Gabe Gault

I’ve been getting into TikTok a lot lately — don’t judge! — and that’s where I stumbled across the work of this week’s guest: Gabe Gault! Gabe’s brilliant portraiture blends the work of the Renaissance masters with Black culture in a brilliant and beautiful way. Not only that, he painted the largest mural in the world — the Glass City River Wall in Toledo, Ohio. I mean…talk about impressive!

Gabe talked about how he landed this massive project, and talked about growing up an artist in a big sports family. We also discussed Black fine artists being exhibited through this new wave of Black-created media, lessons he’s learned throughout his creative journeys, and even talk a bit about NFTs and the metaverse. If you’re looking for a creative pep talk, just follow Gabe’s advice: “Go out there and create on any scale!”

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Gabe Gault:
Hi, my name is Gabe Gault, and I’m an artist from Los Angeles, California.

Maurice Cherry:
So Gabe, what’s on your mind? How’s the year been going for you so far?

Gabe Gault:
Oh, man, it’s been an amazing year. It’s kind of been ups and downs. Obviously COVID has happened and is here still. But on the bright side of things, I’ve been working on a pretty big project myself that’s been kind of keeping my morale up. But there’s been other pretty cool projects going on.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What is kind of a typical day like for you as an artist in LA?

Gabe Gault:
So I wake up. I make sure I kind of get a good start in the morning if I’m heading to the studio. So I’ll wake up, I’ll make some breakfast. I’m trying to go on a smoothie kind of diet right now because I am getting married in about three weeks or so, four weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations. So by the time this comes out, you’ll be a married man.

Gabe Gault:
I will be a married man. That’s a new life journey for me. Yeah. So it’s pretty simple, I feel like, my mornings. I usually get to the studio when it feels right, but it’s usually around 11AM. And I’ll have everything kind of prepped out and ready to go. I’ll get there and I’ll just have a jam session for the rest of the day until I feel like it’s time to leave really. But it’s kind of all flow for me, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
So you kind of just get in the zone once you get to your studio and then see where the day takes you pretty much.

Gabe Gault:
Definitely. Besides that, I’m usually running errands about my manager. He lives on the west side of town. So sometimes we’ll drop off paintings or go to meetings and stuff. I try to keep it pretty relaxed. I don’t want to stress over my work anymore. That’s kind of been a big thing coming up as an artist, is there’s a lot of stress sometimes, only if you let it. But I feel like every day is a pretty good day because I get to wake up and do this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, we talked about this a little bit before we started recording, but you’re one of several black artists that I discovered via TikTok.

Gabe Gault:
Dude, insane. It still blows my mind. When anybody tells me they found me through TikTok, I’m just like, “I wouldn’t imagine this a year ago.”

Maurice Cherry:
How does social media help out with what you do?

Gabe Gault:
Social media is a powerful tool for the better or for worse, and TikTok specifically is one of those things that really twisted my mind because it changed the way I thought about social media. I was on Instagram for a number of years. It took me a certain amount to get a certain amount of followers. Not that that’s like an end all be all. But that’s what I was kind of working up on there and getting a decent views on my work. And then I went to TikTok.

Gabe Gault:
And I think in the course of a couple months, I’m almost about to surpass my other social media platforms and all the hard work I put into those kind of seem irrelevant now compared to TikTok. It’s a great tool because you get to interact with people and you get to talk to people in a way you just couldn’t really do in real life. You get to show people a little bit of your life, or whatever you want to show them, really. It doesn’t have to be your real life, I guess, as most of you will know. Yeah, it’s an amazing, powerful tool. But it is, at the end of the day, just a tool you can use to better yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, the interesting thing about TikTok, and I’ve been on there now for, I don’t know, maybe a few weeks now, just kind of casually observing, is one, it really has the spirit to me of like the old way of… I’ve been around on the internet for a long time. I remember the early web and how really just sort of wide open it was. You really could just go down these deep rabbit holes of information and find all kinds of weird things.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think what’s interesting with TikTok that platforms like say maybe Instagram or twitter don’t do is how they take your one piece of content that you make and it almost like splinters it out into these different ways that people can discover you. Of course, say you do a video. There’s the video that people can see if you come up on your ‘for you’ page. But the video also has audio. And the audio can be your own audio, or it can be like pre recorded audio that you select from their database or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
And then as you type up the description on the video, you can have hashtags. all of that stuff is also its own like search portal in a way. People searching for that sound can now come across your video or people searching for that hashtag now come across your video. And so you get people discovering your work in all these kind of weird and interesting ways that maybe they wouldn’t before on another platform because it’s only funneled into one mode of discovery.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. And I feel like it’s just so different from everybody else’s. You can have a completely different TikTok from the person sitting right next to you, just like the algorithm and what videos you see. I’ll be sitting next to my fiancee and she’ll be like, “How have you never seen this video?” Her videos are all pumpkin, spice lattes and witches and astrology. I’m on the completely other side with people dabbing and doing art and doing murals. Everything is just completely different. Mine is like video games. It really makes you see how big the internet is just only on TikTok, but it’s an insane space and platform.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and the creativity is just out of this world. I mean, of course, the tool itself has all these different kind of features that you can edit video and change the duration and the speed and all that sort of stuff. The trend that I’ve been seeing recently that is really dope is… And I don’t know if you’ve seen this. And it’s funny because by the time this comes out, it may have already passed.

Maurice Cherry:
But there is this trend now of like, you remember like fighting games like Tekken? There’s like the ‘you lose’ screen where the opponent talks smack. And so you’ve got all these different people doing these different versions of what that looks like, but to the same sound. If you search that sound, there’s like hundreds of videos of people. You’re the like vaguely weird character with the random move set or you’re the sleepy character with all the power. It’s crazy. It’s so wild.

Gabe Gault:
I love those so much. I’ll be on there for hours on end. It’s just unhealthy. But at the same time, it gives me so much joy, so I think it is healthy. But yeah, it’s a crazy platform. I think the Glass City River Wall video I did of my Ohio project, it did like 1.3 million views. But I remember shooting it and I was like, “Oh, I’ll just take a picture of this, just some random clips and put it together.”

Gabe Gault:
And then that was the biggest view count I had on that page. But it’s just crazy. You never know what’s going to hit or what’s not going to hit. I feel like you put together just something random and somebody is going to appreciate it. It’s just like putting that stuff out there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you mentioned this mural, the Glass City River Wall project. Talk to me about what it is and how you got involved with it.

Gabe Gault:
That’s a whole project that had a global call for artists. They had about 500 or so submissions. They narrowed it down and I was the artist chosen for it. It’s a giant grain silos in Toledo, Ohio. There’s about 28 silos in total and it’s about three football fields long and 134 feet high, I believe. So they’re pretty massive. By the end of the thing, it should be the largest mural in the nation.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Please talk about it. What was that process even like?

Gabe Gault:
So it was a pretty lengthy process. This is where we had to put together all our resources we ever had and really figure out how to get this thing done. Because it’s one of those things where nobody has done anything on this scale. So you have to figure it out and get the right team. And luckily, what I love about Toledo, it’s this big, small city, and everybody’s just super hard working there.

Gabe Gault:
I had so many people reach out to me and offer their skill set for the project, whether it’s like donating coffee or juice or doing footage, drone footage. Actually, two of the guys who reached out, this guy, Nick, reached out, and he was a videographer. He shot documentaries and stuff. So he reached out. And another guy, we call him Dino, he also reached out, and he’s a local artist in Toledo.

Gabe Gault:
And it’s at the point where I couldn’t see this project going the way it’s going without those guys because they’re just such a huge asset to the project. So it’s like a little bit of knowing what to expect and then expecting the unexpected and taking whatever wins you can. But it’s a good project. I feel like we’ll be done by end of November, possibly.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. What is your creative process like when it comes to starting a new project? I mean, I’d imagine something as big as the Glass City River Wall project, that happens on a massive scale. But say it’s just a regular painting or something, what does that creative process look like?

Gabe Gault:
I always try to put some kind of meaning. I like coming up with conceptual concepts. I sometimes do a lot of portraits, which are pretty straightforward, depending on the subject. But sometimes I get to mess around and paint people who are inspiring to me. So that’s usually the subjects that I choose, are people who inspire me and so shape our way. I want to talk about the background as well.

Gabe Gault:
I do a camouflage background, which represents blending in and standing out. People who blend into your everyday life and stand out by doing something that impacted you in a positive way. And that’s usually how I like to choose my subjects, is somebody who has changed me forever.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’ve seen some of the ones that you have on your website, and they kind of range. You’ve got Nipsey Hussle, but then you’ve also got Yayoi Kusama. You have a big range of portraits that you’ve done.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. I feel like there’s been a kind of gradual change as well throughout my whole, I guess, timeline of painting. Because I started out painting a lot of pop figures I looked up to or I liked or somebody I knew loved them. And now they’re changing slowly into pop figures and they change to people I would interact with daily, every week and learn something from them or learn a lesson or love their story and want to paint them.

Gabe Gault:
And now I’m kind of leaning into a conceptual phase of painting different… I’m working on this project called Afro-Rama, which is like African Rome. The first piece I did is Romulus and Remus, which is like twists on the foundation of Rome. Then I’m working on like a Medussa kind of piece and so on and so forth. But more to come from that.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting. So kind of like a play on some Greek mythology kind of stuff.

Gabe Gault:
Exactly. Yeah, a play on that and some Renaissance age. It’s kind of like rebirth of the black Renaissance, really. You have a lot of black artists doing some amazing traditional pieces.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I want to go kind of more into your background. Like you mentioned, of course, you’re now in Los Angeles. Is that where you grew up also?

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. So I grew up in Venice Beach, California. And me and my family, we kind of migrated to the valley eventually. Now I’m in the valley. I’ve been here the past… Geez. I think I moved to the valley in 2006 or something like that. So it’s been a while. I mean, I love it here. It’s my home and it’s kind of like the central point for me to get anywhere to get downtown, to get to Los Angeles or Hollywood or the Palisades or Malibu.

Gabe Gault:
So it’s been a pretty nice run out here. It just gets like super hot. So that’s kind of a big problem. When it comes time to paint in the summertime, my studio is outdoor, so it kind of like limits me. But I can’t complain. It’s a great spot.

Maurice Cherry:
Growing up, did you have a lot of exposure to art and everything?

Gabe Gault:
I would say I did in some senses. I was actually inspired by… I remember this very clearly. When I was about four years old, I think my parents turned on the TV and Dragon Ball Z was on. And then I was just inspired by anime and manga and all that kind of culture. I feel like a lot of creators actually kind of came from that era of like early days of Toonami and anime and stuff back in the day.

Gabe Gault:
And that was later in high school, like translated to me just kind of drawing that stuff and getting more acquainted with that. And drawing portraits of friends, whether they were good or bad. I was a pretty big sports player. I come from a pretty big sports family. My dad played pro ball for the Super Bowl Bears and the Los Angeles Raiders, hence why I moved out here or why I was born out here.

Gabe Gault:
So that was like a little bit of a conflict of interest, where it’s like, I was a artist, but my dad wanted me to play sports from time to time. Of course, at the moment, he’s super into me being an artist and he’s been one of my best supporters for the past years. And interesting journey, like going from high school, drawing, to getting more serious about it in college.

Gabe Gault:
And then I took SMC art course for about two years. I ended up dropping out. I did an internship with my mentor, Rob Pryor. We did that for about six or seven years. And from there, we were actually working on like a fully hand painted comic book. We did a bunch of cool jobs throughout those years of training. We did stuff for Heavy Metal magazine. He was like a part owner of that.

Gabe Gault:
So I did a lot of comic book stuff. I did a lot of concept art for video games and movies and all sorts of weird, odd jobs. And we were actually working out of this building in Burbank, where we ended up kind of getting laid off of the comic book job. I ended up pursuing ‘fine arts.’ That’s where I wasn’t making any money. Then I was breaking even. Then I was like, okay, I can do this for a living.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get connected with Rob?

Gabe Gault:
He was a friend of my dad’s, actually. I don’t know how they met exactly. I think they met through like a photoshoot or something. Rob is a pretty strict guy. He doesn’t take any bull. He’s like a pretty heavy metal dude as well. So you get in there, it’s pretty extreme. He’s blasting music. He’s a hooligan, for sure. But he’s my hooligan. He’s a super talented guy, Rob Pryor on platforms. But he does stuff for all kinds of different music groups. He does conventions. He’s an interesting dude.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to go back briefly to what you said about your dad kind of wanting you to go into sports, and then you were kind of more artistic, was there a point where he finally saw you as an artist?

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. Actually, kind of leading into the internship, I think around the time I was doing that, that’s when he started to recognize that this is like a career choice and path. Maybe it wasn’t as smart as going into sports at the time, which they’re both kind of pipe dreams, to be honest. Yeah, I think that he got on board when he saw that I could make a living doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
That seems to be the case for parents, I think especially for black parents. Your artistic and they see that you do this, but it doesn’t really click that like, oh, this can be a profession. It’s kind of always just like a hobby. And it seems like there’s always this point where hopefully they finally sort of see you as like, okay, you’re an artist. This is work that you can do. And it usually comes around money.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. I think money is the revolving factor right there. There’s a lot of different jobs that have happened in the past 20 years that just weren’t available to us, I think as well. So before, they had no idea. I was like, “Dad, check out these guys. They’re making millions of dollars playing Call of Duty or video games or whatever.” He’s like, “What? Oh, my God. What is going on? What do you mean? You should have been playing that. What are you doing?”

Gabe Gault:
And it’s just like, “Dad, I couldn’t. There was no option.” There’s just different avenues that have popped up that blow my mind. It’s like, if I knew you can make money doing videos and YouTube and stuff like that before, I mean, I just wouldn’t have been so worrisome of like, what am I going to do? There are so many options nowadays, in my opinion.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s so interesting. My best friend, Chris, who’s been on the show before, if people want to check him out. I think he’s episode 40, Dr. Chris Stewart. But he’s got two daughters, and his oldest daughter kind of wants to be a YouTuber. I think she’s probably, I don’t know, maybe about eight or nine years old. She wants to be a YouTuber. And he’s sort of like adamantly against it, like, “No. Go to school and learn STEM stuff and all that sort of stuff.”

Maurice Cherry:
And I kind of had to tell him, you got to think about it. Back when we were kids, even working in computers and the internet was like an impossibility because it barely existed. What we do now back then made no sense. So if what she’s doing now doesn’t make sense, congratulations, you’re old. But also, this is where career trends are going. Things are going now towards doing things online and being a content creator.

Gabe Gault:
Exactly. I would say, kids, just stick to TikTok. There’s going to be some probably big money in it too if you want to turn that into a career. I would also recommend to artists starting out that have some kind of money income. It doesn’t have to be glamorous or anything, but it would have helped me, for sure. Doing this full time without some kind of like financial stability was pretty rough.

Gabe Gault:
My dad was pretty rough on me already financially growing up, which was good. I’m glad he was. But yeah, it’s rougher to just not have any kind of money coming in, and you got to worry about making a painting or whatever to sell it or to get some kind of comic book job. That stuff is pretty hard to do as a creative. Whatever creative job you’re doing, I would always say, if you can, have some kind of like financial support from yourself, if possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. You don’t want to fall into that like starving artists trope.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah, that’s the worst. I do not miss those days at all. That’s one thing that I would go back and change, is maybe I should just get a part time job or something right here and figure it out. But yeah, it’s all been good. Everything kind of works itself out at the end.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, back in 2017, you had your first solo exhibition. Take us back to that time. What was going on then?

Gabe Gault:
Oh, man. That was a huge, huge year for me. A couple things happened within that year and a half lifespan or timeframe. That was my first big show in 2017 at MRG Gallery. There was a guy, Michael, I met, and we’re still pretty good friends. I actually saw him pretty recently, like about a week ago. But that was my first gallery and solo show that I ever had. I had maybe about 15 pieces in there that I worked on throughout that year.

Gabe Gault:
I think I finished seven of them in the last month of that. So yeah, that was like a big turning point of how I thought about creating art and selling art and how to get people there, how to get people engaged, what kind of steps you should make, what people were gravitating towards, as well, what they liked. I remember correctly, we didn’t sell any pieces at this show, but I think we sold some following the show, which was pretty good, I guess, for my first show. I had no exposure in that world at all. That was a fun experience. It’s just one of those things that twist your brand and changes your life forever.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine it’s probably like the culmination of so many things. I mean, of course, you’re working to create this sort of singular body of work for this exhibition, but also it’s kind of like your aha moment in a way, like, “Oh, not only am I an artist, but I am in like capital A artists with like an exhibition and a gallery. I’m an artist.”

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. I think it was maybe the first time where I really had something centered around me. That was very important and that helped me move forward and get me used to people wanting to see my work and I’m an important person. I am who I make myself to be. And that kind of helped me move forward a little bit more in my career.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I asked this question to Dawn Okoro, who I had on the show a couple weeks ago. She’s another artist actually, I mentioned to you I discovered her on TikTok. We’re starting to see a lot more black fine artists and their work being just exhibited in general to the mainstream over the past probably 10 years or so. I mentioned the Dawn Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. I mentioned those two specifically because they did the Obama portraits, but also those portraits are now on tour in the country.

Maurice Cherry:
Now they’re going around to different cities, so everyone that maybe couldn’t make it to the National Portrait Gallery in DC can now see it in their city. But also we’re starting to see more black artists and their work being exhibited through black media, movies, television shows, etc. And you had even mentioned before we started recording that some of your work has been included in some media like that. What are your thoughts about that kind of exposure? Does that really help you out as an artist?

Gabe Gault:
I think it does and it doesn’t. I think if you’re on some of those… I was in a show, I think Big Trouble. I think I was in like a documentary on Netflix, somewhere on there. I’m sure somebody can find me somewhere. I feel like exposure wise, it does help kind of build your credit and credentials. But I think more importantly, it’s great because black shows and black media can pay black artists. And I think that’s an important part to move forward for any black artist because that can fuel their next six months or whatever.

Gabe Gault:
That kind of bit of breaking point where after that six months, they had to stop producing work, and then it kind of slows down. But all those little things are wins, in my opinion. Because every time you’re hiring a black artist or you buy from a black artist, it helps that kind of community grow and it helps that black renaissance movement that’s kind of happening right now with Kehinde and everybody. It’s all upgrade.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And certainly now, what I would love to see, because through this show, I’ve been very fortunate to talk to a lot of people and now see their work out in the world, my hope is that the black artists kind of get that same level of recognition as say like, I don’t know, Jordan Peele or Issa Rae, just in terms of like you are also someone that is also creating these visual representations of the world and they’re out there for people to see. People need to know that black contemporary artists exists, period.

Gabe Gault:
I a hundred percent couldn’t agree more. For me, personally, I’m an artist, and I want to branch out. I want to do in a similar fashion what Jordan Peele or Issa Rae do. They’re kind of entrepreneurs in general. Black entrepreneurship is very fresh and it’s popping right now and I feel like it’s a good time to be one and express different avenues of creativity. If you’re an artist and you want to get into fashion, I think people are now supporting that more than ever.

