American artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn exhibits his “Forging Years” in Paris

Artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn discovered his unique cut-up style when he decided to produce an additional portrait for an exhibition with only five hours to spare.

The colourful cut-up style, which Quinn describes as “the birth of a new visual language,” has made the 46-year-old a rising international star. Born in Chicago in 1977, Quinn’s first solo show “The Forging Years” opens on Thursday in Paris at the Gagosian gallery.

The paintings in the exhibition are new and draw on Quinn’s tough upbringing on the South Side of Chicago — a “forging experience (that) recreated my identity”, he said.

It was a difficult set of experiences for Quinn — a time he remembers as putting him “through the fire of life.” He was particularly affected by his mother Mary’s death.

“My mother died because my oldest brother was a drug addict. He got drugs on credit… the drug addicts wanted their money and came to the house,” said Quinn.

But the circumstances of Mary’s death — his middle name is a tribute to her — remain to this day a mystery for Quinn.

In 2013, the artist stumbled across a style that would become his trademark: using collages of different facial features to create strange and colourful portraits.

– ‘Magical brilliance’ –

At the time, Quinn worked as a social worker and private tutor when the mother of a student he tutored in Maths and English offered to exhibit his work. He had only four paintings ready to show, and at the last minute decided he wanted a fifth.

“I didn’t have time to do everything so I focused on what was important,” he said.

“I thought to only focus on eyes, nose, mouth and one ear. No cheekbones, no nose bone, no chin — that had to go — because I only had five hours.”

He decided to draw each feature separately and hide them under construction paper while he did the next element.

“When I took the construction paper off it was like opening a present,” he said.

He welcomes the fact that black artists are getting more recognition — in Paris, shows by artists Faith Ringgold and Zanele Muholi have been big hits.

Black artists have always produced “magnificent” work, said Quinn.

“What has evolved is the society in which we live — the institutions have decided to wake up to the magical brilliance that they have chosen to neglect.”

“Art is art,” he added. “Caravaggio is good not because of the colour of his skin but because he’s good.”