Whitney Robinson

Maternal healthcare has always been in a precarious place here in the United States, but thanks to this week’s guest, Whitney Robinson, we just might be on our way to solving it in our lifetime. She brings her skills as a product designer and builder of things — as well as a mom — to help transform maternal health for Black women.

Our conversation began with a look at her current project, The Renée, and we talked about how work and life have changed for her over the past couple of years. She also spoke about growing up in North Carolina and attending Duke University, turning side gigs into full-time work, and shared how she measures success at this stage of her life. Whitney is a prime example of how you too can use your skills for the greater good!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Whitney Robinson:
Hi, I’m Whitney Robinson. I’m a product manager/designer of things.

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

Whitney Robinson:
I’m struggling a little bit with managing homeschooling. I have four kids. Projects… I know. And they’re homeschooled. I’m a new homeschooling parent. And then the things that we heard about in the news. Like the power dynamics that have shifted in homes as women and have become more of caretakers. And so it’s just a lot and trying not to be a statistic and all that kind of stuff. So I do feel like there’s been quite a bit of pushing for me this year. But I will say too, that I’ve definitely, this has been the year that I’ve realized I’m doing too much, and how do I do less, and doing less is okay. Yeah. So the year has been just kind of push and pull and just kind of realizing what I need to let go, where I need to just let the ebb and flow of life do its thing.

Maurice Cherry:
How is that process going, like learning to let go?

Whitney Robinson:
I raised by baby boomers, you don’t let go. You keep pushing, you keep going, you keep doing it. You have to have all the grades and the check marks. And so the letting go has been really hard, but I’m thinking more about, I’m thinking about what is my impression on my children. What does that look like? And I want them to let stuff go. I’m telling them all the time, just let it go. And so it feels real hypocritical when I realize, but I’m all over here and I’m stressed or I’m trying not to be stressed because I am holding on to this little bit of money for this one thing. Then I’m like, “Just let that go. It’ll free your mind up to do all the other things you do.” Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I can tell it’s a struggle. I mean, in general, I think it’s a struggle for a lot of people, but from your position, I can see also how it’s definitely a struggle when you have sort of homeschooling on top of that too.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. And I’m learning that too. And there’s a reason why, there’s so many shifts happening right now, especially around our culture as people, and even the homeschooling. I come from people who are like, your kids, aren’t going to learn … A school building is the best place for them. And I’m kind of countering that. Like, oh, what does that mean? I can’t educate my kids or I have to assume that it has to be someone else? And I do see both sides, but I’m mirroring, I’m doing a lot of mirroring and I’m just … Anyway, this has been a very hyper intensive inner inspection time for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. If you don’t mind me asking, how old are your children?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah, there is that. So eight, seven, five and two.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Whitney Robinson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dynamic range. I mean, you’ve got certainly the oldest, that would be, I guess, let’s see. Eight, you’re kind of fourth grade I think, something like that.

Whitney Robinson:
Third. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Third, fourth grade.

Whitney Robinson:
Homeschooling them means grades are a thing, but you are teaching them higher levels because you’re one on one so much. But I think if they were in a school system, it’d be third grade, second grade, kindergarten and preschool, or not even, maybe daycare or something.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. It’s a thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have any other big plans you’re trying to accomplish this year?

Whitney Robinson:
So I’m new to the West End and it’s the Blackest place I’ve … Well, Durham was Black, but that’s not Black anymore. That’s where I’m from. That’s where I’m coming from. I’ve been in Durham most of my life, but this is probably the Blackest place I’ve lived in a very long time. So moving here was one big move. And then the next thing I want to do, I mean, I’m in tech and I just feel like I need to have a super opposite outlet. And so I’ve been asking around for a space to rent to have a plant shop with knick-knacks from estate sales of Black home where people come, sit, chill and just be. No airs. It just feels good. Smells good. That kind of vibe. That’s what I’m trying to do. I would love to do it in the West End if possible. So we’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
The West End is, oh God, the West End is such an interesting neighborhood in Atlanta. One, just because of the history. But it’s also one of the few neighborhoods that hasn’t been, I guess, completely gentrified yet.

Whitney Robinson:
That’s what I hear.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think of like Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, especially if you’re thinking Bankhead, which is now all, quote unquote, west midtown for the most part, the West End has largely managed to keep its, I want to say Blackness, but we’ll just say it’s managed to keep its idiosyncrasies. There’re certain things about the neighborhood, certainly, which I think in the next five years will change. I think the mall is probably going to be the biggest change. I think it’s already been bought out by developers or something, but I feel like that’s going to be the next. Once the mall changes, that’s going to change the whole neighborhood. Because I remember living in the West End when they put those condos up on, well, now it’s called Lowry, but it used to be called Ashby, but they put these big, huge condos up, I want to say maybe about 15 years ago or something.
And I remember when they first went up and I was like, “There is nobody that’s going to pay $200,000 to live in the West End. That is ridiculous. That will never happen.” And people moved there, which surprised me because I’m like, that CVS wasn’t even there. There was nothing there. I think the CVS came when the condos came, but I was like, “There’s what? Hong Kong City.” There used to be a place on the corner called Gut Busters. I think Gut Busters then became something else. Now it’s Mangos. Whatever. Nothing on that corner seems to live very long. Mangos for some reason seems to be an outlier. But there’s nothing about that downtown West End area that really screams high commerce, right?

Whitney Robinson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Especially not that would support a kind of, quote unqoute, live, work, play condo space that was built there. And I remember they had all these little shops right there in the lobby and then I just saw them all close down and I just saw all the prices going lower and lower, and lower. I don’t know who lives over there now, but I feel like the West End has largely kind of kept most of the neighborhood pretty Black. Although I think if you go maybe two or three streets back, like People Street back there, there’s $500,000 houses back there. It’s wild.

Whitney Robinson:
So the houses on, and again, I’m new. So I’ve learned that the houses on People Street are kind of highly sought after and being right here at the park, we’ve noticed just the change in a year. It’s a weird conversation too, because we also, I use this lightly, but we are changing the pricing of the houses even around us because we bought into the neighborhood when things are kind of high. But what we’ve heard is that too people were like, “Oh you all are Black. Oh thank God.” It’s been like, okay, good. People won’t get mad at us because we know that us moving in, that change something. We are aware of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What are your work days kind of looking like right now?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m a flower child. So I kind of do things how they come at me. I can pivot very quickly. And that’s what my work days look like. Because the kids are here, I tend to do some instruction with them until about noon. And then I will jump on a call or two. I have some consulting clients right now. And so I will work with them. I’ll do some of my side projects, but the kids are always in the mix. So if people are like, “What’s going on in the background?” It’s, “Hey, I’m homeschooling. I have kids around me constantly.” So my workdays have really forced me to be, it’s like I’m not in a cubicle and I’m not in a very quiet space. So has really forced me to be very focused in those moments that I have quiet time. But also teaching my kids to be respectful of other people doing stuff. You can’t just run around and rip and run all day.
So often while I’m working too, I’m watching them from my window because they’re outside a lot. And so like, “Okay, you all go outside.” So I’m very much a hybrid pivoting type person. I’m moving around. I don’t have one place I sit in. I’m on the front porch. I’m in the yard taking meetings. I’m all over the place. But not in a bad way. It actually really works for me. And I try to shut down by the time I pick the kids up from orchestra. And so by then it’s like, whatever. And then at night sometimes I’ll do a little bit of work, but I try to really just, I try to shut my brain down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that that skill of being that flexible is something we’ve all really picked up. I mean, one, during the pandemic because of remote work, but we’ve also just had to pick it up because now we have to do so many things from one place. Like home is now the office, is now the gym, is now the schoolhouse, is now a number of different things. So it sounds like that’s a skill though that you’re kind of acutely aware of and you’re able to tap into it.

Whitney Robinson:
It’s one of the skills that I sell in my consulting. I mean, who better than to do disaster reliefs on the drop of a dime than someone like me. I can think through a lot of things coming at me at once. And I really enjoy that though. If it was too buttoned up, it would feel boring to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about The Renée. Tell me about The Renée.

Whitney Robinson:
I love The Renée. Not just because it’s mine, but because it’s solving a really big juicy problem in the world. We talk about tech. There are so many first world problems in tech. And so The Renée really centered around, and it started as an experiment. Why are we still having conversations around Black maternal mortality? Really I’d had four kids at that point and just became a [inaudible 00:12:50], had no idea. And so at the top of 2019, I said, “I’m a product manager. I know how to solve things quickly. So why aren’t we doing the same in maternal health?” To me, it just felt real ashy. What’s going on? Are people just talking about it to then move on until it becomes hot topic again? So anyway, what I would typically do with my team, I did a bit of, I guess, lack of a better term, user experience research.
I went to people who were directly connected to the problem and I started hosting jam sessions. And so everyone in the room for the most part identified as, I mean, you had to be Black to get in the room, but identified as Black women who had experienced pregnancy some way, somehow, whatever that is. Five to seven people. And really it was, I would facilitate a co-design session. People would share stories, collaboratively they would identify pain points, joy points, solve them, create for them. I mean, absolutely beautiful. So that gave me goosebumps for many reasons because that first one which happened in Durham was not what I thought it would be. I thought, “Oh, something very tech enabled is going to come out of this.” But actually what came out of it was very spiritual and human. And so I stepped away from that like, “I bet the system ain’t seeing us at all, if this is the type of solutions that we want.” Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Whitney Robinson:
And so The Renée just became this tour of jam sessions. I don’t go into a place unless I’m invited. Not because I’m so cool, but because I didn’t want it to feel like this outside reaching in approach to looking or having this conversation with locals. Like, oh, here’s this person from Durham coming to tell us what we need to do. I didn’t want it to be that way. So everything about The Renée and the jam sessions have been, I guess, lack of a better term, asset informed. We understand trauma is in this space. So everything looks and feels good. So we wouldn’t host them in a conference room. It had to be a vibey spot. It could be in someone’s house. Everything is very lean and the overhead is very low. But the impact of these jam sessions were very actionable insight into what Black women were experiencing and asking for.
So I went around the country doing this right before the pandemic. I had a queue, there was some press. Fast Company wrote about, it said something like, who is this UX girl or UX person, I forget what they wrote, having hackathons within maternal health. And then that’s when my project blew up. And so I had a queue of maybe 16 places. We could go into country. We could go in towns. We could go in cities. People were just saying, “Hey, I just want you to come to Milwaukee.” And so it goes on the list. Sure. And so we went around doing those. Pandemic, obviously ended it. So I did a few virtual ones. My last really, well, the one that most people probably know is I did one with Stacey Abrams.
And then kind of decided that I definitely hit a point of saturation. Meaning, I was just hearing the same thing over and over again. And then it became, what is The Renée? Which is what you’re asking me. So I decided, we operate as this lab, almost research and development. We have our ear to our people. We know how to listen and facilitate these kind of spaces, but we can also create what they’re asking for. We can make products or services, or experiences, art installations. We can do whatever for what people are asking for. And so that’s The Renée. It’s kind of a vibe.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you describe it like that. I mean, first of all, if there’s anyone that knows how to make a way out of no way, out of any way, it’s Black women. Point blank period. And I love that you refer to The Renée as a lab. It’s a space for discovery, for experimentation, for fleshing out hypotheses and things like this. You’re not explicitly calling it a company or something that may have specific deliverables. I love that it’s a lab. It’s a place to experiment.

Whitney Robinson:
Absolutely. And we don’t talk disparate. I know I mentioned disparities, but that was how I kind of came to like, “Whoa, this is a problem.” But we don’t do like, oh, you all going to just die. We hear that so much. That is actually a tool that can be used against us. That goes into, again, why we don’t, everything we do feels … I tell people if you think about the Soul Train and what it did for our people in its time, that’s what I want The Renée to be. Is that people can look to us as this kind of cultural boom within maternal health, because maternal health sounds boring. It doesn’t sound sexy at all.
But what if The Renée has an impacts like Soul Train and kind of creates these offsprings all over the country? There were many Soul Trains, even in my hometown. And it’s just putting out Black culture in maternal health. And that’s why I get goose bumps when I talk about this because I don’t know everything. And even though I’m a mother of four, I’ve learned very quickly that my experience, I’ve had home births, my experience is very unique to me. And watching people design and experience with strangers, shows why it’s important for Black folks to be at the helm of their healthcare. Is just, is a different vibe than traditional healthcare or the system.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. No, absolutely. I mean, and I’m speaking broadly here for Black people in the United States. I imagine this may be different in other countries where listers might be at. But here in the US, I mean, Black people do kind of have this mistrust of the medical system of healthcare. Whether you think about something like Henrietta Lacks or you think about, honestly, even Serena Williams. We’re talking right around the time where she’s speaking of retiring and she’s been very public about the issues that she’s had to go through with her health, with having her daughter and everything. And social media has also really helped to elevate a lot of experiences of Black women, Black people in general, but Black women specifically around healthcare issues and how we are different, Black women are different, Black people are different. Even now to the point where you’re just starting to see Black medical illustrations. It’s 2022.

Whitney Robinson:
That’s what I’m saying. And this is a crazy laugh. Not a funny. For me, I have skin in the game. [inaudible 00:20:08] children that I can either say, “Oh well pray and I hope that the system you enter into will be better.” Now, I’m a believer in prayer. But I mean, I can’t sit and I personally, Whitney, I believe this is connected to my life’s work. I feel very uncomfortable waiting or hoping that someone else will fix this thing. And it’s also why I say to people, I’m not interested in dismantling what’s out there right now. Because even if I was told, hey, let’s say, I don’t know. The president was like, “Whitney, you’re now over healthcare. Change it.” My feedback would be, “Yeah. But it’s still going to have essence of the experimentation on my people.” The conversations we’re having right now are because the system was absolutely designed to do what it’s doing.
And that’s why it’s working the way it’s working. I would love, Black people can, and I’ve seen it, design their own, quote unquote, system. And I don’t even know if we know what that looks like, because it feels like it would be a daunting task. But I have seen it happen in small spaces. I mean, no oversight, no red tape. Oh, Whitney, we need grants. None of that. Give good food. Make people feel welcome, warm, see them as human and give them space to share. You’d be amazed at the commonalities from one part of the US to the other. It’s so hard to talk about without being in it and watching it happen to say, wow, this is the connectedness of Black folks. It’s really beautiful.

Maurice Cherry:
How has The Renée changed since you founded it? You mentioned you’ve shifted to these virtual sessions, but are there other ways that it’s changed?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. So I actually, like I said, it was just an experiment to see what would happen. There have been so many iterations of it. So the jam sessions led to, I created a web application using no-code tools because who has the time. One of the things I heard a lot was support. Support how, no matter where I birth, how I birth. If we can feel supported, it’s a game changer. And so I learned from all of these conversations what a good support system looks like. So we put our web application out in the world for people to use to answer what Black women were asking for. I want to feel supported and I want to know how to build good support systems. Another thing that has changed, especially during the pandemic as healthcare has definitely changed. A lot of virtual things have come to the forefront. Quite a few university based hospital systems have reached out to us to say, hey, help us solve our Black problem and tokenize.
And I know it’s a thing. And so I never saw that coming. I did not. I really went into this thinking like, “Oh, purely, this will be some kind of tech thing.” Not maybe totally tech, but did not see the opportunity to actually work with healthcare systems. So I’ve collaborated with MIT, UCSF and a wearable technology company, and have had conversations with Penn, Duke, several. And so what it has, now I’m on edge a little bit because when you put something out there, very optimistic about what Black folks can do, when these kind of players are coming in, your delivery has to be buttoned up and so sharp. Going back to beginning of our conversation, that’s not very buttoned up, is not really my style. But I am having to think about, you know what? I want to be as big as Google.
I want whole municipalities and employers and whatever, who are like, we really are invested in seeing our Black mothers and Black parents have better experiences, help us to create whatever we need to internally to do that. I want The Renée to do that. So I think during these last couple of years, especially, I’ve gotten a bigger picture. I want to think about the future and not just the present. I want to think, what do I see? How do we see a Black design and led maternal space in the future? And what does it look like to then build based on what we see in the future?

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go more into that. What does design within kind of maternal healthcare, reproductive justice, what does that look like? Paint a picture?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. It looks slow. By slow I mean, it’s not really built on efficiency. And so we’re in a system right now that is graded, we’re not in a system, but healthcare in many ways. So I have to be clear. I’m not a medical provider, but just working in the system and with people in the system and having conversations. We’re looking at a system that is built on efficiency and their bottom line, whereas where we’re going will feel more like tender, loving care. It will feel like, oh, you just spent two hours with me to talk about my dog and now we can get into my healthcare. People want to feel the connection and the recall, and the consistency with providers. So for instance, one of the challenges in kind of, I guess, traditional maternal health is that you may not always have the same doctor, but when you’re talking to Black folks and what feels safe, it’s a consistency of care.
It’s oh, I’ve had this person kind of walk with me throughout a process. I think we will begin to look more like the midwifery. Honestly, we talk about, oh, we want to go back to the good old days, but this is a space that I do think the future probably will look more like what we used to do. So that’s why I said slow. It will feel consistent like what a midwife would do. They are your person. Your appointments are hours long. You can call, text whenever you need to. They come to you. It feels like a whole wraparound care. It is high touch. The success is you having a good experience. Your outcome sometimes you can’t gauge. But what if success is the experience of the person? And that’s what I believe Black folks are asking for. I want you to care about not just saving me and my child. I want you to care about my experience throughout, from beginning to end. Think of it as a flow. All of the touch points in between are intentional. So that’s where we’re going and that’s what I want to help build.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, just hearing you talk about this sounds, I can’t quite put it into words. It’s a very warm feeling. That’s what you want to have. If you’re not feeling well, if you’re sick or something, you want that kind of convalescent sort of care. And I think certainly our current system doesn’t work that way. It’s very cold and in efficient in many ways. We’re not even talking about insurance and stuff. But yeah, I like that slow, I guess, feeling or that slow experience that you mentioned. It’s more about, I guess, taking the time, building that rapport and making sure that people have a good experience. It’s not just about the care. It’s about the experience with the care also.

Whitney Robinson:
Definitely. And I do think it’s colorful. Just think about, again, going into a hospital or something, very harsh, bright lights, white walls, white lab coats. When I was having my first home birth, my grandmother told me, “That’s beneath you as a Black educated woman to do that.” But she was born at home. So this is an intergenerational conversation also, because let’s be honest, there’s a little bit of keeping up with the Joneses that happened to us. Oh, white women are doing this so we should do this or they’re saying it’s safe and so that’s the safest place for us. And then there’s this spiral.
And so my grandmother saying that to me, with all of her sass made me realize too, oh, this is not just one sided. Like, oh we can’t just look at hospitals and the providers, but this is generational. So many of the conversations too around birth experiences of older generations were covered in shame. And so those things were not shared. And so this new, or this system that is going back to really the things that granny midwives and doulas do constantly, it’s a part of their service, we are basically going to that. That’s what I would love to see because I believe, I’m banking on that being the care that people are asking for, that people want.

Maurice Cherry:
What other kinds of projects are you working on? You have The Renée, before we started recording, you mentioned you’re also doing something called Product Groove as well. What other projects are you working on?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. Just know, I grew up on funk. My first concert was James Brown. It is a very heavy thread in my life the way I was raised by my parents. And so Product Groove really, I wish someone could do an imagery of a record for it. The imagery in my mind is we have so many, I have worked with so many first time or non-technical founders of color specifically who have an idea and they go and hire a dev shop. And then by the time they hire me, I’m like, “Ooh Lord. You about to have to refinance your whole house just to pivot.” So Product Groove is just a natural kind of iteration of the work that I’ve been doing with founders and companies. I love to just focus on non-technical and first time founders of color and helping them build strategy.
So it’s a support coaching product strategy type thing. I mean, to be corny, it’s helping you get into a groove. It’s helping you understand like, who’s your customer? And I have an idea, but should I really build something on it or is it just good for me? That happens a lot. People will discover a problem, but really they just, they’re the only one that cares about it. I want to help founders not make costly mistakes. And so it will be in cohort style, group sessions couple times a month. And I’m definitely asking people, I ask people to be committed to it financially and with their time, because what I am really good at is helping people build strategy, roadmaps, understand their people, understand research, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch up a little bit, switch gears here. I want to learn more about kind of your origin story. Some of which I know because we’ve actually had your sister on the show before, but we can talk about that. But tell me about where you grew up and what was your childhood like?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I grew up in the country in the sticks when the neighbors, you couldn’t see them. I grew up playing outside all day, which is why I raised my kids the same way. No matter the weather, they’re outside. So I explored a lot. I was bored a lot. My sisters were my best friends and too because my mom was like, “You go to school, you come home.” That’s it. And so my parents played records all the time. People came to our house for drinks. So I just remember growing up, it was a very funky environment. And so my parents being very stylish people with high standards and also just really hard workers. I didn’t think of myself in lack and that’s not even just monetary. I knew that I could think through anything. I wasn’t taught to fist fight or anything.
I was taught, if you can think through this, you can get through it, period. So I went to a very rural country high school in North Carolina and then I ended up at Duke. Actually let me back up. I ended up at Carnegie Mellon for pre-college, two pre-college programs. I think that’s when I realized, Ooh you a nerd. I was doing gaming and stuff back in, I don’t know, 20, God, before I went to college. So early 2000. And then went to Duke, which was a shock. It was a culture shock to me.

Maurice Cherry:
How so?

Whitney Robinson:
I was top of my class in high school, but I came to Duke feeling like the bottom. And imagine a place where there’s an academic rigor and not that many Black folks. And then I chose computer science, so I was the only, only, only, only. I always said that if I went back to Duke and I gave feedback, I would, maybe it’s in the past and just let it go. But there was so much kind of leaving, so much of the work was team based and computer science and I was left out sometimes. People would just be meeting and not let me know. I was reprimanded for things and I was like, “Wait, how are you all doing that?” But I tried so, so, so, so hard. So would I do Duke again? Yes. But I think I would realize there is a fight in me that I did not realize.
But the good thing about Duke is I actually started in VR and I built … Duke had this six sided cube called the die and you enter it in and you are in an immersive space. So I started doing game design and character and asset design, and 3D. And that was fun. And so I created a simulation. Of course, it was a runway with a dude in an afro and bell bottoms. It was just a thread in my life. But you walked in and you saw this guy walk away from you. He turned around, he came back, his clothes changed. And so Duke really did though push some of the envelope for me when it came to the way that I approached things. The look and feel, and the vibe. I also walked around with an afro. I was one of the only people that was wearing a natural and I wore bell bottoms. I was just a nerdy person.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, was that uncommon on Duke’s campus?

Whitney Robinson:
I think so, because I think, especially in the Black population, I think people came from so many other cities, like New York, Atlanta. I’m a Southern girl raised in the sticks. And so I do think there was a bit of difference. I don’t think it was, people were pointing at me or making me feel bad about it. But I do think I kind of [inaudible 00:36:14].

Maurice Cherry:
You just felt different. Yeah.

Whitney Robinson:
I felt different. Yeah. I think I brought a different type of energy.

Maurice Cherry:
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I felt that way when I went to Morehouse. I too am from the sticks. I’m from Selma, Alabama. And when I first got to Morehouse, I did a pre-college thing too the summer before graduation. And it was so funny that that summer because, first of all, I couldn’t leave Selma fast enough. I was like, “Oh, it starts in June. I graduate at late May. Let’s go.” I was ready to go. There was that aspect of it. But also I graduated top of my class in high school and then I get to Morehouse and it’s like meeting, at least in my program, meeting 20 other people that are just me, at least in that way, where they were top of their class where they’re at and now they come here and it’s from all over the country. In some cases, I don’t think it was in our program.
It was maybe in an adjacent program because they put us in a dorm with, I think, two other programs. So we all kind of co-mingled with each other. But there were people there from other countries that I had only heard about in school. I had never known about meeting people from the Virgin islands or from a country in Africa or from Haiti, but they were there and it’s like, “Oh, I’m learning about you all in person,” and stuff like that. I know what you mean about that kind of weird country [inaudible 00:37:38]. I had an afro in college. And what was interesting for me is I came in, and because Morehouse is a all male school, my mom is a seamstress and my grandmother is a seamstress. So they taught me how to sew and do everything from a really early age. So when I came in already knowing how to wash clothes, how to iron, how to fix a button, how to sew a hole in a sock.
That was a weird opportunity for me to get to know other people in the program because something would happen and they would know what to do. “Oh, I got a hole in my sock. Oh I lost a button.” I will say, “Oh I can sew that back on.” “Oh, you don’t know how to iron. I can do that. I can show you how to do that.” Or they wash all their clothes and they all come out pink or something like that.
I was like, “Oh no, you got to separate. You can’t put the whole box of laundry detergent in there. You have to just put a scoop or something.” Teaching them how to read the tags on the laundry. And they’re like, “How do you know this stuff?” I’m like, “You all didn’t take home-ec?” They didn’t take home-ec. But it ended up that sort of weakness, I guess, at least what I perceived as a weakness ended up being a strength. Because then I ended up getting to know other people and I felt like I was more supposed to be there as opposed to just kind of landing there because of my grade. You know what I mean?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I do know what you mean. I mean, when I graduated, woo, I had a sigh relief because I just felt like I graduated by the skin of my teeth. But now years, years later, almost 15 years later after graduation, the thing that Duke does get you is in the door. It’s almost like you sacrifice your mental health to get to the door. And for me it feels like the tech world, there are some people that graduated with me that were early Facebook. We were those people. And so I think went from tech bro culture for me to tech bro culture. I really knew how to navigate it when I graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
And you’ve held a number of product roles at some pretty well known tech companies. You were at Abstract for a while. You were at Hire Runner, just to name two of them. But you’ve also kind of always had your own entrepreneurial ventures on the side as well. You had Freshly Given, you had Charles & Whitney. Why was it important to kind of always have something on the side like that?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I like to think about, anytime I took a full-time gig, that was the side.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Whitney Robinson:
The reason why I say that is because I am an entrepreneur at my heart and sometimes my husband and I are like, “Okay, look, we got to pay some bills around here. We have one, two, three, four kids. Just get a job.” So he or I would do that. We bounced and done that over the years. Yeah. But the thread, again, has always been, I mean, if you look at my LinkedIn, I’ve basically worked for myself for the majority of my career and have jumped on other teams or consulted with other teams throughout that time. Freshly Given was the only one that was way left field. That was a leather, I found discarded leather in a country town in North Carolina and decided, why would people throw away leather? What if we can reintroduce leather back into commerce? And so that was that project and that lasted for a while. And that was really fun until I started having kids. One day, I’ll pick it back up.

