There’s simply no way to overstate the impact airbrushing had on Donahue’s career and artistic approach: “All of my works originate from the communal aspect of airbrushing,” he says. It remains a consistent component of his work. His 2018 solo exhibit titled R.I.P. at Elephant Gallery in Nashville, Tennessee, was an airbrushed memorial to victims of gun violence from the previous two years in Middle Tennessee and included airbrushed T-shirts and canvases. One of the pieces, titled Rest In Paradise 2, depicts a lush red and yellow sunset behind blue and red water and palm trees leaning on the shore. The water—red closest to the horizon turns blue nearest the shore—comes to a point as if flowing into a smaller body of water between the palm trees, signaling, maybe, the start of a journey.
Although he began by airbrushing clothing, Donahue quickly transitioned to painting and airbrushing found objects, further entrenching his philosophy of layering and customization. “Collecting things, finding things, working from things that are in the vernacular, I think I got that natural,” Donahue says. He describes watching his grandfather improvise fixes for door latches and extra security bars for the windows around the house. “They were not being fixed to OSHA standards, they were make-shift. When you don’t have a lot you make do with what you have.”
It wasn’t until graduate school at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, that Donahue began charting new ways to connect with others through art, this time through object making. Donahue turned toward assemblage and sculpture work and began incorporating vacuum forming into his process. One piece, titled Hubwoofers, from a 2013 installation was made of vacuum-formed hubcaps with polystyrene and spray paint. These striking black boxes, placed one on top of the other, are reminiscent of stacked subwoofers at a house party or club.
While attending the University of Tennessee, from which he received his MFA in 2013, Donahue’s process was pushed forward and redefined by a studio visit from Willie Cole, the artist also known as “The Transformer.” Cole transforms women’s high heel shoes into African masks and sculptures, and Donahue internalized Cole’s advice “to listen to the spirit of objects, let them tell you what they want to do. They already have a history.”