As "RenaZance," Ralph Dillard became known as one of Savannah's best spoken word artists, co-founding with the late Clinton Powell the Spitfire Poetry Group and the Savannah Spoken Word Festival.
Now as "rEN," he's creating sumptuous paintings that will be displayed at The Sentient Bean from Aug. 1 through Sept. 1. Dillard says he is answering the call of a different muse.
"When I was a young kid, I used to draw a lot," he says. "I was actually kind of an introvert growing up.
"I would sit for hours and hours drawing at a little folding table my dad kept in our utility room. I would make up characters with my neighbor and involve them in fantastic adventures.
"Those early years really fueled my creative world view," Dillard says. "In a way, I have been creating characters ever since."
Eventually, he began creating and performing poetry.
"I did a lot to promote self expression in the city to those who really had no voices until we turned on the mic," Dillard says. "I have since moved to Philadelphia and Atlanta, but Savannah is still in my heart."
Dillard has titled his show "Who is rEN?"
It includes oil paintings, mixed media and photography, and he will be at the opening on Aug. 1 to discuss it with viewers.
"The subject matter of my work originates from the same place most artists' creative endeavors bubble up from," Dillard says. "In many of my pieces, I am led to wrestle with certain perceptions adopted in my past, but also a variety of ideas about the future. Painting has always been about aligning myself with what seems to come natural to me."
Dillard cites philosopher and scholar Joseph Campbell, who sums it up:
"Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn't have opened for anyone else.'"
For Dillard, the aim is to effectively communicate this idea with the viewer.
"With that being said, I am not particularly creative as an individual; rather, there is a field of creativity that exists independently, all on its own," he says. "All we can do as artists is tap into it."
Dillard began painting in 2006 in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
"With more than 2,800 murals, Philly boasts more impressive large-scale public paintings than any other city in the world," he says. "Living and interacting with the people of that community for over four years heavily impacted my visual style."
Primarily self-taught, Dillard says he learns quickly.
"I am a ferociously quick study and I have always had a passion for understanding the true nature of things," he says. "This type of insight is the driving element behind my work.
"I use oil paint primarily, although I dabble in some mixed media and photography. I like the feeling of maneuvering the thick, pungent, colors over the canvas - which is something I have so far found exclusive to oil paint.
"Using a wide variety of rich colors, I attempt to communicate the typically overlooked meanings underneath sometimes very simple images," Dillard says. "I am 6 feet, 7 inches tall, so I appreciate working on a large canvas."
Working quickly, Dillard enjoys using large brushes.
"The intent of most of my subject matter is to suggest that the viewer seek the true meanings of life within," be says.
Although mostly self-taught, Dillard took a few art courses while studying mass communication at Savannah State University.
"I have never done consistently well in art classes," he says. "Instead, the intense focus of my training has been on communicating ideas that challenge people to be curious about their own internal nature.
"My major visual influences are Salvador Dali, Alex Gray, Remedios Varo and Jean Michel Basquiat," Dillard says. "Fame and fortune have eluded countless great artists, so my concentration has never been on either.
"I simply love to create," he says. "I feel like this is what I have been put here to do."
His pen name "RenaZance" and the current "rEN" originated in Dillard's teen years.
"I used to sing in the chorus at Windsor Forest High School," he says. "Some of the guys broke off and formed a little harmony quartet.
"We used to harmonize down on River Street and at the train station," Dillard says. "I used to write songs for the group and they all knew I could draw and that I wrote poetry, so they used to tease me with the name. After a while, I guess it just stuck."
Other artists also use pen names.
"I would go to shows and poets would sign the open mic list with some of the most pretentious stage names," Dillard says, laughing. "I would sometimes chuckle a bit as I called up a poet with a name like Mystic Wisdom.
"I thought about signing my artwork as 'RenaZance' and I knew I needed to tag my visual artwork differently," he says. "Everybody already called me rEN anyway, so it was natural.
"The word 'renaissance' actually means 'rebirth,'" Dillard says. "I feel like reinventing myself is what I have always done best."
Learning to paint took a lot of time.
"I painted a lot and put the necessary hours in," Dillard says. "In a way, I have to remind myself of my mom's words sometimes and go to parties and other artist openings to network.
"I am always taking in new work and new techniques," he says. "I really appreciate the beauty in nature and I try to display that appreciation in my work, as well."
While he doesn't have as much time for spoken word as he used to, Dillard says it isn't far from his mind.
"I've performed at a lot of events in Philly," he says. "Since I moved to Atlanta, I have really become fully engaged in my visual art.
"I've memorized my poems so I will remember them for life," Dillard says. "I am always looking for a chance to 'spitfire.' I'm sure I will get back to it."
The Sentient Bean is the natural spot in Savannah for Dillard to show his work.
"I did my first significant spoken word feature at the Bean," he says. "We have flirted with the idea for a few years but it was not until now that the time felt right.
"It will be the first time my parents get to come to one of my openings," Dillard says. "They will get a chance to see and hear people react to my work, so that really means a lot to me."
Not surprisingly, Dillard is organizing a new artistic group.
"I have always been great at starting organizations and gathering people's energy," he says. "The Exile Art Group will be a collective of incredible self-taught artists who exhibit work together in Atlanta and Savannah.
"We will market our events and sell works directly to collectors," Dillard says. "We are already receiving interest in the effort from artists and venues. It should be an exciting winter."
And an exciting visit to Savannah.
"I would like for people to see themselves in my paintings," Dillard says. "They are as much about you as they are about me."