Maurice Cherry:
It kind of will always be there.

Whitney Robinson:
It’ll always be there. And that’s why I’m like, we talked about this at the beginning. That’s why I’m becoming more okay with letting stuff go knowing that life is short, but there’s also this long game. I get up in five years and maybe I’ll do it even better or maybe it doesn’t matter. I’ll be picking it back up and I put it down for whatever reason and that’s okay too.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good thing about having the freedom to do that. But also it just adds to your overall body of work. You’ve done this thing, you’ve done it for a certain amount of years and you’ve decided not to do it anymore. And people may feel some kind of way about it. But if you want to pick it up later, you can. And if you don’t, you don’t, because you know that you have the capacity to always come up with something new.

Whitney Robinson:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How have you sort of built your confidence over the years as a creative professional?

Whitney Robinson:
A lot of talking to myself in the mirror, honestly. A lot of prayer. A lot of realizing that people have been here before. I have to be careful, and maybe other millennials can relate, I have to be careful because we do live in a time where people are, “Oh I have an idea. I’m putting it out there. I’m making millions of dollars. You all can do that too.” It is okay for just in my confidence to realize, Whitney, oh, you’re wrong. That’s okay. Or again, people have done this before. It sounds cliche, but you stand on the shoulders of so many people who are now cheering you on. When you feel like you’re the only person doing something, for me, it feels like, woo, daunting. But when I look at myself as a byproduct of generations of people, then I’m really arriving on the same equipped.
I’m not lacking. I’m not a disparity. I’m not what other folks say I am, other folks who don’t identify like me or whatever. I am who all these folks who came before me said I am. I am the combination of their work and their prayers and their rest or their lack thereof. I have to have those moments with myself because I do it a lot as a mother too. Oh, you’re just not doing it well. That’s the craziest thing to think that as a mother I’m not doing well when I give it, I don’t want to give it my all because then I’ll be burned out. But I give it a really good effort daily. And so yeah, it’s those moments where I realize, ooh Whitney, you doing okay. You good.

Maurice Cherry:
That just gave me goosebumps talking about that kind of, I show up on the scene prepared, that just gave me goosebumps, because you’re right. I mean, so much of what we do is, at least I think now as adults working now, it is the byproduct of our parents, our grandparents, other people in our community praying for us, pushing us on, supporting us. We have what we need to succeed. And so even sometimes when that imposter syndrome can creep up, it’s just good to sort of have that, to know that, you have that conviction that you know that you’re prepared. Oh God, ooh, that really got to me.

Whitney Robinson:
I do think that as we have a lot of conversations about being woke and the things that were pressed upon us about ourselves that were not true when we first arrived in the US, how much of that is this continual thread in our lives. And again, that’s why I like to look at that and say, ooh, who told you that you aren’t supposed to be here? Who told you that? Think about where that came from and keep moving forward.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated to move forward these days?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m really, really excited about the future. When I look at my kids and I see even their ability to create very beautiful things. My children love snakes. I am very afraid of snakes, but they love snakes. They pick them up in our yard now that they know how to identify them. And they just fiddling. Imagine, it’s great. They are frolicking with snakes all the time. I only have one girl and the rest of them are boys and even, you may have an assumption that she would be … She’s a ringleader. So I’m really optimistic about it because I can defer my fear so that these little folks can pass me.
At just the age that they are right now, they’re already doing more than I could even possibly think I would be doing. I have an opportunity, not only to raise a generation of people, but in my quiet time, I do see us winning. I see Black people winning and I do like the shifts around our bodies, our minds, our culture that we are collectively happening. Because these are the things we look back on and say, oh, that generation of people did what we are living, we are able to do now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny, I talk about that sometimes with my friends about, we’ll say we don’t really feel like sometimes we’re adults or we’re kind of adulting or whatever. And it’s like, we are the adults now. We are the ones that are doing … It’s funny. I think about, and I don’t mean this in a lofty way, but just to kind of use the show as an example. When Revision Path got put into the Smithsonian in 2019, I was dumbfounded that it happened, partially because I had been working so hard. I had really been working on it since 2015. That’s a whole other story. But it happened and then the very next day at work, my boss, he was the CEO of the startup I was working at, this white dude, just gave me the worst professional dressing down I’ve had in my career.
I was just at the top of, I was like, “I feel like I reached a career high and now you’re like, oh, let me shoot him down to this point.” And it was funny because in the time that it happened, initially I didn’t even really celebrate it. It happened in June or July, I think of 2019 and I never really got a chance to celebrate it. And then I went to Harvard in October for the Black in Design Conference that they have there every other year. And that felt like my victory lab going to that. And so many people that had seen me work on this throughout the years and had seen me do it that were just like, “You’re doing a good job. Congratulations. How can we help out?” That sort of thing.
That’s just a night and day kind of experience. I don’t know if what I said even related to what you just said, but for some reason when you mentioned that, that came to mind right away of … And I’m not just me, but more so we are now in the point where we are making the history, we’re doing the historical things. And it may seem like a day to day thing, but people are going to look back on what we’ve done in 2070 and be like, “Wow, this kind of stuff was happening back then.” So that sort of, it helps me to think that the work that I’m doing is not in a vacuum and that it’s part of a continuum.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. And I like to call them cornerstones. I think that those moments, whether they’re great or not, are cornerstones for our lives. And by cornerstone, I mean they often have some kind of inflection point and that is, but then collectively your entire life. For you, for instance, Maurice, your entire life is a cornerstone in the history of this country, your family. And so I think that if we look at it that way, it’s the day to day nuances you realize are collectively coming together to do a thing. And even just, like one of the things I am working on right now related to The Renée is around, is this kind of photo journalistic tour of the south capturing Black women in spaces of thriving so that our cornerstone during this pandemic, especially is that they were dying more. But you see these people in, I don’t know, Alabama are thriving and they Black. These are the things that I do think about in my life for these ups and downs.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of where you’re at in your career and in life, how do you define success?

Whitney Robinson:
That is ever changing but I would say, yes, right now, if it reduces my stress levels, it is successful. So if I don’t have an adverse reaction to it, so meaning I feel real good about it. Not that it’s easy, but it doesn’t feel like it’s weighing heavy on me unnecessarily, then I consider that success. So at this point, even projects that I join or people that I help. If I get that initial inkling of, hmm, girl, this ain’t it. I walk away and that feels like success. It’s listening and acting immediately without the fear of, oh, but don’t you need that? Or what if? I am not a fearful person and so I need to remember that my angle in life is, again, that I’m not behind the eight ball. That I am a person who will attract many opportunities, but not all of them are for me. And the things that are successful or lead to success for me are the things that create a space where Whitney can live and feel free within myself, within my community, within my family, all of those things.

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

Whitney Robinson:
I want still be in the maternal health space for sure. And by then in five years, actually the analogy that I tell people, going back to the Soul Train, if we get to the place where people see the pregnancy and everything at the beginning and the end as a Soul Train line, and we’re all supporting each other as one person goes down, that’s what I want. If our narrative shift gets to that point, oh my God, that would be incredible. But I want to continue to be in this maternal health space. I want providers, folks to look at us as a force. And so I’m sticking with this for a while. I want it to be creative. I want to dibble and dabble in the arts and be creative. Do new things that people just did not expect could come out of this space for us. So that’s five years. That’s what my career … I want The Renée to be my full-time, full-time

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and your work and everything? Where can they find that online?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I’m obviously on LinkedIn, which is Whitney Robinson. Right now I have red lips and an afro on my profile pick. And then The Renée. And you can email me about anything at The Renée because I absolutely love email, but The Renée is the, so T-H-E, -renee, that’s R-E-N-E-E, .com. And you could find me at whitney@the-renee.com, but the website is the-renee.com.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Whitney Robinson, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Since we’ve connected back in, what was that? 2018, 2018 when we met at XOXO, I’ve always felt like you’ve had this, there’s this presence about you. And I think people have to maybe, I hope they can feel it from the interview, but certainly when I first met you in person, you have this presence that like the ancestors are walking with you in everything that you’re doing. And even this work that you’re doing around maternal healthcare, hearing you talk about it with such passion and conviction. I’m so excited to see what you do in the future with this. I want to walk with you as you make this happen, because I really feel like you are on the right side of something here. And I hope that people, when they listen to this interview, they can feel that because I certainly do. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Whitney Robinson:
Thank you for those words. And I am very appreciative of this opportunity.

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Jordan Taylor

If I had to give an award for “Most Chill Revision Path Guest”, Jordan Taylor would win the prize with no competition. But don’t let the relaxed vibes fool you, because his skills as a designer and creator are anything but laid-back. And even better, he has roots here in Atlanta. Keep listening to learn more about this hometown hero!

We started off talking about his recent move to NYC, and he gave a peek behind the curtain of being a designer at the world-famous design firm Pentagram. From there, Jordan talked about growing up and attending college in Atlanta (taught by past Revision Path guest Nakita M. Pope!) We also touched on a few other topics, including Atlanta’s design scene, and what Jordan wants to see more of from the larger design community. Jordan is a uniquely talented, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of his work in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Jordan Taylor:
I’m Jordan Taylor. I’m a graphic designer at Pentagram. I work on a lot of different projects, mostly branding, but a fair share of editorial and motion design, a few websites here and there.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the year been going so far?

Jordan Taylor:
My year has been pretty great. I recently moved to a new place for the first time. I’m now living out in Brooklyn, New York. I moved up here for work and it’s been a chance to go on new adventures, see different things, meet new people. It’s been pretty interesting. A lot of changes.

Maurice Cherry:
When you sort of look at the year in general where we’re at now, we’re recording this right now in mid August. Is there anything that you want to accomplish before the year ends?

Jordan Taylor:
Oh, I’d say that right now I’m in a place where I’m trying to figure out what my next thing is. One of the things I really want to accomplish for the years over is starting to make those steps toward whatever that looks like, whether it’s an expression of self or new business endeavors. Just starting to really get back into more self-activated things. You know how they say you are always going to need to fall a couple times when you’re on your journey somewhere. I’m ready to start taking those baby’s first steps toward whatever new horizon I’m heading toward. I feel like I’m in that kind of place.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now, you’re at Pentagram, which is a extremely, extremely well known design consultancy. Talk to me about that.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. Pentagram is so many things. I’m there now. I’ve been working there coming up on two years in September. When I started, it was as a remote position. I started as an intern, but I was working from home still down in Atlanta. The journey there was just so unexpected. I just didn’t think that it was a place I was going to get to. When I started really diving into design, you get introduced to different ways of doing things and what brand design looks like and who the kind of designers to know are. You find out about different names and you end up finding out about Pentagram.
It just is a crazy experience to walk in there and actually see these people in person and not from even a crowd for some sort of forum that they’re putting on. It’s been really interesting just even beyond the partners, you have all the people working there on the different teams and you find out how a team works and how they approach projects and different ways that people think. It’s like a big incubator. It is really been… The way I got there was so much so of just putting my head down because it was the middle of the pandemic and just trying to get to the best place I could after leaving school.
So in a way, I don’t always fully take it in, but in those moments that I do, it just really hits me and it’s like, “Oh, I’m actually in here every day,” if that makes sense. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of just like air of ridiculousness to me. It’s actually worked out to this level.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like it’s hard to put into words. I mean, I’m listening to you stabber to talk about it. But I mean, I can imagine you’ve got such design heavyweights like Michael Beirut and Paula Scher and Eddie Opara whom we’ve had on the show episode 234 if people want to check that out. But I can imagine having that much, I guess, the weight of it all is probably a lot to think about from your perspective.

Jordan Taylor:
And then at the same time I still have work to do every day. I still have four or five projects to work on. So it’s a balancing act. You try to make yourself known and get to know people. But at the same time, you’re still trying to keep the main thing, the main thing, and I guess do the work that got you there.

Maurice Cherry:
And you’ve done that. I mean, you’ve done the work that got you there. It’s not like you just walked in off the street into Pentagram. Like you said, you had your head down working and we’ll get more into your background or your story, but you deserve to be there.

Jordan Taylor:
Absolutely. Yeah. I say all these things about how it feels to be there, but I don’t think I ever really felt I didn’t belong, maybe just that I didn’t expect for anybody to actually figure that out, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a typical day look like for you at Pentagram?

Jordan Taylor:
A typical day for me when I first started there as an intern, one of the big things that I was really aware of was that I was probably not going to understand how anything worked. So I would reach out to my mentors, one of which was Louis Mikolay. He used to work at Collins. Now he’s at Apple. I reached out to John Ferguson and McCoy Smith. I just asked them, “You all are professionals. You all are in this design world. How do you actually keep track of all the things that you’re supposed to do in the day? How do you know how much time to allocate to a project? If you got multiple projects going on, how do you know when to start the day or when to end the day?” Because it was working from home and starting out. Everything was a little too soft for me.
Long story short, I got into making to-do list to start the day or sometimes I make one to fill out the whole week. If I knew what the week had, coming ahead of me. After that, it really depends on the day to day what point I’m at in the week. But I’ll usually try and get the smaller projects out of the way or the little things, or just check my emails and make sure that nobody is kind of hitting me with a curve ball before I really get my day started.
And from there, I collaborate with my team to make sure that I know what their expectations are for the day. And then it’s working things out. If I am on a magazine project like Netflix Queue, it may be a lot of concept. And so it’ll be like, “We’re building a deck to introduce to the client. And then from there you might break away from that side of it and go to the print side and you’re coming up with different concepts and directions.”
So you’re doing a lot of art directing, but then right after that, I might have to create animation assets for a branding project where we’re trying to activate the brand for a presentation. So it’s a lot of flipping switches is what I call it. It’s a lot of flip this on, flip that off, go over here, do this. And then you just end up at 6:00.

Maurice Cherry:
And that’s the day.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You, I guess, touched on some of the projects you’re working on. You mentioned this magazine, Netflix Queue. What kind of other projects and stuff are you working on?

Jordan Taylor:
The projects I’m working on right now, I can’t really speak about. Some other projects I have worked on before, we did a wonderful rebrand for a college out in Pennsylvania who that was transitioning into university status called Moravian university. I worked on tech brand who was building out a whole kind of workspace system along the blockchain. So you really had ownership of your information called Skiff. I also work on the ACLU magazine that comes out twice a year. So it’s a wide range. And then there’s things that I help out with in spots here or there.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’re doing print projects, digital projects, kind of a little bit of everything, it sounds like.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. A lot of flipping those switches and within those, the Netflix magazine has a digital arm and a print arm. So I’m on both of those.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Sometimes we might have to create a cover animation for the website and then you also have to create print stories. I mean, build out those assets. So your vision for the brand in all these different formats and it’s all happening at the same time. Whereas with the ACLU magazine is strictly print, but it involves a lot of art directions.
So I’m commissioning illustrators. I’m commissioning photographers. I mean, we’re like staying on the pulse of what’s going on with the Supreme Court to find out what their rulings are going to be before the next issue. And then with something like Moravian, you just got old fashioned branding. So you’re building out color systems and typography and things like that.
I mean, it sounds exciting to be able to use your skills to bounce from project to project in that way. One of the last big creative projects I worked on actually was also a print and digital magazine for my former employer, because I just got laid off. But for my former employer, I was putting together a print and digital magazine. The first issue is out. Actually the second issue was ready the day they laid our whole team off. So I don’t know if the second issue will even see the light of day, even though it’s literally at the printer on the shelf. Don’t know if anyone’s ever going to see it.

Jordan Taylor:
Sounds like Limited edition.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And the third issue we were in the middle of working on, which was actually going to be on Web3 stuff. We commissioned illustrators. We had all the same things you were mentioning, writers, all that kind of stuff. Don’t know if that one is ever going to happen. I love the magazine thing because it was my first time ever working on something like that. I would love to do more things like that.
It just seems like two things with Pentagram. One, you get to work on so many different types of projects. And two, I guess, because Pentagram just has this like… To me, maybe not to other people, but to me it has this untouchable… I don’t want to say cult status because its name happens to be Pentagram, but it’s one of those things like, “No, don’t apply to us. We will choose you to work for us.” Like that sort of thing. I don’t know if that’s just part of the mystique of Pentagram, but I like that.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. I mean, I conflict on that. So a bit of how I actually ended up finding the position, I had joined Where are the Black Designers slack channel. [inaudible 00:14:28]

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Mitzi.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. One of the project managers at Pentagram posted the opening and I was like, “Oh, this is crazy. I don’t even know they did this.” And the week went along and I was like, “Oh, should I do it, should I not?” I applied through there, but that’s not usually how it happens and it’s something that Pentagram is trying to get better about is like casting a wider net and bringing in more perspectives.
I don’t know. The idea of that exclusivity, it creates the mystique you know, but I feel like in a world where we’re starting to just keep reconsidering these ideas of diversity and inclusion, when you’re at the top and you think you know what’s best, you don’t really allow anyone else to come in from the outside and influence and keep you there, you’re just moving off of… I don’t know. I feel like it makes it easier for you to lose sight of what’s actually going on around you if you’re not actually interacting with the people, so to speak.

Maurice Cherry:
I get what you’re saying. I totally get that because I think a lot of agencies probably have that same sort of problem. Yes, they want to have a level of exclusivity with the work, but I guess they don’t want to appear like they’re for everybody I suppose.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. It’s a tough balance, which I get. Look, just as a person who felt like they were on the outside, looking in and very much based on what I have come to find out just being in the workplace is not a common way of finding out about openings there. I just would hate to for the other person who’s in that same position and just wasn’t on the slack channel that day or that week.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. They just missed out.

Jordan Taylor:
And they’re just as good as I am. I just think about stuff like that and I’m like, “Oh, it conflicts me a lot.”

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s switch gears here a little bit. I want you to remain conflicted in the interview, but because this is about you and about your skill. Like I said, you deserve to be there certainly. Let’s switch gears here. Let’s talk about you. Tell me where you grew up.

Jordan Taylor:
I grew up 30 miles east straight down Act 20 from Atlanta, Georgia in Lithonia. It’s a Black suburb. It’s a pretty decent place to live. It was a lot quieter until Atlanta’s always constantly growing and expanding. So people started moving out there a lot more. But I was out there since I was two years old, like ’96 and then I moved out of the Atlanta area last October.
I spent a long time out there, just deep in that culture, moving around town, making friends. I was a part of the Atlanta public schools system throughout with a little bit of DeKalb County Schools in elementary. I feel like a country bumpkin sometimes being in New York now. But I feel like my experience in my kind of neck of the woods was just so interesting. I just got to see so many different things and so many different ways to live out my Blackness, I guess. My whole family is from the Atlanta area. So it just was a really warm, just loving experience the whole time. I miss it a lot. I think about it every day.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you grew up in Atlanta during a time. I mean that to me feels like peak Atlanta like the Olympics Freaknik ’96, that whole time. I came to Atlanta in ’99. So right after that. But I’m from Alabama, I’m from Selma, so I’m not that far from Atlanta. I’m roughly about three hours. We would always come to Atlanta, honestly, every summer or every time, I don’t know, our class did well on the SATs or something. It was always like, “We’re going to Six Flags. We’re going to Six Flags.”
So I’ve always been in and around Atlanta and then finally moved here when I was 18. But I know exactly that feeling that you’re talking about. And it’s something that I’m sort of exploring a little bit, because I’m working on a book proposal. And as I’m working through it, there’s such a positive thread of Blackness throughout Atlanta that I don’t think a lot of people really get.
I think people see Atlanta, they see the entertainments, they see the music. They see, “Oh, it’s a really Black city.” But it’s a warmth, I think that a lot of people don’t really understand unless you’re either from there or you’ve really lived there for a long time. I mean, I feel like I got it a little bit just from visiting so much, but certainly my formative years and my teens… Not even my teens, but really my late teens and my 20s in Atlanta is just irreplaceable. It’s hard to put that feeling into words about the… It’s not even so much of a positive Blackness, but as much as every example of excellence that you see around you is Black.

Jordan Taylor:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I think sometimes that can be hard even for other Black people to see depending on where they grew up. But Atlanta really sort fosters that and it’s not in any sort of weird supernatural extraordinary way. It’s like excellence is just all around you.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. A very casual Blackness.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s such a good way to put it, a very casual Blackness. That’s such a good way to put it.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. For me, people are constantly on this notion of Blackness is not a monolith. That’s what I mean, what we’re both talking about with that casual Blackness. I wouldn’t put myself in a certain frame. I always talk to my friends like we all played sports, but we all like anime. We all ended up doing different jobs. I have friends who were in the arts, but I also have friends who are paramedics, and I also have friends who are party promoters.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s no division.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, there’s no division.

Maurice Cherry:
I a hundred percent know exactly what you mean. I mean, I went to Morehouse, so I absolutely know of what that division can definitely look like. But yeah, man, I mean, you grew up here in a great, great [inaudible 00:20:49]. I can tell why you miss it. I can definitely tell why. Was art and design kind of a big part of you growing up here?

Jordan Taylor:
I would say it was, but it was more from a sense of… It was something that I was just always interested in. You get older and you look back on your life and you realize you were doing things the whole time that were preparing you for something you didn’t even know you were preparing yourself for. So it wasn’t more so that design or the arts was constantly around me.
Nobody in my family is like a designer. My mom is a school counselor. My dad works at the EPA. It was just constantly something that I was interested in. I watched a lot of TV, a lot of Cartoon Network, a lot of Nickelodeon, a lot of Disney, a lot of anime, a lot of Toonami. Those kind of things are what introduced me into the arts and made me appreciate art a lot more.
So I think the first thing I ever tried to draw was Goku on one of my school notepads. And from there, I kept drawing and drawing and doodling. But it wasn’t something that I really embraced as something that would ever be a part of my future. It was more so just something that I enjoyed and it was an outlet for me. It helped me express something that I really cared about. And then I got opportunities later on in high school to express those things in different ways. I knew I had that drawing talent and my mom would put me into these art programs over the summer to learn more about the technical side.
I did one in old Fort Worth at this summer camp where we had to choose a discipline. So I went with the drawing one, because it was the one that I was the best at. I got those things, but it was never something that I thought that I was actually ever going to be doing with my life. When I was about to graduate high school, I planned on doing engineering. Focusing on that is part of my college curriculum. Because like I said, I was preparing myself for things that I didn’t actually know were available to me. I was like, “Okay, well I’m good at math and science, but I also want to create things.”
I didn’t know how to express that completely. So my dad was working at the EPA. I was like, “Oh, he’s an engineer. Maybe I’ll be an engineer and maybe I’ll get to tinker on things or build something one day. But it wasn’t something that I was fully embracing. I definitely went to the high museum way more during my college days than I ever did during grade school.

Maurice Cherry:
But it sounds like your parents though, at least supported you in that, I guess you could say at that point was a hobby, was you really liking art and drawing. They didn’t try to dissuade you from it.

Jordan Taylor:
No, they never dissuade me from anything. I think I get a lot of my laid back kind of attitude from them because they’re very much… They were very much always, as long as I handled what I was supposed to be doing at school or whatever, then they would let me do whatever I wanted to in the peripheries. They never really tried to shut me down from anything and I always appreciate them for that.

Maurice Cherry:
So you ended up going to Georgia State University. And Atlanta’s got some well known design schools here. I mean, let’s see. If you were… I’m trying to think was it… No, Atlanta College of Art wasn’t around during that time. But I mean, we had Art Institute of Atlanta. I think SCAD was just maybe starting to have their campus here. I don’t recall. But there’s also things like the Portfolio Center, et cetera. I don’t know if Georgia State really is ever in that conversation of great design schools or curriculums in the city. How was your time there?

Jordan Taylor:
I really enjoyed my time there. So my introduction to Georgia State came a bit later in college. I transferred there. I first off went to Fort Valley State University. It’s a HBCU like an hour south of Macon, I think, near Warner Robins.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep, I’m familiar.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. Oh, you know about Fort valley?

Maurice Cherry:
I know about Fort Valley.

Jordan Taylor:
That was where I went because I thought I was going to be engineers. My mom was like, “Okay, go to this agricultural school. They have an engineering program. You can do that.” And while I was there, I found out more about graphic design. I would hear about it here and there on the internet, but I didn’t know how it worked. I found out what Adobe was. I was like, “Okay. Well, my laptop is not good enough to do any of that kind of stuff.”
But I ended up taking an elective my second year there and it was for graphic design. I think our first project was that we had to create a fake brand and then we had to make envelopes for the brand. Our teacher taught us how to use the blend tool. We could use the blend tool if we wanted to, but otherwise we had to just come up with something else. Long story short, I got an A in the class and I was like, “Wait a minute. I just made something and it felt like art.” I got an A and I don’t really want to be an electrical engineer. That’s fourth floor.
I called my mom right before I was about to go back home because the semester ended and I was like, “Hey, I looked it up. Georgia State has graphic design program.” Because I think I looked into all those other schools, but like I said, my mom never stifled me from anything, but she always made me very aware of what she could and couldn’t do. So I knew she wasn’t about to pay for me to go to SCAD.
I called her, I was like, “Hey, I got an A in this graphic design class. I want to transfer up to Georgia State.” I’m going to major in it. They have a program up there. She was like, “Wait a second. It is the first semester. Could you at least finish the next semester and make sure you want to do this?” I was like, “No, I got to go.”
But she made me finish that next semester. I spent that whole semester in my free time learning how to use illustrator. When I finally started, I was so eager. I started taking classes at Georgia State over the summer because I wanted to get in there because I couldn’t use my laptop. I was using the school stuff at Fort Valley to design. I was like, “Okay, I don’t want to spend a whole summer not working on this because I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know how good any of these people in these classes are about to be when I start.”
So I spent that whole summer in the Georgia State computer lab, just working on Illustrator. Photoshop, I was kind of like, “Ah, there’s kind of too many different ways to do things on there. I’m just going to keep doing Illustrator.” I mean, I had a great time in Georgia State’s graphic design program. I would say to anyone that’s thinking about it based on our conversation right now that it really helped cement a lot of the basics and a lot of the fundamentals of what design is, how do you approach it? What does it mean to create a creative identity?
I took a lot of the introductory classes because it’s broken up into two different sections. So you take the intro classes and then you have to go through a portfolio review to get to the final stage and actually graduate with a design degree.
I didn’t make it to that second part because I was missing a project. I learned so much from the experience that I knew I could design. They even said it. They were like, “Some people might not make it. That doesn’t mean you’re not good.” There’s plenty of people that don’t make it. Because there’s so particular and they have such a hard cutoff in terms of the numbers because of the size of the program right now.
They really encouraged you to keep going and that’s what I did. I was like, “I know what I’m doing. I know how to build a brand. I know how to use Illustrator and Photoshop. I made all these projects. I didn’t do all this for no reason.” So I just stuck to it after that and stayed in contact with all my teachers from all my introductory classes because they continued to keep their doors open for me. I would definitely recommend it.
Anybody thinking about going to SCAD or those other art schools, I would say to look into Georgia State because their program is really great and they really supported me the entire time.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to say, it sounds like they really kind of helped prepare you to get out there and be a designer. Even though, as you said, you didn’t go through and do the project portion of it, but you still came out with enough know-how to know how to be a designer.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you enrolled at The Creative Circus a couple of years after you graduated from Georgia State. What made you do that?