Gabe Gault:
If you’re into fashion and you want to get into making movies, there’s no stopping you, really. I feel like there’s Donald Glover’s of the world who want to just be an actor, be a comedy writer, be whatever they want to be. You can kind of make it all come together. I feel like you don’t have to necessarily be one thing anymore. It’s just like, how hard do you want to work?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Being the kind of black creative, multihyphen it. I don’t want to say it seems like it’s necessarily the norm, but I think we’re certainly starting to see it, or rather, I think it’s starting to be normalized. We’re mentioning Issa and Jordan. Of course, there are several others that fall into this camp that do multiple kinds of creative work, or they do multiple modes of creative work within one thing. Like Jordan, I think we know from comedy first, but then also is clearly this horror buff also that can really flourish in that realm also.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. I just saw Candyman, not super recently, but whenever it came out. But that was an amazing movie where it kind of reminded me of a black Blade Runner, like the shots of it. And then it had its horror elements. I love his stuff because you always forget that you’re watching a horror movie till something pops off and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, this is Candyman. I forgot what I was watching for a second.” Honestly, I just get inspired all the time by people like that and Issa Rae and everybody who’s doing something remarkable.

Maurice Cherry:
Where else do you pull inspiration from?

Gabe Gault:
Man, I pull inspiration from a little bit of… God, what do I pull inspiration from? I feel like I get inspiration from a little bit of everything. I’m into comic books, I’m into games, I’m into mythology. I feel like there’s bits and pieces that I’ll deep dive into and I’ll get on kicks of. I was kind of like going to Roman kick lately of the artwork over there and kind of wanting to replicate what was created back in those times of ancient Rome and what kind of stories were coming out of there.

Gabe Gault:
Then I also remember old stories, African stories that my mom used to tell me back in the day, and I’m starting to kind of research those in the past week. So it’s a little bit of whatever I’m feeling in the moment and I think makes sense and is close to me, or makes sense for me, then I’ll kind of draw inspiration from that.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there any other artists out there that you admire?

Gabe Gault:
There are a ton of artists, I feel like. Actually, to get my art style, I think I took my five favorite artists. And this is something I tell younger artists as well. Take your five favorite artists who are still living or dead. Take one element from each artist, mix them together, but making your own. And then you kind of have your style right there. And that’s something that I used personally and it kind of made up to figure out what was me and what did I like and what did I enjoy that I won’t get burned out on?

Gabe Gault:
But yeah, some of those artists I grabbed from were Shepard Fairey, Kehinde Wiley, Retna. Andy Warhol, of course. I feel like you got to at least give him some credit on some aspects of your life. There’s a couple of them that are pretty mainstream that I draw from that I really liked growing up. I’ll usually draw from one piece of theirs and then be like, okay, why do I really like this piece? What makes me want to create more pieces similar to this? What’s the element that is affecting me like that?

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that you kind of want people to see when they look at your work?

Gabe Gault:
I want them to like there’s a little bit of that person who I’m painting in them. There’s a piece I did, I think it was for We Rise show in downtown LA. They had those yearly. I think maybe the last one was Into Action. No, it was We Rise, and they do this other show, Into Action. But they do these amazing kind of museum pop ups that they were doing yearly. I think they took a break during COVID because of regulations and it’s pretty hard.

Gabe Gault:
But there is a couple pieces I did during that show. One was the first camouflage piece I did, which was a piece of Tupac and he was wearing a Kaepernick jersey. That was my first camo piece I did. That actually didn’t even make it on the wall. It was a funny story. That didn’t make it on the wall. That was put behind like a DJ booth almost. That was like a whole bummer. Everybody there is super cool.

Gabe Gault:
They really tried to make it work, but there were so many artists and very little space left on the walls. But that ended up being one of the biggest pieces of the show. Everybody kind of like went over there and they were like, “Oh, what’s that piece over there?” It kind of made it mysterious a little bit. I was just behind the DJ booth, which I thought was funny. But not on purpose or for any specific reason.

Gabe Gault:
But I think during that time, that was a big piece. I have people sending like paragraphs to me on Instagram how much that meant to them, how much they appreciated it. It was a big time because that was right after I think Kap took a knee for that. I think it was just impactful for a lot of people to see that. It almost meant, what would this person do today? Where would this person stand politically? So I had Tupac, I had MLK and Cesar Chavez all in Kaepernick jerseys.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s amazing. Let’s just kind of talk about Tupac for a minute. I mean, he was 25 when he died. He was a kid.

Gabe Gault:
He was a baby. 25 is like a decade now.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s amazing because I would think of folks digging in Tupac and others, even MLK, as you mentioned. They were really young when they were killed. It is kind of part of just, I don’t know, creative imagination to think about, what would they have believed at this time? Who would they have been as artists or as activists or whomever?

Gabe Gault:
Yeah, it is crazy. I just wonder sometimes how our history would have changed if it wasn’t… What if they didn’t die? Would it be better? Would’ve anything changed? Would it be worse? It’s a crazy concept to think about what happened. If MLK was still here, would we have gone further? Did that happen for a reason? I don’t know. It’s just nuts.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, also, just what they managed to accomplish in just that short time. When I was 25, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I was just trying to make it. At 25, I was four years out of college. I think I had just got fired from a job. I remember vividly now. I just got fired. I was working at Autotrader and I got fired. I was answering phones or whatever. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

Maurice Cherry:
My mom was like, “You need to get it together. What are you going to do with your life.” I was always designing and doing websites and stuff on the side as like a hobby. Because this was like 2005, 2006. There wasn’t really a market for this really yet. And certainly it wasn’t something you could just like go to school and learn. And so I had just found a one ad in the back of our local weekly newspaper here in Atlanta and just applied on a whim. And that ended up being the start of my design career. But I can’t imagine like as a celebrity with that kind of cultural impact that you’ve had at that age. That’s amazing.

Gabe Gault:
You have to be making some moves back then, for sure. That’s also insane to think about just how, nowadays, you can jump on social media and just become an internet superstar, whatever. But back then you had to really be, I feel like, pushed by everybody. Everybody had to really know who you are, know your name or know your craft. Not that they don’t nowadays, but you know what I mean.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a whole new ballgame.

Gabe Gault:
A whole new ball game.

Maurice Cherry:
And the internet has made it that way now, where you can really kind of make a name for yourself. And not to say you can make a name for yourself without any sort of discernible talent, although we have seen that. But the internet at least sort of I think in a way democratizes how people can become influencers because the barriers to get to that level of influence have kind of been flattened.

Gabe Gault:
Yes. It’s definitely more open to the public, for sure, as like who can be seen and who can be heard the loudest, in a sense. I feel like you could be a kid from nothing. I think that’s like my favorite part of the internet, is when you get somebody who really had no opportunities or no kind of way of getting out of a bad situation. And then they started to put themselves out there on the internet.

Gabe Gault:
And now they’re just like mega successful in their own right. So I think that’s kind of a better version of the area that I like to see the most. Obviously, you have all sorts of variables of that. They could be super crappy people and get that same situation. But that’s kind of how the game works.

Maurice Cherry:
In recent years, what would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Gabe Gault:
I feel like I need to trust my intuition more. That’s been helpful, trusting that people will accept me for who I am and what I want to create and make and paint and will support me. I think that’s been a huge, huge influence throughout the past couple years and it has really changed my life and impacted me because I didn’t always have that. I didn’t really always believe in myself to get this far or get where I am or get in the position I want to be in. So I think if I knew that a little bit earlier, it would have saved a lot of stress.

Maurice Cherry:
Who would you have been if you didn’t become an artist?

Gabe Gault:
I was never fit for like an office job. I would’ve either been a scientist or a bum. I don’t know. It’s either/or. It’s no middle ground. I feel like I always had to be an artist. I had no choice because I can’t really do anything else in whatever field I wanted to be in. I wasn’t too great at math growing up in high school and stuff. I was like, “Oh, I want to be a scientist.” But there’s all these equations and stuff. So screw that

Gabe Gault:
But funny enough, I think the true answer to that probably would have been like sports probably in some shape or form. And it’s just funny because I don’t keep up with sports at all nowadays. And that’s like kind of what I grew up off of. That’s like my dad’s bread and butter. But it probably would have been sports are something in video games, some kind of analyst or something. I don’t know. I really couldn’t answer, but something along those lines that is just completely different, I think, in some way.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you kind of mentioned video games. You’ve mentioned that as kind of a through line throughout this interview. Is that like a dream project that you’d love to do one day?

Gabe Gault:
Yes, games will be a cool kind of way to be integrated into my current career. I’m actually creating NFT right now. I’m kind of getting into that whole space of digitally sold artwork. And I feel like it’s all kind of leading to that, in a sense, in some shape or form. If I never do that, that’s totally fine. And it’s not like a dream killer, because I feel like I’m living my dream right now just doing art and making a living off of that.

Gabe Gault:
But there are certain things that it’s kind of crazy when it happens and it comes full circle. I did a project for Madden, where I had to paint Aaron Donald for like the 99 club. And that was like weird and kind of full circle, because it’s like, with my pop’s background, it’s like, I never thought that it would kind of end up back at football in such a profound way. It’d be cool, I think, if that happened, for sure.

Gabe Gault:
There’s been a couple opportunities where I have gotten into like a video game world and worked with some pro gamers and stuff. But sometimes those are pretty weird deals to make happen with like fine art. I also have to stay on brand sometimes. I don’t want to do something completely out of pocket and go south of what’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I can see that. I mean, certainly when it comes to tips, and even that with video games, that’s another medium that has really grown and changed a lot, thanks to technology. I mean, the games back in the day really were pretty one node in terms of what they could be. And now, especially on the indie game kind of community, video games can look so many different ways, they can be so many different things.

Maurice Cherry:
I do wonder if that does afford more opportunities for artists to get involved in that way. There’s this one person in particular who I really want to try to get her on the show, but her name, she goes by Momo Pixel. She made this game. Goodness, I think she was working at Wieden+Kennedy at the time, but made this game called… Actually, I forget what the name of the game was called.

Maurice Cherry:
But the premise of it was this black woman going about her day and people trying to touch her hair. And you as the black woman had to like swat all the hands away. She’s on the plane, she’s in a taxi, she’s on the bus and people are trying to touch her hair. And you just swat all the hands away to get to like the end goal or whatever. I played it at XOXO, which is just internet conference that takes place in Portland.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember playing it there back in 2018 And being like, “This is the coolest shit I’ve ever seen.” There’s no way I would be playing this on Nintendo. But she just made the game. And it’s like, yeah, this sort of stuff is wild. I can imagine there are so many opportunities like that.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah, that’s no joke. I feel like I have a couple friends who’ve been in the indie game space. It’s no easy feat to just make that stuff. It’s kind of like years of understanding how to code and make the art in game design. It’s always something I’ve just been interested in throughout my whole life. So if you find a game, you got to send that to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. I’m looking on that. It’s called Hair Nah, H-A-I-R N-A-H, and it’s at hairnah.com. She’s on Twitter at MomoUhOh. M-O-M-O U-H-O-H.

Gabe Gault:
Shout out.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s an artist, indie game developer, creator of Hair Nah. Final NFT in Origin Story drops soon. She’s even on the NFT route too. Interesting.

Gabe Gault:
Yeah. That’s another another crazy space that’s kind of popped up in the past year and a half on a bigger scale. I know it’s been around for a couple years now, six or seven years really. But that’s also an element of being an artist, that you have to adapt. There’s a lot of different things that come up over the decades and I feel like always shoot for what’s next. Have that open as an option.

Gabe Gault:
Because if you kind of look at artists of the past or yesteryear, they’ve always kind of adapted to what’s the newest trend or what’s the newest adaptation. Not that you always have to make something that’s trendy or whatever, but it’s always cool to keep an eye out for something to help yourself and your work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you feel creatively satisfied?

Gabe Gault:
I feel like when there’s big projects like the Ohio project, yeah. There’s always, what’s the next big thing? Or, where do I go from here? And I think for me, there’s a couple of bucket list goals of art career choices that I want to kind of check off. So I feel like I’m never quite satisfied. I think the day that I am, I’ve hopefully kind of completed that bucket list.

Maurice Cherry:
So that ends. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work would you love to be doing?

Gabe Gault:
I mean, I guess a longer goal for me is hopefully in the next five years, my work is different. I wouldn’t say completely different. Hopefully, by the end of my career, it’s completely different. But hopefully, in five years, my work is different from it is now and there’s different platforms and different mediums that I’m working in.

Gabe Gault:
You can always kind of elevate yourself a little bit and I’m trying to branch out from just painting on canvas. I want to get into the sculptures. I want to get into painting cars, whatever it may be, doing more NFT stuff, doing some 3D work. So I think that’s where I see myself in five years is kind of completing all those goals and making a living doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like the big thing now that we’ve talked about NFT’s, but I’m starting to see platforms start to go towards the metaverse, which is… I mean, honestly, it sounds even weird for me to say it because that sounds like some shit that came on like a ’90s Power Rangers, VR Troopers, we’re going to the metaverse kind of thing. I’m starting to see platforms think about what it is to be in the metaverse, Facebook most specifically.

Maurice Cherry:
But there’s also artists that are starting to work in that medium or starting to do things in that whole medium. I know NFT’s are part of that like NFT’s, generative art, digital art, all that sort of plays into it. I mean, I think even Sotheby’s did like a virtual gallery in the metaverse.

Gabe Gault:
It’s insane. The metaverse is an interesting place where kind of anything goes. The whole crypto space is the wild west right now, and I think it’s going to be that way for a while. You can make anything, you can create anything you want to create. I wish I knew 3D better so I can kind of jump in there a little bit more. But there’s always opportunity, I think, for anybody.

Gabe Gault:
I have a friend who made like a metaverse thing, Frank Wilder. He’s on IG. But he did a whole metaverse kind of reality where he’s making cars and planes and get your NFT Lambo or Rolls Royce or whatever you want, making art and also in that space. So it’s a crazy thing that’s, I think, going to be pretty popping in the next 5 to 10 years. It’s going to be I think the future, really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, just kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Gabe Gault:
You can find out more about me on TikTok, first and foremost, at Gabe Gault. I’m on Instagram at Gabe Gault and I also have gabegault.com. I’m sure I’m like on other platforms as well. I’m on Twitter and other things. But I think mostly you can get a good idea of my work on those.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Gabe Gault, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, thank you for just sharing kind of the process about your work and really talking about some of the projects that you’ve done. But also I think it’s always great when you have an artist that’s really kind of doing these things that are, I don’t know, kind of a mix of classic imagery, like what you do with your portraits, but then also you’re putting your own kind of interesting twist on it.

Maurice Cherry:
I think the work that you’re doing is completely sublime. It’s really dope work. I can’t wait to see what stuff you’re doing the next few years, and hopefully more of the world will be able to see what you’ve done from this interview. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Gabe Gault:
No, thank you so much. That keeps me going. So I appreciate being on here.

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If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

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Terresa Moses

Several past guests have told me that I needed to interview Terresa Moses for the podcast — well, that day has finally come! If you’ve attended any design events over the past couple of years, then you know that Terresa is all about liberating Black and brown people through art and design. Wait until you hear her story!

We started off talking about her teaching work as an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, including her position as the director of design justice. We also went a bit into her work as a creative director at Blackbird Revolt, her current PhD studies in social justice education at the University of Toronto, and her recent solo exhibition Umbra. Terresa also talked about what keeps her motivated and inspired these days, living her life’s purpose, and what it means to her to be a designer today. Sit back and get ready for a fascinating interview with one of the most dynamic design educators working today!

Blackbird Revolt

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Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Terresa Moses:
My name is Terresa Moses. I also go by Terri, she/her pronouns and I am a designer. I’m an educator and an organizer. I’m an assistant professor of Graphic Design at the University of Minnesota, as well as the Director of Design Justice for the College of Design, and then, I own a studio called Blackbird Revolt, in which I work on a lot of creative projects for justice oriented, anti-racist projects and I also am heavily involved in community work, so yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So like with all of that going on, I have to imagine you’ve had probably quite a year so far, like how things have been going?

Terresa Moses:
I would say the most interesting thing is starting my position at the Twin Cities campus because I was at the Duluth campus, teaching and so starting last year, in the middle of a pandemic, moving and all of that has been a little weird and it’s like you meet your colleagues online and then they see you in person, and they have masks on and they all know each other, and I don’t know them but they know who I am, because I’m like, the only black person. So they like come up and talk to me and I’m just like, “Ah, you know,” and not really knowing who they are. So that’s like the really interesting part. I kind of get nervous around it. I mean, it’s like some social anxiety stuff, so that’s been a really interesting part, but I would say the year overall has been okay, considering like the world in which we live in.

Terresa Moses:
I think there was definitely a lot of, I guess, turmoil in the city. I’m in Minneapolis here, so Daunte Wright is another black man shot by the cops in Brooklyn Center, around April, May, June, we were just out there, doing what we could to protest that injustice. So it’s been eventful and that’s like to say the least, and then on top of that, I’m working on my PhD right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I didn’t consider that yeah, you’re in Minneapolis. That’s really kind of the epicenter, certainly of everything that has went on regarding George Floyd and the protests and everything like that. How’s the city now? As we’re … I mean, we’re recording this right now, kind of at the beginning of October 2021, like how’s the city now?

Terresa Moses:
I want to say like the city is the same. There’s definitely not the heightened presence of like National Guard and police everywhere. However, the city is still hurting, and we still haven’t got the demands for justice that we wanted with George Floyd. I mean, I would say the city is still … we’re waiting for justice, I think we’re just kind of there, and then, I think also, one of the things I think about is kind of the performative allyship that showed up last year, and how it’s so much different now. They are just … I own my studio and it was like, everybody has to do business with black people now and it was like, I had just started to exist or something last year and now, it’s kind of dying back off again, so you just can feel like the fickleness of, especially folks that have the power in the city.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s a common thing with a lot of people that I’ve had on the show within the past years, like you mentioned that performative allyship is real strong and then it’s sort of just died off. In some ways, it’s died off gradually and in some, it’s been, like a pretty abrupt shift away from it. One thing that I thought was interesting, and I talked about this in my interview with Joseph Cuillier, who runs The Black School, we were talking about how … I think it was last year and maybe, probably a year or so before that, everything was like, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter and how now it’s just shortened to like, BLM.

Terresa Moses:
Yeah, and I feel like that is like an absolute mirror of society. It’s like, when people are talking about black people, but they say POC and it’s like, “No, let’s actually be specific about what we mean here,” and I think it just allows white denial to continue to exist. If we don’t have to actually say black and we don’t have to say lives, then we don’t have to reconcile with the fact that black people are dying.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean, even the, almost meteoric kind of rise of BIPOC as an acronym, I swear, they came out of nowhere.

Terresa Moses:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
It was POC for a long time and then last year, everything was like BIPOC, BIPOC, BIPOC, where did this come from?

Terresa Moses:
Yeah, I mean, it did pop out but I’m one of the people who actually really appreciate it, because black people, our experience is so much different from other POC and there’s so much anti-blackness in other POC communities. So I appreciate that we get to kind of differentiate those experiences, and indigenous folks who have been here from the start and have really been harmed by white supremacy. So I really appreciate the differentiation, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about teaching. You mentioned being an assistant professor of Graphic Design at the University of Minnesota, and you’re the Director of Design Justice there. Talk to me more about those roles, particularly about the Director of Design Justice, because I feel like that’s the first time I’ve heard about that out of college.

