How Vaughn Spann Became the Art World’s New Favorite Painter

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If you knew Vaughn Spann nine years ago in Orange, New Jersey, you probably didn’t expect this. Then in high school, Spann was a track star, a varsity basketball player, and a science whiz on his way to Rutgers to study biology. He was always appreciative of art, but before his senior year, the only things he’d really draw were anime characters, which he’d discuss at length with his dorkier friends.

“I loved Pokémon, Digimon, Dragon Ball Z — I was that kid growing up,” says Spann. And he never really got over those interests. “If it’s late nights, I go on Adult Swim while everyone is sleeping and try to watch Dragon Ball GT or some shit. My wife is like, ‘You gotta do better.’”

Spann doesn’t follow sports or anime as devoutly as he once did. He is now 26 and married, a father of one child, with another on the way, and looking for real estate in Newark. He’s also one of the brightest new stars in the art world, with his work featured in publications including The New York Times and pieces selling for thousands of dollars.

Today he’s wearing a Pyer Moss tee — a mock neck reading “Stop calling 911 on the culture” — with tattooed arms on show. We’re eating fries in a Midtown bar and he’s pointing out the size of the salt grains. He can’t help but notice details. Although his path was an unlikely one, it somehow makes perfect sense that he’s accomplished what he has in such a short time.

At Rutgers Newark, the then-biology major took art classes under Denyse Thomasos, a Yale graduate who built a reputation in the art world for her semi-abstract paintings of prison systems. Her presence as a black woman of Trinidadian descent was deeply influential, and her belief in Spann drove him to change his major and pursue art full-time.

“She was the person who really pushed me and said, ‘Hey, you’re talented. Why don’t you work with me for a while? I went to Yale. I’ll be your advocate as a mentor and an artist,’” Spann explains.

But after working with Spann for a year, Thomasos passed away without warning. She’d had an allergic reaction to a material used during a routine medical procedure. She was 47.

“It was a traumatic situation,” says Spann. “You go from having this belief in what you’re doing, and then you just fall on your ass.”

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