Jordan Taylor:
I enrolled there because after I didn’t make it to the second portion of the design program, I continued to work. I started trying to find different outlets for what I could do. So I was like, “Okay. I’m not in the program.” So I would do things for people here and there. I got a intern position at the APEX Museum, which was right down the street from the Georgia State campus. It’s a Black history museum. They really gave me a great chance to try and do my things in actual application and step with their own identity.
There was just something in the back of my head, as I kept learning about design and learning about Eddie Opara, and Michael Beirut, and Paula Scher and those kind of people. There was something beyond that, that I didn’t really know how to do yet. So along with those other things that I was doing in terms of working, I was also trying to meet more people that were also designing.
So I joined the AIGA student chapter in Atlanta and I ended up meeting one of the teachers at The Creative Circus because the meeting I went to was at The Creative Circus. So I got to see little bits and pieces before I walked into our meeting space. I was like, “Hey, is this an art school?” Because I didn’t even know what it was. It was like off a Cheshire Bridge off of a back street.
She was like, “Yeah, this is an art school.” I was like, “Do you all have a design program?” And she was like, “Yeah, we have a design program.” It was a Nakita Pope.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Nakita. Love Nakita. She’s been on the show before.

Jordan Taylor:
She’s like, “Yeah, we have a design program. I’m actually one of the instructors for it. If you ever want to come back, I’ll give you a tour. You can sit in on one of my classes.” She let me walk around for a bit before I had to leave. And they have all the work on the walls from previous students’ projects. I saw that stuff and I was like, “I don’t know how to do any of this.” I was like, “I thought I was good at it and I don’t know how to do any of this. But if they know how to do this, I think I can figure it out.”
Long story short, I talked to my mom. I was like, “Hey, thinking about going back to school. It’s going to cost yada, yada, yada.” She’s like, “Wait a minute. [inaudible 00:32:11] stick with me.” That took some discussing because my parents had already paid for four years of school. So I went there. It did what I expected it to… It took me to a whole nother level in terms of understanding. What it really helped me with was concepting, being able to build an idea and then flush it out graphically in a multitude of ways.
So what I learned from Georgia State in my introductory classes was that what makes a good logo, how to pick out typography, things like that like the building blocks. And then when I got to The Creative Circus, they really pushed those different levels of self expression and leaving no stone unturned when you’re trying to tell the story of something. So it all came together to put together the picture.

Maurice Cherry:
And for folks that don’t know or haven’t heard of The Creative Circus, it’s this private for-profit college recently closed its doors, which is such a big loss to the Atlanta design community. I hope they come back one day, but The Creative Circus and Nakita Pope who you mentioned as an instructor there. I think I’ve been there a couple of times. I know, I remember seeing, I think it was Douglas Davis had given a talk there when he was doing his book tour for his book about creative strategy and the business of design.
Nakita and Douglas knew each other because they both went to Hampton. Although, I don’t know if they went at the same time or not, but yeah, The Creative Circus, great, great resource to the city. Sad that it’s closed. But no, it sounds like you got what you needed from there. And you also have interned at a few places in Atlanta. You mentioned Apex over on Auburn Avenue. You interned at the Mammal Gallery, which is downtown Atlanta. You interned at MetroFresh Uptown. These are three somewhat different types of design experiences, it seems like. What did each of those places really teach you?

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, they were so interesting looking back on them. It was very much, I was still in that phase of trying to scrounge together different experiences any way I could. I was out of college and I just had to dive into things that I was interested in. I was like, “I love my people. Let’s go to the Apex.” I was like the Mammal Gallery back then. I’m not even sure if the Mammal Gallery is still open, but they used to put on concerts where they would bring in these underground performers or these emerging artists. I was really into that because that was the mix tape era and SoundCloud era.
So I was like, “Hey, I love this place. Let me ask if they need a graphic designer.” Because everybody needs a graphic designer. And then with MetroFresh Uptown, that was taking something that I needed and trying to bring something that I wanted into it.
So I got the job because I needed a job because I was working. At The Creative Circus, I made it past the first quarter and it was time for me to try and figure out how to keep paying to be there. I’d done a lot of food service jobs. I picked that one up because I had heard about… I don’t even remember how I heard about the opening, but I’m not going to dwell on that. And because I was working at a new location for them, I was like, “Hey, do you all need signage? Do you need somebody to draw murals? Do you need somebody to make pamphlets for you to pass out in this office building? I could do all that stuff.” And it worked out from there.
But it prepared me for what I would do like the next internship that I was in for a really long time because it gave me a chance to be a part of something and know what the identity was and how to bring that out in that graphic language.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And that other place that you’re talking about, that’s Atlanta Contemporary. You were there for pretty much, almost five years. That’s a really long time. Talk to me about what that experience was like.

Jordan Taylor:
I love the Atlantic contemporary. I talk about the place all the time. For anybody who’s listening and is in the Atlanta area, it’s free every day. I think they’re only closed on Sundays. They might be closed on Mondays now, but they’re definitely closed on Sundays. It’s a contemporary art space, but it’s also an art center. So they do a lot of events where they bring in the community and they have children’s events. They do weddings, all that kind of stuff.
But it was that kind of last step in finding things that I was interested in. I was like, okay. So I worked at a Black history museum. I’ve done things for music space. I’ve done things for restaurants. What else am I interested in? If I could ever get a job at a museum, that would be really cool. I was like if I could ever actually make graphics for something based in the arts, that would be incredible.
So I went around to all the spots that you can think of. I went to the High Museum, I went to MOCA, I went to the Atlanta History Center. I was just Googling these places and then I would spend the day and go to them. And eventually, I went to the Atlanta contemporary. I was like, “Oh, do you all have any openings?” They were like, “No, we already have a graphic design.” I was like, “Oh well, okay. Do you do internships?” They were like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Do the interns do any graphic design?” They said, “No.” I was like, “Well, if I intern, could I do some graphic design?” And they were like-

Maurice Cherry:
You were trying. You were trying to get in there.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. And they were like, “I mean, maybe. Sure.” So I just took those opportunities wherever I could get them. It was a chance for me to interact with the community because people would come in for different exhibit exhibition openings and people would have the artist talks there and things. They had a whole pavilion in the back where they housed certain artists within their studios. So I got to interact with there. That was cool.
But then here and there, if they had an event, they were like, “Hey, Jordan. Could you make some signage? Hey, Jordan, could you make a flyer? Hey Jordan, could you do the vinyl descriptions for the artwork this month?” It would trickle in slowly. I built up a rapport with everybody that I was capable of doing these things. And then it turned into a full time position after that. When I got that chance to do that because the previous graphic designer had actually moved to New York because I had been there so long, I recommended different ways of going about how they express themselves with their social assets and things like that.
I was like, “Hey, I feel like this could speak a lot more clearly to what you all actually have going on here.” It’s so interesting and fun here. I think that this could be expressed a different way. So it was a chance for me to build a proposal. And then from there, it really bled into a lot of things. I was creating their monthly social posts. I was creating special animated assets whenever they had a special event going on.
I was doing their event graphics. I was doing the way finding within the museum, or within the art space, excuse me. And then I was also still doing the vinyl descriptors for the exhibitions also. And then I even got to help with one of the art pieces one time. They had this mantra that they wanted to put on the wall, but the guy walked in with just… It typed out from a typewriter on a piece of paper and he was like, “I wanted to look exactly like this, but on the wall.”
I was like, “Well, aren’t you the artist? You don’t know how to do that? But that was a chance to really collaborate with the artist and get their vision across, but then also I had to collaborate with the more practical people, the vinyl makers and figure out how I could create his vision and make it sense to them as the go between. So it was a lot.
I mean, I met a lot of incredible people. Just an invaluable experience. It pops back up every time I’m trying to do something. Earlier when I talked about flipping those switches, that was the first place where I really had to flip switches. I might animate, but I might be doing social stuff, but I might be making a visitor’s brochure.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like you really spread your wings there creatively. You got to do a lot of different things.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, because of the nature of the space as a contemporary art space, it was very open to new ways of doing things or new approaches. They had their shareholders or their investors that you had to run things by in the final round. But all in all, it was very, like you said, a great experience to spread my wings and figure things out on the fly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re currently in New York. Of course, that’s for work for Pentagram. But I’m curious when you think of your time here as a designer in Atlanta, what was the design community and scene for you? How would you describe it maybe to someone outside of Atlanta?

Jordan Taylor:
I would say the design scene here… Or in Atlanta. I’m not there anymore. It’s a lot broader than you think it is. There’s a lot of incredible people just kind of like… You got to get in there, but once you get in there, there’s a lot of amazing people out there doing their thing, making their way. What makes it different from what I’ve encountered so far up here in New York, New York is very much a design city. It’s like, “Oh, the subway system and this and that.”
But in Atlanta, what I really liked about the community out there is everyone was very much so making a way for themselves and finding their pocket or their niche and figuring things out. And the community comes together for different things like AIGA events and stuff. I would say the a G is a good way to find out what people are doing and find your group or what you’re most interested in. But everyone out there was being really resourceful or everyone out there had found their groove. They knew how to work it through all the ups and downs. One of my mentors, his name was Joe Price.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I know Joe.

Jordan Taylor:
You know Joe?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jordan Taylor:
Great. He was freelance, but he had been freelancing for so long when I met him. He just was constantly like… He’s so good at rolling with the punches. Even during the pandemic, he just knew how to figure things out. But at the same time, because it’s such a more kind of non-mainstream thing to be a designer, I guess, he’s so quirky. I don’t think he thinks he is. Joe has pet squirrels in his workspace. It’s a little nook in his backyard. Just full of different design ephemera just all over the place. Just stacks of books on books, on books. It’s really incredible. I think it’s pretty great, but you got to get in there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jordan Taylor:
You’re not just going to get swept up in it, you got to get into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Joe gave me the coolest piece of, I guess, design swag or ephemera that I’ve ever gotten from anyone. But I mean, I’ve been to conferences and I’ve talked to people all around the world. This was years and years ago. No one else has ever given me anything this cool. You’re going to laugh at this. It’s a beverage koozie like you put on cans.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. But it’s a paper bag. You see folks on the corner get a 40 or whatever and they’re drinking it right out the paper bag, it’s a paper bag koozie. And it’s actually a bag like you put the can like a regular 12-ounce can. You put it in the bag, and it’s got his logo on it. It is the coolest thing I have ever gotten from any designer anywhere. And I’ve gotten posters, books, figurines.
And the thing is, I can’t find it anywhere. I don’t know where Joe got those from. I don’t know where he got those printed, the website of the bottom of it no longer exists, but I still have it. It’s in my silverware drawer, in my kitchen. It is the one coolest piece of design thing I ever got. It’s just a paper bag koozie. It’s paper bag on the outside, but it’s insulated on the inside. You just put a drink in it and then you feel like you’re drinking out of a paper bag. It’s the coolest thing.
No, that sounds amazing. I never heard that. I’m going to have to ask him about it because that sounds incredible. It’s all crinkled and you put a paper bag and it’s like… All that.

Maurice Cherry:
And from a distance, someone will think you’re just drinking out a small paper bag or something, but no, it’s a beverage koozie. It’s so cool. It’s so cool. Did you feel like there were any sort of particular challenges that you had to face here as a designer that you might not be facing in New York?

Jordan Taylor:
I think the main one is just that… Like I said, it’s not a super… It’s just not as popular of a career path, I guess in Atlanta. So when it came time for me to find a career path or find a job or a gig, it was a little difficult. I found myself ending up at the same spots whenever I would try and find different avenues. The amount of times that I applied to Turner Broadcasting, it would shock and appall you. I applied to play so many times throughout college.
After college, I was constantly Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, TNT, blah, blah, blah. It was so many times. And then as I got more into the design community, I found out more about different places that were available or even design shops like Matchstick and so forth. But I just think that there just aren’t as many options as there might be up in New York.
But like I said, when you meet more people in the community, everyone has figured out their way and found their kind of niche and how to move and the space. But for me starting out, it was a little… There wasn’t as much of a depth of options as I thought they were going to be.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you ever get an interview with Turner?

Jordan Taylor:
No. I never got past the video interview part. I did the submitted questionnaire and then one time I got to do a video interview, but never actually got to go there in person and sit down with anybody.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ve got a line in your bio that says your approach to design is similar to one of your patented long walks around town. What does that mean?

Jordan Taylor:
Okay. It’s not like long walks on the beach type of thing. It’s actually a connection.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Yeah, unpack that for me.

Jordan Taylor:
Like I said, when I moved back to Atlanta after Fort Valley and I decided to become a designer, I would have to go into the city. So for five years I was going into the city every day from my house in Lithonia. So I was taking public transit. I was taking MARTA every day. I would get on the bus. This might be too granular for your wide audience, but I would go to Indian Creek and then I would take the train into the city. And then I would either have to walk or take another bus wherever else I was going.
So doing that constantly is what I mean by those patented long walks. And what I mean when I say that my design is similar to those is that if you spend enough time on the ground, just walking everywhere, you’re going to see some interesting things. You’re going to appreciate more of what’s going on around you because you’re transitioning from a more forest area because there’s so many trees in the Atlanta area to like you go through the urban areas and you’re passing by restaurants, you’re passing by clubs, you’re passing by all these different things.
You see a lot of weird stuff. You see a lot of interesting things. You might see some not so great things. But it all leaves an impact. I think that’s what I mean when I say it’s my patented long walks on the beach. So things might get a little weird. I might try and take some interesting left turns here or there, but it’s all for the sake of giving that impact.
I want you to feel like you’re actually a part of the journey. I want you to feel like a story is being told to you. I want you to feel like there’s a lot of meaning and purpose behind what’s going on here. Because I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t have that sense of purpose to get up, leave my house and go do all these different things every day.
When I was going to find my different internships, I walked there. When I was going to school at The Creative Circus, I walked there. And by walking, I mean it included public transit, but my feet were on the ground. I was like-

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Jordan Taylor:
… back and forth. It’s weird. It’s fun. It’s got a lot of purpose behind it. I feel like that’s how I design.

Maurice Cherry:
As you started saying that, for some reason that just reminded me of the first verse of Elevators from Outkast where you’re talking about taking MARTA through the hood, trying to find the hookup caught the 86 Lithonia headed to Decatur.

Jordan Taylor:
I rode to 86. That was my bus.

Maurice Cherry:
My bus was the 13 because I went to Morehouse and I was living in the west… Oh, well, I wasn’t living in the west end when I was at Morehouse, unless it was on campus. But I used to live in Buckhead in the Darlington before the Darlington got run down and now it’s like multimillion dollar condos or whatever. It used to be the 23, now it’s the 110. But I take the 23 to Art Center. I take Art Center to Five Points. I take the 13 from there. And it puts you off at the strip of Fair Street and Brawley, James P Brawley, which is the Clark Atlanta strip. That was class every day. I remember it finally. I have not ridden the 13 in years, but I remember that very fondly.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. I feel same way. Whenever I go back home and I see that bus when I go visit my mom or whatever, it’s a very funny feeling. Just like, oh, that used to be my life. I spent plenty of days running that thing down.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, me too. Running down to 13. People that are not in Atlanta don’t know this, but the buses are terrible. There’s only a few that are fairly reliable. The 13 is pretty reliable. The 23, which is now the 110. The six to Emory is pretty reliable. I would imagine the 86 is probably pretty reliable too, but a lot of in-town buses, good luck. If you miss it, you’re waiting 30, 40 minutes for the next bus. It’s ridiculous.

Jordan Taylor:
No, absolutely. I mean, the 86, it came, but I wouldn’t say it’s super reliable because I would have to show up 10 minutes early or I’m going to be an hour late because like you said, it might show up on time. It might show up 10 minutes early. It might show up 10 minutes late. But either way, if you miss it, you’re waiting another 40 minutes until the next one. No, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember taking the 23 and sometimes what happened is… I don’t know if this happened on the 86, but the driver would get out and go into McDonald’s and get something to eat. Just leave the bus, people on the bus waiting to get where they got to go, but they got to get a McGriddle. They got to get their food and come… You better not be mad about it either because they’ll put you out.

Jordan Taylor:
No, thanks. But my bus driver would always… Well, it didn’t happen all the time, but he stopped. I had a few bus drivers stop and get out and walk and go get some chicken wings and they come back. They would walk to the gas station.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep. Oh, man. That’s a very particular just Atlanta transit thing that, that’s funny. I think about that and I just get a warm feeling like nostalgia.

Jordan Taylor:
But like I said, it’s ridiculous. It just is Atlanta. It just is that journey.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about design?

Jordan Taylor:
I would say for where I’m at right now, the best advice I was given was not too long ago. I was talking to Eddie Opara, just trying to take advantage of the situation I’m in. I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to meet this man.” I was like, “Okay.” We just had a conversation. I told him where I was at like where I was talking about earlier, how I feel like I’m just in this space where I’m trying to figure out what’s next. What do I want to keep doing? Or how do I keep moving forward? What he told me was that what you got to do as a designer is kind of figure out what your voice.
You spend all this time learning the building blocks, learning the technical things like, “Oh, how do I use After Effects? How do I use InDesign?” And all this kind of stuff. But sometimes you can get lost in that and not realize that you have a way of expressing yourself. You have a voice. I feel like I do those things, but I don’t have my own world that I built out a vision for how people just immediately are like, “Oh, Jordan made this. This speaks to his sensibilities.” I’m very much more so in the production stage of where I’m at right now.
So I think that was something that, “Oh, was really helpful to me.” He was talking about how you have to pick what means the most to you. Is it about paying it forward in which case maybe you do a lot more kind of teaching or instructing? Or is it about expressing the essence of what we do. In that case, you might do a lot more forums and TED talk type things.
But it was really helpful just figuring out what means the most to you and how do you make that known to people? What is your identity as a designer?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good advice.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Next time you talk to Eddie, tell him I said what’s up.

Jordan Taylor:
Okay. Yeah. I should see him soon, so I’ll tell him.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Jordan Taylor:
I think what keeps me the most motivated is just… I know there’s so much more coming. There are a myriad of things that have gotten me to this point like the music I love, the artwork I love. I’m constantly making mood boards on Are.na or Pinterest of things that I think other people are doing and that are cool and they push me forward. But I think the things that keeps me the most hopeful for what’s coming in the future is that I know I have a place and I know that I’m in control of it ultimately. I just have to keep going forward and seeing what’s next, looking for those new opportunities.

Maurice Cherry:
What more do you want to see from the design community? I feel like you are at this very unique place as not only just a young designer, but also a young designer at a place that has such a storied reputation, I would say. What do you want to see more of from the design community?

Jordan Taylor:
I want to see more of Black people. I want to see more of me, more of us. I just want to see more of it. I think that we’re such a creative people. Our influence is so ridiculous. I think that when you think about that in the grand scope, the statistics around how many people of color are like, or how many Black people are designing is so disproportionately low when I’m thinking about the kind of impact we have on the sway of things in the American culture.
I think that also something that I want to see more of is just based on my background and I guess a little bit of just being around my mom all the time. I want to see more people designing at earlier ages. I want that kind of stuff introduced to kids earlier and earlier. I think with the onset of the internet and TikTok and all those kind of things, I think it’s becoming a little more standardized at earlier ages and younger and younger kids are getting into it.
But I did a talk for my mom’s elementary school a few months ago, just introducing them to what design is and the amount of feedback I got from not only the kids, but the teachers that didn’t know that it was an option and were just so blown away about the possibility of what design is and what it can do. I think that just needs to continue happening.

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

Jordan Taylor:
In the next five years, I want to be doing more work that speaks to who I am. I wanted to speak to my interests. I wanted to impact the people that I care about the most. I wanted to continue to be as proud of my work as I am right now. I feel like I’m really proud of what I do, but it also isn’t a hundred percent mine. So I think that’s where I see myself in five years. Just really taking more ownership of my designs and applying them to what means most to me.

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

Jordan Taylor:
You can find me on Instagram, @jiggyjordan. It’s J-I-G-G-Y-J-O-R-D. I have a website. It’s a keywordjord. K-E-Y-W-O-R-D-J-O-R-D. Other than that… I mean, I have an Are.na page. I enjoy that a lot. I’ve been really getting into that. Do you use Are.na at all?

Maurice Cherry:
This was back in 2019, 2020, I worked with a designer, this really cool student named Perjohn. We used to work at Glitch together. He kind of turned me on to Are.na at first, because he was using it kind of as a sketchbook of sorts. I’ve never used it outside of that though. What is it like?

Jordan Taylor:
So to me it’s a cooler Pinterest. I find a lot of design inspiration on there visually, but I see all kind of people doing different things on here. I’ve seen entire mood boards that are just full of random ideas. I’ve seen tons of people making video references, motion references, entire mood boards that are just free type faces. I mean, I enjoy it a lot. It’s a little grungy and underground, but that speaks to the stuff I like.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll have to check it out. What’s your name on Are.na?

Jordan Taylor:
It’s just Jordan Taylor. I think that’s the best way to find me on here. That’s the other thing. It’s a little hard to discover people on this thing, but I’ll message you. And if anybody else has any trouble finding me, they can let me know, I guess, on Instagram or something.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Jordan Taylor, I want to thank you so so much for coming on the show. I really wanted to have a young Atlanta designer on the show. I know you’re not in Atlanta anymore, but I think just your story of quiet perseverance and drive from growing up to going to school and even pursuing these internships, I think that’s something that a lot of people out here need to see, because I think we see enough of the alternative, which is I went to this fancy art school and now I went to this fancy agency or whatever.
I think people see enough of the alternative and don’t see the folks out here that they’re quietly grinding. And I get the sense that you’ve really been quietly grinding, building your portfolio, improving your skills. And that’s gotten to where you are now at Pentagram of all places.
I can’t wait to see what you do in five years, man. I’m really going to be keeping an eye out for you. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jordan Taylor:
Oh yeah. Thank you so much. I mean, this has been incredible. I appreciate it.

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Keith Henry Brown

I really enjoyed my conversation with this week’s guest — the one and only Keith Henry Brown. This prolific artist has a catalog that few can touch, with work appearing in The New York Times, Carnegie Hall, Blue Note Records, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, just to name a few. But Keith is so much more than just an artist, as you’ll come to find out!

We started off talking about his current and upcoming book projects, and he shared how he balances his day job with his other career passions while giving a peek into his creative process. From there, he spoke about growing up in Staten Island, getting a shot to draw for Marvel Comics, and getting handpicked by Wynton Marsalis to be creative director at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We even spent some time geeking out about jazz, and he shared one of his dream projects that he’d love to accomplish one day. Keith’s journey as a creative is all about not being afraid to do what you want to do — very inspiring!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Keith Henry Brown:
Hi, I’m Keith Henry Brown. And I am an illustrator, graphic designer and a writer.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going so far?

Keith Henry Brown:
It’s hot. I could tell you that. Other than that, I stay busy. In a lot of ways, I’m juggling two different careers, a career where I am a, I guess, full-time illustrator, but then I’m also a full-time art director, graphic designer for an advertising firm. I try to find some way to do both of those. I’m also a dad. Both my kids though are men now, but you got to deal with the craziness. Just juggling. But I like being busy. That’s what it’s all about. The minute I slow down, then I start feeling complacent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. You mentioned being an author. I wanted to congratulate you on your book that just came out a couple of months ago, Because of You, John Lewis. Is that right?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I didn’t write that one. It’s Andrea Davis Pinkney wrote this beautiful script about a story about this young man named Tybre Faw, who was I think 11 or 12 at the time, who was obsessed with civil rights leaders, which I think is pretty extraordinary in itself, from Tennessee. And he asked his two grandmothers to drive him to meet John Lewis. He met John Lewis, came in the back door, All these reporters came up to him and said, “What are you doing here?”
“I want to say hello to my hero.” They opened the back door. Mr. Lewis came out. Never saw the kid before in his life. The kid started crying. He held up a sign telling him about what he thought about him, which was basically saying, “You’re a hero of mine.” Lewis gave him a big hug. He later invited him to march with him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and then they became friends. When Mr. Lewis died, he did his eulogy at his funeral. They became friends for a short time while John Lewis was alive.
So the book is about their relationship, but the book is really about how leaders inspire each other, like Martin Luther King was John Lewis’ mentor; not at first, but his person that he fancied and that he was interested in and wanted to be like. And then he finally got to meet him and work with King, Mr. King, which you probably know. And then the same thing happened again with Tybre and John Lewis. So it’s sort of a succession of future and past civil rights leaders.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Sounds like a great book. I’ll definitely put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out.