Terresa Moses:
Sure. So, I’m an assistant professor, a tenure track, kind of same run of the mill position but I was hired on, in this sort of partial position. So kind of like, I want to say half and half type of thing. So I’m a professor in some areas, and then I am the Director of Design Justice. What I was originally hired for was to be the Director of the Diversity Network. That’s what it was called, and when they were like, negotiating with me, I was like … when I actually get in this position like, “Can I change some of these names,” because I absolutely hate the word diversity. I think it is a, I don’t know, coddling term to help folks not talk about the fact that white supremacy allows there to be no black people in your whole college. I think that that’s wild. So I hate that word.

Terresa Moses:
So I was like, “Can I come in and change that up?” So in doing my research, looking for, okay, I really liked this word, justice and looking for other terms and other ways folks talk about justice, especially in the realm of design. I was like, “This totally makes sense, Design Justice.” In this role, I kind of work on issues, particularly related to how can we make our campus climate more equitable, more inclusive, those types of language, those types of words. So some things that I’m working on right now that are great but also very stressful and exhausting, is the first thing being the cluster hire. We are working … I’m leading this initiative with our head of HR to hire on four faculty members that are focused on Design Justice, with a preferred qualification in anti-racism.

Terresa Moses:
This will be in four areas, architecture, product design, interior design and graphic design and I’m hoping that they come on and work with me to be able to basically take the small, the bit of power that’s been given to me and disperse that amongst their specific areas and really just kind of increase, what I call the design justice collective. So what that is, is like, it’s not a committee, per se because committees are more like you have to have someone who represents fashion merchandising who sits on this committee. That’s not what the collective is about. The collective is who’s doing the work, and then how can we show up together in space and support one another in that work? I’m not looking to have spaces where it’s like, “Oh, Racism 101, like let’s talk about how you perpetuate racism?”

Terresa Moses:
No, that’s not what the collective is about. It’s about who’s already doing the work and how can we support one another. So that’s one of the things that I’m working on right now, as the Director of Design Justice. Some of the other initiatives that I do is hold affinity spaces for students of color. I also hold space for queer students and I’m going to have some other colleagues work on affinity spaces for allied students. Some other things that we’re working on is a fellowship program. I’m really trying to address the fact that there are not any black people, especially from our community that have infiltrated the design industry like they should, white supremacy and all. So the fellowship program is supposed to be like an intensive 12 to 15 week course in the summer, that students of color can apply to and these students don’t necessarily have to be students of our university.

Terresa Moses:
They can be between the ages of 17 and 23, and we’re working with community organizations as well to recruit some of those students but it’ll be a cohort of 20s, when I’m hoping that we can pay and stipend them to be able to go through this program, and then be offered some options at the end of this program. So things like an internship, a full on job opportunity, two year program or a four year program at a college or university and we’re working right now with the organizations that are here in Minneapolis, so people like Target, Best Buy, 3M, US banks, so some really big names of corporations who would have positions available and then also, we’re working with other organizations that we can provide mentorship as well. What the issue is with the fellowship program for me is that as I’m looking at these other organizations, they don’t have any people of color that work as designers.

Terresa Moses:
So how am I supposed to recommend that they help mentor these students of color that are coming in? It just doesn’t sit right with me. They have to have people that look like them. So right now, we’re working with other small graphic design firms and studios to see what we can do to kind of partner for that mentorship aspect of things. So that’s another big project we’re working on to help increase BIPOC representation, and the design industry. So those are some of the things that … those are some of the big things we work on. Another thing that … as the Director of Design Justice that I’m working on is creating a course where we get distinguished design lecturers to come in and teach a class on design justice. So I’m personally hoping that once the course gets approved, and it is something that is required of all design students, that they have to take this course in order to get their degrees.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, and I’m sure people in our audience want to know as well, what does it look like to teach a designer about design justice? What does that look like?

Terresa Moses:
I can tell you what it starts off like, how about that? It will start off by trying to do as much introspective work as we can, and what this does is it informs the students, how their identity and their positionality, especially in the context of racism and other systems of oppression, will affect their design outputs. It will affect how they show up in the design world. It will affect what they’re even interested in. It will affect their relationships with their colleagues. We always talk about like empathy being like this first step of the design research process and it’s like, if we wait until everyone has empathy with black people, we will never solve racism, right? So how do we talk about this? Well, let’s talk about you first and let’s talk about the decisions that you can make to help further a system where there is no … there isn’t or there is less oppression.

Terresa Moses:
So I think for me, I’m always going to start off with doing some social identity exercises, where students get to think about how it is that they realize or how it is that they develop biases and then, we’ll go from there, we have a lot of these like, kind of onboarding activities is what I like to call them and yeah, they’re able to really dive into, like I said, in an introspective way, their own positionality and then look at who taught me that? What institutions were developing that character or that social construct, so that I understood people to be a certain way. So it really is like, revolutionary for the students because they’re sitting here like, “I didn’t even understand that I even thought this way until doing some of these exercises.”

Terresa Moses:
So, if I can teach them that they impact in whatever place they’re at in the industry, even when you first graduate, and you get that really crappy entry level job, that you still have power to change the climate within your institution or you get the power to actually make some recommendations on some of the outputs that maybe your company is going to be putting forth, I think that that’s super important. I’ve kind of done my job, so yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, has this been done at the college before or are you just kind of spearheading this right now?

Terresa Moses:
Definitely spearheading. So one of the things that I do as its director as pedagogy audits and what I’ll have faculty do is meet with me, and we’ll go over what does your syllabus look like? What do your projects look like and how can we make those projects begin to talk about the ways systems show up for different groups of people? So, when we’re able to break that down, I think it will add to a more inclusive environment, of course, in our classrooms, but has it been done before? I think the resources are there. Are faculty necessarily motivated enough to do this? Are they being reprimanded if they don’t? Absolutely not, and so the education, like the institution of education itself is one that I’m often questioning like, can I even be here for definitely not … like for the rest of my life? What does this look like for me in the future? I’m not sure because I definitely know this is not where the revolution happens.

Terresa Moses:
It’s not where radical change can happen, and so hasn’t been done before? Like I said, the resources are out there. I think that faculty are too lazy to look it up, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, shots fired. I had Dr. Kristina Harrington on the show a couple of weeks ago, and I remember was asking her about like, what does it mean for you to be a black woman at this level, doing design, research and being a design PhD. I’ve also had Dori Tunstall on the show, but that was years ago. I need to try to have her back on the show, but it is interesting, like you say, the revolution is not going to be done here at the school, at least you’re able to kind of do the work that you can here to show that it can be done.

Terresa Moses:
Yeah, I mean, man being a black woman-

Maurice Cherry:
That was a deep sigh.

Terresa Moses:
Because I was really thinking like, how many times do institutions, not even just higher ed but institutions in general, bring in black women to clean up after they have completely … can I cuss on this show?

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Terresa Moses:
Completely fucked over a whole system, and I was having this talk last week, because it’s like, you all have used the system of white supremacy to allow only white people to be in power. Then, when you look around and you see that there are only white people in power, it’s like, we need to bring black people in here to help us clean it up. I don’t know that that extra … that cultural taxation is like more than exhausting. Then, on top of that, it’s not like you’re compensated for that. It’s not like they say, “You know what, we want more black people to come and teach at our college in Ann Arbor, Michigan.” It’s not like they’re going to say, “You know what, we’re going to pay for you to go in two trips to like a black city or go visit your black family, because we know there’s no black people here in this city.”

Terresa Moses:
So because of systemic oppression, you all have basically red lined this out of certain parts of the country, and then you want us to just import ourselves and somehow feel okay in that city? It’s irritating, and it’s so … I don’t know, like it’s so short-sighted. I mean, I can’t even think of the word but I think it’s very shallow for them to think we’re going to offer you the same exact package as this other white faculty, but expect more from us. I think it is insane.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you said a lot there. I mean, I’ve certainly talked to educators before where they’ve kind of told me about how they have to do so much with such little resources because one, yes, they have to teach the specific courses that they were hired to do but then, there’s so much more that it feels like university expects out of them, as you say, on this kind of diversity level with outreach and research and all these other things, and it’s like, if you’re not compensating someone to do all of that, it’s just so much more undue labor, especially on top of just what it means to be black in academia, in general, aside from all of this like, yeah, that can be really taxing, I’m sure.

Terresa Moses:
Absolutely, and when you just said black in academia, I’m thinking as I’m sitting here doing the work in community, like when Daunte Wright was shot and killed by police officer, Amy Porter, I was like … I had this brilliant idea of trying to clothe all the protesters, me being one of them but it was cold. Sometimes it was snowing, sometimes it was raining, it was freezing. We were getting like supplies out to protesters, but I was like, let’s unify our message and so, you might see this design that I created called stop … It says, “Stop killing black people,” and it’s in this typography that I created inside … I was making a whole bunch of messaging to help unify our message, so that was one of them, “Stop killing black people, people over property, abolish the police,” of course, “black lives matter.” So I was creating all of these kind of like slogans for the movement for the protests that were happening.

Terresa Moses:
So that’s some awesome and amazing community work. I got to work with a lot of organizers, a lot of friends who were coming out, help me pass out stuff, we pass out so many things to protesters and we raised like 30,000 to be able to print all of these things for folks. Then, as a black academic, I can’t just insert that into my portfolio and be like, “Look at all this amazing work that I did.” I now have to kind of code switch my work and be like, “All right, now I have to write about it in an academic way and talk about the impoverished neighborhoods of Brooklyn center, and how violence …” I mean, it’s gross and it’s like, you not only want me to do the work, you recognized that I’m a community engaged scholar but you still want me to form my work into this small little funnel, and put it into something that makes sense for you all, that you’ve been doing for years, that is totally and completely based off white supremacy.

Terresa Moses:
So you don’t want this new work, you want it just repackaged. You want me to continue doing the stuff that I’m doing, but also repackage it for your sake. I mean, that’s the kind of exhaustion that I’m talking about. It’s basically doing double the work. You not only want me because like other academics, they just theorize about this stuff. They don’t actually go out in the street and do it. I’m actually in the street doing it and then I have to go and write about me being in the street and doing it, like what?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s … the main thing I can think of as you’re talking about this, is that I know, this is not the only thing that you’re doing. On top of this, you’re also a creative director at Blackbird Revolt. You mentioned you’re pursuing your PhD in Social Justice Education, I feel like this is kind of a weird question to ask, but how do you manage all of this?

Terresa Moses:
So managing all of it, honestly, I was like … the reason I started getting my PhD is one, to turn the system kind of like on its head and use the system for my benefit, because this whole time, my whole lifetime, the system has been working me into death. So I’m like, all right, I’m going to be in these rooms with all of these white people who are always questioning my expertise, I don’t have a PhD, which is in academia is, I don’t know, the golden ticket to do whatever the hell you want and I don’t get respect from any of these people. They’re always questioning everything I have to say and do whether I’m on the boots on the ground or not. So I was like, “I’m going to get my PhD and the work that I’m already doing is going to account for that PhD.” So that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m having stuff overlap. There’s a ton of overlap in all of my work. The stuff that I’m doing in my design studio, I can apply for awards for and make that work in my tenure dossier.

Terresa Moses:
I am doing a lot like. I’m not trying to minimize what I do at all, because it is a lot. However, there is so much overlap in the work that I do, that it’s not like I have to completely get out of my mindset in order to do the next thing. So one of the things that I work on with a colleague of mine, Lisa Mercer is called Racism Untaught. Racism Untaught is this framework for educators to be able to use the design research process to create anti-racist design approaches. It also is to help students be able to walk through that process as well. Now, we’re working with a lot of big organizations and corporations by some of the ones that I had mentioned earlier. So that project right there helped me to set off me applying for my PhD. Okay, I want to now apply for my PhD and talk about how we integrate, really integrate Black Liberation into the foundations of graphic design.

Terresa Moses:
How can you start to bring in a student into this design area and begin to open up their mind to systemic oppression in a way that is so directed at their field? How do we talk about the inaccessibility of design in a way that talks about why there’s no black people here? Why there are people of lower class who are left out because they can’t afford the technology to be here? So how do we do that? So that’s what I’m doing in my PhD. It’s also what I’m trying to tackle when I’m doing things like the fellowship program. I’m trying to integrate and bring more people of color, more racially diverse people into the institution, into the industry. So I’m kind of tackling both of those things at the same time. So while I said, it is still a lot of work, there’s a lot of overlap there, so I’m super excited about all the stuff that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
It all works together in that way. That’s good.

Terresa Moses:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a regular day look like for you?

Terresa Moses:
A regular day, so my calendar is like always up to date. People always like, “Oh, can I schedule a meeting with you?” I’m like, “Yeah, my calender is up to date. Look at my calendar.” I schedule out time to work on certain things. So industry wise, if I have a client, I know some things do, I’m going to block off time for that, to get that thing done but what has been super important to me, especially since the pandemic? The pandemic has really slowed me down and I know it’s like, how you slow down with all this stuff that you’re doing but I used to really not have any free time, like zero whatsoever. I probably couldn’t even schedule this podcast interview with you because I would be like, “Oh no, sorry. I have an NAACP meeting. Oh no, sorry. I haven’t AIGA meeting. Oh no …” so my calendar looks like, okay, nine sometimes maybe eight to 6:00, that is my work time and then in between that, I might even take a nap if I’m feeling kind of fancy.

Terresa Moses:
Between nine and six, that’s my work time and then, after that, it’s only if I have like … I’m like crucial, I was procrastinating on some deadline, which really isn’t often, that’s not really how I work. After that, okay, we’re about to do something. I’m about to go to the dog park with my dog. I’m about to go rollerskating. I’m about to really try and celebrate Black Joy. When the pandemic started and of course, it’s like, all this George Floyd stuff happened and we’re really trying to organize four black liberation, one of the things that I realized is that, if I really want to organize four black liberation, if I really want to try and embolden and empower my community, I need to stop trying to teach white people. When I shifted my mindset from providing tools for white people to understand racism, to let me provide tools for mutual aid funds or for us to think about what does racial trauma and healing look like?

Terresa Moses:
What happens if we bring in a therapist to talk to our community and we go through exercises, and we go through meditation together? When I started changing my organizing skills and my focus to that, it became so much more fulfilling. I feel like, I was so exhausted before and it was because I feel like I was always beating myself over the head, am I not explaining it right? Why are these people not getting it? Once I realized, it’s not my duty to make them get it. My duty is to my community and to build us up and so what does that entail? So that’s when I shifted my view and it became so much more easy for me to do all these things that I do. So now, when I’m looking at my schedule, when I’m saying yes or no to things and I’m planning things out for the day, sometimes I have to think like, is this going to help my liberation? Is it going to help my community’s liberation?

Terresa Moses:
If it’s not, why do I want to do it? So really being able to like ask those questions about certain things. I mean, and it goes out pretty quick in your head but I’d say, I wasn’t thinking about that before and now, that I intentionally am, it makes my day so much easier. So yes, some days I’m working on my business. Some days, I’m working on doing stuff for the U. I’m doing stuff for the U, mostly everyday, except the weekends but it’s all very fulfilling, because I’ve decided, this thing that I decided to do it aligns with my passion, it aligns with black liberation for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So you’ve kind of found a way to make it work within, I guess, kind of the confines of what the pandemic has done around like travel and things like that too.

Terresa Moses:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I feel you on that sort of always like working in the entirety of the pandemic. In a way, it did slow me down as well, mainly because I was traveling a lot for work, but also just because of how it’s affected so many other things like events, and just stuff like that. So it has, yeah, for me in a way, slowed things down and then in some ways, I don’t know, especially this year, there’s been this rush to kind of get back to normal with so many things and I feel like I’m not there yet and I don’t know if I want to go back there.

Terresa Moses:
No, absolutely not. I’m totally with you. People are like scheduling like meetings or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Terresa Moses:
Sometimes they’re like, “Okay, do you want to meet on …” No, I don’t. [inaudible 00:28:52]. The only reason I’m campus is to teach the class and then, I leave. I’m actually kind of upset that I paid for a parking permit because I don’t even be there that much, like I always love … I nested. I got my little condo setup. I’m trying to be in my cute little ass condo and not be around all these white people, aggravating the hell out of me. I love being safe here in this little environment, and when I decide to go out, it’s with all my black people and I’m feeling good and it’s supporting my black joy and my liberation. So I am with you, I do not want things to go back to normal. I feel like people are rushing for that and I really don’t know why.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I completely understand where you’re coming from, 100%. So I want to go more into your background. I mean, certainly … I mean, we spend a lot of time now in the present going over what you’re doing now, but I want to know where this spark came from. So can you tell me like where you grew up?

Terresa Moses:
Sure. So this is like a complicated answer. Mainly Texas, but I’m an army brat, so I was born in Panama, Central America and we move around a lot. I lived in Washington State. I lived in Germany for a few years but then moved back to the States, lived in Pennsylvania for a minute, and Texas was definitely the longest place that I have lived, middle school and high school, and then after that, moved up to … so I was in Central Texas beforehand and then after that moved up to the Dallas area to go to college.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have a lot of exposure to design growing up?

Terresa Moses:
No, I did not. Now, I had a lot of exposure to fashion. Did I understand that it was design? No. I was really, I think like a lot of black kids and I feel like people are just kind of getting out of their shell and talking about how they were really into anime. I was super into anime in middle school and high school and I thought the extent of my creativity was going to go to like drawing anime. I thought that was pretty much it. So, that was probably my first experience with like, “Oh, I can actually do some art.” I was into music as well. I’ve always been a pretty creative person, but thinking about design as a career, like my family was not about to support that. My family, of course, supports it now because they’re like, “Oh, she’s making a check now.”

Terresa Moses:
When I was going into school, like I remember him. I remember, I was majoring in fashion design, and minoring in African American Studies, and my mom would introduce me to like some of her colleagues or something and say, “She’s minoring in African-American studies.” She wouldn’t even say my major and I was like, “What?” Sh was just like … I was just so worried. I talked about it to her, this year. She was like, I was just so worried that you weren’t going to make any money. No, I really did not have … I definitely know what graphic design was. Are you kidding me? I did not even in my mind, think about, “Oh, there’s signs on the road, someone had to design those. This pamphlet that I’m looking at someone have to design that,” and I definitely was not introduced to that at all and it might have been … I mean, there’s a whole host of reasons but I think that not having my family really support arts type careers, really was the foundation for me not really even investigating the world of design.

Maurice Cherry:
When did that moment sort of come to you that this was something you wanted to pursue?

Terresa Moses:
I originally started in fashion design. I got my BFA in that and I would say, what happened was is I went to college first to pursue my career as a musician, a clarinetist. When I got there, these students were walking around with their reeds in their mouth and they always had their instrument and I was like, “I will not love the clarinet like that. It’s not my jam.” So then I was like, what do I like to do? I like I love to draw. I was really into drawing the outfits of anime characters. I was like, “Man, I want to do fashion design.” I always love like dressing up and stuff. So, this is great for me, so I majored in fashion design, got out in 2008, which was the most horrible time to get out of college because I could not get a job. So I lived in Dallas. I always wanted to work at JC Penney because they had this huge corporate office there in the Dallas area and could not … they just laid off 400 people, when I graduated.

