Chris Burnett

I think my conversation with this week’s guest — artist, musician, and designer Chris Burnett — is probably the most chill interview I’ve done this year. Don’t be fooled though — Chris is a creative dynamo, and someone you should definitely keep your eyes out for in the future.

We start off with a quick talk about the creative scene in Los Angeles, and from there he talks about being an artist at heart and how his current editorial design projects have been keeping him active. Chris also talked about growing up as a skate kid, attending Cal Arts, and scoring lucrative gigs including a stint with Nike, as well as designing for Odd Future. Chris calls himself a creative superhero, and if you trust your heart and spirit, so can you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Chris Burnett:
Hi, my name is Chris Burnett. I’m an artist, designer, musician, pretty much all around creative soul. It’s hard to peg me down.

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

Chris Burnett:
This year and probably for most people, it’s been a very much transition year, buckling down on the things that I really want to be focusing on and being more selective with my time and my energy and my creative focus. So, it’s been good to narrow down the path of where I’m headed. It also coincides with me turning 30 in two weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s the beginning of a new decade, a new chapter. So, things have been shifting, but in a good way.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. What would you say you’ve learned about yourself since last year?

Chris Burnett:
I’ve learned that I’m an artist at heart. That’s ultimately what I really want to do with my life and my creativity. I’ve been doing graphic design at this point for maybe eight years professionally. As much as I enjoy working with clients and collaborating on projects, there’s this burning desire in me to just be the artist that I want to be, have gallery shows, release albums, have more maybe design collaborations with companies and do things like that. So, yeah, things are in the works, things are in the works. It feels good to head towards the ultimate dream.

Maurice Cherry:
Is L.A. a good city for that kind of creative collaboration? I feel like it is.

Chris Burnett:
Well, yeah, I mean, L.A. is such an interesting creative scene, because you get people who come here from all over the world to pursue what they want to pursue. So, I’m constantly meeting people from all different walks of life, different types of creatives, whether that be musicians, other designers, other artists. So, it is pretty good for that. Although a lot of my work does come from people just reaching out to me by email and the collaboration happens more in a digital space, but I’m opening myself up more to relationships that I’m developing in the city. So, I have people that I can actually meet with in person and maybe visit their studios and see what they’re doing. So, yeah, if you wanted to find it in L.A., you could, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We just had a fine artist on the show a few weeks ago in L.A. His name is Gabe Gault. I don’t know if that name sounds familiar.

Chris Burnett:
I haven’t heard of him.

Maurice Cherry:
He painted the world’s largest mural in Toledo, Ohio. I think it’s like an ongoing project, but he does a lot of fine art work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with football, but his dad is Willie Gault-

Chris Burnett:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… who played for the Rams. Don’t get me talking about sports. I don’t know that much, but I do know that. It’s funny because I interviewed him and he kept throwing out like, “Yeah, my dad does sports. He’s in NFL and won a few Super Bowls.” I was like, “Okay.” It didn’t click to me after the interview to be like, “Wait a minute, who is his dad? Oh, it makes sense, because they have the same last name.” Yeah, I can imagine that L.A. is a really great place for that creative collaboration. We’ve been seeing so much Black creativity come out of L.A., I think largely, due to Issa Rae and Kendrick Lamar and folks like that. We’ve seen a lot of what feels like specifically Black L.A. creativity.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’m loving every bit of it. I was just watching Insecure yesterday. I think I caught up on the latest episode, but just to see that creativity coming out of the neighborhoods that I grew up in feels like finally we’re getting the recognition that is well-deserved.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, talk to me about Colibri Studios. That’s a studio that you began last year. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, I started Colibri Studios in the middle of last year. It was right when everything went into lockdown, actually, which seems like it would be the least opportune moment to do it, but there’s an interesting story to how I went about it. I was in New York. I was visiting a friend of mine, and I’ve been working on a necklace design. I found this charm that I really liked to go in the end of the necklace, and it had a hummingbird in it. It was the first time I was designing a chain and I was really excited about it.

Chris Burnett:
The hummingbird has special significance to me, because of the way that the animal moves throughout its life. It’s not really in your face. It’s secretive. But when you do see a hummingbird, it’s like this moment for you to be present with it and admire it. That’s how I feel about myself. I’m not really in the public eye per se. I’m not too show-offy. But when I do come around people, I make my presence felt. Honestly, I always see them, which is the weirdest thing. I’ll just be walking down the street and one will fly right in front of me. I’m like, “All right, there’s some weird connection here.” So yeah, I was designing this necklace.

Chris Burnett:
I get back from New York and the necklace is ready to be picked up. I get it and I’m so happy with the design that I thought, “That’s the logo. That’s the logo for the studio.” This was before I even really conceived of starting a studio. But once I had the necklace done, that was the moment where it was like, “Okay, this is a step in a new direction that you need to take.”