Keith Henry Brown:
I give most of the credit to Andrea. They found me. Scholastic Books is the publisher. And I hadn’t done anything like it yet in my career. And it was just a huge honor that they thought that I could do it. And I was intimidated because of all these amazing people that were involved. And it was a learning experience. But the book is out, and people seem to like it. We’ve gotten starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal. And people seem to like it. I’m excited that people know the story now.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything you want to try and accomplish before the end of the year?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. I mean, I have a lot of projects coming up. So I’m a job-oriented person. So in my mind, my whole life is a series of tasks that I have to achieve. And I break it down from year, and I break it down to week, and I break it down to month. And I know what I got to do the rest of this year. And there’s a lot of stuff I got to do.
So it just was just announced that I’m doing a book about … there’s a story of Raymond Santana, who is one of the Central Park five, the exonerated Central Park Five, if I may add. You may know the story about these five African American young men who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman in Central Park in the ’80s. They all went to jail for this crime that they did not do. They were all eventually exonerated, but they all suffered horribly. In the early 2000s, they were awarded an apology and some money from it, but the story itself is scarring. Ava DuVernay did a really beautiful film about it that I think is still on TV, on-

Maurice Cherry:
On Netflix, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, on Netflix. And also, there’s a beautiful documentary by Ken Burns and his daughter about it. It’s an extraordinary and heartbreaking story about not just these specific young men’s lives, but also how Black men are treated. Matter of fact, I love the title of DuVernay’s film, which is When They See Us. If you’re a Black man living in America, you know exactly what that means. Anyway, I’m doing a graphic novel based on his memoirs. That is something I have to start working on this year.
I have a book that I’ve already written and finished, and it’s coming out next May, that I wrote. This is the first book that I’ve written, so that’s why … I’ve written a lot of articles about music and things like that, but this is my first book that I’ve ever written. And that one is about … it’s called My Dad’s a DJ. It’s about my relationship with my kids. And after I divorced my ex-wife … Well, she divorced me [inaudible 00:08:55] put it, we went on and had this relationship through music. And you know how the music that I like, old school, ’70s, Prince and Stevie Wonder and all that, and they liked the hip-hop cats … And then we used to have these sorts of agreements and disagreements about music. And then we finally connected. So the book is really about staying together with your kids after a divorce. And that book is coming out in May next year.
So all these things are going on. I also have another book that I’m working on. I could keep going on about it. So I guess to answer your question more succinctly, I have a lot of assignments. I’m going to try to get as much of them done as I can. And I’m going to try to get some rest too, because I don’t want to lose my mind.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. I mean, it sounds like you’re working on a lot of stuff. And I want to dig more into your illustration work, but let’s talk a little bit about your day job. We don’t have to spend a whole lot of time on it, but you mentioned working at an ad agency. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I’m pharmaceutical advertising designer. That means that I’m designing ads and product packaging for different brands. One of the last ones that I did that had a pretty big campaign that went on to get well known was called Taltz, which is a type of drug that helps with people who have eczema. And I first came to the agency to work on testosterone trucks, which was interesting, but then it was changed to work on this. So it’s been something I’ve been doing now for a number of years because, as I said, I have children. I was married at the time. And I was trying to make a living doing that, even though my main goal all my life was to be an illustrator and to be an artist and to draw. But then you have to do what you have to do to take care of your family.
So I had a friend who was into advertising and said, “You should try this. This would be something you should do.” And I had dabbled in advertising because I had worked on some small magazines, so I taught myself things like Quark and Photoshop and a lot of Adobe Creative Suite. So I knew how to do those things. And I just figured it just takes a little creativity to lay out an advertising. And then I started out small, working for a small African American agency, when I was living in Louisville, Kentucky for a few years. And when I was there, I got a job working at Churchill Downs. And then after Churchill Downs, I decided that I was an art director and I was a graphic designer. And I decided to put aside illustration for a while, although I was still doing it on the side for myself and for small publications.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you balance your illustration projects with your day job projects? I mean, doing work for big pharma, I mean, given the current climate that we’re in, pretty stable. I mean people are always going to get sick. But how do you balance that with your outside illustration work?

Keith Henry Brown:
I think I’m in a fairly unique situation in that I’ve been doing it so long that I’ve reached sort of a senior position where I don’t do as much of the nuts and bolts designing as much as I do in leading teams. And so that means that I don’t have to necessarily be there in the office, be part of the day-to-day, because I’ve just been doing it, when you have a certain amount of knowledge of the business and understanding what is expected of you. I work with younger designers, so I don’t put as many man hours as maybe somebody who’s just getting into the business. And so then I just schedule and balance my hours with book projects, magazine projects, album cover projects.
And also, I’m pretty fast with my illustration. I work very quickly. So if I get an assignment, I can turn it around relatively quickly so that I have time to stay with my day job, which I’ll probably stick with for a little while longer. But eventually I want to, and I’ve told my employer this, so I’m not saying anything I don’t want anyone to know, phase it out so that I can focus entirely on the illustration work.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you’ve, I guess, found a pretty happy medium, then?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, because you want to have that security. You’ve got to be able to take care of your mortgage, and all that stuff. But at the same time you have to have that happiness. One of the things I’ve learned from being around a lot of jazz musicians is they’re the happiest people I know, and they never die. They live forever. And I think it’s because they’re doing exactly what they want to do. I know jazz musicians that are pretty well-known and really talented, who struggle financially, especially when the pandemic was going on. They didn’t have anywhere to play. And there are some that are so well established, they’re okay. I don’t know, Ron Carter, the great bass player, I don’t think he worries about that. But there was a lot of young musicians who are quite brilliant, who weren’t working.
I see it the same way. It’s like I have to eventually take that chance that working in the corporate world and stepping away from it so that I can do the thing that I really love, because I want to be happy. And not saying that doing design just makes me unhappy. And I’m happy this skill gave me and it got my kids through school and it bought me a house and all that stuff. But it just doesn’t fulfill me in a way that illustration does.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think that’s fair. As a creative, I mean, the things that sort give you that inspiration may not necessarily be the job I think that you work at. But I would also say, and this is for anyone, I think, that just does other projects on the side, sometimes you have to do the thing you don’t want to do in order to do the thing that you want to do. I feel like that’s sometimes career advice that people don’t really get told a whole lot. But no, I mean it sounds like you found that balance, though.

Keith Henry Brown:
I totally agree with what you just said. I sometimes teach classes at schools, about art design, or I come in or do workshops or stuff like that occasionally. And a lot of kids, they go to where I went, like Parsons, or SVA, School Visual Design, or FIT. And they come out and they think, “Okay, now I’m going to be this amazing designer, and I’m going to do fashion magazines, and I’m going to do all this super slick stuff. And I’m going to design for Beyonce and I’m going to design for” … whatever it is they think they’re going to do. And they think it’s all going to be glamorous.
But sometimes you got to do stuff that’s not so exciting, because there’s all kinds of design out there. There’s everything from … I started off, at one point, I was doing catalogs, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. And not to criticize anyone who’s doing it, but I found it very difficult. And certain types of design is not as glamorous, or even you find out it’s not as glamorous as you thought, which is what my experience was with doing comic books.
All my young life, I always thought, “Oh my God, I want to draw Marvel comics.” I mean, that’s all I wanted to do. And I drew comics by myself in my room when I was eight years old or seven years old. And I drew comics with my friends. And I went to the school I went to, thinking I’d get to do it, and I got to do it. And when I was actually there doing it, I realized, “Wow, this is a job. This is work. I have to be adult, because I have to meet deadlines, and they have to put out a certain amount of pages, and they have to be a certain level of quality. And I have people looking over my shoulder telling me what’s good and what’s not good.” So a lot of things are like that, right? It’s like you got to put the work in, you got to put the time in. And you have to figure out, “Do I want to break through to do this thing?” I think I heard an interview you did with Ray Billingsley?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
The great cartoonist. And he was saying something similar where he was saying that he’s one of those guys who really learned his craft. I mean, we know him from his cartoon strip, his comic strip, but actually, he could draw all kinds of things. And he tried everything, and he worked on it, and then he honed it down to this project that he has now been doing for a lot of years. But it was a lot of work and thought behind it. It wasn’t something he decided one day, “I could draw pretty good. I think I’ll draw a comic strip.”
I do think we all have to pay our dues, in a certain form. And my paying my dues for a long time was doing graphic design. Now having said that, I know a lot of people, that’s all they do, and they do it way better than me, and they’re beautiful. And they’re excited about it every day and they love doing design. And I still love graphic design, to a certain amount, but it doesn’t give me the same high that drawing does, because I think I started off wanting to draw, more than anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. For folks who haven’t heard that Ray Billingsley interview, it’s episode 370. Go check it out. It’s a really good interview. When you have a new illustration project that comes in, whether that’s a book or whatever else you might be working on, what does your creative process look like? Take me into that process.

Keith Henry Brown:
I could talk about a book or I could talk about an album cover or I could talk about a magazine, because some of them are different lengths of time that you immerse yourself in it. But I’ll just mention the one I just did for a magazine called Rethinking Schools, which is a wonderful magazine that is for teaching teachers how to teach children. Teachers write articles in the magazine, and they explain the techniques they used that were effective, so other teachers could use it. It’s a great magazine. And they used a lot of illustration. I did a full-page illustration a couple of months ago for them. And the process was the art director came to me and said, “This is an article. I’m sending it to you. See if you want to do this, see if this is something you think you would be interested in. This is how much we pay.” And basically, the article was about how this one teacher wanted to teach children about Black Lives Matter through dance. She was a dancing teacher, and she wanted to teach choreography to these kids in a private school.
And so, I came up with these drawings of the kids dancing to this sort of music that they sort of describe in the BLM article. And I just came up with sketches first. They approve them, and then you start to paint them in. And then they’ll say, “Well, this figure, we like better than that figure.” And you take them out and you put them in. So my thing is I do a mixture between digital and traditional, with the accent on the traditional. I draw everything out by hand, on paper usually. And then I scan it in and either I paint on it or I use digital colors, like out of Photoshop, or something like that, or sometimes it’s a combination of both things.
As we go to the final art, I do watercolor because I like the spontaneity of it and I like the fact that I can’t really control it 100%, and that it can just some suddenly do something that I didn’t expect it to do. And that could be scary because it might not be something I wanted to do, but it also means that something exciting can happen. And whenever I do something and it feels static to me or it doesn’t look interesting or it’s not moving, I always miss the watercolor element, which is the thing that makes it to me feel spontaneous and alive, which is also connected to why I like jazz so much.

Maurice Cherry:
See, I was just about to ask, because I noticed that theme of a lot of your work being done in watercolors. But it sounds like you like to have a little bit of that unknown element in the work?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. I mean, I appreciate a lot of illustrators’ work where they spend a lot of time planning every single illustration out to an nth degree, and the colors, and they have palettes, and they do hundreds of preliminary drawings and sketches, and things like that. And I do do some of that. But I like the idea of, I don’t know, just kind of going with the feeling. I mean, I’ve even had times where I’ve done a book, where I didn’t even finish reading the book, the whole script or the manuscript of the book, and was doing the illustrations without even having read it all. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud, so if anyone who wants to hire me. But if I like the basic idea, I’m like, “Okay” … Like the first book I got published was in 2019. It was called Birth of the Cool: How Miles Davis Found His Sound, which could not have been a more perfect first book for me, because I love Miles.
And I just thought the idea of doing a children’s book about Miles was kind of brilliant, even though I couldn’t figure exactly how they were going to do it, because Miles was not always kid-friendly. But I read two or three pages of the script and I said, “Ah, I see what she’s doing.” So I just started doing it. And I actually read the book as I was doing the illustrations, which anyone would tell you is insane, because you should plan the whole thing out. I just read the descriptions of what the action was, and not the actual dialogue, or even all the text. But I wanted it to feel like jazz and I wanted it to feel as spontaneous as he is, and how he takes a moment. I mean, that’s why jazz is so important to see live, or live recordings are the best, in my opinion, because everybody is not actually sure of what they’re going to be doing that day in that performance. And it could be brilliant and it could be not the best thing they ever did.
I’m lucky enough to be in a position where it’s just the way I do things. I don’t really know any other way of doing it. And I think that if I drew the whole thing out and knew exactly what I was going to do, it would feel too much like work. So this way, it feels like I’m just doing art. It just happens to be following a specific storyline, because I also like storytelling, which is why I wanted to get into comics in the first place. But in comics, it’s way more structured.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the most challenging part about what you do?

Keith Henry Brown:
I think just finishing, for me. It always seems incredibly like, “How can I ever finish this? This is huge. There’s so much to do.” And there’s that famous quote someone said, where, “I don’t like writing, but I like having written.” I do feel that way. It’s like I could see the book in my head completed, but I don’t particularly like the process, in the sense that I can’t wait for it to be done. I want to see the book in my hands. I want to see it all drawn, but I know that that means many hours of work.
I just got a project recently that I’m very excited about. It hasn’t been announced officially yet, but we’ve already kind of signed everything. So it’s a book about this relationship between Malcolm X and this Japanese woman who was also an activist, and their friendship. And it’s very unusual, it’s a true story, in the fact that most people don’t know about this. Also, the fact that the famous picture of when he was shot in the ballroom, there’s a woman holding, cradling his head. It was this Japanese woman. And so the writer saw this picture and decided to find out who this woman was. And she ended up writing this kid’s book about their relationship. Some of her activism comes out of the horrible story of the internment camps during World War II, they put Japanese in after Pearl Harbor. And she started off with that kind of activism, and then she folded into other kinds of activism. And they became friends, mostly correspondence, with Malcolm X.
Anyway, I’m working on this book now. We were having a story conference with the publishers the other day, with my agent. And we were talking about what the book was going to look like and what it was going to sound like, and what kind of tone. And I could see the whole book in my head in five minutes. And I was like, “I just wish I could just snap my fingers and it was done,” because I want to see the book more than I want to make it, because it really comes down to work.
I think Alfred Hitchcock said once that when he came with a story like, I don’t know, Psycho, or something, or The Birds, once he had the storyboards and he had the script done, to him, that thing was done. He said all the work of having to get the actors and go on set and shoot everything was the least interesting part to him. And I really relate to that because that’s the mechanics of it. It’s the conception of it that I think is the most exciting. But I do have a lot of fun in the midst of painting, when I’m actually doing it, too. So I always say that I don’t want to do the work, but when I’m really in it, I kind of forget I’m working. So it works both ways. But I do want to see the thing done, but usually before I can finish it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’m interested to see that too. Yuri Kochiyama is the activist that you’re talking about?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’d be excited to see that book when it’s done.

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh yeah, I’m going to put 1,000% in that one. I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful story. And I think it’s a story that should be told. I love the idea of people of different cultures, races coming together in a cause. I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate their relationship, it was a short one, but it was significant to Malcolm. It was significant to her, and their families. And then I think we don’t do enough of that. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like that, or any story about an Asian person and a Black person together on a common cause, in a huge sort of undertaking like human rights or activism. So I want people to see this book so bad. I want it out there. I want it in stores now. I just got to get it there. I felt the same way about Miles. I felt the same way about John Lewis. I felt the same way, My Dad’s a DJ. I want people to see it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you, about your origin story. You live in Brooklyn right now, but you’re originally from Staten Island, is that correct?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, it was an interesting place to grow up in.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you remember growing up there?

Keith Henry Brown:
Actually, I lived in a pretty diverse neighborhood. My best friend who lived next door to me was Jewish, and we had Filipinos living a couple of doors away, and we had Irish and Polish, and we had Latinos, Puerto Rican and Dominicans, all in the neighborhood. So the attitude, I think a lot of people think of Staten Island now, especially from recent events, that it’s like this totally red part of New York, full of Joe Plumbers, and stuff like that. But it wasn’t like that when I grew up, although there was also a really strong Sicilian community of Italians that we didn’t really connect with as much. But we had this one little thing, it was called Stapleton, Staten Island. Also, this is the same area where Wutang started their thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right.

Keith Henry Brown:
Their projects was probably about a quarter mile from the little neighborhood I grew up in. I grew up in a house, and my dad was a physician, my mom was a bank teller. So I guess you’d call it near middle class, because I had my own room, and I had a house, and I had everything I needed. But we weren’t rich or anything, because my dad was still a student when I was growing up, and my mom worked full time at a bank.
But it was a pretty nice upbringing in terms of how I saw the world. It until I get older that I realized that there was things like severe racism and things like that. So I was able to fantasize and not worry about my place in the world as much, and dealing with things like that. So I plunged into the world of Marvel comics and fantasy books and science fiction, like Isaac Asimov, and people like that. So that was the thing that I was into when I was a kid, and also music, The Beatles. And I liked The Beatles the same way that I liked Stevie Wonder. I didn’t have any boundaries in how I saw music and art.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like you grew up around a lot of music, but you also kind of grew up around a lot of art, too?

Keith Henry Brown:
No, that’s the interesting thing. My mom was a singer, but she sang in the choir, and she had a beautiful voice. She even got accepted to Juilliard at one point and couldn’t go, because my grandfather couldn’t afford to send her there. So we always had a lot of records in the house, so I was always listening to music. I would read every word in the liner notes and read everything on the back 15,000 times. And I was a fanatic about LPs and music.
Art really wasn’t there. I think I came by art almost completely through comic books and wanting to draw comic books of my own. And I didn’t really know anything about art history or anything like that until I got to high school. I went to a high school of art design, which was in Manhattan. And it still exists, obviously. It was a great school. I started to learn about painting and drawing. Then I got interested in things beyond comics at that point. But before that, I don’t know if anybody else in my family even drew.

Maurice Cherry:
I think comics was probably a good gateway for a lot of people. I mean, especially if I’m thinking about the time that you grew up, and especially with starting to see more Black people in comics too, I would imagine that probably was really inspiring to see back then.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. It was huge, huge, huge. Trevor Von Eeden, who created Black Lightning, who’s a little bit about the same age as me, there’s a legendary story about how he sent his drawings to DC Comics on loose leaf paper, because he didn’t have any other kind of paper.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Keith Henry Brown:
And they sat down with him, and started giving him gigs. But the big one for me was a guy named Billy Graham. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He did a lot of the early Black Panther comics. He basically was the writer that created Killmonger, the characters in the movies. He did these magnificent stories, one particular one called Panther’s Rage. The same story that’s basically in the movie is in that story, which is that Killmonger, the character [inaudible 00:29:45] played by Michael Jordan in the film, kind of takes him down as being prince, and challenges his leadership of Wakanda.
That was a Billy Graham thing. He was one of the very few Blacks that were in the business. Brilliant guy. He was also a playwright, a painter. He was just this amazing guy. I only met him once for a few minutes, but I was in awe of him. But most of the people that I liked, if I’m being completely honest, were like Jack Kirby and Neil Adams and Stan Lee, and those guys. I mean, they were all like gods me. I mean, if I had a choice between meeting Paul Newman or Tom Cruise or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I probably would’ve done the latter. I mean, those were the guys who were the big heroes to me when I was a kid, that were the comic book artists.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were inspired by comic books. You went to this art high school. And then after you graduated, you attended Parsons. What was your time like there?

Keith Henry Brown:
It was good, but it was less about comics. By then, I had done a little time working in comics, and decided it wasn’t for me. So I wanted to learn to paint in a different way or draw in a different way, and not be just in comics. I mean, the comic influence is there. It will be there till the day I die. And I still draw comics sometimes, or cartoons, but I don’t draw superheroes or things anymore; not that I have anything against them. But my thing when I was at Marvel and also in general about superhero stuff is that a lot of times these things are … even then, before the movies came out and became this massive thing, a billion dollar company, is that they’re all copyrighted characters owned by somebody else. So there’s not much you can do with them. You have to stay with the continuity that you’re given. You have to be explained what you can do, what you can’t do. Even you and a writer have to follow a larger storyline that maybe is being planned throughout the company.
And I always had this itching feeling to want to have my own characters and have my own thing. So I wanted to learn illustration because I wanted to express myself more as an individual and less as just a sort of a cog in this massive machine. I mean, every month, on the dot, you had to have a new Marvel comic. And I think only the very, very best guys got recognition for what they did. But I don’t think I was the best at that. I was okay.
So I really wanted to express myself in a different way. I still love comics, especially independent comics. I’m more interested now in people like the Hernandez Brothers, Love and Rockets. I love it. It’s probably my favorite cartoon, is Jaime Hernandez … than now, than superhero stuff, because these guys are independent. And they own their own characters and they create their own worlds that are basically coming from them. And they’re not in it for the money. They’re in it because they just had to do it. And I admire that more than being just another person drawing Spider-Man, out of the thousands that have done it over the years.

Maurice Cherry:
So Parsons, it sounds like, opened your eyes a little bit to the reality of what the industry was like?

Keith Henry Brown:
Precisely. Exactly. I started getting interested in modern artists. I started getting interested in abstract artists. I love Rothko. The Expressionists is my favorite type of painting, so de Gaulle’s my favorite painter. I began to appreciate art for what it is and the endless limitations that art can provide, and not these sort of commercial concerns of just trying to sell something or sell a character.
Now, I don’t have anything against people who do that. There are some brilliant kids and artists doing this stuff now. I love them. I love looking at the drawings. I love looking at Greg Capullo or Jim Lee or Frank Miller, when he was doing it, and David Mazzucchelli. These were all comic book artists. These guys are freaking awesome. I just don’t think that I’m built to do this stuff, myself. But I love to look at their work.
There’s a guy named Bill Sienkiewicz who does comics, but he also is a great, great illustrator. And guy like him, he’s like a god to me. So all these guys are great. I just know that I can’t do comics, because it’s just not, unless I do a personal comic, like doing this graphic novel about the Central Park Five. I’m working on now one about a jazz musician. So if I can find my way in, then it’s absolutely the greatest, but if I have to just … I don’t know. I couldn’t be one of those people who’s doing, I don’t know, SpongeBob comics, or something. I got to do something that I got some kind of skin in the game.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah, I mean, it sounds like you’re in it for the storytelling medium. It’s not just so much like a way of telling a story in terms of, “Oh, here’s SpongeBob. And we’re going to do it via animation.” It’s more like, “What’s the story we can tell that animation can provide sort of,” I don’t know, “that bit of oomph to it,” I guess. You know what I mean?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, exactly. Somebody was telling me the other day that they had a gig at some Pixar. And they said, “Dude, they’re looking for artists, illustrators to maybe come in and work with Pixar movies.”
And I’m like, “I mean, that sounds great in terms of financially and also prestige and stuff, but I don’t really want to get bogged down working on some massive project where a hundred other artists are working on it.” Even if it’s good, like I thought … What was that one about the jazz position that came out?

Maurice Cherry:
Soul.

Keith Henry Brown:
I thought it was real good, but I don’t know that I’d want to have worked on it, because it requires years of work, hundreds of people. And I’d rather work on my little book, where it’s just me alone in a room and a writer writing a script, and then five, six months later, it’s in a bookstore, and it’s got our names on it.
To me, it’s like I’d rather do that, even if it means I’m making less money or not part of a huge, famous organization, that I could tell everybody, “I work at Pixar, or I work at so-and-so.” Even when I worked at Marvel, I mean, people would be impressed when I said I worked at Marvel. But I didn’t care about that part because I knew that I was doing stuff I wasn’t even really that inspired by. So it doesn’t matter that people were enamored by it. It was more about the fact that I had to still sit down by myself at some point and try to meet a deadline for something that I didn’t love. But having said that, there are people I know who do love it. And God bless them, because they do some beautiful work.

Maurice Cherry:
So you did eventually, I don’t know, I guess maybe fulfill that childhood dream. You did do some work for Marvel.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. And then I saw what it was. Everybody finds out what the reality of things is and what things really are; like a lot of people think they want to be movie stars. A lot of people think they want to be pop stars. And then they find out what it’s really like. And sometimes the stress is so much they can’t handle it at all.
My son is an independent musician. He has a band, and he has albums out, and he goes on tour. And one of the things we often talk about is if it ever happens that he blows up, get ready, because it might not be what you want. And even in the little bit of brushes of stuff that he’s seen, by just opening for bigger acts and things like that and seeing how these guys live, they say a lot of it is really difficult, because once you’re famous and people know who you are, or even if you’re just known by people to be successful, it gets to be more about that than about the music, which is what you came in there to do in the first place.

Maurice Cherry:
I relate to that so hard, I mean, for two reasons. I mean, I think, one, from the musician standpoint. So I might have said this on the show before, but before I got into anything, design, whatever, I was a musician. I grew up playing trombone. I played it all through middle school, through high school. I played it in college. I played it a few years after college as a session musician. But I loved it. I still love music. I was a jazz trombonist. But it’s not making any money. You’re not making any real money. And the hours are wild and crazy. You have to do it because you love it. You’re certainly not doing it to get rich or to get any sort of financial stability, unless you really get a deal with a label, and then you record an EP or an LP or something, and you blow up that way.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. And I’m going to be honest, I mean in jazz, I don’t see anybody getting rich. I actually [inaudible 00:37:46]-

Maurice Cherry:
Not in this country. Absolutely not.

Keith Henry Brown:
I work for one of the most successful jazz musicians there is. And he does well. I don’t think he’s hurting, but he ain’t rich.

Maurice Cherry:
He ain’t rich, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
He ain’t no multimillionaire. I do all of his covers, and he and I are friends. But I know he’s very well known in the jazz world, but outside of the jazz world, the guy’s won like six Grammys. I mean, he’s a genius. But it doesn’t matter, because there’s a limited audience for that type of music, unless you’re somebody like Herbie Hancock who’s become a legendary figure. And not only is he legendary figure, but he’s also even done pop hits, like Rocket, and everything. So he’s a guy who’s transcended jazz in order to have the success that he has. But also, he’s a legendary iconic figure, so he’s almost beyond human. I mean, he’s like this person who’s been doing it so long and has become so famous that people just give him money just for existing.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re talking about Wynton Marsalis, right?

Keith Henry Brown:
Well, I was actually just talking about Herbie Hancock.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay. But I mean, when you mentioned this artist that you’ve done covers for, though.

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh no, that’s Christian McBride. Christian McBride. Do you know Christian McBride, Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I do. Yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I’ve done his last eight covers. He’s a friend of mine. One of my best friends was his manager. Some years ago, he started a new band called Inside Straight. And instead of getting a photo shoot done, my friend, knowing that I was an illustrator, asked me to do the cover. And then he and I began a creative sort of partnership [inaudible 00:39:19] the visualization of his music.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Keith Henry Brown:
So a lot of his album that I’ve done covers for, also LPs, vinyl LPs, he has won Grammys for. And I never know if I’m going to get to do it next year, because that’s one of those things that I wait for him and I hear Christian’s voice say, “Hey, Brother Brown, I got another cover for you.” But I never know if he’s going to call me. But I’ve done eight so far.
So people who don’t know Christian is he, he’s a bass player, composer, band leader. When Sting started his first band, Sting the pop singer from The Police, he was his bass player. Sting’s a bass player, so that tells you something about the greatness of him. But he’s also played with everybody who means anything. He’s played with every single musician there is. He’s a genius player. So I consider that to be one of the proudest things that I’ve ever done as an illustrator, is do his artwork. He also heads the Newport Jazz Festival. He has a radio show on NPR, called Jazz Tonight. He’s just an incredible human being, and one most talented people I’ve ever met.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think it sort of speaks to sort what you said earlier about jazz not being super popular. You kind of end up having to do a lot of different things just within your musicianship in order to make that happen; like with Christian, you said he’s heading up this jazz festival and he does a radio show. You almost have to have your hand in a bunch of different pots, instead of just focusing on maybe performing or touring or something.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, if you want to make money.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Look. Yeah. Hey, that is the truth.