Terresa Moses:
I was like, “Okay, well, I’m not getting a job there.” So I worked as a salesperson in sales for a year before I could get a position making 28,000 as a designer at a very small firm that did like wholesale clothing. So we did a lot of sports wear and they hold licenses and whatnot. It was a pretty horrible experience, I’ll say like, I left there after working there almost seven years. I left there, still making 32,000. Yeah, so pretty horrible. As I was working there though, probably five years into it, maybe four or five years into it. I was like, “You know what, I could really teach an Illustrator class,” because not only was I doing fashion design, at the place I was working at, but I also started doing their web design and I started doing their POPs, which is their point of purchase for all of their retailers.

Terresa Moses:
I started doing their catalogs, so all the stuff I was learning on the job and realizing like, “Hey, like I could do this, right?” So, also what I need to be able to teach this at college because I want to deal with nobody’s snotty nose kid. Sorry. So, really what it was, is that I want to have the banter and I didn’t even understand how all of my degrees would begin to align, but they just did. I was like, I want to have the banter. I want to have like deep conversations about life. I really still didn’t understand what that meant. At that time, I still wasn’t like an organizer like I am now. I was in community but it was through religious ways and so not really in the equitable way that I would say now. So I went back to school, got my MFA because I realized that this is what I needed to get my degree. As I was getting my degree, I started to realize what my degree was.

Terresa Moses:
It was a degree in design research and to be honest, I started it and did not know a thing about it and design research is still pretty new. So I started that degree figured out what it was started doing research on black women, black hair, started Project Naptural and graduated and was looking for jobs across the country, and that’s why I ended up in Minnesota.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about Project Naptural.

Terresa Moses:
Okay, so Project Naptural was really like a self introspective project. I did it during one semester. I can’t remember what the class was called, but I think we were learning about like design research methods. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to use natural hair and interview the black women in my family, interview some of my black friends and talk about natural hair from an ethnographic stance.” So I did video interviews and things like that and it really became this really cool project that it was like, okay, as you’re looking for thesis topics, you’re … and even dissertation topics, you’re trying to fill a hole, fill a gap in academia that isn’t filled yet with that information. So how many studies had there been at the time that I did my thesis project on natural hair? Zero in design, for sure but very, very few in even the social sciences. So I continued on with this project as my thesis project, which I didn’t even think that my professors who were white men thought was serious enough to continue.

Terresa Moses:
Fortunately, as woke as they could be and was like, “You need to do this.” They were very encouraging at me to really dive into this. So I continued on with the project and it turned out to be this huge exhibition. It turned out to be, me making and creating space for black women that come together, to learn from each other, to educated about their natural hair, about natural hair processes, how we can make our own products, how we can sell our hair, because it was something that was … practices that were stolen from us in slavery. So, being able to kind of reunite the practices with the people is really awesome. What I hope to do with this project as it continues, it kind of pause again, because of the pandemic, but I want to take a trip to West Africa and visit some countries, really studying natural hair practices and then come back and be able to disseminate that in a really beautiful educational, but fulfilling communicative, community building way.

Terresa Moses:
So that’s what I hope to do and to continue with the project and really hold some larger symposiums to have folks learn how to do hair tutorials and learn from the workbooks that I’ll create and build community with one another.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, will you try to weave this into some of your educational work or do you want to keep this as like a separate project from all that?

Terresa Moses:
I would say that this is part of my educational work, like I was seeing all that overlap. So when I’m doing the symposiums, the natural hair symposiums, I’ll do a new release of illustrations of natural hair. I mean, if you’re interested in looking at what those look like, you can go to projectnaptural.com but I’ll do a new release, so right now I have 30 pieces that I’ve illustrated and not only do they have this beautiful illustrations, but oftentimes they have quotes on them from the black woman that I’ve interviewed. So really trying to build across empathy and have folks know that they’re not alone in their journey on natural hair, and then I also have educational materials. So I’m essentially teaching classes, while I have these symposiums, I’m also bringing in other instructors. So it is part of my educational work and a part of my dossier for tenure because of the community engaged scholarship portion of that projects.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, along with that, I think you recently had a solo exhibition called Umbra, which I think really to call it an exhibition is kind of a bit of a misnomer, because it was more like a … almost like an event of sorts, because you had sort of talks and there were sort of some interactive forms, can you talk a little bit more about that?

Terresa Moses:
Yes. So I love that you’re talking about it like that because it was like an experience. That’s what I hope to create. So Umbra was really birthed out of living in Duluth, Minnesota, which is 1.9% black, living there for the three and a half to four years that I had been there before I moved, it was isolating to say the least. It’s interesting because the state of Minnesota is this like blue state. It’s very liberal, but it’s not liberal because of anti-racism. In this exhibition, I was like, “Well, I’m going to talk about that.” If as a designer, I have to be super intentional with what I say, as an artist I’m about to fuck some shit up. That’s what I really was, what I was thinking on my mind. So I have these themes. As I started to build out the pieces, the pieces were really just me expressing my frustration and as I started to build up the pieces, I started to begin to find similar themes within the exhibition. So I have six themes overall.

Terresa Moses:
The first theme that I had designed for actually was the Danger/Anger theme and it wasn’t the middle fingers if folks are interested. It was actually the pregnant woman, and what she’s holding in her belly is grenade, and the grenades pin is being pulled by this white hand, and what that speaks to is the trauma that black women have to birth. We also have to hold while on pregnancy, and then, also that we’re four times more likely to die during giving birth because white doctors don’t believe that we’re in pain. So really being able to talk about systemic issues that are intersectional was the point of this exhibition. It was to talk about black women, and I think I did that pretty well, and what I was excited about is that not only do I have these beautiful pieces that have been shown in a variety of places, but I also created experiential pieces that went with each theme.

Terresa Moses:
So on the one … this theme that I’m talking about Danger/Anger, it was a piece where you could pick up headphones and basically hear me yelling out the description of one of these pieces. While the liberation theme, I had like Legos that match the color of that screenprints and people were supposed to build what they thought liberation would look like for black women. So, I had a lot of really cool interactional pieces as well. Then, I also had a zine. This zine was like, you could flip it. So, if you were a black woman, you look at one side and you got to grab a permanent marker and add to the zine, while if you were anyone else, like every single person who was not a black woman, flip to the other side and all you were supposed to do is read. You’re supposed to take in the information because black women were experiencing … I wanted them to be able to express that thing.

Terresa Moses:
A lot of them … It was like a very emotional night, like a lot of black women were crying, laughing. There were so many emotions happening, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted black women to feel validated. I wanted everyone else who wasn’t a black woman to understand how they can either add to our harm or add to our healing. So that’s what that exhibition was, was it was birthed out of frustration, but I’m hoping that it kind of … again, I don’t think I can get away from being an educator, because that’s what it was doing. It was validating these black men but also educating everyone else as to how they’re affecting our experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you plan on trying to bring the exhibition to other cities?

Terresa Moses:
I’ve had a couple of pieces from the show, actually been shown in other places, in other museums and galleries and whatnot. I would be happy to bring this anywhere. I actually have on my website, how you can bring it there, to your gallery. So that’s umbraexhibit.com, but absolutely, I would love for it to be a traveling show that spoke to other communities of black women in the way that it spoke to me and that I was able to release in that way. So I’m hoping it’s kind of a release for other black women.

Maurice Cherry:
So you have put on your own solo exhibition, you created Project Naptural, you’re teaching, you have the studio, you’re pursuing your PhD and I don’t know if these other two things I’m about to mention happen kind of with all of that as well or if … I’m kind of trying to track the chronology of it, but you volunteered for a few years with AIGA, Minnesota and at the same time, you’re the second vice president at Duluth’s local NAACP chapter. Did you find that those experiences kind of helped out with any of the other work that you were doing? Did they inform any sort of things from like a social level?

Terresa Moses:
I would say volunteering … Okay, I only want to talk about their cons right now, and I don’t know if that’s just the trauma that has happened in these organizing spaces. I would say AIGA definitely has its issues, for sure. I would say being brought in as the Director of Diversity Inclusion for the AIGA Minnesota branch, it was exhausting in the same way that all the other things that I talked about, had been exhausting, like the challenge of racism is now on this black woman who basically feels not only racism, but sexism and because I’m queer, also homophobia. So I’m not really sure how much of an impact you can have on an institution that was founded when segregation was still a thing, when women still couldn’t vote. It’s funny how these old organizations will brag about that.

Terresa Moses:
They’ll be like, “Oh, we’ve been around since blah, blah, blah. Okay, you’ve been around since Jim Crow.” Things like that, still permeate throughout the organization and they sit around, they look up and then, they’re just like, “Well, where are all the black designers? They must not be interested in design.” So then like, I’m sitting there trying to convince these white people that sit in this organization that we are interested in design. We just don’t want to be in spaces with you if we don’t have to be. So, it’s difficult, it’s very difficult and I think there’s only so much you can do, so much of the needle that you can then move. At some point, you got to say … what I’ve been saying, which is like, when is this helping my black joy and my black liberation and if it’s not, we got to cut it off. Their life is really … it really is too short for us to be sitting here, exhausting ourselves trying to teach white people why racism is wrong.

Terresa Moses:
So with the NAACP, there is definitely some movement that happened. I will say the legalism of the NAACP is what will stop progress from the NAACP. I think that the NAACP is hesitant to change, especially like progressive, inclusive change, like they’re for black people but not all black people. I mean, you can’t really talk about queerness in those spaces. You can’t really talk about sexism in those spaces. You can’t even really talk about being an atheist or not being a Christian in those spaces. So while there is some good that some of these organizations have done, I would say, if I have my choice, which I do to be in those organizations or not, do I want to continue to be hated on for just existing? Absolutely not. So I don’t think I’m going to be a part of some of those spaces anymore if I don’t have to.

Terresa Moses:
So while I did amazing work, because my ancestors and I got that black magic, I would say that there are still some things that I think internally they need to work on, and I can’t necessarily solve those. It’s not something I had the power to adjust for them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I think when you’re also volunteering for two organizations like that at the time, aside from just the actual time and energy it takes, it feels like you’re going back and forth between AIGA, which seems to be more of a predominantly white space and then NAACP being a predominantly black space, but then each having their own issues that are kind of isolated from that, if that makes any sense.

Terresa Moses:
Absolutely. Yeah. So I’m looking at AIGA. AIGA is dealing with like racism as a whole and anti-blackness as a whole. Then, I go into this NAACP space, and it’s like, they’re also dealing with anti-blackness like within our own internalized racism that’s happening within that community. So, it’s just showing up like … because we have all been socialized under the same exact system, it shows up differently, depending on what community brand but yeah, you’re dealing with just a different side … you’re just dealing with a different side of the oppression.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Terresa Moses:
It’s still oppression, cut and dry.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t want to get on here and bash AIGA. I mean, I’ll bash my local chapter, because they’ve … you mentioned that about the diversity thing. I remember this was years and years ago, I had … I think they wanted me to do something with the chapter around diversity but they didn’t want to give me a director level. They wanted it to be like, a chair level or co-chair or something like that. I was telling them that like, diversity affects the chapter at all levels, it affects membership, it affects our student groups and things like that. Secondly, I kind of told him this flat out like, we live in Atlanta and I’m not about to be your Negro whisperer because you don’t want to talk to black students and black design professionals. I’m not going to be that person. You’ve been around in the city long enough and folks that are affiliated with the chapter here know that it caters to SCAD students, Arts Institute of Atlanta students.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe if you’re an art major at like Georgia Tech or Georgia State or something like that, don’t go to one of these HBCUs, AIGA Atlanta ain’t got nothing for you, sorry. They got nothing for you. I was like, “Look, just because you don’t want to talk to the black people that live past Highway 20, that’s not going to be me. I’m not going to be the translator.”

Terresa Moses:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, eventually, they have gotten someone in to do a black woman, like you mentioned about black woman kind of coming in to clean up these messes, and I don’t know her, so I’m not going to speak ill of her. They’ve historically had black women in that position to kind of help out with diversity with the chapter. I wish them well. That’s all I can do.

Terresa Moses:
Yeah. I don’t know who this individual is. I’ll just speak from the perspective that I was a black woman who was brought in to help clean up this mess, that is diversity inclusion and it’s not something that is our responsibility to clean up, and also, what bothered me when you were talking about the groups that AIGA caters to, it’s like, we as black people had to navigate white spaces since we were children and I cannot … and it irks the crap out of me, when white people say that they don’t know any black people or that like, how can we network with some of these people, organization. I’m Just like, the privilege, the entitlement to have people come and work for your organization, but you don’t know a single black person in your network is … that should make you feel gross, that should make you disappointed in yourself that you don’t have any other substantial relationships with people of color in your city.

Terresa Moses:
I just find that to be disgusting and you have like the top of privilege to be able to do that because let me tell you, I know a ton of white people, because I have to know a ton of white people and it’s like you all can’t even bother yourselves with like me being, able to name five black people that are not Maurice Cherry, and who are not answering at Carol, who else might know it’s a black … you know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Terresa Moses:
It’s so lazy and it just irks the crap out of me because we are the ones with the stereotype of laziness, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Don’t get me talking over here. You have this very unique and I think, of course, very informed perspective around the design community and everything I just want to know to you like, what does it mean to be a designer today?

Terresa Moses:
I think because my perspective is really been shifted to black liberation, I think that being a designer, we should be striving to use our talents and our creative abilities to provide opportunities and to right wrongs that had been shown to us historically. I think, understanding that as a designer in itself, that title has so much power. We are the ones to set out what experiences are for people walking through airports, like that is a whole lot of power and if we can make it so that people are starting to see black people in airports more somehow, using some creative exhibition, like that’s just a very tiny little thing, but I think that we, as a designer, we have to be able to recognize problems, be able to talk about those problems without being all nervous and uncomfortable, because you’re white and you don’t want to talk about race, understand that problem, and then be able to say, “Okay, what am I doing to perpetuate that issue?”

Terresa Moses:
“What can I do to change the ways that I am to help bring healing to an issue or closer to that issue?” Whatever it is. So I think that, as designers, it really is about … I don’t want to say critical thinking, but it’s really about thinking critically about the world around us, to be able to recognize problems and be able to create approaches that’s going to help everyone and I do mean everyone who was sitting in the margins of the margins.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired to continue this? I mean, I think, certainly for anyone that’s listening through this far, they can tell that you have a lot of passion behind it. Where does the motivation and inspiration to keep going come from?

Terresa Moses:
You know that quote about, I am my wildest … my ancestors wildest dream?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Terresa Moses:
As I’ve been on my own healing journey this year, if that’s the case, if I am what my ancestors were dreaming of, how can I make them proud? How can I use this opportunity to build up our community in a way that’s like going to most positively impact us? That’s where I find that passion. My passion is, what can I do that’s going to be good for us? What can I do that’s like, “Okay, I know I’ve made it in a sense, like quote, unquote, I’m not like some rich person or anything, but I’m an educator, a professor and I make enough money to have a disposable income so what can I do with my money? What can I do with my skills? What can I do to give back to community?” If I can do that … not only just like being in the streets at a protest but I can do that, by being the angry black woman at a meeting, at my institute of higher education, I’m going to do that.

Terresa Moses:
If my ancestors thought that I should be here in this space at this time, it must be for reason, it must not be for me to sit back and have my mouth shut when stuff is going wrong and when people are being hurt, and when people are being oppressed. If I can do something about that and shut some white folks down and put more black people and more people of color in power, I’m going to do that, and that’s what the passion. The passion is, my ancestors came this far. If this is where I’m at, how can I take that baton that they’ve passed to me and keep running and pass it to the next person?

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, who are some of the mentors and colleagues that have really helped you get to this place in your career?

Terresa Moses:
Well, it’s funny that I mentioned Antonette because I really appreciate her work, especially when I was looking into AIGA, I know she’s not a part of it now and good, but when I was looking into these organizations and everything, she was really inspiring to me and I’ve just been very glad to have her in my life. Emory Douglas is the person that I’m always going to be like … when I first learned about Emory, it was like … I think it was in grad school because I wasn’t into graphic design, I was into fashion earlier. So in grad school, I learned about a lot of black designers, Emory was somebody who I really admired because I was like, that is a perfect example of taking a passion about community and a passion for organizing and activism, and using design directly to relate to that. So Emory Douglas is definitely somebody who I look up to. Someone who I brought to campus. Someone who I met. Who I have had conversations with, who I keep in touch with. That is just an awesome relationship to have. Absolutely.

Terresa Moses:
Then there are also other people like on my campus, who look out for me, that I consider mentors of mine, that I check in with who are not just like helping me with my tenure dossier and saying, “Oh, girl, don’t do this, do that.” There’s a lot of people on that campus who are doing some amazing things for me, and I really appreciate that. Then, I probably … the number one person in my life, who I look up to, would be my mom. She is an amazing individual. She had gone through so much and now, looking back at like all the stuff that was going on in childhood and you don’t really notice all of the things that are happening until you’re like outside of it and you’re like, “Mom, what was this?” Realizing all that stuff. So she just continues to inspire me every day, that I think about, some of the things that she had us through and really was like protecting us. So I just thank her for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing or do you see yourself doing at that point?

Terresa Moses:
Man, I think this question, I had to think about it in a way like … it’s like, am I thinking wildest dream or am I thinking, practicality? Practicality, I would probably still be an educator, maybe I might be thinking about education in a different frame? Is it in higher education? Is it maybe my own institution that I’ve created? Maybe it’s something like that. I don’t know. Maybe in my dreams, I would be working for some organization or maybe I’d create some organization that centers black liberation in everything that it does. I am helping to transform and bring about black artists and designers, giving them what they need to organize and create policy shifts and things like that for our community.

Terresa Moses:
I feel like there’s organizations who might do some of those things. So maybe it’s just like a need to collaborate those organizations or bring them together in some way using design. I don’t know. I mean, that’s what I see my focus being, is really, again, shifting from here … because I still think I’m still teaching white folks. I think that’s still the thing that I’m doing, especially in higher ed but in five years, can I really be focused on black liberation and black liberation only? That would be my dreams.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and all your projects and everything online?

Terresa Moses:
Sure. So folks can find more about me at my website, terresamoses.com. They can also find me on social media, at my personal addresses, which is at Project Naptural or they can find my studio at Blackbird Revolt, which is doing some amazing things in community. So that’s where folks can find me. If you go to any one of those sites, you’ll be able to link to anything and find me at all places.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll make sure that we have links in the show notes too for umbra, as well as for Project Naptural also.

Terresa Moses:
Awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
Cool. Well, Teresa Moses, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. As I mentioned, before, we started recording, several folks who we’ve had on the show have been like, “You got to get her on the show. You got to get her on the show,” and I’ve heard you speak at several events before and I was like, I got to get her on the show. So I’m glad for that one, to make sure that you’re on the show to share your story, but I mean, you are doing so much. I mean, I think when I think of who is a catalyst in the community that’s really like making things happen, like talking the talk and walking the walk. It’s you. It’s you. I mean.

Terresa Moses:
That’s so nice. My love language is words of affirmation, so you’re just hitting all the right spots right now, Maurice. Thank you for the affirmation.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I mean, I think … I hope that our audience can engage with your work and find a way to support you and really kind of help you move closer to this goal around making sure that designers are using their gifts for black liberation because that’s the goal, that’s what you are putting all of your energy and time forward to, to make sure that that happens. So I hope that one day soon that that happens and that this interview is just a stepping stone to make that happen, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Terresa Moses:
Awesome. Thank you so much for having me Maurice. It was a pleasure.

