Celebrating Our Heroes
By Hailey Stangebye
Photos by Marshall Shorts
When Percy King finally made it to the NFL after years of hard work, he had an epiphany: real people play in the NFL.
“Looking around, I thought, ‘The NFL always seemed larger than life. It always seemed unattainable.’ But, ultimately, it’s just football,” Percy says. “We were running the same amount of laps and running the same plays, except with so much more at stake. But, at the end of the day, it’s still the same game I’ve been playing since I was young.”
This realization didn’t demean the value of his hard work. If anything, it solidified Percy’s philosophy that young, everyday people can — and do — achieve greatness. Whether the ultimate goal is play in the NFL, run a business or impact the world, real people reach those audacious goals every day.
Unfortunately, Percy’s football career was short-lived. Professionally, he worked in sales until about three years ago when Percy launched himself on an entirely different path. Today, he’s a full-time artist.
To the unfamiliar eye, Percy’s decision to pursue art looks unexpected. In reality, fine art represents the culmination of all of his life experiences.
As a child growing up in Columbus, Percy says drawing was a form of entertainment. He would go to the Shepherd Library on the corner of 5th and Nelson to pick up books on artists like Norman Rockwell. Then, he would meticulously copy his favorite images. The more he practiced drawing, the more skilled he became.
“I became really good at drawing, but never really saw myself as an artist or wanting to pursue an art career,” Percy says. “At a young age, I wanted to join the army or be a football player like any other 10-year-old at the time.”
Percy devoted nearly all of his time to sports. After his professional football career ended, he still sketched occasionally, but it wasn’t as fruitful as before.
“The issue was my shoulders. They were so banged up from football that I had pinched nerves. I actually dislocated my shoulders in college. It left me with bursitis,” Percy says. “Any time I sat down in certain positions or made certain wrist motions, my entire arm — my nerves — would just inflame up. It was really painful. So it was just very uncomfortable to draw.”
“The issue was my shoulders. They were so banged up from football that I had pinched nerves. I actually dislocated my shoulders in college. It left me with bursitis. Any time I sat down in certain positions or made certain wrist motions, my entire arm — my nerves — would just inflame up. It was really painful. So it was just very uncomfortable to draw.”
That shoulder damage left Percy in search of another creative outlet. But he didn’t have to look far beyond his front door.
“That outlet ended up being woodwork. I bought my first house when I was 23, and the first thing I bought was a table saw because I knew that I wanted to fix up my house. I didn’t necessarily know what I was going to do with the saw, but I bought it anyway,” Percy says. “My philosophy was that if anything ever went wrong in my house or I needed to upgrade something, then I was going to do it myself.”
“My philosophy was that if anything ever went wrong in my house or I needed to upgrade something, then I was going to do it myself.”
After decades of refurbishing and upgrading homes, Percy became an expert with the tools of his trade. Years of never-ending home improvement projects take a toll, though. When Percy and his wife moved to their current home, they decided to buy a much newer house.
That meant that, for the first time in 10 years, Percy didn’t have a project.
In his newfound free time, Percy researched and experimented with making furniture. Finally, he decided he wanted to teach himself how to make inlays.
“I drew this picture of Bob Marley that I’d seen to teach myself the inlay process, and I was really mistakenly going down the wrong road,” Percy says. “I kind of knew I was doing the inlay wrong, but I had a feeling that this is something that I liked. I eventually decided that it was a piece of art.”
Percy thought that the piece was nearly complete. He was about to glue all of the components together on a flat surface, when he had a realization and thought, “What would it look like if I stacked pieces of wood in between the layers and made it three dimensional?” That was his ‘aha’ moment.
Not long after, Percy transitioned to creating these portraits full time, and he’s dubbed his process “The Shaolin Wood Technique.” For Percy, the subject of each piece is a strategic choice.
“The older I get, the more I understand what it means to celebrate your heroes,” Percy says. “I would like to see some of my heroes celebrated. That’s how I honed in on my first series, which was the legends of hip hop.”
“I would like to see some of my heroes celebrated. That’s how I honed in on my first series, which was the legends of hip hop.”
Today, Percy is one of five local artists featured in our upcoming documentary, “My Great Day in Harlem.” His work illustrates that the spirit of the Renaissance is still alive in the ways that artists create today.
“These people who were creating new music, dance, poetry and literature in the Harlem Renaissance — they’re 20-year-olds. These are young people,” Percy says. “This wasn’t a bunch of old guys sitting around pontificating over brandy. These were people who were out there having fun and, at the same time, contributing to what it means to be American.”