Keith Henry Brown:
[inaudible 00:40:48] And as you know, the only way to make money nowadays is no longer in recording. It’s in …

Maurice Cherry:
Merch.

Keith Henry Brown:
… merch and touring. And so, going back to what I was saying earlier, when the pandemic went down, I mean, a lot of these guys weren’t making any money. If you’re in jazz, it’s particularly painful because that’s the only way you make money, going on jazz tours to other countries, because jazz obviously is appreciated in Asia and Europe. So, that’s where they make their money. If you can’t go anywhere, then you can’t depend on the recordings. Even in the best days of jazz, they never sell anything like the way pop music does. So I mean, a flop record by Ed Sheeran still sells 100 times more than [inaudible 00:41:32]-

Maurice Cherry:
Than a jazz record. No, that’s the truth.

Keith Henry Brown:
… and that’s just the way it is. But I like being connected with someone with so much integrity. And he also gives me an incredible amount of freedom in what I get to do on his covers. That’s why it works for me, because even though I’m illustrating, in the true sense of the word, which is that I’m doing a drawing based on a previous idea and telling a story, he’s not looking over my shoulder and saying, “Do it like this.” I mean, sometimes he’ll have notes or something, but he trusts me to know what I’m doing.
That’s a lot different than doing other kinds of commercial illustration, where you have to do everything precisely the way you’re being told, and if you don’t do it that way … And also, for me, in children’s books, I’ve had the same experience. I mean, I interpret the words that are in the script of the books that I do. And I may get feedback and editors talking to me about it, but we can usually discuss it. It’s not something where somebody says, “You have to do it this way, or you’re fired.” It doesn’t work that way. And that’s a little different than the real world is, including in advertising.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you just touched on so many points that just hit me just personally in terms of-

Keith Henry Brown:
Go for it, brother.

Maurice Cherry:
… musicians and design, and all that sort of stuff. I mean, yeah, yeah, wow. Wow. I want to talk about your work with Churchill Downs, your work with Jazz at Lincoln Center. I know I mentioned Marsalis earlier, but you got to work at some pretty prestigious institutions, early in your career.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. The reason I was in Louisville, Kentucky was because my former wife was a professor at the University of Louisville. So I showed up there with no real skills, and didn’t know what I was going to do. And I had to get a job. I got a job at a small African American-owned advertising agency. And I was still learning my craft at that point. And an African American woman named Cindy Cook, who was a supervisor at Churchill Downs, asked me if I’d be interested, because she said, “We want to start a graphics department in Churchill Downs. And there’s no Black people working there at all, doing anything, except me. I wanted to bring somebody else Black in there. And we don’t even know how to use computers or know how to do anything. So you’re going to have to order the computers and find the programs.”
Basically, it was to do the marketing for the park, and the programs and the posters, and everything like that. It was challenging because I was just new to it myself. And this goes so far back, I don’t even think there was InDesign yet. I think it was Quark or something, if anybody’s old enough to remember that, listening to this. I did it. And then while I was doing it, I made friends with a gentleman named Andre Guess, who was a really good friend of mine when I was living in Louisville. And he got a job at Jazz at Lincoln Center, because Wynton would come to Louisville and do concerts. And we were such big jazz fans, after the show, Wynton Marsalis is the type of a guy, he would sit around after every concert … I don’t care if it was a four-hour concert, he would stand around and meet everybody and sign every autograph.
So we’d go talk to him. And after a few years of doing that, he got to know who we were. And he would have dinner at Andre’s house, at one point. We became friends with him. He said, “Well, listen. I’m building this thing. It’s never been done before. It’s a whole venue just for jazz. It’s going to be called Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I’m going to run it.” And so he hired my friend to be an administrator. I think it was a financial officer, or something like that. And then my friend told me, “Okay, I’m going to go up there. And I’m not going to leave you behind, though. In a year, I’m going to bring you there.” Almost a year to the day, he calls me and says, “Come to New York. You’ve got to come back to New York now.” And he [inaudible 00:45:12] he wasn’t from New York. My friend was from Kentucky.
So I came to New York, they interviewed me. It was a very intimidating interview because it was at a table full of the board of directors. A lot of famous people were on the board of directors, including the boxer, George Foreman, and Judith Jamison, the great dancer, Al Roker, the newsman. They’re people who contributed money and were part of the board of directors. And they interviewed me. And I was leaving out of the office, the place. And the receptionist, Mel, who’s still a friend of mine, she said, “Wynton’s on the phone.”
And I was like, “Oh, shit. He’s going to tell me not to come back, because I didn’t get the job.”
And handed me the phone. And he came on and he goes, “You’re a bad motherfucker.”
It was like, “Really?” And I was like, “Wynton?”
He goes, “Yeah, get your ass back here in two weeks.” So I got the job. And I worked for them for about five years. And from there is when I started doing advertising, because after a while, I felt like I did as much as I could do there. But through there, I got to meet so many incredible musicians, jazz and otherwise, because they used to have amazing musicians come there to do benefits. So people like Stevie Wonder came and Ray Charles came and Paul Simon came, and it was just an incredible, incredible experience.
And they’re nonprofit. So the whole point of view of Jazz at Lincoln Center is to teach people about jazz and [inaudible 00:46:34] jazz still lives, and that it’s in existence, and you should go see it. You should appreciate it. It’s not what you think it is, and all that. So it was great. And I got to design for them, and I got to meet a lot of incredible other designers, and be part of the community of graphic designers in New York, the whole time thinking in my mind, “I really want to be an illustrator. But this is great.”

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, to me, that sounds like a dream job. You’re doing design, you’re surrounded by jazz. That sounds like, for me, that would be perfect.

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh, it was, for a while. All good things come to an end; like any organization, there’s changes, and things happen, and it’s not what it was when you first started. And new people come in and they have their own ideas. I have nothing bad to say about it. It was a decision I made, as well as something that I loved. But you can’t stay any one place forever.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true.

Keith Henry Brown:
And ironically, after working in advertising for a few years, I ended up going back into the music and being the art director for Blue Note Jazz Clubs.

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. I was there for about four years. So Blue Note Jazz, people think of the one club in New York, but they actually have clubs all over the world, in Madrid, Milan, Japan, Hawaii. I was their art director for several years. So again, I was in this club. I was back in my jazz world. I was in heaven, because I love jazz musicians. Jazz musicians are some of the most even-keeled people, artists there are, because they don’t make any money. They don’t get rich. They’re just doing it because they love it, and they’re happy to be doing it.
If you can make a living doing something you like doing it, then you’re a happy person. So they tend to be not arrogant, tend to be happy, tend to be hardworking, tend to be very committed and focused, because to be a good musician, as you know, it takes an incredible amount of concentration, rehearsal, practice and focus. And they’re always thinking of what they’re going to do next. So being around those people makes you better at what you do. So it makes you better at your art, because you see the commitment they have. I said, “Damn, I need to get serious about what I’m doing, because these motherfuckers are kicking ass, what they’re doing.” You see somebody play, you see Herbie or Chick Corea come up there, sweat their ass off and play, and they get off and they’re like, “What you going to do now?”
“I’m going to go get some chicken wings.”
I’m like, “Damn, man. This guy just killed himself. But now he’s done, and now he’s going to go do something else.” And I’m thinking, “Oh my God, these guys, I want to be like them. I want to be like them.” So that’s why they’re the constant inspiration to me. It’s like total commitment and highest level of achievement, mixed with this sort of chill, like, “Yeah. Well, we’re here doing it,” type attitude. It’s beautiful, man.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to people out there? They’re hearing your story, they’re hearing all this about you. What advice would you give to people that want to follow in your footsteps?

Keith Henry Brown:
I just think you have to be honest with what you really want to do. I mean, listen, I understand practicality. I totally know that that is. I mean, I spent a lot of my life doing jobs. I’ve had all kinds of jobs. And I’ve done whatever it took to take care of myself or my family. But there also has to be this part of you that doesn’t lose the eyes on the prize. What is it you really want to do? What is it that makes you the happiest? And it doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s riding a unicycle backwards or being the world’s best juggler, whatever, you have to focus on that eventually, because you don’t want to spend the rest of your life just doing something that you just feel like you need to do in order to make a living. And I know that’s not always everybody’s path, but you have to work towards it, I think.
I would say I spent a good half of my life doing things that I had to do. And now I’m having a half of my life where I’m doing things I want to do. And I think it’s worth doing that, whatever it is, whether it’s being a doctor or being a hedge fund manager or being a fireman. It’s the passion behind it that I think is important. And you shouldn’t deny yourself of that.
Both my sons and musicians. Now, any parent will tell you, you don’t want your son to be a musician, for all the reasons I’ve already stated earlier. It’s hard to make a living, and you’re never probably going to be rich. But I can’t imagine them doing anything else, because they’re so deeply committed to it. And that’s all they want to talk about. I did a book about it because it’s such a focused commitment. Even more so than me, they knew what they wanted do before I did, in terms of their lives. So I guess my advice is always do what you have to do. No one’s going to fault you for that, but don’t forget what you want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project that you’d love to do one day? It sounds like you’ve already touched on so many of your passions with your work.

Keith Henry Brown:
There’s specific things. Right now, I’m trying to get out a coffee book on jazz portraits I’ve done over the years, which is tougher than you would think to get printed and published. And the other thing is, some years ago I wanted to put out a book about Eric Dolphy. And I did a lot of preliminary work. I even did a Kickstarter. I could not get the book published, I could not get it finished. And I wrote a script, and I illustrated over half of it.
And Eric Dolphy is a saxophone player, composer, who I actually am totally enamored with, in terms of his life trajectory. He was just a really nice guy who was committed to his art. And he died very young, in a very sad way, actually on a gurney in Germany from a diabetic shock. And the people that were there did not realize that he had that problem. And they thought he was just a Black musician who was on drugs, and didn’t take care of them the way they should have. But his life before that, he brushed against all the great musicians, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, he played with for a lot of years, who loved him. And I wanted to do a graphic novel about him. And I did a lot of work on it, and I did a lot of things. But it’s one of those projects that keeps getting away. It fell through a couple of times. And I am just starting to resurrect it now. And if I can get that book done, I’ll die happy.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career, is there a particular moment or an experience that really stands out to you the most, in your mind?

Keith Henry Brown:
Can I break it down into two?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure.

Keith Henry Brown:
Okay. The first one is the one I just told you about, which is Wynton Marsalis telling me I was a bad motherfucker. The second one is, and it’s almost the opposite of that, but it gave me a motivation. I went to a comic book company early on, soon out of high school. I was starting to get small jobs to do things, but I didn’t really get anything major yet. And I won’t tell you which comic book company it is, but it’s a major one. It’s one of the big two. I showed them my portfolio, and the editor, the white editor looked at it and he said, “Yeah, this is pretty good, but we already got a colored artist. We already got one, so thanks for coming in.”

Maurice Cherry:
Damn.

Keith Henry Brown:
And I just said … Can I? I won’t say the word … “F this guy.” And he ain’t stopping me. And I can say, even in this world, and I’m 60 years old, and I’ve seen racism of all kinds, but I’ve never really been held back when I really wanted to do something. I’ve had all kinds of opportunities, despite my race. I just don’t accept that as a reason for not achieving anything. My father was a doctor. My mother was the first Black woman to work in this bank that she worked in. I feel like if you really want something, you cannot use that. So I guess to answer your question, it was important to me that that that guy told me what he said, because I said, “F this guy. He’s not stopping me because I’m Black.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Before we wrap this up, and I meant to get to this earlier in the interview, you love jazz, I love jazz. Who are some contemporary jazz artists that you like?

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh, that’s an interesting question. I like a lot of cats, man. One of them just passed away, but I still consider him contemporary. That’s Roy Hargrove. He’s an awesome cat. I think Christian’s pretty contemporary. There’s a young cat that’s out now called, named Joel Ross. He’s fantastic. Kamasi Washington is pretty awesome. I mean, I’m trying to think when. You’re 60 years old, you’re thinking, “Well, who’s contemporary,” because [inaudible 00:54:50] say Brad Mehldau, but Brad Mehldau been around for a minute, so maybe he’s not so contemporary. But you know what I’m saying. It’s like I hear cats all the time, man. I want to hear it. I want to hear the young guys. Joey Alexander is kind of a phenomenal young guy.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, young kid.

Keith Henry Brown:
Really young. I mean, he could play his ass off, though. There’s a lot of them, man. I mean, there’s so many. I occasionally write for a website called allaboutjazz.com, and I do do reviews. And I just did an interview with a cat named Croker, Theo Croker.

Maurice Cherry:
Theo. Theo Croker, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. And we did a nice interview. I painted him many times, too. He’s real good. Oh, my favorite young singer is Cécile McLorin. She’s a brilliant jazz singer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, she’s great.

Keith Henry Brown:
She’s modern. At the same time, she got the old school thing going on too. There’s a drummer I really like named Makaya McCraven. He’s pretty hot. Man, there’s so many cats out there, man.

Maurice Cherry:
No, there is. There is.

Keith Henry Brown:
Vijay Iyer. He’s a little bit on the older side, but Vijay could play, could play, could play. Tyshawn Sorey. Yeah, I feel like I’m having a conversation with my son. We’re always talking about music. He’s a little more on the edge than me. He always knows what’s going on more than I do. He’s like, “Dad, you never heard of this guy? Man, you old.”
And I was like, I said, “Buddy.”
He said, “He been out about two, three years.”
I said, “Son, I don’t [inaudible 00:56:13] two, three years. Two, three years is still new to me.” But yeah, there’s a ton of them. Anybody you like, Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned Cécile. I like her. There’s actually a jazz singer I first found on TikTok, who’s really great, Samara Joy. She’s a jazz vocalist.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah [inaudible 00:56:35].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God, her voice is so good.

Keith Henry Brown:
She’s incredible, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I like-

Keith Henry Brown:
I’ve seen her live.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, oh. I want to see her live. I hope she comes to Atlanta one day. I know she’s playing at Blue Note next month in New York. I’m trying to think who else. I like a lot of bands, like Incognito. There was a time in, I would say, I don’t know, maybe mid to late ’90s to early 2000s where you started to see this mix of jazz with other genres. So you would have jazz and hip hop, or jazz and R&B, “neo soul.”
So that’s how I started to find out about … well, that’s not necessarily how I started to find out about jazz artists, because I’ve been playing jazz through … I was in a jazz band in high school, and everything. So I had always kind of known about it, but it’s just interesting diving more into learning about other artists and just sort of the … I don’t know. I feel like for a while in the ’70s there was just sort of a fine line between jazz and I guess what could be considered R&B, where someone like a Roy Hargrove or a Roy Ayers or someone would tow that line a little bit.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, totally. I mean, my son’s favorite musician is D’Angelo. And if you have D’Angelo, you can take your finger and bring that to Erykah Badu, and you bring that [inaudible 00:57:47] and then to Robert Glasper [inaudible 00:57:49]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, he’s so good. Robert Glasper is so good.

Keith Henry Brown:
And Robert Glasper, by the way, we were talking earlier about popular success, he’s probably the most successful jazz musician, if you call him a jazz musician. I don’t even know if I’d call him that anymore, because he works with so much pop. But he’s the epitome of the kid that grew up listening to hip-hop, but loved jazz, but also has jazz chops. So there’s always that element of hip-hop with jazz. So you got Robert. He played at Blue Note a lot recently. And he’s up there on a stage with Mos Def, Yasiin Bey, rather, and cats like that. So he’s doing that. He’s bridging the gap. So I do think you’re absolutely right that there’s a bridging the gap between old school jazz, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, and more contemporary music, hip-hop, funk, R&B, mixed in with what could be called jazz, like Kendrick Scott, Nubi Garcia, who’s an English saxophone player.
There’s just so many people who, for whatever reason, they got exposed to jazz, and they appreciate the musicianship of it. But then they also connect to where they’re coming from, which is their music. My music is R&B from the 1970s. Their music is that. But they like the elements of both things, and they kind of put them together into this other thing. There’s a label called Jazz Is Dead, which is run by a guy named Adrian Younge, and a guy named … I forget his name, but he was one of the original members of A Tribe Called Quest. I can’t remember [inaudible 00:59:22].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Ali Shahid Muhammad.

Keith Henry Brown:
Exactly. And Jazz Is Dead is a project that basically takes … they’re constantly playing with either old established jazz musicians, jazz musicians that exist now, or up-and-coming people, mixed in with their R&B funk, hip-hop sensibilities. It’s a perfect mixture of all this. And to me, they represent what jazz is right now, because they look back and forward at the same time.
I think the most common thing that they probably want to see is just great musicianship, being able to play. So you’re not going to hear just somebody playing off a computer or synthesizers and loops, although that might be an element. But there’s people playing live bass, there’s people playing live drums, there’s people playing a horn, a saxophone, or a trump, so that you have all these things in it. You got raw singing and you have other things. And to me, that’s where the music is right now. And I’m really excited about it, because I love all that.

Maurice Cherry:
I had a designer on the show, I don’t know, this had to have been a couple of years ago, Aricka Lewis. She was a designer in Arkansas, and now she’s in New York. And I had her on the show and we were just talking about her work as a designer. She’s like, “Yeah, I’m a UX designer,” et cetera, et cetera. And then I ran across this group, I think it was on YouTube, and she was the lead singers. It’s this group called Calle Soul, C-A-L-L-E. And they’re, I don’t know, I guess sort of a jazz samba sort of … not samba, because samba’s fast, I would say.

Keith Henry Brown:
Like bossa nova?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, like a jazz bossa nova sort of band. And she was the lead singer. And I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She’s like, “Ain’t nobody want to hear about that.” She’s like, “It’s just a thing that I do with some friends.”
I was like, “That is amazing. That is amazing.” I would say … Oh God, I’m trying to … I mean, we’re going off on a tangent. We’ll wrap the interview up. But I’d say probably my favorite jazz artist now is one that I sort of found by accident. I had just come to Atlanta in ’99, and I had went to … There’s a neighborhood here called Little Five Points. There’s a music shop there called Moods Music, which is still open to this day. And I remember hearing this single called Ghosts from this band out of … I think they were out of Norway, called Beady Belle, B-E-A-D-Y B-E-L-L-E. And I was like, “Oh wow, this is really good.”
And Darryl, who runs the shop, was like, “Yeah, I got their CD right here if you want it.” And that started, to me, a 20-plus year love affair with this band. I have all their albums. They’ve only performed in the States once. They performed in Rochester, New York, in 2007, I think.
And when I heard about it, I was like, “Oh, I’m going, I’m going.”
My friends were like, “What’s in Rochester, New York?”
I was like, “Beady Belle is coming to the United States for the first time, and they’re playing at the Rochester Jazz Festival.”
And they’re looking at me like, “Okay, go for it.” And I went and I heard them perform. I was sitting in the front row. There weren’t a lot of people there, because I guess people didn’t know the band. But I was just giddy. I got to talk to them afterwards. They signed all my albums that they had up to that date. The band has since broken up, but still the lead singer, still goes by the name Beady Belle. And she still performs and puts out work, and stuff. But that’s probably my favorite artist, my favorite jazz artist.
And then that opened me up to … I’d say contemporary jazz artist, probably my favorite contemporary jazz artist. But her and that band opened me up to Norwegian jazz and Finnish jazz. And I mean, they’re all pulling from Black American roots. But it’s just so interesting how jazz in other countries is just received, as opposed to here.

Keith Henry Brown:
[inaudible 01:03:05] a lot of DJ elements and hip-hop elements too, and electronics, in a lot of the Norwegian jazz world. So they do a lot of interesting things there. Do you have any other bands that you really like from Norway? I just want to know if I know any.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that she had a background singer on her fourth album named Jarle Bernhoft, who went on to become a solo artist. And sort of to that thing you’re talking about with the sort of mixing with electronic, he would do this live mixing on stage where he’d do some beat boxing or some other vocal sounds, and then mix it all together on stage while also performing, singing and playing guitar. I like a lot of his work.
There’s a lot of UK jazz, like Quantic Soul Orchestra, Alice Russell. Oh God, there’s one in particular who I’ve mentioned on the show before. Zara McFarlane. Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s a lot. Now I’m getting overwhelmed, trying to think of all of them. But yeah, wow. Wow. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Keith Henry Brown:
As I said earlier, I think I’m going to try to make a situation for myself where I am focused mostly on illustration. I want to do more writing, I want to write more books. I like getting assignments because you get brought great stories, like the one I was talking about with Malcolm X, or John Lewis. But I also want to create more stuff on my own. I do like doing magazine stuff. I like doing newspaper stuff. I just think if I just get assignments to create art based on subjects that I’m interested in, I’d be really happy, and if I’m able to do that.
And I always fantasize about not staying in one place, like traveling around the world, because when you do what I do, you can be anywhere. So you can be in Berlin, you can be in Paris, you can be in London, you can be in Mexico. And I want to start doing that. I want to do these assignments, but be in different countries, set up a studio, and just illustrate books from different parts of the world. Live somewhere for six months, live somewhere for a year, and get to see the world, which is something I’ve never really been able to do much of for most of my life. So, that’s my goal I hope to do someday.

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

Keith Henry Brown:
Well, my website is keithhbrown.com. My Instagram handle is @iamtheleopard, which I’m actually on hiatus with it right now, but I’ll be getting back on in a couple of weeks. I decided to take a break from social media, just because I was doing it every single day. And I just think I got addicted, so I wanted to see if I could unaddict myself, if there’s such a word. Yeah, those two places. Instagram. And I’m also on Facebook, at Keith Henry Brown. But the easiest way is probably just go through my website.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Keith Henry Brown, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I was so excited, putting together what I was going to talk to you about, because I was like you’ve done illustration, and it’s jazz. I’m like, “This is going to be a great conversation.” And you did not disappoint with that. I think if there’s anything people can certainly take from this conversation, it’s that you can do what you want to do, if you set your mind to it. Don’t be afraid to go out and do it. And you found a way to meld your passions together in a way that lets you live the life that you want to live, which I think is what all creatives strive for, at the end of the day. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, and if I may, I just wanted to say one more thing really quickly. Can I, Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure. Yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
It ain’t about awards, it’s about doing what satisfies you. A lot of times in design and even in illustration, people are always saying, “You should put yourself up for this and get that. And you should tell everybody you won that award and this award.” It ain’t about that. It’s about what makes you happy. And you can win 10 awards and Golden whatever, but you got to satisfy you, or it’s not really going to mean anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Wise words. Again, Keith Henry Brown, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keith Henry Brown:
Cheers, brother.

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Barney Abramson

It’s been amazing to see so many Black design communities pop up since I started Revision Path, which is how I found out about this week’s guest — Barney Abramson! Not only does he have years of experience leading design teams, but he’s also paying it forward by helping out the next generation of designers through mentorship and consulting.

We talked about how he’s adjusted to working through the pandemic, and spoke a little bit about his day job as the lead designer for an energy company. Barney also shared his story of growing up in the Dominican Republic, moving to the United States as a kid, and then making his way out to Vegas to kickstart his career not just as a designer, but a writer as well! Barney’s energy and passion for design is infectious, and it really shows that when you do good work, good things happen to you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Barney Abramson:
Well, my name is Barney Abramson and I am a graphic designer and creative manager. I currently manage the creative team for an energy company here in Las Vegas. And prior to that, I worked at international game technology for about 10 years. IGT is a multinational gaming company that produces slot machines and other gaming technologies. That’s my official work.
Nowadays, everyone needs a side hustle. So I do some creative consulting work on the side. I work with organizations and entrepreneurs to solve creative problems, anything from brand development, personal branding, digital campaigns, photo, video shoots, and speaking engagements. So that’s my official work. The rest of the time I spend it doing a lot of writing. I write about my experience as an Afro Latino, creative in corporate America. And due to my writing, I’ve met hundreds of young black designers and creatives. I am now starting a mentorship program, which is kind of my next venture. So I stay pretty busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see. That’s a lot. Well, I feel like nowadays you have to have two or three things. One because inflation has raised the price on everything. I don’t know about you, but here in Atlanta, everything is 10… Not 10 times, at least 10% more expensive. So you kind have to have something on the side to bring more money in because everything just costs more money. So with everything that you’re working on, how’s this year been going so far, how’s the summer been going?

Barney Abramson:
It’s been very busy. I had maybe two or three weeks during the summer where things started to slow down, both on my day job and on my side work. And I thought, wow, look, everyone’s kind of taking a break. And I thought the economy not doing so well, that it was going to be as slow from now on, but the last two weeks, everything just kind of ramped up again. My company recently went through some sort of a proxy fight and that got cleared up. So everyone’s back to business. So quite busy with work, with side work, with writing. And also with just meeting with a lot of people. I enjoy having just one-on-one talk. So I do that quite a bit. So I keep myself pretty busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about your day job work. I really want to get more into your writing and your mentoring. Because I think that’s probably more exciting to talk about, but we all got to pay the bills. So talk to me a little bit briefly about the work that you’re doing with this energy company.

Barney Abramson:
So the company that I work for, it’s a natural gas company. They service over 2 million customers in California, Nevada and Arizona. I am the kind of lead designer. They don’t have traditional titles like art director and creative director. So my title is kind of funky, but I am kind of the senior lead designer in the company. And I manage a very small creative team.
The majority of our creative work is typically outsourced. I would say probably 75% of our work gets outsourced to a whole bunch of creative agencies that we work with. So my typical day really starts with just going to meetings. I have huddles in the morning, typically at 8, 8:15. I meet with the marketing team, although they don’t call it marketing. Again, they have weird titles here. We meet with the marketing team, kind of get all my answers for the day, any kind of projects that are the standstill.
That’s kind of where I get all my answers and try to move things along. And then I go into other meetings throughout the day, the next kind of part of my day, it’s really around providing creative direction. So whether I’m providing creative direction to my video crew or my graphic designers or a particular agency, that’s working on a project. That’s really like a big chunk of my day. And then really the third part of my day, really around me doing actual creative work. So I still do a lot of graphic design work. So my day is kind of divided into three big chunks. It doesn’t all happen in that order. It’s kind of mixed in, but if I had to break it down, that’s kind of what a typical day for me looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like it’s pretty busy kind of going between those different parts of what you do, like management then you have some hands on work as well.