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We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

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Dawn Okoro

I discover new guests for Revision Path in the most interesting ways. Take this week’s guest — artist Dawn Okoro, for example. I learned about her work from the back of a bottle of LIFEWTR! Talk about refreshing! (And I don’t mean the water.)

Dawn gave an update on how 2021 has been going, including becoming a full-time artist and working on a new set of drawings using a surprising material — Kool-Aid. We talked a bit about one of Dawn’s past exhibits, “Burden of Respectability”, how she’s been connecting with a new audience over social media, and spoke on some of her artistic inspirations. It’s amazing that artists like Dawn can share their work with the world in all kinds of ways!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Dawn Okoro:
My name is Dawn Okoro, and I’m an artist. Most of my art has been painting. I paint people, mostly Black women in bright vivid colors. And I also, really influence a lot by fashion. So I like to incorporate fashion into my art and just have fashion as art, and I also do some video work as well as art. So I like to experiment with different mediums of art.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has the year been going for you so far? How’s 2021 been?

Dawn Okoro:
2021 was currently a year of transition for me. When it comes to art last year for me in 2020, things just got really busy, things were slow when the pandemic first hit, but then things got busier with some different projects coming up and then I’ve been able to reach more people in the past year and I’ve sold a lot more paintings than before. And so, I left my day job that I’ve been working for nine years and just focusing on art full time. And yeah, a lot of things are changing for me in 2021.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations on leaving the job and becoming a full-time artist.

Dawn Okoro:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you want to try to accomplish before the end of the year? I mean, it sounds like it’s been going pretty well so far.

Dawn Okoro:
Really the biggest thing that I’d like to accomplish is just finish a couple of projects that I have going on. One of the changes that happened for me this year is that I signed with… well, I started working with a couple of galleries where they represent my work, and one of the galleries that I signed with is based in London. They also have a gallery in LA.

Dawn Okoro:
Next year I’m going to have a solo show with them at their London location, but I need to get all those works finished as soon as possible, or, well, probably won’t be till the end of the year, but my goal is to get all those pieces finished and then I can breathe a sigh of relief.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. London is really nice, I need to get back to London when all this pandemic stuff is over with. But no, that’s great. I mean, so you just got the representation this year, you just became represented?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. This year, the gallery in London called Maddox Gallery, and then there’s also a gallery in Seattle called Koplin Del Rio, which I have a solo show with them right now of some small drawings that made with the Kool-Aid this summer.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. I saw on Instagram, this new drawing you’re doing called Red 40 with Kool-Aid. That’s really cool.

Dawn Okoro:
Thanks. Yeah, it’s been fun to work with. I just figured… thinking about… just over the past year, how I’ve been reaching more towards things that are comforting and I was trying to think of a way to incorporate that into my art. And for me, Kool-Aid is something that we grew up having with, I don’t know, probably most meals growing up here in Lubbock, Texas.

Dawn Okoro:
Is something, I guess once I moved out of the house, it’s not something that I just sit and make, but I guess you could say just the smell of it just brings back a nostalgic feeling. And so I got several packets of different colors and decided, well, why don’t I try to use that as a watercolor. And so I experimented with that a few months ago and it’s interesting.

Dawn Okoro:
It doesn’t really act like watercolor, it’s definitely different, but it’s interesting and you can really play with the textures and the powder as well, so you end up doing a whole series of those drawings.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious. Does it smell?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Well, it smells, when you first open up the packet, of course, the powder gets under your nose and it’s strong, and then… but then when I paint with it… I do the drawings in color pencil, but then I painted the Kool-Aid on and around the drawing. And so when I paint with the Kool-Aid, I mix it with water and depending on how much water you mix it with it, that’ll determine how dark it is.

Dawn Okoro:
So I did a few of these with the Kool-Aid, and then I came into my studio the next day and you could really smell the Kool-Aid strong. I like the way Kool-Aid smells, if my mother is making it, before a meal and we’re having it with a meal, but to have the smell of the powder just in the studio was just like, “Ah, it’s too much.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dawn Okoro:
But what I do to protect the drawing is I spray it with an acrylic coating, and once I spray that, then you can’t smell it anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was just thinking, I was like, I wonder if that holds up over transport, will people try to get close to try to smell the Kool-Aid or something. But no, that’s really interesting.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. That’s unfortunately.

Maurice Cherry:
So what do your days look like now that you’re a full-time artist?

Dawn Okoro:
Well, first I’ll tell you what my days looked like before. So, I had my job that I would go to, it’s about at least nine hours a day to do that. So when it came to my art, I just had to find a way to just fit it around that no matter what I had going on. So, I would work and then ideally come home and then get right to work on my painting, which ideally maybe for a few hours, that didn’t always happen, of course.

Dawn Okoro:
And then, sometimes if I have a big project coming up, I would take a vacation from my day job to then go work on art. It was just really hard to balance it, especially if I had a really big project where it involved a lot of painting, and I just really wanted to just dedicate that time to making my art.

Dawn Okoro:
So now that I’m able to focus on my art, I will say that those hours that I’ve worked in my day job, those immediately got filled up with plenty to do, it still feels like there aren’t enough hours in a day. But my days look like… I get up, make some coffee, on the perfect day I would get up and maybe work out for 30 minutes, which for me might mean skateboarding or go for a walk or something. And then when I get home shower, freshen up and then get into the art studio.

Dawn Okoro:
So when I’m in the studio, I try to divide my days up so that I have at least a couple days a week where I deal with business related stuff, that is not making art. And then I try to have at least three days a week where I just focus on actually making stuff. It doesn’t always work out that way, but just spend my day in the studio, either by computer doing paperwork or doing stuff like that, or working on a canvas or a drawing, but definitely much happier now for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I can imagine trying to juggle a full-time job while also having these side responsibilities is always tough balance because… I mean, you would hope that you land at a job that understands that outside of work you’re a totally different person, you have your own other things that you have to do. Well, did you find that your job was sympathetic to that?

Dawn Okoro:
My bosses were sympathetic to that, but at the same time there’s really not much they could really do, not much they could really to help because the way I felt I wish that… I don’t know, I wish I could maybe… I don’t know, have a schedule like the 4/10s or just a schedule where you have more days off or something. I don’t know. But they weren’t able to do that at least in my department.

Dawn Okoro:
They were sympathetic and they, I guess supported me as an artist, but that’s about… but there’s really not much they could do because it’s just a big corporate job and you just have to work with whatever they provide. So

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And you were working at a news station, right?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I was a journalist. At that station I was a… well, I was a producer for several years there, but that was really stressful because you’re the producer that handles writing for the shows, when the anchor comes on and talks and then you also have to sit in the booth and booth the show too. And to me that’s nerve ranking when you have live shots and just so many moving parts and things can go wrong.

Dawn Okoro:
And I think that I probably wasn’t best suited for that position, in the first place is because I get so anxious, but I really hated that part of the job. There were some good things about being a TV news producer, but eventually there was an opportunity to join the web team, so I jumped on that and I was definitely a lot happier, at least that was more tolerable to work on the web team because the pace is different.

Dawn Okoro:
A story breaks, so you get all the information and you post it, and then you do updates and that’s pretty much all you can really do on that, and post on social media. So I definitely enjoyed that better, but still I wanted to have those hours for myself and my art.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And again congratulations, I see you’re making that jump. I know, we’re recording this right now at a time where there’s this big thing going on, at least what the media is calling, the great resignation of people deciding they’re going to leave their jobs and pursue other things.

Maurice Cherry:
And not saying that what you’re doing is wrapped up in that, but I think it certainly speaks to this overall wave right now of people discovering there’s more out there than just a 9:00 to 5:00, you’d have the permission and the capacity to pursue your passions which is great for anyone that has an artistic soul like that.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. And I definitely agree with that and I think being able to work… a lot of people that weren’t allowed to work from home were suddenly allowed to work from home. And I think that made a difference as well. At my job we worked in an office, and me as their producer or web producer or digital, whatever you want to call it, I really didn’t have any need to physically be in the office.

Dawn Okoro:
And before the pandemic, some of us were like, “Hey, could we work from home?” Or at least have just some days a week where we could work from home, and the company is like, “No.” And then the pandemic happens and then they allowed, suddenly pretty much everyone was allowed to work from home unless if you’re the anchor in the studio, that’s hard to do from home.

Dawn Okoro:
So they had to have some people in the control room and all that, but this whole time I was able to work from home and that was nice just to… even if I had to focus on my day job from home, it was nice just to at least be near my art. So as soon as I was done working, then I could just… well, I’m already here, at least I don’t have to go through the commute and all that.

Dawn Okoro:
But then I heard… this isn’t why I quit, but shortly after I quit I learned that, I think starting soon everybody that was working from home, get ready to get back in the office. And I was like, “Oh God, I’m so glad that I’m not there anymore because I would not want to have to go back to the office every single day.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. To get back to your artwork again, you mentioned earlier, you’re working across a bunch of different medium in terms of inspiration. Some of it is fashion based, some of it is more fine arts based like you mentioned with this painting, how do you approach creating a new piece of art? Where does that start?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah, it starts off with just how do I feel from there? What work do I want to create? Or what is it for? And usually that’s going to be I want to do some paintings or I want to do a painting and then I paint people. So then from there it’s, who will I paint?

Dawn Okoro:
A lot during the past year and a half, I’ve been doing self portraits because that’s just been a lot easier during the pandemic, and I’ve just slowly started to get back into having people photograph for me so that I can use that image as a reference. So then it’s just deciding, who will I paint? What will this painting look like? How do I want people to feel?

Dawn Okoro:
And then I photograph the person and then I will later go look at the photographs, from there I decide. I look and see what touches me the most emotionally, and then I use that, that image is the reference image, so then I get painting. The colors are also very feeling based, based on this person, what are they wearing? Then I just go from there. And then when it’s finished, I hope that I create something that can move people in some way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I saw from looking at, like I said, some of the past work that you’ve done, and even looking at the process around it, it seems like it’s collaborative in that way. You are working with a model or working with someone to conjure up the emotion that you want to eventually put forth in the piece.

Dawn Okoro:
Yes. I like to be able to capture the essence of the person that’s modeling whenever I’m… well, at least lately the past few years, whenever I’m going to bring someone in to shoot reference photos with, I’ll tell them just wear whatever you want to wear, or you can bring a couple of outfits if you want. And then when they get here, then I’ll see what they’re wearing and so it’s a surprise for me.

Dawn Okoro:
And so, some people it might be t-shirt and jeans, others might have more of an elaborate type of get up. It’s fun for me to be surprised by what they’re wearing, and then just for me to just spin off from that.

Maurice Cherry:
I saw, I think it was your Punk Noir exhibit where you also had a band there. So it’s exhibiting your work, but then you also have this live media component too.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. So the Punk Noir show started here in Austin. I was thinking, okay, so when they said, “Okay, you can do a solo show here. What do you want to do?” And at that time I was just really just getting back into being an artist again. And through that process, I was starting to meet more artists around town, some of them who didn’t even live here maybe a few years ago, but I was just starting to get more involved and meet other creatives.

Dawn Okoro:
And I just wanted to just capture a snapshot of the way things felt here in Austin at that time for me and the Black creative community. So for the show I wanted to paint these life size portraits of people, the Black people that have a punk spirit, and then I envisioned at least for the opening, you have a Black fronted punk band there and just really making an immersive night.

Dawn Okoro:
And so it really was like I was saying, it was probably about 400 people at the opening and you’ve got lots of video and everyone moshed into the punk band, and the part where the paintings were, I guess that’s… I was a few steps away from where the band performed, but you could hear it coming into the gallery area. So that was such a good experience, I wanted to recreate that.

Dawn Okoro:
So I had some opportunities to show… and a few other locations around that time. So I was like, “Well, let me bring Punk Noir to these locations. So I was able to do the show in Dallas, and there I was able to have a band as well. In Dallas, I had Wanz Dover, and then in Austin Blaxploitation was the band.

Dawn Okoro:
But the thing is this all takes funding. So I had another version of Punk Noir show in San Antonio, Texas, and also in Seattle. But I wasn’t able to bring the bands to those, unfortunately, because the beach didn’t have the funding and resources there.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when you’re thinking about creating these exhibits, do you always want to have that, I guess, live component to it? Or was it just specific for that one?

Dawn Okoro:
I would say it’s specific to that one, but that was so fun that in the future, when I’m able to, again, I could definitely see myself doing that again, but it just all comes down to having the support to be able to do that. But I would definitely do something like that again.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would think some London musicians in the show that would be dope.

Dawn Okoro:
That would be awesome. Yeah. I have to see about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re originally from Texas. You also are currently… I mean, you live in Texas now too. Tell me about what it was like growing up there.

Dawn Okoro:
So Texas it’s a very big state, very vast, different areas are different from each other. So I live in Austin now, which is the capital of Texas. Austin is a very… well Texas is a red state, very conservative. Austin is a very blue area. I guess the major cities are blue, but then the rest of Texas is rural and very red.

Dawn Okoro:
I grew up in Lubbock, Texas, which is about… it’s in what we call the Texas panhandle, but it’s up north, in the panhandle part that sticks out in Texas. And it’s about a six hour drive from Austin. Lubbock is a lot different from Austin and it’s very flat, very conservative, and now I guess it’s Trump country. Austin is very white, Lubbock it’s very white to.

Dawn Okoro:
I guess it just has such a conservative attitude overall. I think a lot of my upbringing was influenced by that and I just wanted to just get away as soon as I could, because I was already someone that… because of just how I am, very introverted, very shy, I think that didn’t help, but I just didn’t feel like I fit in really anywhere. So I just got out of Lubbock as soon as I could.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that feeling, I grew up in a small town in Alabama and two weeks after I graduated, I was out, I was like, “I’m done.”

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
“This was fun. Thanks. I’m out.” Yeah.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. But I hear you. I hear you. So I moved to Austin for college. I’m so really glad that I did, just to see something else, even if Austin was not a huge city or anything, it was just good to just experience something else.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Were you exposed to a lot of art and everything growing up in Lubbock? Was there an art scene there?

Dawn Okoro:
I don’t know if there was an art scene really. I mean, as far as art, the only museum that I went to was… we have Texas Tech in Lubbock. So I would go to the Texas Tech museum whenever we go for a field trip at school. But other than that, yeah, that’s pretty much. That’s pretty much it. I mean, Lubbock at that time may have had a few, maybe a few galleries, but I will say one memory I have is being in high school and I’m not sure how I met this artist, but I met an artist who was a… he was an older Hispanic artist who had a studio in downtown Lubbock, but not far from my high school.

Dawn Okoro:
And I remember I visited there one time and he had all his artwork up and he was working on stuff in his studio, and that was really inspiring for me, even though at that time I still didn’t feel like for sure I could be a successful artist, but now looking back, that’s a good memory, one of the rare times that I got to be around someone that had an art studio there in Lubbock.

Maurice Cherry:
And now once you left and went to University of Texas in Austin, I mean, was that a big culture shift?

Dawn Okoro:
Not really. Given the timing, being 18 and finally moving off on my own, I think it was just a shift in my life of just learning how to just be an adult, but I’m glad that I got to spend those years in Austin as opposed to Lubbock. But mainly pretty much I kept myself confined to campus, than here in Austin, we have the entertainment area, it’s called Sixth Street.

Dawn Okoro:
So I would go to Sixth Street with some of my classmates and all that, but it wasn’t too much of a culture change because Austin was at the time especially, it was more of a just a sleepy college town. So it was a good place to start off, I guess, although we didn’t love it.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your time like there at UT?

Dawn Okoro:
Looking back, I wish, I hate to say it should, could, or would, but I wish that I had taken advantage of the resources that they would have for someone that wants to be an artist. I knew when I initially started going to college, I knew that I wanted to be an artist or something creative, but I was like, “Nah, I’ll just put that off till later.” And expectations of myself and expectations from family, it was pretty much expected that I would be a doctor, or a lawyer, or engineer or something like that.

Dawn Okoro:
And so I was like, “Well, I couldn’t do that all. I’ll just pick another major that sounds legit.” And I picked psychology and then I minored in fashion design. I took a whole lot of fashion design classes, the most fun on the fashion design side of things.

Dawn Okoro:
So I don’t know, I just feel like, I wish… if I could go back and change things, I probably would’ve just maybe study art and fashion design instead, but I would just not as focused on what I would do as so much so as some other people I know that knew what they wanted to do, had everything lined up, had their internships and then a job or something right out of college. But that wasn’t me.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, I think we all have… there’s non-traditional path to get into the arts or into design or things like that. But I see what you mean about looking back at college and wishing or wondering if you pursued things in a different manner where you might be now.

Maurice Cherry:
For example, I’m a designer, I also work as a strategist, but in undergrad I majored in math. Now I love math, don’t get me wrong. I was a huge math nerd in high school, I was captain of the math, mathletes and everything. But I wanted to… I was also a writer, I wrote all through grade school or whatever. And I remember wanting to go off to college and major in English and my mom was like, “Nope, Mm-mm (negative) you need to major in something that’s going to make some money.”

Maurice Cherry:
And she knew that I was into computers and everything. And so initially I started off doing computer engineering, computer science, and then I didn’t like that for a semester, and then switched over to math. Now the school that I went to, didn’t have an arts program, really. It had an art class and you could take some of the… if you wanted to pursue art, I think you could take some of them at a nearby college.

Maurice Cherry:
So I went to Morehouse, but you could take art classes at Spelman, because Spelman had, or they still have, I should say, a museum, but they have a very rigorous art program. If you wanted to pursue that, you could just take all your classes at Spelman. And I didn’t even really think about that because I knew that if I did that, I would lose my scholarship because my scholarship was in STEM fields.

Maurice Cherry:
And so math was the compromise for me because I really liked math, and I mean, truth be told there actually is a good bit of design in math when you’re drawing and doing 3d curves and stuff, but I didn’t really get to that until much later in the major. But I do wonder sometimes if I would’ve just pursued art and went that way, what would be different? I don’t begrudge the path that I’ve taken now, but I do wonder, would that be different in that way?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Same here. Same here because I feel like as someone that’s mostly a painter… at some point I felt like, and I felt the vibe I was getting is that an MFA is so important and you’re expected to have an MFA, and by that time I’d already… I didn’t have money to get an MFA because I had already bounced on my loans on these other side.

Dawn Okoro:
And so that wasn’t going to happen. But over time, I’m seeing there are very few things that I want to do where not having an MFA is a barrier to that. So I’m glad that at least the experiences that I have, had in my career just help make me who I am and I’m able to still continue forward in doing what I want to do with art.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, continuing along the education path, later you ended up going to law school also. Was that part of your interest back then?

Dawn Okoro:
No, it was never my interest. It was more so, in college I majored in psychology, just buying my time, because I don’t know, I guess… well, at some point I was pre-med in my undergrad and then I started taking those chemistry classes and I was like, “Okay, this isn’t going to work.” So I got my psychology degree.

Dawn Okoro:
And then after that it was like, “Okay, so now I have my bachelor’s degree. I know I want to be self creative, but for now I need to have something going on in my life, or I don’t have a career or anything.” And so I was like, “Okay, well, I’ll just go to law school, you just take the LSAT and you can go to law school with any degree.” And so I was like, “Okay, I’ll just do that.”

