonprofit organization called Tongue Tyed, focused on ending bullying and helping other young people with speech impediments.
Austin and Gass say they are curious to see where Tyler goes with his painting, but the 14-year-old already has one goal in mind: One day, he’d like to paint the official presidential portrait. He’s already made a portrait of President-elect Joe Biden.
“Joe Biden inspired me to accept my stutter,” Tyler says. “He stutters as well and is not afraid to use his voice. Neither am I.”
Written by Tony Bravo