Barney Abramson:
Yeah. Making the leap from a graphic designer, which something that I did for many, many, many years, I’ve been a manager or in a kind of creative manager role, the last seven or eight years. And the big difference really is the amount of meetings that you have to go to. I go to meetings all of the time and it just really takes up most of your day. So it’s more about relationship building and making people feel comfortable coming to you with work, and then delivering that work to your team. That’s kind of what I spend most of my time doing. And then I get a little bit of time to be creative and work on creative projects, but it is quite busy.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been working remotely through the pandemic? Did you run into any challenges with that?

Barney Abramson:
I personally enjoy working from home. I thought of myself as, I wouldn’t say a social butterfly. I think that’s too much. But I don’t have an issue with people. I don’t have an issue making friends and things of that nature. So I always saw myself as a very social person, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. And then we all came home and I found myself very isolated at home, but I loved it. I like my setup at home. I like being close to my family. I feel like this is a true work life balance where I get to go to a meeting, deal with something at home, come back, do some design work and maybe do an errand real quick. And I just really enjoyed it. Some of the challenges that I think in the very beginning really was around my setup, not having the setup that I had at work at home.
That was one thing, making sure that I had all the tools that I needed to do my work. But I think my work at IGT kind of trained me to work remotely because at IGT I had a very remote team. I had six designers and a photographer, and some of them were in Reno, which is eight hours away. Others were in Moncton, Canada, others were in Peru, London, Germany. So it was a very broad, diverse team. I only really had two designers in Las Vegas with me. So I was used to the kind of remote aspect of it. When we all came home during the pandemic, it was nothing that I found difficult at all. So I enjoyed it. I am now back in the office three days a week, and I miss being at home all the time. I really do.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’d imagine there might be some advantages for getting in the office, if anything, just kind of a change of environment, but I know what you mean by liking that setup that you have at home. I’ve been working remotely actually. I’ve been working remotely since 2008, so I’ve been working remotely for a long time. One because I had my own studio and I had a distributed team. So I could work with people from all over.
But when I got back into working at companies, all the companies I’ve worked for over the past five years have been very remote first or remote friendly. I think the last time I was in an office for a job was… My goodness. Maybe 2019, I think, might have been the last time. Yeah, I think about it. That was the last time I was 2019. So it’s interesting now, because I’ve had folks on the show who have completely started their career now working remotely, because they might have just gotten out of school or something. And so this is all they know, it’s this kind of remote setup. So it’s interesting to see how companies are going to try to, I guess, change with this new environment and everything.

Barney Abramson:
I’ve seen this hybrid kind of approach with my work now three days in the office, two days at home, it’s kind of a setup and most people are kind of in and out, and you would think it’d be destructive, but it really isn’t. I think that the same, if not more work gets done this way that I’ve noticed.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s been the most challenging part about the work that you’re doing now.

Barney Abramson:
I think the difference for me from my previous job, just because I was there for so long, is that a lot of the work that I do now is work that’s being done through working with agencies. I love working with agencies. They bring just a different energy. They bring a lot of ideas. They tend to think way outside the box. So I do love working with agencies.
But previously I really enjoyed having a creative team, keeping everything in house and really being the sole owner of a project from beginning to end. I think what happens now is where I am involved in the beginning, conceptualizing the idea and providing it to the agency through a brief, but then they kind of go on their own and do their own thing. And then they come back and I’m the in between person providing creative guidance and kind of driving the idea the way that it needs to go. But it is a bit different. So I don’t know if it’s a challenge, it’s just a different format that I wasn’t used to doing so much work outsourced, but I do get to work with amazing talented people and I do learn a lot. So it’s kind of like a double edged sword of sorts.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’re kind of being that intermediary in a way.

Barney Abramson:
Exactly, exactly. So before I thought we had… Obviously working internally, you have… Things can be done a lot quicker. You can control the pace and the direction of things on a daily, if not even a minute by minute pace. Typically working with an agency, there’s a process you have to follow and it tends to be drag along. Agencies love to drag you as long as they can possibly can. So you know how that goes.

Maurice Cherry:
That is so true. And I mean it’s for, I think a number of different reasons, but I definitely I’ve been on the agency end of it. And currently with where I work at now I’m on what you’re end is. You’re the vendor, so to speak, working with them. So I know what you mean.

Barney Abramson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I know that you grew up in the Dominican Republic, so I’d really love to hear what was that like. Growing up there, did you get exposed to a lot of art and design and everything as a kid?

Barney Abramson:
That’s a great question. Because I never really thought about it that way. I feel like growing up in the Dominican Republic for me was very traditional to all the experiences that I’ve heard. I think that I was always a creative person and my dad was also creative. So he always helped me and provided all the tools that I needed to explore my creativity, but it’s not something that I saw around me. I didn’t see people around me drawing or sketching or painting. Although the island is completely full with amazing artwork, architecture and painters and you walk down the streets and you see all these paint vendors selling their amazing paintings. So in a way I did, well, I was exposed to that, but I think that my creativity, it was very internal. My sister’s not very creative. My brother’s not very creative. I don’t know anyone in my family that’s very creative.
So it really was a thing that maybe my dad just kind of passed down to me. Maybe. I don’t know. So yeah, I mean, growing up in the Dominican Republic was not the easiest. Obviously I had a really… As a child, you see things differently and I had a great childhood and I loved living there and just being outside and playing and doing all the things that kids do back in the day. We definitely grew up very poor. And so it was a struggle for sure, leaving there. I did not live in the nicest environment or have the nicest things. So when my dad saw an opportunity, my mom and dad saw an opportunity to bring us to the United States to provide better education, a safer environment. And I also was not a very healthy child. I had surgeries and heart issues and asthma eye issues.
So my dad’s like, I need to get this kid out of here. I feel like coming to the United States was kind of heaven set for me personally, but also for my family because it really provided all the opportunities that we have now. So I love my experience living in the DR. I miss it. And I go back when I can, but I do see what my father saw. Now that I’m a dad I see my kids. And I can only imagine living in an environment that wasn’t safe, at least where I was. I didn’t want to give the impression that the Dominican Republic, it’s an unsafe place, but I did grow up very poor. So it was not the best environment. So I could see how my dad kind of saw our situation and wanting to come to the United States and why we ended up here.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you moved here when you were 10 years old. Was that a really big culture shift in general?

Barney Abramson:
Oh God. Completely. So I moved here and I actually moved here during the wintertime. So it was like, end of February, April. And I remember getting out of the plane and my breath was everywhere and I was like, oh my God, I’m smoking. Look at this breath. But again, my parents, they came to the United States first, probably about a year before we all came. My brother and sister. Which is very typical, at least back then parents would come, kind of get situated, get a job, get an apartment. And then the kids would come later. So when we came to the United States, my parents kind of were somewhat settled. But again, it was a struggle. We were poor in the DR and poor in the US as well. So I recall my parents working multiple jobs. My dad literally worked every job imaginable.
He worked at a mill. He worked at McDonald’s. He worked at a nightclub. He was a bouncer. He did everything to keep our family afloat. And my mom did as well. I think my mom worked at McDonald’s for 19 years. So that part of it wasn’t easy. But what was easy was that we lived in a small town called Lawrence, Massachusetts, that at the time was literally 40% Dominican and 40% Puerto Rican. So living in Lawrence, Massachusetts and living in the Dominican Republic was essentially the same thing.
Everyone spoke Spanish. Everywhere you went was a Spanish store owner or vendor. So as long as you were within those four miles, you were kind of safe and protected and you felt like you could do or go anywhere. It wasn’t until I believe, college that I realized, oh my God, America’s really different. And I realized that there was quite a bit of a culture shock leaving my kind of safe environment of Lawrence. So really wasn’t until college where I realized how different the world was. And I struggled there as well for quite a while, until I was able to figure things out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, before you ended up going to college and we’ll jump into that. When did you know that design was something that you wanted to say. Because you said you kind of didn’t really see it back in the Dominican Republic? Did you have an experience or something while you were in the states that kind of put you onto it?

Barney Abramson:
Again, my creativity was something that I felt like I always had in me, but never something that I thought that could be something that I could do professionally, I guess. So even in high school, I remember taking art classes only because I wanted to be with my friends and things of that nature. It wasn’t something that I thought I could do professionally. I actually wanted to be a video producer. I wanted to be in video production and in high school and even in college, I studied video production because I thought that’s what I wanted to do.
And the reason for that is because my dad, again, one of his side jobs, my dad had a local TV show on the local network. And I used to go with him. I used to do the camera and stage setting and then I was doing switchboard and I did a little bit of everything. So that’s what I really thought I would end up doing. And it really wasn’t until college that I found my passion for graphic design. And I mean, I can get into that if you want, but it didn’t happen naturally for me it was almost like I was at my wits end and I said, okay, what’s easy for me? And I’m like, oh, designing is easy. So then I went that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we can get into it, but I’ll say before we get into it, there’s nothing wrong with leaning into your strengths? If that’s something that you’re good at, why not?

Barney Abramson:
So I didn’t know that. And sometimes we fight against the things that come easy to us. And also being from an immigrant family where you feel like you have to be something great, you have to be a doctor or lawyer, something amazing because you have this expectation on your shoulders. So I think that was my motivation to do something bigger or at least my perception of bigger at the time. So when I went to college again, it was a big experience for me, a culture shock that I didn’t expect. Literally speaking English all day long was so hard for me. I felt very isolated and I didn’t know anybody. And I really didn’t feel welcome. It was a obviously predominantly white school in some tiny town. Bridgewater is a very small town that when driving into Bridgewater State University, there’s like cows and farms and everything.
So it was very secluded. It wasn’t a city or anything like that. So I was very isolated. Didn’t feel like I belonged and it wasn’t… So of course my grades of were affected by that. And I believe my GPA in my freshman year was 1.7. I was on my way out. And it wasn’t until I found myself, I think my second semester I was really given the speech. If you don’t get your grades up, you’re going to lose your financial aid, you’re going to… So I knew that I had to figure something out and I joined one of those multicultural clubs and they had Latino club, and Afro M club and Cape Verdean club. So I literally joined every club imaginable and I started making friendships. And then I started finding my own tribe. But with my grades, I didn’t know how to get my grades up. I just couldn’t figure out what I could do to get my grades to be better.
So I thought, “Hey, I could take an art class and I know I’m going to get an A.” So I took painting and I took sculpture and literally took every single art course that was available to me. And by my sophomore, maybe mid sophomore year, I had an advisor basically approach me and say, “Hey, why are you wasting your time in a communications major?” Or I think I was still doing video production. So she was like, “Why are you wasting your time in a communications major when obviously your talent and your passion is in design?”
And I literally did every single thing this lady told me and I started working in the art studio. I started taking more graphic design courses. I changed my major to fine arts. And then eventually, obviously everything kind of made sense. So my grades started going up and I kind of found my passion. It didn’t come easy. I was kind of hardheaded. But I was glad to have someone kind of guide me in the right direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s good that you ended up going into that direction because like I said, leaning into your strengths, never a bad idea. And once you got it, that was sort of your ticket. So tell me about what the program was there. You mentioned this sort of taking all these different courses. What was it like?

Barney Abramson:
Yeah, so God, I really jumped all over the place. I think I started my college experience as a communications major because I wanted to be in video production. Then I went into psychology and then sociology. And then eventually into fine arts. So I have a fine arts degree. I actually ended up having a dual major in communications and fine arts because I literally had enough credits to do both. But I took the fine arts program at Bridgewater State University an amazing school. Great program. Had amazing experience there. I learned basically all the basics to be a fine arts student. And then I concentrated in graphic design because I like computers. And I also like to be creative and I thought graphic design just kind of made sense to me. And I had a great experience at Bridgewater and I ended up with a dual major in communications and fine arts, with a concentration in graphic design.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like it really helped prepare you once you got out there in the working world as a designer?

Barney Abramson:
Oh man. So I feel like in school I learned theory of design and maybe… Obviously I took a lot of painting and sculpture classes and drawing and pencil drawing. I took a bit of everything. So in a way I had a bit of knowledge of everything. So that was great. And then also the graphic design program was great. But it really wasn’t till… When I got my very first job, I didn’t feel like I knew all the things that I needed to know. I think what helped me was that one of my jobs, what I worked at in college, one of my jobs working for the art studio and I worked for the computer lab. And my job was to install Photoshop and install illustrator. And if anyone was having any technical issues, I’d be the tech guy fixing things. And then I also became a teacher’s assistant.
So during a graphic design class, if anyone had a technical issue with the software, I would come in and help. So I kind of self taught myself how to use Photoshop Illustrator and all that. And now this what 20 years ago. So programs back then are not as robust as they are now. I did feel like a lot of the technical stuff I had to learn myself, but using my creativity in a better way was kind of really taught by teachers. I really didn’t find myself learning practical stuff until I had my first job. And I realized, oh my God, now I know what I’m doing. And my first boss was great. He really knew that I was very green and really kind of eased my way into corporate America, I guess you could say. So I was prepared, but I felt like there was a lot to learn afterwards.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m trying to get a sense when this might have been. I’m guessing this was probably… And correct me if I’m wrong here. It sounds like this was maybe around the mid 2000s, maybe.

Barney Abramson:
So I graduated in 2002, so my first kind of real job.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was trying to try to sync it up because I was like, we’re probably right around the same age. So I’m thinking during that early time in the internet and the web. You really have to kind of learn it yourself.

Barney Abramson:
There was no experts. There was no YouTube or 1 million videos and boot camps and other ways to learn.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there was no YouTube.

Barney Abramson:
There was none of that. I mean, we were still using exacto knives to cut things and glue them together and pasting things together. I mean, we were really encouraged to sketch everything we did, which some people still do that today. But we were forced to sketch first. Then bring that into the computer where now a lot of folks just start right on the computer. So you really did have to teach yourself what you were doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That early time was a lot of just self discovery, especially if you were doing stuff on the web, a lot of view source, and you’re just sort playing around kind of trying to figure it out, et cetera. So when did you end up making the move out west?

Barney Abramson:
Oh gosh, that’s a long story, but I moved to Las Vegas in 2004. So very quickly after my first kind of job out of school, I ended up moving here to Las Vegas. And I attribute that to my wife. So this is a long story. So I guess I’ll tell it. But I actually got fired from my first creative job. And a lot of it had to do with the fact that I wasn’t prepared to be in a corporate environment. I never had the experience from anyone else, working in an office environment, all the jobs that I had prior to working in an office I worked as a landscaper and I was a painter and I even worked at a nursing home washing dishes. I just didn’t have the experience from my people in my life or my parents, unfortunately. So going into a corporate environment was very different for me.
And I didn’t realize that for me, at least back then. I think now things are a little bit different. But I didn’t realize that I needed to what people call now code switch. I needed to be a different person at work than I was at home. And eventually that got me in trouble at work. And I ended up being fired from my first job. This is something that I was very embarrassed about my entire career. And now I find myself talking about it all the time because I simply just don’t care anymore. But I did have that experience. So when I left that job, I went into… I thought, what can I do to give back to my community? So I started working at a local, a youth counselor type of program. I can’t remember the name. It’s called Valley Works. And it was like, if you’re unemployed where you would go get a job.
So they had a youth program there and I worked with dropouts and high school dropouts or folks that wanted to get their GED or they wanted to get into college. I would find programs to help them. So that was the kind of job that I was doing. Obviously not something I was prepared for. Again, Lawrence, Massachusetts was a very… It’s a ghetto basically. So the problems that I was encountering were much bigger than something that I could handle. And I thought, okay, I’m going to need to find my way back to my passion.
So around that same time I met my wife. She lived here in Las Vegas. She had a family member that worked at a gaming company who was a graphic designer. He introduced me to my boss back then and she basically said, “Barney, if you move, I’ll give you a job.” And I literally came back to Massachusetts, packed my car and drove my ass back over here. And sorry for swearing.
But I drove across state, came to Las Vegas, got my second creative job working for Progressive Gaming. And that’s kind of my introduction to the gaming industry as well. It was great. I started working, I tried to repair some of the issues that I had in the beginning of my career, I guess. It was a great job. I worked there for about five years before the company eventually went out of business, but I had a great experience. And it’s really where I started to learn a bit about my skills and myself and becoming a bit more confident.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really glad that you’re telling this part of your story because I think it’s something that maybe designers now that might be ready to come out of college and start their first gigs need to know about. But I think it’s also something that is extremely unique for our generation. In that our parents, whether they were, I would say from this country or not, they have not had the same experiences when they were going on to the workforce than we have, because of technology. Going into technology and going into this environment where so much of what is being just uncovered is happening on such a rapid basis. It’s one thing about having to just learn on the job, what it is that you have to do. But also you sort of said, you weren’t trained for this or you weren’t prepared for this. None of us were. None of us were.
We were all kind of going into this blind, trying to figure out, especially for us that went to the web and went to design. What do we do? Because we don’t know. There’s no blueprint to follow. I remember my early career, it’s funny, you mentioned getting fired. I got fired from… So I graduated in 2002. I walked in oh three and I was working at the Woodroof Arts Center, which is this big arts facility here. The symphony there’s a art museum and stuff like that. I was working there selling tickets, got fired on my day off.
Because one of the other cashiers was stealing money. As she blamed it on me and I got fired, whatever. But then the job I worked after… Every job I worked after that was customer service. Because I couldn’t get a job with a math degree. I majored in math. I couldn’t get a job with a math degree. So I was telemarketing for the opera. I lasted there a day. I went there for an eight hour shift. They played Boyz to Men, I’ll Make Love to You on a loop for eight hours. Oh my God. And I just said, I can’t do this. I went home and mailed my stuff back to them. Y’all can have this. I’m not coming back. But after that I worked a customer service job at Autotrader for roughly about a year, got fired from that. And I remember my mom being like, “What are you going to do? You’re doing all this…”
Because she knew that I was into design and stuff. I would tell her that I went to Barnes and Noble and copied these books. And I found this cracked version of Photoshop. And I started playing around with designs, teaching myself how to use it. But it was always a hobby. And she’s like, “What are you going to do? You have a degree, but you’re playing around on the computer. You need to find a job, a real job.” And I did. A few months after that I got my first design gig. But I know what it’s like in your early career, trying to find your footing and just not feeling like you’re ready yet. I totally understand what that’s like.

Barney Abramson:
Absolutely. I can relate to that 100%. It really was like the wild west for a while. For us it was tough. It sure was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean I think it’s one thing to not know because of just the industry and how it’s changing, but then you add race on top of that. That adds a whole, just other layer to it. Every place where I worked, I wasn’t like the only black person, but I was one of few black people there. And then it’s like, you can’t mess up because they looking at you crazy. And it’s a whole… I get it. I get it.

Barney Abramson:
Well you’re the example. It almost feels like they took a gamble on a black person. So here you are. And now you have to represent for everybody else, you have to be on your best behavior. So everything… I mean a lot of it is, but a lot of it is really true mean. Especially then did feel like they were taking a gamble on you. And you had to really do everything perfect so that weren’t embarrassing yourself and everyone else. So the pressure was, it was a lot. I mean obviously new England, not the most diverse place in some areas. So I definitely worked for a lot of jobs where I was the only black person in the team or the department. And at times I was the only black person in the entire building. So it was tough.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about your work at this gaming company. That was sort of your first foray into all of this. Tell me how it was. How’d it go?

Barney Abramson:
Yeah. So my work in gaming started at Progressive Gaming. It was smaller gaming company, they developed games and also manufactured slot machines. That company eventually went out of business. And the company that bought that company, Progressive Gaming was IGT. So I didn’t transition from one company to the next, but when Progressive Gaming went out of business and IGT kind of bought some of their assets within six months, I was now working at IGT. So the two companies kind of blend into one in my mind, I guess. But my start at IGT and working for the gaming industry was very different. Obviously it was just a whole different world. Moving to Las Vegas was different as well. So I was experiencing a lot of things, but I was in my twenties. So I kind of enjoyed… Obviously living in Vegas I enjoyed that.
But enjoyed the challenge at the time. So I was your typical junior designer. I sat in a cube pretty much doing graphic design work all day long. I reported to the director of marketing. And a lot of my job was really creating sales sheets and things of that nature, very boring stuff. But one exciting part of my job was doing trade shows. So the gaming industry, the way that they sell their games and their slots and their new technologies is by going to this multitude of gaming shows all over the US. So I got to travel and really design for multimillion dollar sets. So we were doing from video design to designing walls and features for the booth, was something that I loved doing. And I did a lot of. I was almost like a designer, an event kind of planner person, because I would also work a lot of this trade shows.
As time went by, I moved from the events part of things, and I went more into the branding. Our company was going through a major rebrand after 30 years of having the same logo and brand, they decided to reinvent themselves. They wanted to go from a manufacturing company into a technology company, mostly because they were not just making slot machine and manufacturing them. They were also developing games and different technologies. So this company had three or five gaming studios that… So we had hundreds of game designers in our building. But I’ve always kind of worked in a marketing environment. So when games were being developed and this company was developing, I want to say 50 to 100 games a year, it was our job to then create assets, to make sure that those games were going to be sold. So whether it was assets for the web, for sales, for social media, we would create all those assets.
So that was kind… I did that for a while. And then eventually I became a manager and I started managing a creative team. And like I said earlier, I had a very diverse creative team. I think actually I had the most diverse team in the entire company. Something that I was very proud of having, something that I strived for and I was able to make it happen. I had a Japanese designer, had a Mexican designer, two or three Filipino designers. I had designers in Peru, in Germany and London and Canada. So it was a very diverse team. Even in age. My youngest designer was 24 and my photographer was like 55. So managing such a diverse team in age, in culture and also location was a big deal for me. And I really thrived at it. It was probably the best time of my life being in our director at IGT for that time. So yeah. I don’t know if I answered your question, but that’s kind of my experience in the gaming industry and in working for IGT.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you worked there for… I mean this time period is almost a decade, so you really got to work and also see how the design industry grew from where you started to where you are right now. When you look back at that time, what did that time there really teach you?

Barney Abramson:
Gosh, I mean, what I remember the most is the evolution of gaming. So some of this gaming… And the thing is gaming for slot machines have a lot of somewhat similar to other games that we play, obviously, on different platforms. But I remember how in the beginning, a lot of the games were developed with very poor graphics, very low end graphics. I think GIFs or very small JPEGs picks was the only thing that they could use at the time. And I remember the evolution from static graphics to animated graphics that just blew my mind. The first time I saw a slot machine that stopped and then the character started doing something, I thought that was kind of revolutionary. And it’s funny because the gaming industry has been at the forefront of that development of creating digital games with other companies. And it’s not seen that way, but if you think about it, gaming companies employ thousands if not millions of designers, game designers I mean.
So watching that evolution of going from static to animated, to then full blown graphics that we get now, and some of the animation that’s created looks like real life. And it’s amazing. So being part of that, seeing the change in the industry from using Quarkxpress to obviously now Creative Cloud, that was a big, huge evolution that I think a lot of us are thankful for. So there was quite a bit of things that changed during that time. And gosh, I don’t know. I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. You mentioned just that change with slot machines and stuff. I feel like mobile gaming has also really changed a lot over the years. I see some mobile games now that are pretty much graphically on par with what you would see from a console. And I think part of that is just the technology in the phone has increased greatly. I mean, I didn’t get my first cell… Well, I got my first cell phone when I was in college, but it was a Ericson GH 68. I had a Nokia too. I had a Nokia after that, but it was like a T9, you play Snake on it. You know what I mean? It wasn’t something that was as advanced as modern day smartphones are. It’s just amazing to see how technology has increased. And as technology has increased, design has kind of gotten better. So that’s been a kind of good path to follow.

Barney Abramson:
It sure has I think that design now, I mean, I see what some of this, even first year college graduates are doing, and it’s just mind blowing and it’s like, wow. I could never imagine having that skill back then when I graduated, it just blows me away.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Barney Abramson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious. What is the design community like for you in Vegas?

Barney Abramson:
To put it mildly it’s nonexistent. I can’t really say that there’s a graphic community here. There’s an art community that has been around for a while. And there’s an art district that has been growing quite significantly in the last couple years. But when it comes to tech or design, it lacks significantly. I mean, I’m not part of any graphic design or design or even creative teams or meetups or anything like that.
They’re far and few in between. And so there’s not very much of that. Vegas, it’s a transit city where people come, they try, they give it a shot and they leave. So folks don’t stick around very long. So that sense of community’s not really there. It’s funny, because I’ve been saying this since I’ve moved here like 17, 18 years ago, I’ve been saying that and it hasn’t really changed since. I feel like people here tend to be very isolated, thank God for the internet and Slack and other platforms that it’s kind of where I get to meet people and communicate and talk to other creatives.
But I don’t see that here. I was actually talking to someone recently about creating some sort of group. Because I’ve seen, and I’ve met a few designers that are moving into the city and they meet me through LinkedIn and some of my writing, they kind of reach out to me and through my mentorships and we all talk about creating something because definitely it’s missing.

Maurice Cherry:
You should. I mean, if that void is there and you’re looking for it definitely create it yourself. I mean, that’s what I did with Revision Path. There wasn’t any sort of design podcast I was talking to black designers and so I made it and almost 10 years later here we are. But no that’s interesting, because when I think of Las Vegas and I think of design, I don’t necessarily think of graphic design.
I would mostly think of maybe, I don’t know, interior design, I guess because there’s hotels and casinos. I mean, I just wouldn’t think of Vegas as a design city, but yet so much of Vegas is an experiment in design. The strip, the huge signs, the fake monuments and stuff there. Building an Oasis like that in the middle of a desert is a design experiment. So I would imagine that there has to be something there, but I would say if you haven’t found that community there and you’re looking for it, make it yourself, make it yourself.

Barney Abramson:
Well, you heard it first here. That might just happen. But you’re right. There should be a design community here. There is. I’m sure there is. They were just all kind of spread. And there’s really, again, not that sense of community doesn’t exist. So folks tend to stay on their own and seek out other places for their outlets. So yeah, it definitely is needed here. It’s funny you say that, that you wouldn’t think of Las Vegas as a big design place. Because part of the reason why I moved here was because the design industry in Boston, in New England was very competitive at the time. And I felt like, wow, I felt, again, it could have just been me, but I felt at the time that I really needed to sharpen my skills to compete for jobs and things of that nature. And when I moved to Vegas, I realized, “Oh my God, I’m the big deal here.”
Someone like me, I had so many options to work for… Whether it was casinos or gaming companies or other things. I really felt like I had choices to make. And there was so many choices out there. And I would encourage people all the time. I remember encouraging people, man, just come out here, you’ll get a job like this. It’ll be so easy, especially coming from somewhere else. So that was kind of part of the reason why I felt like, when I came here, everything was so much easier for me because there really wasn’t that competition.