Dawn Okoro:
So basically I applied, I was like, “Okay, I’ll just take the LSAT, apply to one school and leave it at that. I got that down, I’ll get in.” And then I applied, then got the acceptance letter, crap. So I got the acceptance letter and I was like, “just oh, crap. I just cannot do this. I wanted to be an artist.”

Dawn Okoro:
So I wrote the school and asked them if they could defer my acceptance. They said, “Okay, we can defer it for a year.” And so I was like, “Okay, I’ll take that year to just finally make myself successful as an artist and then I don’t need to go to law school.” So that year I really did work on my art and that’s when I really started pursuing it professionally.

Dawn Okoro:
That’s when I just put on my own art show and it did go well considering, but then the year went by and my expectations were not realistic either, but I still wasn’t able to make a living from arts, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll just go ahead and go to law school.” And that’s what I did, I was like, “Well, let me just do that so I can just become a lawyer and then I’ll just be an artist on the side.”

Dawn Okoro:
So in law school, I mean, law school is very demanding, especially if it’s not your passion to be a lawyer, I think that makes it harder and less fun to do. I mean, it is interesting and you’ll learn somethings, and that was a cool experience, and I met some good people that I’m still in touch with, but law school itself, I mean, it was just not the most fun experience, but there is something about going to law school that was a positive impact on my art.

Dawn Okoro:
Going to law school, I went to Texas Southern in Houston, and Houston at the time, I felt like Houston had a really vibrant art scene, more than Austin, I guess. The Houston art scene was, I don’t know, it’s more culturally rich and there were just stronger representation of Black artists and artists of color being seen and shown. And so there, I was able to get involved in the art scene and I was showing my work there and I met a couple artists who are still mentors for me today.

Dawn Okoro:
So the best part about law school was just, I guess it made me move to Houston temporarily, but I graduated from law school and at that time I was just like, “Okay, I know want to do this time, I have nothing to lose.” And so I just decided at that time, I’m not going to pursue law, I’m just going to now be an artist.

Dawn Okoro:
So right after I graduated from law school, me along with my boyfriend, we just moved to New York. We didn’t really have anything to lose. That was an interesting experience too, but we did end up back in Texas and that’s when I ended up becoming a journalist for many years. So it’s a rollercoaster doing art and then stopping art, doing art, stopping art.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m curious, and this feeds into my next question, but do you feel like once you went through this, went through law school and being in Houston, do you feel like this gave you permission now to be an artist?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah, I do. Especially at that time, because I mean, after just going through law school, I figure, okay, at least I did it, I finished, hopefully my family will be proud of that. But now it’s like, okay, at this point I’m 29 years old. I was just like, okay, now I’m just going to do my own thing, which is art. But then I just felt like, well, I’m just still not getting to where I want to be fast, that’s how I felt at that time.

Dawn Okoro:
Now looking back, I should have had more patience. But I just decided, okay, well, I just want to get my life together and just harsh some stability. So that’s when I got a job as a journalist and then just… and that was after moving back from New York. And so I was feeling discouraged being back in Texas.

Dawn Okoro:
And let me tell you when I lived in New York, we ended up having to come back to Texas. It was just a bad time to really move to New York, economic recession and all that. But coming back to Texas it meant I move right back to Lubbock, at least for a while. So that was a huge culture shift going from New York to Lubbock, where my life just felt like it came to a screeching halt.

Dawn Okoro:
And so we were just really upset about it and we’re depressed at the time, and I was just like, “I’m just going to give up on art, and I just focus on my journalism career.” And I started doing more in that. And there was some good times working as a journalist and somethings I enjoyed, and yeah, and so I was just focusing on my 9:00 tO 5:00. And then when I would get off of work, instead of making art, then it’s like, “Okay, I have the free time to just chill and decompress or whatever.”

Dawn Okoro:
But over time I just realized I was just going through the motions and just watching my life pass me by and I wasn’t really happy. And that’s when I decided, okay, I need to get back into art and just continue to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And like you’re saying, it sounds like this also took place right around the time you were leaving your 20s, entering your 30s, wondering is this right? Is this the path that I’m supposed to be taking?

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly. It was just like, “Okay, damn, I’m 30, what do I…” And it’s easier for me to look at it differently now, yeah I was just feeling frantic and I just didn’t have, I guess a career really and all that. And so I was just trying to just get some, at least some financial stability, which we were at that time just working and just building up.

Dawn Okoro:
I can’t really say that, that was not the right way to go about things, I could have gone about it differently, but it’s nice just to have at least your basic needs taken care of and then it’s you easier for me to be creative?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The reason that I was saying that this might feed into my next question is because I wanted to ask you about this solo exhibition that you did last year called Burden of Respectabilit, because as you’ve described all of this, the word respectability or the concept of respectability politics popped into my head. And I’m wondering as you did the solo exhibition, did that conjure up these past feelings of feeling like you had to go along this certain path in your life and in your career, instead of becoming an artist earlier on?

Dawn Okoro:
When I was putting together that show, I don’t remember thinking specifically about my situation with my path to being an artist. But now that you say that, deep down, that probably had some impact on that. I mean, I was thinking about myself and just Black people in America in general, how you’re just in some segments, I guess, of society you’re expected to act or behave a certain way so that you can show that you’re good, you’re one of the good ones.

Dawn Okoro:
So when I did this show, and this was this fall of 2020, so we had the pandemic, I had an opportunity to do a show in a window, so it would just be a window display. So I thought, okay, that’s a great idea with the pandemic, anyone could just come by and see the work without having to be close to anybody or even go indoors. And I always love seeing the window displays in New York, like on fifth avenue and all that.

Dawn Okoro:
And just watching how that as an art in itself doing a merchandising display, so I figured I wanted to do something like that with my art. And so I’d been wearing these head pieces because I just like them for fashion, and so I decided to make some head pieces that would sit on top of mannequin heads for the display and then they would also be lighting where there’d be a purple light that shines on the mannequins and then splashes onto the background.

Dawn Okoro:
So I made these head chains, well out of copper chains, and then I used different gemstones and they were heavy. So when I finished each head piece and then each head piece was heavy, and so it weighs down on the mannequins head, but that’s to show that the weight of that Burden of Respectability. And so just trying to show the weight, but also trying to praise something that’s aesthetically appealing to who ever might be walking by and viewing that window.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it’s a strong metaphor. I mean, I think historically when people think about… to give you a sense, we’ll put a link to it in the show notes, so people can see the window and see what I’m talking about. But it’s these heads on pikes, essentially, which historically have meant a warning in a way.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So when I was looking at the images, I’m thinking, oh, this is an Oman, the Burden of Respectability is you end up like this.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I had to think, okay, how will I display these head pieces? And so I got these styrofoam heads and they’re really light weight and I painted them black. And then on some of the faces of the heads I put bits of copper leaf over the eyes and things like that. Yeah. The thing I had to display on was this metal pole or steak and then, the styrofoam is so lightweight that you can just smash the styrofoam on there.

Dawn Okoro:
And I noticed when I did that it looked like a chopped off head that’s just dangling there. So yeah, I could definitely see where you’re coming from on that.

Maurice Cherry:
And now those head pieces that you were creating, are those similar to the one that you wear now? The one that I’ve seen in recent photos?

Dawn Okoro:
The one that I’ve been wearing in most photos is one that I bought a while back, and I liked it so much, I decided I wanted to start making my own, which I still have some more ideas that I want to work on. But I use this headpiece as a pattern, just how the crown is made, and so I make something similar and then I looped the metal on in a similar way. But then from there I could play with how much chain or how long, or if you want to attach any other materials and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The ones that you’re wearing, I love those. It gives a very rockstar feel to your image. I don’t know, I was describing it to a friend of mine earlier. I was like, “It’s like a medieval circlet, but then it’s also giving me Rick James.” I love it. It’s great.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I put on, I was like, “I like this.” And it end up becoming… it’s like my wig. I had it on today. I didn’t know if this… I thought this was going to be on video, so I had it ready for you.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, we’ll have your image for the cover art, so people can see that.

Dawn Okoro:
Okay, cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Speaking to what we were talking about before, and I’ve mentioned this before we started recording. I love that you really use social media to give a glimpse into just your artistic world. You’re on Twitter, you’re on Instagram, you’re on TikTok, which I’ve recently been getting into TikTok. That’s a very interesting place, TikTok.

Maurice Cherry:
And then of course, YouTube, you have a series that you have called Life in Art, where you have all these videos, there’s a video of your first museum solo show, there’s a recent video you did around anxiety and being an artist. How does social media really help out with what you do?

Dawn Okoro:
Well, for me, social media has been a huge help, even going way back to before I went to law school. Back then my space was the thing, and so I would get out of my space, post my artwork. And even with that… I guess maybe my space wasn’t as bad at that time with algorithms and all that. I’m thinking the reach was probably more organic because it was just easier to… I don’t know, it seemed like it was easier to meet other people through that platform, especially meeting other artists.

Dawn Okoro:
And even back then on my space, I was meeting collectors, other artists who became mentors, curators, and then looking at present day, I do post on Instagram a lot. That’s really my main one because it’s the more visual one I guess, good for posting photos, I guess.

Dawn Okoro:
But when I did my Punk Noir show, the first version of it in Austin, I started just documenting the process, about six months before, not every day, but several days a week, just post, here’s what I’m working on today, here’s what’s going on now, or here’s this challenge that I’m going through.

Dawn Okoro:
But then six months later, then when the show opened up, a lot of people had been following that whole process and they felt… I guess they felt like, okay, they felt that they were with me in a way. And I’ve heard some collectors say that they really enjoyed just seeing the process of me making a specific painting.

Dawn Okoro:
And also just when I show what I have going on, other artists can see what I’m doing and what I’m dealing with, and they can relate and helps them feel less alone as well. But really even still today, Instagram is where I still meet collectors, curators, people that run museums or that run galleries. The initial connection might be Instagram, they have an account too, and they’re following and they’re like, “I like this person.”

Dawn Okoro:
And so maybe they may reach out through a DM or through email, but it’s still been a great way to just meet people in the world that are interested in my art.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know that there are certainly listeners that have written us and have asked like, “We want to see from more people that are using, I think, more social platforms.” And that’s not to say that Instagram is not a social platform, it totally is. But I’m really intrigued by how you use TikTok.

Maurice Cherry:
Because like I alluded to, it is a very interesting platform. I just started really exploring it. I don’t know, maybe about a month or so ago. There’s a spirit about TikTok that reminds me very much of the early, early, early web, late 90s, early 2000s, where it’s unfettered in terms of what you can talk about and everything, but in the same vein, it’s also weirdly regulated.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, of course heavily so in terms of certain things you would mention in terms of topics. But I’ll hear about people getting banned if their account reaches a certain amount of followers and they have to start a second account or a third account, and I don’t really understand the… it seems very volatile as a platform.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I mean, the account I have now is my second account, because the first account I started, I guess maybe a year and a half ago when you initially registered, you can use your Instagram account as your registration, so I’m like, “That’s easy, I’ll do that.” And then I joined and I didn’t really use it that much, and then more recently I started wanting to use it again, but they said, “Oh, sorry, we don’t work with Instagram anymore, so if you registered through that, then you’re just screwed and you lost your username and everything.” And so-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Dawn Okoro:
Okay. And then I’ve been having trouble trying to get that fixed. So yeah, I just started another account. And so I’ve just been posting from that. So, with TikTok, I gave it a try because it seems like it’s… not that I want to go viral or anything, but it seems like it’s easier to go viral on TikTok or just… it’s easier to just randomly get a lot of views for a post, whereas opposed to others like Instagram or Twitter, is just so buried in the algorithm that’s so hard just for anyone to even see the post, with TikTok, it’s just more random like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. TikTok is a lot buzzier in that respect. Even your For You page, to me it’s very much akin to… as I’m scrolling on my phone, it feels like I’m channel surfing with a remote. You just go from video to video, here’s the next one, here’s the next one, here’s the next one. And of course the algorithm changes up, so you may be watching cleaning videos and then all of a sudden now it’s on thirst traps, and then now of a sudden it’s doing poor extractions.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know, my For You page is all over the place, because you will like a video and then I guess the algorithm thinks, oh, well you must want to see more of this. I’m like, “Not really.”

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
But I liked that video, not all of these other videos.

Dawn Okoro:
I have a hard time… I’ve been using TikTok because I feel like, well, let me at least be on there and see what happens. But yeah, I have a hard time consuming on TikTok because yeah, it’s just too much for me because I mean, you need to have the sound on and then… it’s a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dawn Okoro:
It feel just like, “Okay, just shut up.”

Maurice Cherry:
And then talking about their regulation, sometimes you’ll make a video and then the sound, TikTok will decide to just mute the sound. So okay, so now your video’s up, but it doesn’t have sound, and what it seems to be like, I don’t know, I mean, I’ve been on the web for 20 plus years, so I’ve seen bad comments.

Maurice Cherry:
TikTok has the worst comment section I have ever seen anywhere across any platform, probably similar to 4chan in terms of how much people try to get a rise out of you. Because what I see from TikTok is certainly you have people that are creating videos, but then you have an equal amount of people creating reactions to bad comment videos.

Dawn Okoro:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Someone will leave some really shitty comment, and then now the response to that has gone viral, and it seems like going viral on TikTok is a nightmare because of course, that video will get shared out on other platforms and stuff like that and just invites all kind of stuff. But TikTok is a very interesting place. I’m strictly a consumer, I don’t know if I want to put anything on TikTok. I’ll just watch it.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. We’ll see. I’ll post occasionally, I’ll post some of my art process videos. But one day, a few months ago I was like, “Let me…” I’ve got a new pair of Jordan 6, I was like, “Let me post it on TikTok.” And that did better than any of my art videos. So I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s weird about the stuff that will go viral. It’s hard to predict that. On that concept around exposure, I think we’re starting to see a lot more Black fine artists and their work being exhibited to the mainstream, I’d say probably over the past decade or so.

Maurice Cherry:
We’ve got Kehinde Wiley who did Barack Obama’s official portrait that’s in the national portrait gallery, Amy Sherald also did Michelle Obama’s portrait that’s in the national portrait gallery. You’ve got of course, a lot more Black run television shows and movies and things like that, that are also utilizing the work of Black artists.

Maurice Cherry:
The one that sticks out to me, just off the top of my head is Lina. I think her name is Lina Viktor Iris, who did all this intricate gold work stuff that Kendrick Lamar used in his video with SZA. This was years and years ago.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But we’re also seeing television shows like Empire did a lot with showcasing Black artists. Your art has even been shown on a television show on the First Wives Club on BET. What do you think about that kind of exposure? Does it really help you out as an artist?

Dawn Okoro:
I don’t know. I did have some of my work in a scene on the First Wife’s Club initially. I mean, that was just cool to just have that happen. It’s cool to see your work on a show. As far as exposure from that, I don’t know, I definitely… because honestly I didn’t get credit for it as far as… I don’t get a credit at the end of the show or anything, so there’s really no… my art was not mentioned in the script or anything, so really for a viewer, they wouldn’t have no idea whose art it was if I hadn’t posted about it on my social media.

Dawn Okoro:
So, I don’t know if in my situation, if it helped with exposure. I don’t know if it had been something different, if it would’ve helped. I have something coming up for another project in the future where my art will be on something again. But this will be with an… this will be a movie through Sony. I don’t know, with that we’ll know again, if it provide any exposure for me or if this was just decoration for the background.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I don’t know. I definitely don’t. I don’t think I’ve gotten any direct exposure or opportunities from that. So I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s different for other artists, but I can just say hopefully in those situations, the artists is always treated fairly. Because you mentioned the Black Panther situation. I don’t have all the facts in front of me, but I remember reading a while back, the artist was asked to, like, “Hey, could we use your visuals for this?”

Dawn Okoro:
And I think she was open to them, but I’m not sure that the negotiations was it wasn’t… I guess the terms weren’t what she wanted so she said no. And then, so they decided just to go ahead and have another artist make work just as similar to hers and just use it anyway. And I think she filed a lawsuit, but I don’t think she came out on top of the lawsuit. I think they said, well, it’s not the same so they can do this. So that sucked. So hopefully that doesn’t ever happened to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I’m looking at it up now and I misspoke her name earlier it’s Lina Iris Viktor, and yeah, it was Kendrick Lamar and SZA had the video that was, I think it was All the Stars, I think that was the song that was on the Black Panther soundtrack. But to point out what you said earlier around attribution, I mean, I think that’s the most important part, because you see these visuals and they’re in the background, and unless there’s something in the script or in the credits that’s like, “Artwork done by Blank.” You don’t really know unless you know the artist.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You could look at… because different artists have their own unique styles, we’ve had fine artists on the show before like Dr. Fahamu Pecou, et cetera. And so, if you know the art, then you know the style, but does the average person watching the show know that? And it’s clear that it doesn’t feel like the show has a responsibility, or maybe the movie or whatever, doesn’t have a responsibility to even illuminate that, which is pretty sad, especially from Black works.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. A while back and that was… Beverly Hills Cop came on and there was a scene where they’re in a gallery. And then I noticed in the credits of the movie they listed all the artists whose work was shown in that gallery scene. So I was like, “See that, that’s what I would rather have happened.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dawn Okoro:
But I guess it’s just really up to the artists if they’re comfortable with the terms that are presented there.

Maurice Cherry:
Because I mean certainly if a television show or something ran and the actors didn’t get any attribution, people will be raising hell. So.

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe it’s a thing where more artists need to speak up. I don’t know. I mean, I’m pointing this out as a problem that artists need to solve because clearly if the production companies and such are seeking out and using the art, then it should be up to them to then go the extra step of making sure that, that artist gets credited.

Maurice Cherry:
But I hope that more, especially from Black creatives, I hope to see more of that… I don’t even want to say reaching back, that feels weird to even say, but when I look at say Issa Rae what she’s doing with Insecure, or what other show runners are doing with other shows like that, it’s clear that representation matters, having these images matters. And that’s whether it’s the image of a person or the image of artwork.

Maurice Cherry:
It should be at least attributed so people know that it’s not just Black folks behind the scenes and Black folks that are acting, but this is Black art on the walls and these are the artists that you should know who they are and support them and stuff like that.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I definitely agree with that. That’s something that I hadn’t really thought about much. I don’t think I’ve really gotten anything directly from that. So.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want people to see when they look at your work?

Dawn Okoro:
I want people to feel inspired, I want them to see strength, I want them to see power. The other day I did… you mentioned the YouTube video I did about anxiety. Someone had made a comment that they were surprised to hear that I felt that way, because when they saw my work, they felt they saw someone that was empowered. And so I was thinking, yeah, I guess that is the case, but I mean, I always feel empowered myself, but I would like that to come through in my art.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s an article that I saw that was about… it was the same one that we’re going to link in the show notes that was regarding your Burden of Respectability exhibit. But in that article, your work is described as a pursuit to the expansion of herself. How has your work changed as you’ve grown just as a woman?

Dawn Okoro:
For me, when I initially started doing portraits when I was younger, for me and I wanted to be at least somewhat realistic, so I needed a reference image to look at. So initially I started just drawing from images and magazines, changing it to my own… changing this photo to other drawing or painting that’s in my own vision.