Maurice Cherry:
I know there’s big college out there. UNLV is in Vegas and I believe there’s a AIGA chapter there. I want to say there’s been one there for a minute, but yep. Have you interacted with them?

Barney Abramson:
I have not. You’re actually the second person that brings that up to me and I feel ashamed that I haven’t been part of the AIGA a and I’m making plans to become a member and attend. I have not, seeked it. I can’t really tell you why. I just really haven’t hasn’t been in front of me for me to engage with them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I’m not mentioning it as you should seek them out. I’m not saying it in that way, but normally when I’m thinking of any big city in the US, my first thought for design community would be to think about, is there an AIGA chapter there or is there a big school there? Because I figure a big school would have an art department or a design department and maybe they’ve got a student chapter or something there. So I feel like that community’s probably there. You might just have to really either one seek it out in those places or just create your own or both. I mean, I think either of those options is pretty good. I mean, even with AIGA, I was a member for several years, I did stuff at the national level. I did stuff at the local level. I always say the chapters per city are always kind of different.
They’re never going to operate the same from city to city, the different chapters. But I’d say if you want to seek them out, see if it’s good for you, if it’s welcoming. I mean, I know that AIGA now is trying to do a lot more around building community now that it kind of seems like we’re coming out of the pandemic. And so people are starting to have events and stuff again. Also now for the first time in the organization’s history, there’s a black man that’s the executive director. And I know him personally, Benny F. Johnson. He’s been on the show before. So I know that he’s trying to do more things to really one bring in more diversity, but also just help with more community in other places. So I’d recommend seeking it out. I’m not a shilling for AIG here, because I am not a member, but I’m just saying it’s an option.

Barney Abramson:
No, thank you for bringing that up. Like I said, I think you’re the second or third person to bring that up to me. And I actually had their page open from a couple days ago because I was looking at some of their certificate programs. I kind of said to myself like, wow, I’m surprised that I have not joined or kind of seeked them out. But I think I will.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the certificate programs I think are fairly new. I want to say those are fairly new. They’re really trying to, and this is to their credit. Because I’ve known the past few executive directors. To their credit they really are trying to become more of an agency for the modern designer. I think when a lot of people, maybe even 10 years or so ago thought of a AIGA, it was very much art school, art gallery, white gallery wall.
It was for a certain type of designer that got into design a certain type of way. And oftentimes that was not very diverse, just in terms of race or ethnicity. And I feel like now they really are trying to encompass the modern designer because now within the past 10 years, there’s UX design, there’s product design, there’s experiential design. Now even writers are considered designers and some organizational structures because you have a content designer or something. So design is so much more than just the visual or at least the visual in a artistically representational sort of way.

Barney Abramson:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And AIGA is old. AIGA is over 100 years old. They got to get with the program. They got to get with the time. So to their credit, they really are trying to modernize. But I think even something that big, especially with as many chapters as they have, it’s slow. The change is slow. But I think those certificate programs and I know they’ve done portfolio festivals and stuff. They’re starting to move in the right direction to their credit. I’ll give them that.

Barney Abramson:
I have to say the way that you articulated that makes so much sense to me because it’s exactly how I felt about them. And I just didn’t know that. And now that you say it that way, I think that was part of my hesitation. I remember going to their website years and years ago to look at contracts, or ways to handle being a freelancer and things of that nature, for resources. But that was the only way that I remember using them, but you’re right. I think that they are kind of reinventing themselves and I enjoy the change. So I’m going to have to look them up.

Maurice Cherry:
Outside of work you do a lot of mentoring. Talk to me about that.

Barney Abramson:
So the mentoring really came about due to my writing. So earlier this year, and I think the pandemic obviously gave all of us time to slow down and really rethink what you’re doing. And I really had epiphany, I guess you could say. But I started thinking about my experiences and a lot of the things that I never really talked about getting fired for my first job or being rejected by a mentor. These are things that I felt like maybe there are other people that are going through these experiences. And I remember also during the pandemic joining a lot of Slack channels. I think we’re part of some of the same channels for the black designers and Hugh and Techaria and things like that. So I started having more and more conversation with folks. And so then the beginning of this year, I kind of decided, hey you know what, I’m going to start writing more and I’m going to start telling a bit more about my story and I didn’t really have a plan.
I just thought I’m just going to make a post and see what happens. So I did and I started posting and the reaction was very… I got a very big reaction, mostly from young black and brown designers and creatives kind of reaching out to me, which encouraged me to write even more. So for the last four or five months I’ve been posting and writing almost like every single day, whether it is a Medium or LinkedIn or on all of the Slack channels that I’m part of.
And that like I said, I’ve met dozens, if not hundreds of young designers that relate to my story have gone through the same issues that I’ve gone through, either struggling or could use the guidance. So that’s where I then open up my calendar and say, I’ll just open on my calendar. I get a Calendly account and everyone that I would talk to, I say, “Hey, if you want to book me for 30 minutes, we can have a chat. It could be about design. It could be about any issues you’re having at work. I could review your portfolio. I could check your resume. I mean, whatever you want to talk about you can have me for 30 minutes.”
And that just kind of exploded. And before I knew it, I was having several meetings a week. If not several meetings a day, my wife is marriage and family therapist. So she actually sees clients from home. So because of the type of work she does, it became very natural to me to meet with people and talk to them about things. And I felt probably the last couple… The last month or so I felt like I should make this into something real and not just kind of a casual thing that I was doing online. So I started putting together this mentorship program it’s in its infancy.
I’m literally I’m… As I’m talking about it, I’m thinking of what I’m I’m going to do. But I do want to create a mentorship program. I do want to open up my story and myself to be able to guide and give advice. Again, I don’t know everything I don’t pretend to or everything. I usually start my sessions by just telling my story and using that as a vehicle to talk about the things that I was able to overcome and how I was able to overcome them. And it just really resonates with the people that I talk to. And then typically there’s a lot of Q&A going back and forth. And then we continue our chats online through Slack or LinkedIn or other channels. So that’s kind of how it started. And that’s where I’m at today. I have my website that I just started building and I’m piecing the program together. My wife is helping me with the program. So I hope to before the end of the year, have this mentorship program fully ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
I really love that you’re doing that, by the way. I mean, using your story as a way to mentor and help out the current and the next generation of designers, that is so inspiring. And it’s really interesting to hear that it came from your writing. As you started writing about these different experiences that you’ve had, that it sort of opened up this new avenue to you.

Barney Abramson:
And you know who actually encouraged me to write. I think it was, I saw, we both know Cheryl D. Williams… Miller, sorry. She Dr. Cheryl D. Miller. I saw her talk. I can’t remember where I saw her speak, but I saw her speak once. And she talked about the importance of writing and documenting and telling your story. And she just really inspired me. And I’ve told her this many times that she just started something in me that I didn’t think I had.
I actually never thought I was a good writer. If I’m insecure about anything, it’s my writing. But I felt like if as long as I was telling it from my point of view and I was being honest and real that people could take it however they want. And if we want to talk about it, then let’s talk about it. Because at the end of the day, I want to create conversation and I want to engage and not… I’m not here to put anybody down or be controversial. I just want to, again, tell my story and allow folks to learn from it and engage me and let’s talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you’re the expert of your own story and of your own experience. And I love that Cheryl was an inspiration. I remember when I had her back on the show, this was years ago. And it’s funny about the writing, because I found her, I won’t say found. It wasn’t like I discovered her anything, but I found her or I discovered her, I should say through a book that she wrote. She had wrote a memoir on and it was for sale on Amazon. And that’s how I ended up reaching out to her to come on the show because I had been doing research about this thesis that she wrote back in the eighties and how that got turned into this article for Print magazine. And it spurred the symposium with AIGA and then there’s just this gap from 1990 to whenever, and I was like, okay, where did she go?
And then I found this book and I reached out to her and was like, I would love to just tell your story. Because I don’t think anyone has and it needs to be heard. And then it kind of has taken off from there. So I always stress the importance of writing to designers. I mean we had for a few years through Revision Path, we had a design anthology of writing called Recognize. We did it from 2019 to 2021. We didn’t do it for too much. The pandemic kind of killed it. I’ll be completely be completely honest there. But we had a different theme every year and then people would submit design writing towards that theme. So the first year’s theme was space. The second year’s theme was fresh. And then the final year of the theme was reboot. And so like I said, the pandemic killed it.
People I think were just so busy thinking of just survival honestly, that submitting to a writing anthology was the last thing on their minds. But we did manage to publish two volumes. One was through Envision and got published through their website. And then the second one, we published through A List Apart. So I always am stressing the importance of writing to designers because writing, I think just teaches you how to one structure your thoughts, but also to explain yourself and your process to other people so they can see your work as you see it.

Barney Abramson:
I couldn’t agree more. It’s something that I feel like I finally learned it recently. And when I talk to young designers, it’s literally the first thing that I tell them to do is start writing today, start expressing yourself, start telling your story, start articulating and becoming a better communicator, whether it is at work or for your personal. You need to start learning how to communicate better because it really it’s the only thing that’s going to take you from a designer to something else. So maybe you like to be a graphic designer, but if you want to be a manager, if you want to be a leader in any kind of way, you have to learn how to communicate better. And writing is a great way to start. So I’m glad that we think the same because I say that, I think almost every mentoring session that I’ve had, I’ve brought this up.

Maurice Cherry:
Start a blog, write case studies about your work. Anything just to open up that other part of your brain I think is just super important for designers in general.

Barney Abramson:
I see that a lot in when you see someone’s portfolio and it’s just like, oh great graphics. And it’s amazing. And I’m like, oh, that looks great, but it’s but what’s the backstory. What am I looking at? Why am I looking at this? Another thing is when you design something, practice articulating what you’re creating so that it can… It’ll make better sense to you, but it’ll also make better sense to the people watching it. So, I mean, some art is meant to be seen, but I feel like in our industry, or at least as a graphic designer, for me, it does help a lot to be able to articulate whether in writing or speaking your vision and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s this really great piece that you have on Medium called how to attract, hire and retain black creatives, a five step strategy. Just from the title alone I’m thinking, I know so many recruiters and hiring managers that need to read this because they’re always coming to Revision Path saying, “Oh, we’re trying to find black designers. We can’t find black designers. Where are they?” And it’s like, I should tell them, go read this piece by Barney Abramson about how to do it. Because you’ve laid out the strategy. And I think that comes from your experience too. The time you’re working in the gaming industry, even the stuff that you’re doing now with the energy company, you’ve done this, you’ve built teams. So you know how to do this.

Barney Abramson:
Exactly. And it’s funny that you say that because it’s exactly where this piece came from. It was because of the amount of people that were coming to me partially because of my writing, they were coming to me asking me the same question. Where do we find black designers? We’re trying to build our teams. How do we find more people of color? And I got that question over and over. And I remember one evening I was on Twitter. I made a post and I think it was a CEO of an agency wrote to me saying, “Oh my God, I would love to know more. Do you have any advice?” And I’m like advice and I never really thought about it. Maybe I have to put something together. So then I wrote this list.
Well, here’s 10 things you could do today. So I sent them the list and then I thought, okay, well maybe this list needs to be… Like, I wouldn’t even think about this, let me just throw it out there. So I kind of shot this list around in my Slack groups. I think Cheryl was one of the folks that gave me some guidance on it. And then I said, okay, well now I need to make it…. Now it can’t just be a list. Because I’m not providing enough information. So now I need to flush it out.
And so that’s kind of how it started. It started literally from folks asking me the same question they ask you. Conversation on Twitter, kind of sparked the initial list. And then I felt like I needed to flush that out. And I literally spent three months putting this together because I wanted it to be right. I did have some help with the writing because I’m not the best writer when it comes to long form like this, but I’m really happy with it. And I’m glad that you find it useful.

Maurice Cherry:
Right now with where you are in your life and in your career how do you define success?

Barney Abramson:
Man, you have the best questions. I am glad you said that because I had always had… In the past, I’ve always defined success with a money… A particular kind of a financial thing to it. I needed to make this much money work for this company to be successful. I mean, again, this is years ago. I had this idea that by the time I’m 30, I need to make $100,000. That was my big goal. It was a thing that was going to make me happy. And I feel like when I was able to reach that goal and when I was able to be at a position that to me felt I should have been happy. I had a creative team, I was highly regarded in my company. I was kind of making the money that I wanted to make, but I just was not happy. I felt like the stress of getting there and the stress of me trying to climb the ladder really got to me.
And I got to a point where even my health started to have effects. I just was not working out for me. And I realized that I needed to find success in other things. So for me, success is I find more success and more happiness in my writing and in my mentorship than I do in my paycheck. I love my paycheck. Don’t get me wrong, and I need it. But I find more happiness doing the things that I love and when I’m giving back. So I think for me, success is when I find myself in a place that I’m giving back and I am helping people, helping black and brown designers get out of rut or get out of a difficult situation at work. That really is what makes me happy more than anything else.

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

Barney Abramson:
The next five years, I definitely see myself. Well, I always had this vision of starting my own creative agency. Again, I do a lot of consulting work and freelance work for companies and entrepreneurs and other ventures that I do, on the side. But I do want to formalize that into something else. I would love to have an agency kind of like a boutique creative agency of my own, something that I’ve kind of started and stopped throughout my career.
And I feel like I’m getting to a place where I think five years from now, if I can launch a creative agency, I think it would be a success for me. The other thing that I would love to see come to fruition is my mentorship and my mentoring program. I would love to have that up and running with seeing and talking to hundreds of designers and also bring other senior folks like yourself and others to be part of something big like that. So that’s where I see myself in five years from now.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up from here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about your writing? Where can they find that online?

Barney Abramson:
Yeah, so the best… Really where I spent most of my time writing and communicating and meeting new folks, it’s on LinkedIn. I think LinkedIn, the last couple years had really kind of reinvented itself and I’ve seen just an influx of people coming to the platform, maybe I’m wrong. But I just noticed that during the last maybe year or two, just this influx of new young energy coming to the platform.
So I find myself on LinkedIn, quite a lot writing. I actually host a blog on LinkedIn, which it is identical to my blog on Medium. So Medium obviously is another place that you can find me. I have my website, Barneyabramson.com where you can… Again, my website’s on the construction, but if you want to reach out to me, send me an email. That’s really the one stop shop where you can find me, send me a note and then see all my other social channels. Another place where I’m very active is Slack, where are the black designers that’s I’m on there all the time. And Techaria is another group and Hugh’s another group that I spend a lot of time in. You can definitely find me there as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Barney Abramson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think one, just your story of coming to this country, getting interested in design and really finding your own way is something that I feel like a lot of our audience is going to be able to really empathize with and relate to. Because design is something that is for everyone. And even the ways that we get into it, whether that’s through formal ways like school or cultivating a hobby or something like that. I think what your story proves is that design is really something for everyone and that you were able to carve out your own path and really kind of define success for yourself and find a way to give back to the next generation, which is really great to see. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Barney Abramson:
Thank you, sir. It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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Kamar Thomas

Every designer or artist wants to be able to make a living from their work, and this week’s guest embodies that desire. Generally, Kamar Thomas splits his time between being a design educator at two institutions — Centennial College and VCAD — but outside the classroom, he’s a prolific artist who specializes in vibrant oil paintings filled with deep meaning. He also just finished his first book, The Artist’s Creative Vision, which publishes this winter. Very nice!

Kamar started off talking about his teaching career, which also includes stints in the U.S. and Jamaica, and he talked about getting into art and painting as a kid before attending college at Wesleyan. He also spoke on the themes of the Black figure, masks, and abstraction in his work, his first gallery show this year, and what he ultimately wants to convey in his paintings. For Kamar, you can make art from wherever, and also have a great career!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kamar Thomas:
My name is Kamar Thomas. I am a fine art painter, primarily an artist. I’m also a professor at two colleges, Centennial College and Visual College of Art and Design. And lastly, because I have finished a manuscript, I will be an author of a book called The Artist’s Creative Vision.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations on the book.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you. When it comes out, hopefully it does come out, I hope it makes an impact.

Maurice Cherry:
It will. I think every person’s book makes an impact, especially for the person who wrote it.

Kamar Thomas:
Especially for the person who wrote it.

Maurice Cherry:
Book aside, how has the summer been going so far?

Kamar Thomas:
The summer has been busy. I fill essentially three roles. I teach and I make and I write. And the summer is my season of making and writing, so I’ve had an exhibition in the summer. I’ve been going to museums quite a bit, and I’ve been just polishing up the manuscript, which is a whole long process in itself.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see on the websites you’ve got the book here available for pre-order and everything. We’ll also make sure to put a link to it in the show notes so people can check that out.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you. I’m very grateful. I need it.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your inspiration behind it?

Kamar Thomas:
It came from solving my own problem, which was I was a starving artist, and I didn’t want to be a starving artist anymore so the book is written to, if I can, eradicate that concept, get rid of the idea. And to solve that problem, it’s… The real issue is how does one come up with work consistently that people want to buy? Rather than just making and following the muse and blindly following inspiration.
And I sat down and I came up with a system. And by sat down, I mean with trial and error and teaching people and tried a few other method here and picking up things through teaching and applying them to myself. And the system is combine your interests with your biography, with art history, repeat. Eventually someone will buy.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds pretty simple.

Kamar Thomas:
Sounds pretty simple, just like saving money is simple, but it’s really difficult. Just like exercise is simple, but it’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, I want to get more into your work as an artist, but let’s talk about your work as a professor first. You mentioned teaching at two universities. You’re teaching at the Visual College of Art and Design; that’s in Edmonton, Alberta. And you’re teaching at Centennial College, which is in Toronto, which is on in Ontario. That’s east coast, west coast geographically. How do you balance teaching at both of those schools?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, balance is a strong word. Let’s just say… What’s the word? Manage. Balance supplies. For a season, there is teaching Visual College of Art and Design is online, and their classes are two to three hours long. And I fit them in the schedule where I can. And I teach at Centennial in person; I’m full-time there. And that schedule is largely immutable. The meetings have to happen, the classes have to happen, and I have to physically be there. And so it’s just a matter of systematizing and being rather ruthless with what I say yes to and being very hands on with the planning. I spend a significant portion of time just planning just 20 minutes here and there. I think if I added it up over the week, it would be at least an hour and a half just on planning what I’m going to do with the time that I have.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s good that you manage both of them because it sounds like one’s online, one’s in person, but then the schedules don’t seem to really cross over either, so that’s pretty good.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. If it’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching, it’s systematize. If you repeat anything, figure out the best way to repeat it rather than having to make yourself figure it out each time.
I have a complicated system of things coming into my inbox to moving to a… I gather up a place, I put them in a folder, and then once a day I go in the folder, I put those into the planner ,and the the next day I get out a physical piece of paper and I write down the things from the planner. And I keep it on my person so I won’t have to keep checking the planner. And then somewhere on the paper on my person, I have somewhere to put the new stuff coming in so nothing really slips through the cracks. Some things do, but for the most part, 90%, 95% do not.
The same with art; a system that you can go back to, that you can rely on to produce results is much better than inspiration-based or client-based. It’s more of if you have a method of working, you go, you consult the system. I do this. Let me check art history. What do I have inspired there? Let me draw something from my biography. Go.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting, I didn’t really realize that about teaching myself until I started teaching. Which when I was in college, I would always have professors that would… They wouldn’t necessarily repeat themselves, they’d always just tell you it’s in the syllabus. It’s like, “It’s in the syllabus. I put it in the syllabus.” And I’m like, yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Then when I started teaching, I was like, I get it, because the syllabus is like your system. You put everything in there, and it’s up to the student whether they read it or not. If they don’t read it, it’s not your fault. You put it in the syllabus. They should have read it.

Kamar Thomas:
Correct. It not only has everything, it has when everything is going to happen and it has how you expect it to happen and it has the consequences of if they don’t happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep. And then the students get mad when they’re like, “Well, I didn’t read the syllabus.” Well, that’s your problem. The syllabus is the key to the system for me, so I get it.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. That’s exactly right.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve been a teacher for awhile now. Not just with these two colleges, but you’ve taught in Canada, you’ve taught in Jamaica, you’ve taught in United States. What do you learn from your students? Are there any differences between students in different countries and stuff?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, there sure are. In Jamaica, the difference in students in Jamaica, I was teaching high school. And the difference really… Well, what would have made the difference there is finances, it’s money. A lot of the issues could be solved by a few dollars here and there. The main challenges I was up against was actual art materials, was the space to make the art, was the resources. Once you have the money, those problems are solved.
In the United States, when I became a professor, the problem I faced the most was a problem of agency. And that I loosely define as is this thing for me? The students, a lot of them didn’t feel like making art was… Nevermind being possible, it’s possible, but just for someone else. And so a lot of my teaching was geared towards having students not only believe that it’s for them, but making projects that reinforce that belief. And there are very few things more encouraging than a few dollars in your bank account.
In Canada, it is the students I teach now, it is a equivalent of a community college. And the students I teach are adults, and they want to be professionals, and they need tangible results. The difference in Canada is students are a little more responsible because they’re a little school older. But they just need the resources. They need to know when and where what’s happening. A lot of my job is just finding things for my students to enter, finding outlets for them.
In Jamaica, it is a straight financial barrier. In the US, it is a problem of agency a lot of the time. And in Canada now, it’s a matter of finding and connecting the students to the resources.

Maurice Cherry:
I found when I talked to some educators here in the States that teach at HBCUs, it’s a combination of those things that you mentioned. If they’re teaching on HBCUs, it’s often the lack of funds and resources as well as the agency, depending on what program it is or how many people are in the department and such. It’s interesting how the problems scale based on not just country, but also just where you’re teaching and the students that you’re teaching, the type of students you’re teaching.

Kamar Thomas:
That’s correct. The agency is a rather complicated problem because it’s not an individual problem. You can’t really solve it by one student, you have to get the whole class to want to do well. And as a result, the individual will do well within that, so you have to set the expectation and then you have tom in a way, make it known that what they’re doing is hard, and it’s supposed to be hard, and see if you can get them on board for the difficulty. It’s a really delicate dance. But the US, that was the problem I faced, and hopefully I rose to the challenge. And I apologize to the students if I have not.

Maurice Cherry:
Do your students take you up on office hours?

Kamar Thomas:
Yes, they do. Because drawing is a bit like singing where it’s your voice, with drawing it’s your hand, it feels, and it’s your art, it’s what you are trying to say, a lot of the things that I give in class, it feels like I’m attacking them personally. They take up the office hours to tell me that I shouldn’t have attacked them personally. And then we have sessions to show them, no, it’s not you, it’s understanding of the subject matter that we’re doing is not quite there yet. This is what you’re doing. You’re over here. I need you to get to here.
An example of that would be I’m teaching measuring things, just measuring, and I’m I say, “You draw a line, a straight line, a perfectly vertical line and then you measure every other angle from that.” If I say picture a 90 degree angle, you have that in your head. If you cut that in half, you have a 45 degree angle. If you’re looking at a line, you can guess what that angle is because you know what 90 is and you know what 45 is. If it’s below 45, you can say, “Oh, that’s about 30,” et cetera.
And what students do, they don’t do that, they just guess. They just put it down, it looks right, and they come to office hours and say, “Hey, you were picking on me.” And I said, “I knew you guessed because you immediately put down something before attempting… Before I even finished the sentence.” Yeah, they take up office hours, they get extra time at the beginning.
Now, at the advanced level, when they’re about to graduate, they want to know if there’s a gallery showing, which ones I should contact. If there’s an art festival, how do I get in? What do I do now? I’m about to be out there. What do I do now? And I have a whole packet for them. I have what’s the steps that they take. What are the expectations? I break out the spreadsheet. Rent is $1,500. If you sell for $500, you need to sell three every month. You need to contact 10 people every month as a result. It’s 30 days in a month. If you do one every other day, you’ll get to 10; three of them might buy. And if you do this over a year, you won’t run out of money. That’s what my office hours are for.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, back when I was teaching… Oh my goodness, this might have been over 10 years ago. I started off teaching in person, and then I asked to be moved to teach online because my students were wearing me out. One, well, my students were all older than me, and so a lot of them tried to think that they would punk me because they’re like, “You’re my son’s age.” And I’m like, “So? I will fail you if you don’t get these assignments right.” Some of them would ask me to… They would bring their kids to class and they would try to use office hours as babysitting. They would have their kid come to office hours. And I’m like, “Where’s your mom?” And they’re like, “I don’t know.” What am I supposed to do? I’m not running daycare over here. And I asked to be moved online because I was like, I can’t keep coming out here and fooling what y’all doing this stuff.
And online is just different because the students just have to have more discipline. And again, this was 10 years ago, pre-pandemic. Now where I think everyone’s used to doing virtual work. Just trying to get them to have the discipline to just say something in the forum, just participate in class. Because there was a participation element to their grade. And then when they have office hours, it’s just like, “Well what can I do to make up for the time that I wasn’t speaking?” I’m like, “You can’t. You can’t make up participation. There’s no extra credit for participation. You didn’t speak up. That was it.” Trying to do anything they could just to pass. I would have students that would try to justify why they thought it was okay cheating because the class was online. And if the class wasn’t online and Wikipedia wasn’t there, then why would it be available as a resource? They’re very creative.
I was teaching a… It was basically principles of web development to business students, which was probably why they were so duplicitous, because it wasn’t design students, they were business majors that just needed a credit. They didn’t really care to learn, they were just like, “What can I do to get past you?” Essentially. And it would be just so disheartening because I would have students that would fail my class two and three times coming back doing the same stuff, and it’s like, “Do you want me to just pass you out of pity? Because it’s getting there. It’s hurting me to see you doing the same stuff. The assignment has not changed from semester to semester. I would think you would be better at it because you’ve done it before.” Yeah,. I do miss teaching though, I just don’t miss all of that, I don’t miss all of that.

Kamar Thomas:
Some people you’re not going to get when you are in… What is it? The lower school levels of everybody, and everybody’s decent. But as soon as you go to high school and you’re high school as 2,000 people, you know at least one or two crazy people, just absolute… You see them, you cross the street.
In teaching, some people it might be they might not make it. It might be that they, for whatever reason, their motivation, they’re unwilling to do the work; and that’s fine. I do my absolute best to not take it in any way personal. I actually take it as a point of pride to produce the same professionalism, no matter what the student comes with. And I treat them extra, extra nice just to make the D or the E that they’re about to get a bit more palatable. But I’m-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, did you say D or E?

Kamar Thomas:
Listen, there’s no time machine. You’re going to fail this class. It’s over for you.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait. There’s a grade that’s a E?

Kamar Thomas:
There’s a F.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Kamar Thomas:
It exists, but I explain in great detail, the grades that are coming, and I explain the connection. And I try and point out what they can do next time, provided and they take it again. And I make it really long, and it takes a long time for me to do it. When they come back the next time I say, “Remember that long list I sent you? You haven’t done it. You showed up when there was three weeks remaining in the semester and you were asking me to perform a miracle, but I am merely a teacher. I am not the Lord. I cannot turn the water into wine. I’m sorry, I can’t make time return itself.” If you plan on making it, you have to come to a certain number of them to get participation. A lot of it is merely giving people the benefit of the doubt that they’ll try again and not taking it personally. And I’m going to be honest; it’s been really difficult.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. I can imagine.

Kamar Thomas:
It’s very, very difficult. But again, systematize. I’ve seen it before now. I’m actually mad if it bothers me at all when I see the second time. I always think you’ve seen this before. You really [inaudible 00:21:30]. You see it’s not the first person that has come in three weeks before. Go look for the three weeks before folder, search to your computer. Oh, here it is. Oh yeah, this is what I said. Got it. And then I go and set out the template.
And that way, again, because in the US, agency was the problem, I always wanted to preserve the idea that this person felt like what I was teaching was theirs. And so I would try and be excruciatingly kind, the kind of understanding, “Oh, you’re still going to fail, but it’s an understanding fail.” It’s with love, it’s with kindness, it’s with accountability. And I think if the students have changed me in any way, I’ve become way more understanding and way more empathetic. Still going to failure you, though, but way more empathetic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I get it. Sometimes I know students are going through a lot, and you try to do as much as you can. You want to get them to the level where they hopefully are understanding and doing it for themselves, and then sometimes you just don’t have that. But I think as educators, you and I both realize that it comes with the territory.

Kamar Thomas:
Unfortunately, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about you. I think, as folks can probably tell by now with the quiet storm voice, that you’re from Jamaica. Tell me what it was like growing up there.

Kamar Thomas:
I’m from port Antonio in Jamaica. Place called Boundbrook, which is near the town of Port Antonio. Yeah, it’s called Stony Hill. As the name suggests there are stones. It’s a hill in areas. Not forest. There are trees, lots of them. There are dogs wandering on your properties. That’s your dog now. My neighbors knew all of my business. It’s a small place and it’s…
My parents, man, they did a great job. They did what they were supposed to do. And as a result, I felt like I could… Not only was I supposed to do well in school, but it was like, yeah, when I pass any exams and I come home with some a good report, all right, that’s nice, but we were expecting this. And that environment, I think, is what I credit for my trying so hard at anything.
Growing up there, our national heroes are all Black people. Every teacher I ever had was a woman. The prime minister was a woman at the time. When I came to the US and the term African American or Black had anything negative attached to it, I was very, very surprised, to say the least, because we don’t really have any negative connotations towards a Black identity in Jamaica at all when I was growing up. Things may have changed. But when I was growing up, we didn’t.
I come to the US and, oh. In Jamaica, you’re a man, and you come to the US, you’re a Black man. What does that mean? And my work is a direct result of trying to answer that question exactly. What does that mean exactly? And the answer for me was to expand what I think Black identity is, to expand what identity is in general. And to do that, I make a whole bunch of paintings that refer to my identity on the one hand, but also does so in a more abstract way. I make a whole bunch of paintings that are abstract, but they’re real, and I’m trying to say identity is abstract and also real.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first get into art and painting?

Kamar Thomas:
Ah, so that is a really good question. In Jamaica, we have, when we leave school, they’re called Caribbean examination council exams. Everything is exam-based. And I took art in these exams, and I got just a little bit below the best, so I was into art in high school.
As a profession, absolutely not. That’s not in the tables. That’s not a thing. It was at my university I met my painting professor; her name was Tula Telfair. She was born Capon. She had long hair. She wore Prada dresses. I don’t know if it was Prada dresses, I just know these dresses were expensive. And she got oil paint on them and it didn’t bother her. And she drove an Audi, a blue one that sounded like a hair dryer. And she could paint quite a bit.
And I was thinking to myself, I understand being a professor pays, but you’re not buying an Audi from professor money. And I actually asked her, I got up courage, “Hey man, how you sell these paintings? How does this work?” And she’s like, “Well, you have to get very, very good and go take the classes you need. And we can talk about it when you get into the class.” And I did. I took the classes that was needed. And while I was painting with her, she just treated me and all the other students as if we were already professionals.
Now, to many people, she was mean, but it’s a very specific thing where she wants you to be ready. As soon as you step out, she wants you to be already ready. And so she would come into this studio and say if she were a curator and she gave me a show, she’d take it back immediately. I need to be painting way more than this, and then just leave me to contemplate what she just said. She would come in and just really treat me like an equal, to be honest, treat me like, “Look, when you graduate, nobody going to know what this is. This is not fun and games. You really need to be making the work consistently and professionally.” And somewhere along the line, it just happened that I felt like I was a professional. It was very gradual, but a few well placed curse words got it into my head that one should be a professional, treat it you would like any other job. It was really in college.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s get back more into you, into your background. Was your family really supportive of you getting into art?

Kamar Thomas:
That is such an interesting question. Supportive is a strong, strong word. My father is an EMT, and before that he was a fireman. He’s out here saving lives. My mom was the secretary to the dean of a college in Jamaica. This serious working people. And they send their son to America definitely not to paint, definitely not.
I’m there. Initially, I was doing physics, and it went okay, but I decided, okay, if I attack the painting with the same consistency I was doing physics, I might be able to make it work. And I, behind their back, just major in art. Don’t tell nobody. Get down to business. And it’s time to graduate now. And I call them up and I go, “Hey, the graduation is nice, but it’s me and 700 people. Nobody cares. Why don’t you come to this thing I’m having called an exhibition?” And they came and I made some sales, but I told the people, “Could you wait and give me the money in the exhibition so that my parents could see that I’m out here making it?” And they did. And they’ve been supportive ever since.
They’ve been supportive of me as a person, but because I hid it initially from them, as an artist, after I graduated, they were on board. And they have the ordinary fears. All parents are afraid that their children will perpetually depend on them until they’re 60. Parents live like, “When are you going to grow up?” And once I demonstrated that I got this, I’m fine, then they were very happy. Then it was like, all right, relax, mom. You don’t have to tell this lady that’s doing your nails. Then it’s a matter of holding them back right.
But before that, if you’re an artist listening, your parents are afraid you are going to be broke. Avoid it at all costs and you will be supported. And then you’ll have the problem of having them… Telling them to relax on the support a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you decide to go to Wesleyan for school?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, so I got into medical school in Jamaica. Got into the University of the West Indies. I’m 17 years old applying to things, my dad’s an EMT I saw those medical books. And my dad has been going on, ambulances, picking people up, so I was barely familiar with what medicine actually means. And I thought to myself at 17 years old, nah, can’t do that.
And I was in this program for… I don’t want to say gifted. It was the Association of Quietly Excellent Scholars and Thinkers, AQUEST was the name of it. Just a group of people who met. And they said, “Apply to some colleges in the US. They give scholarships.” And I applied to a few and a few said yes. And I picked Wesleyan because it gave the most.
I went blindly with not very much information. These are the days of, of course, paper applications and paying for internet at internet cafes for half an hour at a time. The kinds of research that people do today, not possible. The virtual tours and the flying in and doing it, that’s not a thing. It’s you see a name, all right, it’s in Connecticut. How much of a flight is that? Okay. All right, apply, see what happens. And what happened was they called me and said, “Hey, you’ve been accepted.” And I go, “Great. What does that mean?” “It means you’re going to get a visa and come and you live here before.” “Oh, all right.” It was more of I need to get an education, and medicine at 17, at 18 is rough. That choice was too difficult, so let me go to a liberal arts school and figure out another path.

Maurice Cherry:
And what was that path? Of course, it was art, but tell me about that.

Kamar Thomas:
Initially, it was physics. In general, I really like excellence of any kind, but I really was into all of the great physicists, Faraday and Einstein and Niels Bohr. I read these people’s biography. I loved the mathematician, Riemann’s hypothesis. I was reading that. I was just in the library reading up about people, with their mind, with their head, they were doing things. And that kind of a thing was impressive to me because I’m nearsighted so physical feats, they were impressive, but they were hard. I wasn’t going to catch anybody. Got glasses and sorted that out. But what really wowed me was sitting into the library and reading. Wait a minute, this guy, Newton, came up with the theory of gravity and figure out white light is made up of all the other colors and invented calculus, and then he turned 26. Whatever he’s doing, I need to have some of this. These people were what were impressive people to me.
And then I went to college and I found out what professional physics was, which is you write some code and you run a model and then you refine the code and then you run the model. If you are a professor and you’re at the end, if you can manage a tenure position, you have a grad student write parts of the code and run the model. It’s not this romantic notion of sitting down and solving the kinds of universal questions I was hoping for. It was more of can you learn to code? And can you learn the math? And can you learn the math to tell it to code?
And so I figured that out around my second year when it was time to decide a major. And I was doing some drawing and I said, “If I actually flipped a coin, flipped it, heads, I stay with physics, tails, I go with arts.” It was tails. I then went, “This can’t be real,” so I went online and I took a random question answer generator, and it ended up with art as well. I said, “All right, I’ll go with art.”

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Kamar Thomas:
That’s what it was. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You just left it up to chance, huh?

Kamar Thomas:
Left it up. Because again, I figured… Let me put it in perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Kamar Thomas:
There was a guy in my classroom, his name is Zin Lin. He was from Burma. He skipped both levels of calculus, and multi-variable calculus, and was the TA of the physics class while he was taking it. And there was fives Zin Lins in my class of 20 people. And there are people who they’ve been doing physics so long, they are as good at physics as Mozart is as good at music. These people are good, good. You’re not going to catch them in your lifetime.
And I was working an extreme amount just to… I would get 92%, and that would be a B because somebody got 108% and the A was moved up to 108%. It’s this kind of environment where the effort I’m putting in, I’m thinking if I apply this work ethic to basket weaving, I’m going to have some amazing baskets.
And again, I was already doing… It’s not a random pick, it was something that I was already doing. I was taking languages, and I’m doing art at the same time, art and art history all at the same time. And I figure if I threw myself at this art the way I’m doing at physics, I’m going to be all right, I’m going to be cool. And that’s why I was comfortable leading up to chance. For those listening, that’s not wise. Don’t do that. Don’t do that. If you already have an arena of proven work ethic, go for it. But if not, then put some more thought.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re attending Wesleyan, you’re majoring in art, and you graduated. After you graduated, you ended up going back to Jamaica for a while, and then you ended up coming back to the States. Tell me about that time.

Kamar Thomas:
I graduated, and I just couldn’t come up with the money to move to New York so I stayed near that the school and worked at a little supermarket, sold paintings and again realized… really figured out that I don’t have a gallery, I don’t have a curator backing me. I have no critics looking at my work. I’m just a guy out here, but I need to eat. And so I would, for jobs that I was applying to that were arts related, I would send them what I was working on and just let them know that I painted as well and let them know what it was about very quickly. And many of them would respond, and I wouldn’t get the job, but they’d buy a painting or they’d refer me to somebody else, and they would buy a painting. I figured out pretty early, if you tell people, they will buy.
Then, of course, my visa expired and I had return to Jamaica where I was hired as an art teacher at my old high school. Taught 8, 9, 10th, and 11th grade. And then after that, while I’m in art school, I’m doing the same thing I did, just whenever I had to email somebody or whenever I met someone and I took their number, I just told them that I painted. And it worked the same way in the US, it worked in Jamaica. Somebody was like, “You paint. I never met an artist before.” Said, “Well, now you have. Would you send them what I’ve done?” And I sold paintings. And people would pay me in installments, so they’d pay a little this week and then another bit next week in Jamaica, and that allowed me to save up the money to apply to graduate school. Came to graduate school, did pretty much the same thing. And I’ve been doing it since.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it seems like you always had your eye on the prize when it comes to that, which is good. Even though you were doing other things like teaching and stuff, you still were telling yourself and other people, “I am an artist.”

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. I think around half of the battle is just showing up and making the work and committing to telling people. Around half, which seems like an exceptionally large percent but the thing is, if you continually tell people, you are going to need to show them something that you’ve told them about, which is going to make you want to continue to paint. And the more you paint, the more you want to tell people, and it starts this virtuous cycle of making something, talking about it. And the more you talk about it, the more you make, the more you make, the more you talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s also just keeping that dream in the forefront. It’s not about having whatever the weight of reality or the weight of the world kill that idea for you. You still had it in the front of your mind, I am an artist, I am an artist. You’re telling people, you’re doing it. I think that’s just a powerful thing for people to keep in mind as they go through whatever it is they’re going through as part of their creative journey; keep the dream at the forefront and keep striving towards that.

Kamar Thomas:
I was raised as a rather religious person, and in the church, they have daily bread. They have daily readings, daily Bible texts. And as a young child, this is bothersome. This is a problem. You’re up every day? kind of a thing. And I applied that same concept to my artwork, which is the daily reminders and daily things and daily… not affirmations, but something entirely dedicated to reminding me that I can probably be better but also looking back at what I’ve already done to give myself the permission to just do a little bit more. All around my house, I have all kinds of… Well, I have paintings that I’ve made, so I see them every day.
But I also have whiteboards here and there. And I’ll write a quote that I want to keep repeating. And one of them, the most recent one I have written is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. I didn’t realize that that’s where that came from until you asked me that question, but it’s the idea that you have to do something every day to remind, to get yourself to do it so that inevitably when you don’t feel like doing it, you’ve had 47 days of reminding yourself of the importance and looking back at what you’ve done so much, for how much you’ve done so far. And you eventually will just keep making stuff just because you’re in the habit of reminding yourself.
The same with exercise. I haven’t really missed a workout in years. And when I have to miss one, I feel it because when I get up, I exercise. I don’t even think about it. I get up, I exercise, them’s the rules. The same, I get up, I exercise, and before I leave, I have to see this thing that I wrote down with my hand. I’m surrounded by paintings that I like, so it’s a constant reminder. I think that’s really key when you’re pursuing something that is a creative risk, to constantly and regularly remind yourself and encourage yourself because outside is not going to do it. There is no reassurance coming. You have to provide it for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s get more into your particular art style and your process. Based on what I can see from your website, I feel like after you came back to the States from Jamaica, this is when you really started to come into your own as an artist, not just in words, but in deeds as well by the actual paintings that you’ve created. Tell me about your process. What inspires you to make the art that you do in this fashion?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, so the main inspiration was the difference of being a Black man from Jamaica to the US and trying to work out what identity means and trying to make something that says it’s a little bit more complicated than you think. And what changed in graduate school was I more clearly could articulate what the art was supposed to do and I could use better metaphors. I could talk about it better is really what changed. And talking about it better is a function of thinking about it better and more clearly.
The change I want to make was I want someone to look at whatever identity they occupy as something that’s within their control. That sentence took two years of making artwork that I didn’t like to figure out. It took two years of trial and error and critiques in graduate school.
And once you have a clear direction, then I choose from the tools that are available to me. Oil paint I can paint really realistically or I can paint really abstractly or I can use technology to manipulate how an audience interacts with that artwork. And I make series of paintings that are somewhere between really abstract or close to realistic to walk people painting by painting through the idea that your identity can also be… Sure, it can be tangible, it can be reifined, it can be reaffirmed, but it’s also changeable by you. What changed in graduate school was I refined the message a lot more.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you have a connection with one of our other guests on the show, Bennie F. Johnson. He’s the executive director currently of AIGA. How did you two connect?

Kamar Thomas:
After I graduated but before I graduated, a parent of one of the students graduating was walking by the cafeteria, and they had some paintings of mine in there. And she Googled me and contacted me and said, “Hey, I’m in the art business. I’d like to have a conversation.” And we had that conversation. And she introduced me to Bennie. And we went down to DC and I painted Bennie and his wife and hung out with his kids. Wow, those kids must be grown by now that I’m thinking about it, probably. He was really little boy and really little girl, but now they must be big.
Yeah. I made two paintings of him and his wife. And I actually painted their face with face paint with the kids. But the kids are just rough with the face paint while stabbing daddy with the paint brush. I’m like, “You have to be gentle. Just paint a little bit at a time.” And just attacking his face. And same, his wife Akira, I believe is her name, [inaudible 00:46:26], painted her as well I painted them both. I painted a pair of paintings, and I delivered it. And I believe it’s still in their home to this day. It was a lovely experience, and I thanked them for trusting me to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
He texted me the photos. They’re really something. I know the photos don’t do justice to your work, but they’re really striking

Kamar Thomas:
Again, remember I’m from Jamaica, I’m from this hill in Jamaica.

Maurice Cherry:
Stone Hill.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, Stony Hill. Washington, DC may as well be Mars. It may as well be a different planet. This is a place where people work in the government and people talk about the Capitol. And people are like, the president’s going to be… White House down there, and this is an Anacostia. And this is professional. He’s driving around and telling me about all this, and my world is expanding. And I thank him quite a lot for that, just telling me about the history of the place and the residents that were there and the kinds of just work that people do.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, Bennie wanted me to ask you a question. When I talked with him, I told him I was interviewing you. He’s like, “Oh yeah,” and he texted me the photos. Bennie wanted me to ask you about how you use the Black figure and abstraction in your work.

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. When I came to college in 2008, around ’08, ’09-ish was when occupy Wall Street happened. And it was activisty, activist town, activist everything. I arrived in the United States in 2014. And if I remember correctly, that was when one of the first big public police shootings happened. It was just bam, I stepped out of the airport, and then the shooting happened. It was on TV. And it was very much in the air, the making of work that was overtly describing the Black experience as well as it is lived by many in the United States. And I said to myself, “They don’t need anymore negative portrayals of Black people.” I understand, I get it fully what’s happening, but I think… What’s his name? Do you know the book Between the World and Me?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah.

Kamar Thomas:
Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah. If I’m a writer, he got it. He nailed it. He got it. I don’t need to write another one like that. I think he has it. I said the same with my paintings. I think when I look through what’s being made right now, I think they got it. I don’t think if I say something, it will be nearly as impactful as if I really focus on this idea of agency, of mutability, of aspiration. And I think now more than ever is when it’s needed.
Never say never, but for the most part, I look at the Black figure… I want, when I’m an old man and my memory’s going in the art history books, they see images of representation that are complex, that are layered, that are nuanced, that are not only in relationship to whiteness, that are exploring the same way every other artist gets to explore. And so that’s how I use the Black figure. Complicated. Take its place, like everybody else.

Maurice Cherry:
Masks are a regular theme in a lot of your work. Tell me about that.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. Masks are a metaphor that I return to. And masks in the Caribbean… In Toronto, they recently had this big carnival called Caribana. It’s where one gets to put on a mask and put on a costume and go outside and essentially simulate sex through dancing, essentially, to a beat. And that’s only acceptable if you’re wearing this costume. You can’t just do this at your day job. You can’t pull up to accounts receivable and start doing this behavior.
And I use and I think about masks in that way. It allows you to occupy an identity that gives you privileges, that gives you the ability to act in a way that you ordinarily wouldn’t. And you don’t have to keep it forever. You can change it. And so masks, as a notion of identity is look, of course you are who you are, you’re born or you’re born, but if, when it comes to making art, if you view all of it as yours and like you’re supposed to be there, suddenly where you take influence from is much wider. If you view that the creative production is for you, then telling people about it is not that big a deal. If you think that you are supposed to be passing this class, that your identity is, yeah, pass classes. Then chances are, you’re going to work to pass that class.
Masks are this wonderful metaphor that I keep going back to, I keep finding nuances. Mask can conceal things. You can put it on, you can rob somebody, you can get away with it. Masks can review things. You can wear a mask for ritual purposes to act in ways to enter into states like trances, to enter into states, well, at carnival, et cetera. And masks, with the pandemic, went from being something to protect other people from getting infected with COVID to protecting yourself, to being a status symbol, to… The meaning of it changed over time, so I’ve been fascinated by this concept of masks.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked earlier about this exhibition that you had recently. How did it go? Tell me about it.

Kamar Thomas:
It went okay. What I did was I rented a gallery and just paid them the rent for a week and told as many people as I could about it. And people came and purchased the work. It was undertaking because when you pay for the gallery, you have to do everything. You have to show up and hang the work and sweep out the gallery and paint the wall and nail in the painting onto the wall and set up the lights. But from a introducing Toronto to my work perspective, it went swimmingly because one does it. I can show you better than I can tell you. It was a matter of inviting people. Many of them were new to Toronto. And I sell my art mostly to people who have never really bought art before, so it was a great success in that way. I got many, many people who didn’t even think of themselves as people who buy artwork to buy art and to think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome, that’s awesome. I’m glad that it was really successful for you in that way.

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you planning on doing another exhibition this year? Or surely in the future, you’re planning on doing something.

Kamar Thomas:
In the future, yes. My time for the next couple months is taken up with the book and with… I’m going to be the coordinator of the program I’m teaching at Centennial, so it’s a lot of emails and a lot of tours and a lot of interviews, et cetera is coming up.
But next year I’m planning to… I’ll be painting the whole time. Next year, I have anywhere from five to 10 exhibitions that I’m putting into the calendar. But I’m going to be producing the work to get that done now next year, 2023, by January, the book will be out. By March, I’ll have at least one exhibition. By June, I’ll have another. By July, I’ll have another. By August, I’ll have another. And if my papers are right, I might have one or two in Jamaica as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you got a plan. That’s good.

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah, I have a plan, but saying man makes plans, God laughs, because COVID really.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, well, that’s true, that’s true.

Kamar Thomas:
Here there’s a whole monkeypox coming on the scene.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Kamar Thomas:
We can’t get a break in this century.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that you ultimately want to convey with your work?

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. Ultimately, I want people to see art as something that is for everybody. And I want them to see it as a decent job. Now, will you get rich doing it? Probably not. That being said, will you get rich doing anything? Probably not. It’s not more difficult than anything else.
I want people with looking at my work to understand and think through their identity as something that they get to pick. I want to overall increase agency in the world. Increase not just confidence, but the idea of possibility.
My largest challenge is getting students to not just believe that they can do what I’m asking, but that they’re supposed to do what I’m asking, and they’re supposed to do it well. If you look at identity, there is… I think Ben Akerlof, he’s an economist, and he says identity is one of the most significant economic decisions that someone can make. That means when you pick your identity, you pick what clothes you’re going to buy, you pick what shoes you wear, what colleges you can get into, what person you can marry, what neighborhood you’re going to live. And I want people, after having consumed my work, see the significance of those decisions and see that they have much more agency over them. They have way more power.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your younger self, let’s say your 16 year old self, when you look back at him, what advice would you give him?

Kamar Thomas:
Oh man, that’s such a really good question. At 16 years old, I was honestly not listening to nobody. You weren’t going to tell me I’m not going to be pretty good at physics. You weren’t going to tell me I’m not going to be pretty good at anything.
At 16 years old, well, I would actually say go to the dance, is what I would say. When I was in college, they had these things called winter dances. And I was a member of the ASA, African Student Association, and they had a dance. And every year they would ask me, “Just come practice for the dance and do it on the night.” And I would go, “No, I have to paint. I have this problem set to do.” And I never did the dance, never did the dances because, again, your undergraduate was so hard I never did them.
And it was in graduate school I realized how much I missed by not doing the dance, how much outside of class relationships I could have formed if I did the dance, if I just went through the thing and practiced and maybe gotten 98% instead of 100%. You still get an A. I realized at that time, because when I started selling paintings, I realized the need and the importance of human relationships. That’s most of life. Life is group work, is what life is.
I would tell my 16 year old self, A, just go to the dance. Sure, be focused, but you don’t have to be all that focused. Go to the dance. You will have a good time. You’ll form human connections. And when they need help, you’re going to be able to help them. And when you need help, they’re going to be able to help you. But go to the dance is what I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of where you’re at in your career as a painter, as an educator, now as an author, how do you define success?

Kamar Thomas:
Yes. I was talking to someone earlier about this concept. I woke up when I was 26 years old and I realized that I had all that I wanted. I wanted to be a painter, and that’s what I did most of the time, most of my days. I applied for a professor job, and I was working as a professor at 26.
Success for me was spending my time doing and utilizing God’s gifts as they have been bestowed to me. And I can learn pretty quickly and I can teach fairly well and I can paint, and I do all of these with most of my time. Success is doing or using the gifts that you have for most of your time. Doesn’t have to be all the time now. We all have to pay taxes and commute to work; most of the time. And for me, I have all I want.

Maurice Cherry:
Given that, and you’ve sort of, I guess, already teased this out a little bit, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? What work do you want to be doing? Any bigger projects or anything like that?

Kamar Thomas:
Whenever I run into any new medium, I try and figure it out and do a project in that medium. Now I’m looking into AR, so Instagram filters and Snapchat filters, provided Snapchat still alive as a company. Those are the kinds of AR that everyone would be familiar with. Augmented reality is what AR stands for. And I’m thinking that this can be a really strong addition to my work. And I’m thinking if I can figure this out, if I can learn that small bit of code… I’m taking a class here and there. In four or five years, I will have two, three projects tying technology and the art that I’m doing.
When I moved in Quebec, all of my friends were concept artists, and they worked in the entertainment industry designing monsters and trying to tell stories. And a part of my job now as a professor is I found myself helping people become illustrators and helping them learn to design those monsters. And as such, I’m looking at them watching much more stories, so there might be some short films in the mix. There might be some form of narrative in the mix.

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

Kamar Thomas:
You can find me at kamarthomas.com, or you can find me on Instagram at O-H-K-A-M-A-R. As mentioned earlier, I was a flowery languaged young man, and I got the sentence, “Oh, Kamar,” quite a bit so I made that my Instagram handle. And you can find me at those two places primarily, or if you type my name, Kamar Thomas, into Google, I am proud to say you will find me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Kamar Thomas, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, I think just like your energy, you really just come across as very self-assured and cool as well as artistic. But I think also just telling your story of coming from Jamaica and always putting your artwork and the work that you’re doing and who you are as an artist at the forefront as you’ve went through life I think, one, it’s granted you the success that you have now, but I think it’s just a really great example to set for others out there that can hopefully do the same thing. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kamar Thomas:
Perfect. Thank you. Thank you so much. It was a privilege and an honor.

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