Dawn Okoro:
And at one point, just for example, I would go through a fashion magazine because I love looking at fashion, and I would take this painting of a photo of a White model and then make it into a whole new painting of a Black woman. And then over time I started being able to get my own reference photos and just learn how to shoot and be able to create from that.

Dawn Okoro:
So then I started just painting these portraits of different people in different colors that felt were right for the image. But then over time, giving myself permission to be an artist and this, and I think I’ve also started to give myself permission to experiment more and try new materials. As I grow, I’m going to be just trying new things and just filling out what works and what doesn’t, and just continue to evolve, for example, even using the Kool-Aid as a medium, in the past, I never would’ve thought about using a food related item as an art medium.

Dawn Okoro:
So, ultimately I just want to be able to just be somewhat playful with some of what I do, because it makes it more fun and experimentation is a very big part of growing for me.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you get your creativity back if you’re feeling uninspired?

Dawn Okoro:
So, yeah, when I’m uninspired if just sink into that and do nothing, then it just leads to more of doing nothing and then just feeling worse. So really the best thing for me to do is when I’m feeling uninspired, is to just work on something, just even if it’s small, just something low pressure, because I may not feel inspired, but then once I get into whatever I’m working on, it feels like it activates a part of my brain where I start to get a little bit more inspired, and even with what I’m working on, I may think of a new idea and try something new.

Dawn Okoro:
And then at the end of the day, I’ve worked on something, I’ve worked through this creative slump, even if I didn’t come out with a whole great brand new idea, at least I was working towards it, and so I feel better about myself overall. But sometimes it’s been easier said than done, but I’ve been better about that lately, just trying to work through those moments of low inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there any artists out there that you really like that help inspire you? And they don’t have to be visual artists? It could be any artist.

Dawn Okoro:
One of my first artists inspirations was Andy Warhol. And that’s because he’s one of the first artists I learned about when I was in high school and I was drawn to how he was, I guess, eccentric and I like the way he used color and the way that he did the solid background. So that’s initially what got me started on doing my work the way that I do.

Dawn Okoro:
Another artist that I find inspiration on or from is Wangechi Mutu, her work is so earthy. A couple of years ago she had a solo show here in Austin at a museum and she had these high heels that were covered in mud, but it was just so beautiful and so organic at the same time. So for my own art, ideally it would be cool to combine bright, unnatural colors but with also an organic look or feel as well. So yeah, those are two of my inspirations.

Maurice Cherry:
Who have been some of the mentors that have helped you out along your artistic career?

Dawn Okoro:
One of the mentors, William Cordova, he’s a visual artist. He’s really the first person from the art world that really, I guess validated me in saying, just letting me know that I don’t have to have that MFA, and then what I’m doing is good enough, as an artist I could actually do this and be taken seriously.

Dawn Okoro:
And then he introduced me to Robert Pruitt who is from Houston. Robert has been a mentor, he encouraged me early on. And then I think he moved to New York, but I think every now and then if he’ll see something good, he’ll apply for you, send it my way. And then last year he curated a show at the gallery that he works with in Seattle, Koplin Del Rio, and he brought some of my work into that show.

Dawn Okoro:
And that went really well, the work sold and the gallery was like, “You got me more.” And like, “Sure.” A sense of more. And then finally it got to where I’m working with that gallery and that’s why I have the solo show with them now. And so that’s thanks to the help of fellow artists, Robert Pruitt.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Dawn Okoro:
What am I obsessed with right now? I would say, right now I’m obsessed with this Kool-Aid, because I’m really having fun with playing with the textures, and there’s so much you can do with that to where you can make it when it dries, it still has a bumpy texture to it and a little bit of a glimmer from the chemical crystals that they put in there. And so, I still want to explore that some more and just see what else can be done with that as a medium.

Maurice Cherry:
With the red Kool-Aid that you’re using, is it cherry or tropical punch?

Dawn Okoro:
The red has been… I’ve actually used both the red… I’ve used tropical punch and cherry. And then the watermelon is more of a pinkish red.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t even think about watermelon. Okay. That makes sense. Do you have a dream project that you love to do one day?

Dawn Okoro:
One that I’ve always wanted to do and is be able to, just travel to different parts of the world and just meet and work amongst the artists there, for example, Lagos, I would love to be able to go there and spend some time and work with the artists there and also, maybe even meet people who are part of the punk community there and maybe create images, create paintings of those people.

Dawn Okoro:
And [inaudible 00:58:55] it’s always envision going to different parts of the world and painting porches of some of the people I meet there.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you see this next chapter of your career going? Say it’s the next five years from now? What work do you want to be doing?

Dawn Okoro:
That’s something that I’m currently trying to figure out, because I love having paintings out there in the world and having shows with that work. And I definitely want to continue having the shows, but I think I could see myself maybe having a show of paintings maybe once a year, and then the rest of the year just working on just different projects that I might be interested in.

Dawn Okoro:
I’m not sure what that would be or what that would look like, but it would definitely be less… just getting ready for the next show which is how things are for me right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and follow and support you and everything online?

Dawn Okoro:
Yes. I’m most active on Instagram, and there I’m at dawn okoro, on Twitter I’m also at Dawn Okoro, and then TikTok I’m dawnokoro_official. And I also have a blog on YouTube called Life in Art, and that’s where I share just some of the stuff I have going on, just working as an artist.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Dawn Okoro, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, of course, one for sharing your story and talking about the themes of things behind the work that you do, but also showing that it’s possible to be a successful working artist. I think, as I alluded to earlier in the conversation around this great resignation period that’s going on right now, I think people need to see more success stories of folks getting out there and making it on their own, and certainly with the powerful work that you’re creating.

Maurice Cherry:
And now that you’re going to have the capacity to do this full time, I’m just really excited to see what you’ll have coming up next. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Thanks for having me. And yeah, I’m looking forward to the future.

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Brian A. Thompson

When Dian Holton told me that a Black designer was behind the new $100 bill, I had to reach out and have him on Revision Path. I mean, how often are you able to talk to someone who’s design work is literally seen all around the world? (You might even have it in your wallet right now!)

While we couldn’t go into specifics about the whole US banknote process. Brian and I had a great conversation about his inspiration as a banknote designer, and he talked about how he got into the field right out of college. He also spoke on how having Asperger’s is a design superpower for him, and shared information on the latest project he just finished called “Colors That Heal.” Brian is true living design history, and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share his story with you all!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Brian A. Thompson:
My name is Brian Thompson. I’m a senior journeyman banknote designer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. I’ve been there 32 years. Yeah, 32 years, but now I’m the old guy. I used to be the young guy at 19. I think I was the second youngest to be employed there but now I’m the old guy.

Maurice Cherry:
How has this year been going for you so far?

Brian A. Thompson:
It’s been different because of the pandemic but the work is still intense, and it still requires the same focus.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you changed over the past year? Have there been any lessons that you’ve learned? And this can be work-wise or personal, anything like that.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yes. It’s not that I never took life seriously, but you have a better time looking at yourself in the mirror and looking at what you need to change. I think this is probably the most relaxed time I’ve ever had while working because I’m able to balance out the different stresses and things, and the anxieties that come with work of this nature. It’s very intense. I’ve said this through interviews before that doing banknote design is like putting together the most difficult puzzle you can put together in your life, and I’m finding that I had an opportunity to look at every piece for a chance while working from home, and evaluating each piece, and knowing that each piece of that puzzle was more significant than ever before.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, to that end I know that you can’t talk directly about the work you’re doing because that whole bank note design process is super top secret but can you give just a broad overview for our audience about the work that you do?

Brian A. Thompson:
Banknote design is an art form that I don’t think people pay attention to. They’re look at the Mona Lisa, they’ll look at different pieces of artwork that have been deemed as art, and say yeah that’s a piece of artwork, but when it comes down to currency they look at it as a value or something that is used for spending or commerce, a vehicle of commerce to buy and sell. It’s currency. That’s what it’s for. It’s to buy things with.

Brian A. Thompson:
But if they ever stopped, and when they get it in their pocket and look at the art form that’s on there they would be blown away. There’s so many intricate details that are put into currency design that needs to be paid attention to from the sculpture or the portrait, the line work that’s in it, the different colors, the micro text, all of those different things it takes time to do. It’s not only just for security but it’s also for aesthetic points of view.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember being a kid and I wouldn’t necessarily say be into money design, but really looking and studying a bill and seeing how it’s designed and put together, but you’re right it has so many intricate little details. Of course, you’ve got signatures and you’ve got serial numbers on there. Some larger bills have a bit of a plastic strip that goes through it, and even as banknote design has changed here in the US I’ve just always found it really fascinating how much goes into the design of a bill. That’s really interesting.

Brian A. Thompson:
Studying different currencies all over the world I see how they’ve actually approached currency as well to get the attention of the user, and it’s amazing how they place certain things in the location of the banknotes to get people’s attention, be it color, or be it texture, even being substrates. Some countries are using plastic substrate versus paper, and that’s done so that people will pay attention to it, and not only pay attention to it, and not only pay attention to it but utilize the technologies within the banknote for their own security for something that’s authentic versus what’s counterfeit, and I think that’s pretty cool to watch how banknote design has evolved in the technological aspect as well as the aesthetical aspect and how it mergers together and becomes a piece of artwork when you first see it, but it’s also a piece of artwork that is being utilized for commerce.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned being a banknote designer for 32 years. How have your responsibilities changed over the years?

Brian A. Thompson:
I would say my first seven years I was training. I was training for the job, so I served a seven year apprenticeship while also going to school at the same time. I went to the University of District of Columbia and while I was there I was also doing the apprenticeship, and the apprenticeship was designed where it was six month increments and every six months you were evaluated to move to the next stop, but when I was there, when I first started there it was actually six months whether you were going to complete the apprenticeship or be dismissed from the apprenticeship, so you had to hit the marks that you were asked to by your journeyman and I was able to hit every mark, and I did all seven years, not one day was skipped.

Brian A. Thompson:
I really am happy I did not skip any years because everything I learned was apply-able and [inaudible 00:08:33] right now. It actually gave me an opportunity to have longevity within this career because of everything I learned within that seven years. I felt like if I missed something or if I would’ve skipped a year I would’ve missed something very important and vital for the current conditions that we’re in, in dealing with the coronavirus and just this pandemic, because I’m able to work without a computer. I’m able to work with just processing and thinking about designs in my mind and doing doodles and just shaping out different things I need to shape out to problem solve, and that’s something you learn in the apprenticeship is that it’s a lot of thinking versus drawing. You have to think about the entire banknote front and back and the different layers of it, and think about the counterfeiters that are going to try to counterfeit the banknote.

Brian A. Thompson:
You have to be four to five steps ahead of them mentally while you’re designing and I think that’s a very, very important thing for people to know it’s that we’re not just throwing anything out there. We’re really calculating and thinking about every single piece and where it’s put.

Maurice Cherry:
That is both fascinating and extremely rigorous. So, you had these six month check ins over your seven year apprenticeship and at any point in time for one instance you didn’t come up to a certain point in the check in you could be dismissed, right? That could be it.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. You can be dismissed out of the apprenticeship immediately, if they didn’t think you could cut it you were gone. It was pretty simple. But you couldn’t really go into it thinking that because if you went in with fear you would pretty much fail.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Brian A. Thompson:
That’s one thing I would never allow myself to do is walk in fear. I said, you know what? I’m confident, and I gave it 110% every single day to the point where I remember my journeyman telling me, this was so funny, the first day at work I came there at 6:00am on time because I worked from 6:00 to 4:00 10 hours a day four days a week.

Brian A. Thompson:
And he would say, “It’s 6:00. You’re late.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” He says, “Well, if you show up on time you’re late. Always be here 10 minutes before schedule. You have to condition your mind to be always ahead of the curve.” That’s one thing Mr. Sharpe used to always tell me. Always be 10 minutes, or always be ahead of the curve no matter what, and he was right, and I actually live by that.

Maurice Cherry:
And the Mr. Sharpe that you’re referring to is Ronald Sharpe who’s the first black journeyman banknote designer in the history of the country.

Brian A. Thompson:
Absolutely. Yeah, Ronald C. Sharpe, and Clarence Hilbert was the second, and I’m the third.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So, has it always had this black lineage.

Brian A. Thompson:
I don’t think the hiring was based on color. It was always based on ability, whether you could do the job or not, and Ron he was a police officer first, but his whole emphasis of becoming a police officer is so he could become a banknote designer, and one thing about being at that time when he was there, and I remember him telling me, is that hey I wanted to be a banknote designer so I started as a police officer and I waited for the apprenticeship to open.

Brian A. Thompson:
When it came open he applied, and that’s how Ron got in. That’s also how Clarence got in too. Both of them technically were police officers when they first got in. I came in right out of high school.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask how did you first learn about banknote design?

Brian A. Thompson:
I learned about that particular job from my father. My father actually was a cylinder maker for the actual printing presses at the bureau and I was in high school when he told me, and at Suitland Visual and Performing Arts School under Dr. Thompson at the time, and Ms. [Dodi 00:12:09], they really pushed us for four years to develop a portfolio, so our portfolios when we graduated were equal to anyone that went to any art school. It didn’t matter where, SCAD, or any Pratt institute, our portfolios pretty much were just as equal as any college portfolio, and that was their push is when we graduated from high school that we could get into any college we wanted to, or we could pretty much cut it wherever job we were going to and they were correct. My portfolio was ready to go and I applied.

Brian A. Thompson:
And clearly, at that time the bureau liked what they saw and I got hired in the apprenticeship.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Right out of high school you went into the apprenticeship. So, when you went to the University of the District of Columbia you were doing these both at the same time.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. And I’ll tell you what’s interesting about that story is I was actually … When I went there I was under Dr. Yvonne Carter, and Dr. Yvonne Carter, she was an African-American woman and her artwork was unbelievable. She was a contemporary artist, pretty well known. From our research from her she was from the Carolinas and she actually started teaching at the University of District of Columbia and then she was the chair person of the art department, and I remember her sitting me down. She never yelled or raised her voice. Dr. Thompson had a very calm voice, but she had a way of talking to you to really line you up real quick.

Brian A. Thompson:
And I was right out of high school, just got this hot job, and I came in her office pretty cocky. And she sat me down, and she said, “Son, no matter how good you are you always have to be ready to learn, because if you go in cocky in life you’re going to miss a whole lot,” and that stung me, but she was so calm at all times, and she was the one that pretty much tightened me up, her and Dr. Smith. And they took me under their wing when I was in college and really, really made sure that the skills that I had from high school were honed for this particular job and just as an artist in general. They always taught me, yes, that’s a great job but we want to develop you as an artist that works there, not someone that’s developing the art to work there, which I thought was amazing, and very right. That was very true.

Brian A. Thompson:
They wanted me to be an outstanding artist outside of the platform of where I was working.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Outside of those two professors, what else do you really remember from your time going to the University of the District of Columbia?

Brian A. Thompson:
One thing I do remember, and I remember Ron and Clarence telling me when I first got there to learn my history. Please learn your black history because you’re going to have to be two steps ahead. In reality, you just have to be two steps ahead as an African-American because we know about the racism within our country, and they were just getting me ready. And being at an HBCU it got me ready.

Brian A. Thompson:
We had so many people that came up there to give speeches such as Dr. Ivan Van Sertima, Chancellor Welsing, even Louis Farrakhan came up there, and we would hear all these different lectures from these black intellects that were really giving us knowledge on how to survive in the world that was stacked up against us as African-Americans or minorities. And I took all of those things, and those different principles, and just honed them to the point where if I felt like I was in a racist situation I knew what to do. I didn’t just be quick to react and get all upset. I would reflect back on those particular stories and the history that I learned about African-Americans and how we evolved above it, and that’s something I always stand by. There’s no point in getting upset. The point is understand how to evolve around it and to defeat it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s something about an HBCU education. They really try to drive home of course knowing about your history but then making sure that you contextualize it in your current place in the world and what that means. You know?

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m telling you. I’m so happy that I went to an HBCU to the point where I didn’t push my son, I just asked him if he will go to an HBCU. He is now at Bowie State University now.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Okay.

Brian A. Thompson:
As a senior, so he’s enjoying that. I wanted him to get that same kind of background like I said to understand how to deal with just the world as an African-American, or just a minority, and just understand how to posture himself.

Maurice Cherry:
Is he interested in art and design too?

Brian A. Thompson:
No. He’s an athlete, but he actually went the ROTC route, and he’s doing very well. He’s actually going to be going into the military as an officer when he graduates.

Maurice Cherry:
Very nice. Very nice. Bowie State also has a pretty good design program. We had on the show, I think it was, not last year, about two years ago I think, Jen White Johnson who teaches there at Bowie State, but they have a really great program that they’re doing some great stuff. I met a couple of the students there. Gosh, when was this? 2019 I think. There’s this conference that goes on at Harvard called Black in Design. They have it every other year. They started in 2015.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think it was 2019 there were a group of students and educators from Bowie State that were there, so they do a really good job in their design program.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. I’ve actually visited there, and I actually have a … I can’t think of his name right now, but he actually invited me to come over there to speak, but because of the coronavirus just really shutting down last year I didn’t have an opportunity to go up there to speak to them. But I try to keep my pulse on pretty much art programs within the HBCUs that are locally around here such as UDC I’ve not spoken at, but I have spoken at Coppin State probably three or four times mainly in their sociology department. I’ve spoken at Howard University at their sociology department as well, mainly coming from the aspect of being a person that has Asperger’s and going and speaking to their seniors about a person that’s living with it, and understanding what they’re going to come up against when they run up against somebody like me, and just understanding you can’t just throw a textbook at these individuals.

Brian A. Thompson:
There’s a certain type of love and respect you have to have for a person that flows like I do, that’s wired like I am. It was a great honor to speak to those two HBCUs and the seniors loved it. I actually enjoyed talking about my life with them and they got a lot out of it. I’ve actually gotten emails from students saying “Thank you for your lecture. It really helped me. It gave me a sense of focus and purpose. I knew I wanted to be a social worker, but thank you for doing so, for showing me a person in real life that I would come up against.” So, that was a pretty cool experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you just give a primer to our audience on what Asperger’s is and how it works for you as a designer?

Brian A. Thompson:
Asperger’s is a form of autism. There are two types. There’s a high functioning form which is Asperger’s and there is a lower functioning form. Where I’ve always locked in with Asperger’s is socially you have social issues. Some people have social issues where if they go in a crowd they get nervous. There’s so many layers to it, but for me personally I don’t drive. It’s very difficult for me to drive a car because of the anxiety and high anxiety with it, and my wife will tell you that. I’ll be sitting on the passenger side and she’ll make a sudden move in the car and I freak out.

Brian A. Thompson:
But I realize those are my triggers. You know? There’re certain triggers I have. I’m another person where everything has to be really in order for me. My house is immaculate. Everything has to have a place, which gives off vibes of a person that has OCD but that’s actually an Asperger’s type of thing. So, with me having Asperger’s has given me a sense of focus where if I lock into something such as being an artist I’m going to go very far with it. I’m going to search, research, draw. There isn’t a medium I haven’t tried, and I just want to master it, because it’s such a sense of focus, and that’s one thing I can say about the person that has Asperger’s. It’s actually a superpower to me. It’s not a disability, because I can really lock into a subject matter and try to master it as much as possible.

Brian A. Thompson:
Pretty much as a banknote designer it gave me an opportunity during those seven years because I was laser focused, so I had no intentions of ever messing up because of how I’m wired. But one thing when sudden changes hit me it does throw me through a loop sometimes but I have to lean on my foundation of what I know and I stick with that and just figure out what those sudden changes are where it doesn’t throw me off too much.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine the superpower part you mentioned. With banknote design being as meticulous as it is the fact that you can really hone down and focus on those details that is a real superpower. That’s a real benefit.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. Through high school I was totally engulfed with knowing who MC Escher was. Escher was a really, really detailed illustrator. I’m telling you, from high school even till this day I still look at Escher drawings and just blown away to the point that I was focusing so much on Escher I had to learn Georgia O’Keeffe’s stuff as well to balance myself out, because O’Keeffe works so loosely and big and broad with colors, even though her colors are very muted, and her colors also had a lot of desert thematic to it because that’s pretty much where she did a lot of her art.

Brian A. Thompson:
I work in that world, so I’m in the middle of those two particular artists, and I zero in on those things to the point where if I feel like I’m working on something too tightly I will actually do a contemporary art form just to loosen my mind up to just keep going to make sure I’m balanced, because I can become very technical and when it’s time to work loosely it’s hard for me to gauge back into that, so that’s why I’m constantly doing contemporary art as well as very tight illustrations just to keep a balance so that I can just function as an artist.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go back to your time at the University of the District of Columbia. Once you graduated because you were doing this and your apprenticeship at the same time, what were those early days of you being a journeyman designer like? Can you give us a sense of what that was like?

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. I was actually in college as well as doing an apprenticeship and I was a father and a husband.

Maurice Cherry:
You were juggling a lot.

Brian A. Thompson:
It was a lot happening. My day would start with me leaving with a heavy portfolio headed straight to the school, and I think I would finish up on campus around maybe 3:00 or 4:00. That was the early years, because I would actually work six months, and then I would actually go to the job for six months, the apprenticeship, and my apprenticeship would freeze until I return back.

Brian A. Thompson:
Later on, what I would do was go to school at night, so I would work my day and then go to school at night, and that was just tough because I would only spend time with my kids when I got in the door, which was pretty late. I would get in maybe about 6:30, 7:00 coming in from school. I think at that time I just had maybe two kids, which was my oldest two boys, [Tayvon 00:23:52] and BJ. Those were some tough days, but I pushed through it. I pushed through it.

Brian A. Thompson:
But it was a lot on my shoulders, but like I said me being laser focused it didn’t really rock me and I came off kind of rigid at times because I was so focused in on the art that the perception was that I was arrogant, and that’s just one of those Asperger things. People would look at me, “Oh, he’s so arrogant. He doesn’t talk.” I was just focused. I was just laser focused on what I had to achieve and I had to finish that apprenticeship. I had to graduate from college.

Brian A. Thompson:
And once I achieved that goal, on to the next task.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some of the highlights of your career as a journeyman designer? You’ve had over 30 years of work in this industry designing banknotes. What are some of the highlights?

Brian A. Thompson:
I think the major highlight right now for me was designing the new $100 bill because I watched how pop culture gravitated towards it and it was embraced very quickly with pop culture. And not just pop culture, the hip hop culture. If anybody knows me they know I’m a hip hop head. I just love old school hip hop.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Brian A. Thompson:
The Tribe Called Quest. The Goodie Mob. The Wu-Tangs. That’s my era of hip hop and it always has been, and I even go further back than that to the Boogie Down Productions to the Public Enemy. I just love hip hop and I watched how hip hop embraced it and actually gave the 100 a nickname, and the nickname they’ve given it was called The Blue Face.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, I’m like, wow. And I’ve watched how it evolved in pop culture where it became clothing, where it became artwork, or pop art. And I’m like, wow, look at how this design just blew up around the world. My daughter sent me something where they had taken this design and made it a purse.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Brian A. Thompson:
I have a niece that works in a museum where she sends me stuff all the time. She says, “Look at this. They made this product out of it. They made this product.” I’m like, this is crazy. So, to see that design just go out into the world and become a part of pop culture is huge. I was designing it for a purpose and I’ve actually watched it become pretty much a very iconic piece.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s even a rapper called Blue Face.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. That’s right. That’s the part I’m talking about. It’s like it evolved. It went further. I was just doing my job. That’s the focus. I’m trying to make sure I’m creating a banknote that can be utilized in circulation and not fail. I had no idea it was going to become this artistic phenomenon, which is unbelievable, and it still blows my mind today. And you know the crazy thing, a lot of people don’t even know who I am, which is okay, which is fine.

Brian A. Thompson:
People will find out who I am and they’re like, “Oh my god. I met the guy that designed the 100,” and that thing came out 2013.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brian A. Thompson:
And people are still finding out about me. And actually, if you look on IG I only have 1,700 friends, but I see other people that do art and they have 1.5 million. You know? And it’s cool. I just sit back like, wow. People really just don’t know what I do, and I really stay away from the lime light for that very reason.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, I have very good artist friends that have reached out to me that I’m really good friends with and they respect what I’ve done, and they’re like, “Dude, you made history. When you designed that 100, dude, you made not only American history you made African-American history as well.” You know? Which was unreal. It’s still an unreal experience and when I look at it I’m like, wow. I cannot believe this one thing I did, and I was just doing my job, I actually made Clarence and Ron proud, because they didn’t have an opportunity to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say more than history. You have contributed to the culture. I know there’s this saying among … I’m saying millennials. I’m an elder millennial myself. But in millennials and Gen Z about how people are doing things like quote unquote for the culture. What you’ve done has been such a contributor to the culture in general. You need to be in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That’s major.

Brian A. Thompson:
What’s a trip is that I’ve heard that so many times, and I’ve not gotten a phone call from them yet. I don’t know if they’re waiting for me to retire. I don’t know what that’s about, but it’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll wait. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it’s all good. My focus is I just want to be the best artist I can be for me, and for the general public. I just want to always be a creator where I don’t get boxed in with one job that I’ve done. I want to be known as a great artist one day, just a guy that has done multiple things with his art, and that’s really my goal is just to be a great artist and leave a legacy which I’ve already done. I’ve already achieved that.

Brian A. Thompson:
And one thing I tell students when I do go to those … I do a lot of … What do you call them? Where they call people in to do their professions. I do a lot of those kind of things where I’ll go to high schools.

Maurice Cherry:
Like career day or something like that.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. I do a lot of career days, and I tell those kids, I say when you hear about African-American history it’s always within the pages of a book, but you’ve never actually met someone that actually made African-American history that’s right here in living color that you can ask questions. And that’s one of the biggest things I will say about the 100 that has been so rewarding is that I’m able to speak to students while living, and they can talk to me and ask me any questions because I’m living history. I’m living African-American history, and just to see their eyes light up is the most rewarding thing. That’s the most rewarding thing is actually seeing a kid’s eyes light up and just like, wow, I’m speaking to history. I’m not just reading about it, or reading about this person because he’s dead. This guy’s standing right in front of me. That’s huge.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I really appreciate your humility. You and I will talk offline about seeing what we can do to get you in touch with someone at the museum because I think the work that you’re doing … Wait, actually, have you been to the museum yet?

Brian A. Thompson:
Yes. Me and my wife went there. We went from the basement all the way to the top and I was floored. I’m like, wow, this is so great, and she looked over at me and said, “Why are you not in here?” I’m like, “Look, babe, you already know my …” She knows me. I’m very humble. I’m not going to push myself. I’m not going to push it. But that is something that I would love to do is make sure that not only I’m there I want to make sure that Ron, Sharpe, and Clarence are there that are a part of my story. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian A. Thompson:
Because when they hear my story they’re going to hear theirs as well, because like I said these guys deserve honor big time for what they instilled in me. What they gave me … And I’ll never forget what they told me in the backroom my second day there. They said, “Come to the back room. We want to talk to you. We know you’re at an HBCU. We know you’re at UDC. We want to give you everything that we know about this job and about our art ability and put it in you,” and a key thing they said is, “We want to leave this world a gift in you,” and they weren’t wrong. They said, “You’re going to be able to achieve stuff that we never had the opportunity to do.”

Brian A. Thompson:
Now, it’s not that they weren’t able to design currency. At that time, currency wasn’t being changed. It just wasn’t being changed at that time while they were there. They were later in their careers, so a lot of times they were just doing other projects, but they knew that I would have an opportunity, and those guys worked. They made it hard for a reason because they knew it would be tough sometimes when they weren’t there. So, I want to be able to give that honor to them.

Brian A. Thompson:
And I’m still in touch with Ron Sharpe’s daughter. We’re friends on IG, as well as Facebook, and she checks in on me just to see how I’m doing and also see how she’s doing. But Ron and Clarence have both passed.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, you are the one that’s holding the torch now for this particular kind of type of design which is very specialized.

Brian A. Thompson:
It’s very specialized, and like I said it’s only been us three as African-Americans to ever do it, and their story has never been told. And I’m telling you I’m going to tell their story along with mine, because they’re a part of my story. If it wasn’t for them I would not know what I know. I just wouldn’t. So, I understand how that works.

Brian A. Thompson:
And that’s something that most artists need to be humble about as well is that it took someone to pour into you for you to pour out. For you to pour out it took someone to pour into you and to labor with you and show you how to get your craft to a certain point of expertise. Don’t forget those individuals. You just didn’t birth out great. It took somebody to make you great, and that’s something that I will never forget.

Brian A. Thompson:
I remember Dr. Thompson from high school who pushed me. I remember Dr. Smith and I remember Dr. Carter in college who pushed me, and I remember Ron and Clarence who actually trained me on my job as a journeyman who pushed me. All of them made me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’ve got to see what we can do to get you in the museum. We’ll talk offline about this because I think even just that part that you said right there and learning about the history of how you had other black banknote designers that helped you out that’s a story that everyone needs to know. I think that’s something everyone needs to know.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of projects. You are an artist outside of being a banknote designer, so I want to talk about that. There’s a project that you finished just recently called Colors That Heal. Can you talk about that?

Brian A. Thompson:
Man, that right there was one of the most rewarding projects. I had just started teaching at PG College last year as an adjunct professor, and I taught a class called Art as Therapy, and what it was designed to do was to get people to slow down in their life and just pick up a paintbrush or a pencil and just relax. So, I actually taught that class to teach people how to use art as a therapeutical thing for their own life because it’s always been therapy for me, and I turned it into a course.

Brian A. Thompson:
And they did so well where PG College actually called me back to actually do it again this year where I’m going to be teaching families which is going to be children and their parents on how to just connect together as parent and son or daughter where I’m going to be teaching them how to do art to just relax and actually tighten up their bond as parents and children. But my point is I flipped it again because it’s the same principle but Colors That Heal was a project that I thought about when my cousin called me, and he says, “Hey man, do you have any artwork laying around the house? I need like 25 pieces.”

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m like, “No. I don’t have 25 pieces hanging around. If I did they would probably be sold or I’m trying to sell them.” So, I said “I’ll tell you what I do, because I’ve been doing all this research on art therapy I have an idea.” I said, “I’m going to create pieces that have colors in them that help people heal and relax when they see them.” So, I created 25 pieces that when people see those pieces they immediately will relax. They will immediately calm down.

Brian A. Thompson:
And these pieces are actually in the lobby of a hospital, where this hospital was switching from one … One organization bought them out, and now … It’s called Luminous Health actually bought them out. It’s Luminous Health Doctors Hospital. And he said, “Man, can you come up with some pieces.” I said, “Sure, I got it.” So, I came up with 25 pieces for them and they literally just hung those pieces up this past week, and they look amazing. They look absolutely amazing.

Brian A. Thompson:
And like I said, they’re designed for people when they walk in that lobby to immediately just calm down and just have a sense of peace. That was the whole point of that project, is because people don’t realize how art is impactful. Art can change how you feel immediately when you see it. Colors can make you react a certain way. And I picked colors, and I did research, on what colors heal people and I used all those colors within those pieces, different shapes, different forms, where when folks see them they immediately calm down. It’s not an aggressive type of a picture.

Brian A. Thompson:
Everything’s very laid back. I used watercolor by the way because I wanted to have translucent imagery in it. I used air brush as well where you have different colors fading into another color. The project was beautiful. I’m very, very happy with that project. It is a brand new project. It’s like a month old technically, but it just got hung up. And I got a phone call from my cousin and said, “Man, thank you for this outstanding job. Thank you so much.” I’m very proud of that project, and plan to do more of that kind of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was just going to ask do you plan on expanding that out, maybe doing that with more hospitals, or with a health system, or something like that?

Brian A. Thompson:
I would love for it to go in that direction because I just think there needs to be more of it. My wife noticed that when she goes to the hospital, because she’s a nurse, when she goes to the hospital she notices that there are pieces like that, that look similar to mine, but they’re very generic and they just kind of throw them up there. And they pay millions of dollars for these type of exhibitions to be up on their walls.

Brian A. Thompson:
And she was like, “You did this for your cousin.” She said, “I’m blown away.” She said, “You did this because you really wanted to help people heal.” I’m like, “Yeah.” So, I just believe in giving bach, man. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brian A. Thompson:
I just believe in giving back and art has been such a vehicle for me to express myself. I just want to see it become more of a tool to heal people and to make people feel good when they see it, not to be an impulsive spender where they’re like I got to buy this because it’s going to have value later on in life, but when they look at this piece that it’s a reflection of themselves and it hits them in their core, their heart, saying you know what? I like this piece because it’s a reflection of myself.

Brian A. Thompson:
I think if more artists looked at it that way instead of trying to make a dollar then I think you would probably have more artists that really were humble and would create more because when you start grinding to try to produce art just to make sales you kind of lose your edge, but if you’re creating art to help people, man, that’s a different level. It’s a totally different level.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’ve had a few fine artists on the show before that have said pretty much very similar things to that, like being able to create without … I forget who it was. I think it might have been Fahamu Pecou who said this, or maybe someone else we interviewed, but it was along the lines of how the art just seems to be better when it’s not tied to money, like when you don’t have to tie it to some financial goal or something the art just tends to be better.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. Yeah. I agree with that 100%, because as artists we’re always looking for inspiration and when I get inspired I start painting, or I start drawing, and I’m doing it because I want to do it. I’m not doing it for a dollar. You know? Or commerce. I’m doing it because I want to get an expression out and I want to get a reaction from people that is healing. My background is I’m also a pastor too, and I have a ministry called Easel Outreach that it’s for creatives. It’s for creatives to have a spiritual balance within their life. That’s one of the other projects I’m working on, and that’s going very well.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m not really obsessed with anything. My main focus right now honestly is to evolve myself as a fine artist. That’s my push. I really want folks to know me as a creative, as a person that is extremely creative and can go in several different directions from either art or music, because I compose music too. I create music that has no lyrics so it’s pretty much in the realm of ambient music. I have two projects on pretty much any music platform, and it’s called Instrumental Witness.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, I don’t use my name particularly. I have an artist name, which is called Instrumental Witness, and I have two projects out there and both of them reflect healing. The second project was geared towards people that do yoga and meditation. It didn’t get a lot of sales, but that wasn’t the point. Just like art I want to put something out there to help people heal, or to help people feel good, and that’s what’s out there. And it sounds pretty good. I get emails sometimes saying “Thank you for creating this piece. It gets me through my day. When I’m cleaning the house, or if I want to relax and chill I put your piece on.” So, I love just that kind of background, or should I say response from the music that they’re listening to that I created.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice has stuck with you the longest? It can be personal advice, professional advice. What do you find yourself coming back to time and time again?

Brian A. Thompson:
One thing my grandmother told me as a kid, and I stick by this, she said, “If somebody can upset you they can control you.” I’ve always stuck with that. So, what I do is when some people come at me trying to get a reaction out of me of anger I just remain peaceful. There’s a scripture in the Bible that says, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” I walk with that. So, when she said that to me that’s the first scripture that came to my attention, and I actually flow like that. I’m very quick to listen to people and I’m slow to respond, because I want to make sure that they may be speaking in anger but I’m always going to speak back at love regardless of the situation, and that’s how I posture myself.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s say somebody is listening to this interview, they’ve heard about of course your work as a journeyman designer, but also as an artist that wants to help people and help heal people. What advice would you tell them if they want to follow in your footsteps?

Brian A. Thompson:
Honestly, man, just follow their heart. If you want to help people follow your heart. There’s something that I talk about where there’s a certain rhythm that everybody has within their life. You have to follow that rhythm. If that rhythm is fast then you produce fast, you create fast. If that rhythm is very, very laid back ten you produce that way because that’s what you’re going to get in response. There’s something about the rhythm, and like I said that’s why I like hip hop. Hip hop has an aggressive rhythm with it, and I technically listen to it when I’m working out, but when I want to listen to stuff that’s laid back I’ll listen to piano chill where I can reflect and meditate.

Brian A. Thompson:
Pay attention to the rhythm in your heart and that will help you produce the art or creative abilities that you’re trying to produce. You’re heart will tell you what you need to produce. Don’t go off what everybody else’s doing. Don’t go off of what’s hot and what’s not. Produce from your heart.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want this next chapter of your story to really involve?

Brian A. Thompson:
I will probably be producing different pieces, or shall I say different collaborative pieces, not even collaborative pieces. I’ll probably be producing collections of different things, pretty much like the Colors That Heal project I’m going to be doing more of those kind of things. And the way I really focus on that I look at what’s happening in the world and I’ll look for something to help heal it. If there’s chaos happening, which there’s a lot of it going on right now, I’m going to try to produce pieces that cause people to relax and heal and be at peace.

Brian A. Thompson:
So, those are the kinds of projects that I’m going to be working on just so when people see it they just have a sense of peace, and that’s very important to me. But you’ll see different collections that will come out, maybe a collection of six, maybe a collection of 20, but they’re going to be a collection of pieces that give off a certain rhythm of peace.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to wrap things up here where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Brian A. Thompson:
I’m on IG. I’m at Brian_TheArtist. I’m not saying it right. It’s Brian_The_Artist_Thompson on IG.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And of course, people can go to any bank and get a $100 bill and see your work there also.

Brian A. Thompson:
Yeah. That’s the universal piece of artwork that’s there. Yes, it is. If they actually want to see the pieces that I did, the Colors That Heal, that’s actually at like I said Luminous Health Doctors Hospital in Lanta, Maryland or maybe Greenbelt, Maryland and they can actually see those pieces hanging up in the lobby. It’s like 25 pieces.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Nice.

Brian A. Thompson:
When I looked at the project it was like I’m going to look at it like I’m producing for a gallery, and that’s the way I’m looking at it. When you walk in there you’re going to feel like you’re in an art gallery.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Sounds good. Brian Thompson I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think the thing that probably strikes me the most aside from just the historic nature of the work that you do and the reach that it has globally is just how humble you are. You are super humble and to me that reads as someone that is really doing this for the love of the work, and the passion, and really reflecting on how it makes people feel, like the fact that you’re also an artist that does this work that wants to heal people is a good balance with the meticulous-ness of the work that you do as a banknote designer, so I think it’s good to one show that balance, but two also to illustrate to people that there’s a person behind this kind of work that does this sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.

Brian A. Thompson:
Thank you for having me.

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