Chris Burnett:
It became more clear to me over time that I wanted to create a studio that really just was an umbrella for all of my creative endeavors, whether that be music, fine art, design. I found an office space in West Hollywood. I woke up one morning. It was on Craigslist, found the space. The first one I clicked on was the one that I’m actually in now. It all came together step by step. So, there wasn’t really a big plan that I was conscious of. It was more these little moments that led to the establishment of the studio. So, that’s what it is right now at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you mentioned it being this umbrella. I went on your website. You’re doing art direction, you’re doing graphic design, you’re doing collage and mixed media work. Again, you mentioned music being part of that as well. What made you decide to do such a broad range of services, as opposed to just graphic design?

Chris Burnett:
Well, I’ve always had this desire to really just be into one thing, but that’s just not how my life works. There’s so many creative outlets, and I’ve never felt limited to stick to just one. So, anything that I pursue, I want to do it to the best of my ability. If I can provide those services for other people, whether that’s producing music for people or working on an ad campaign for someone or just creating my own artwork that will eventually show in a gallery, I just wanted it to feel like it was a part of one family. So, that’s why I wanted to include all these different artistic mediums in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about how you approach a new project. What does your process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Well, it really depends on the context of the project. So, if we can start with a typical design project, I’ll get an email from a random person. I’m always amazed by how people find me because I’m not on Instagram or social media. I’m hidden, right? So, I’ll just get an email out of the blue. Someone’s saying, “Hey, we think you might be great for this project we’re working on.” We move forward with a brief, which is them giving me a document of what they’re looking for and maybe the end deliverables and the goals that they want to hit. And then I get to work.

Chris Burnett:
The process of me actually getting to work is not really standardized in the sense that I don’t have a list of things that I do every time I start a project. It’s really based on feeling and it’s more intuitive, because it allows me to be a bit more spontaneous with the end product. If I had the same process every time, I feel like it might be too stale for me and I might come up with the same thing too much. So, I allow for space in between projects for me to just sit and think about new directions or think about things I want to explore and then try to align those new things with what a client might be asking. Typically, it works out.

Chris Burnett:
For the most part, a client will ask for what I’m already good at. They don’t really ask for things that are completely outside of my wheelhouse. That allows me to use the skills that I already have, but then push it in a little bit of a new direction. Sometimes that creates a back and forth where there’s notes and there’s feedback, of course. And then sometimes I hit it right on the head and people are happy with what I create first try. So, it really depends on the project that I’m being asked to work on.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I would also imagine, because like you said, you’re not on social media and folks have to go to your website and look through your work. By the time they’ve done that, hopefully, that’s a pretty good metric for you to see that this is someone that you would possibly want to work with. I’m pretty sure you have, but I don’t know. Have you ever gotten the client that has just been completely not a fit?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, yes. It’s funny, because me and one of my designer buddies, we always have this joke that what we show on our website is typically the type of work that we want to receive, which is why we put it there. But there definitely will be times where someone will hit me up and just be like, “Hey, I need you to design just a simple logo.” It’s not that I can’t design a logo, but that’s not really where my skillset lies and my strengths are.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can do it, but then the process becomes a little muddied when it’s not something that I’m too passionate about. They’re maybe expecting the crazy, colorful collage type stuff, but it’s a logo. So, I can’t really do that for a logo. Yeah, there have been moments where it doesn’t work, but I’m learning which projects to say yes and no to now that I’ve been doing this for so long.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What are some of the projects that you’re working on now?

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of the things that I’ve been doing now is a lot of editorial illustration, which I’ve found that that really suits my strengths really well. It’s mostly image making, which is my favorite thing in the world to do is just create a compelling image to look at. So, when you pair that with an article for, say, The New York Times or the Guardian, that’s where I get to really flex my abilities. Over the past year, I’d probably gotten the most editorial illustration work than I ever have.

Chris Burnett:
There’s also a lot of merch design, merchandise design for artists in the music industry. That’s always ongoing. There’s always artists who need things to sell on the road or sell on their website. I help with a lot of that stuff. Some of its like under wraps because people don’t want to release info about music projects that they might be doing. But yeah, most stuff in the music industry and editorial illustration, I’d say, are my two big ones.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there a specific type of client that you prefer to work with?

Chris Burnett:
I’m always open to new types of clients, people that I haven’t worked with before just to be able to stretch myself and see, “What industries can I adapt my creativity towards?” But I think I do love working in the music industry. It’s fun to work with artists that you admire. It’s fun to work with artists that you’re playing their music in your car when you’re driving around and you get to work on something that’s for their project. It’s fun to be a part of things like that. I love editorial. I don’t know what it is about it. It’s just the pairing of an image with an article is like a dream project. It’s like they’re little, tiny dream projects, because they’re really quick and the turnaround time is super-fast, usually within a week or a couple days.

Chris Burnett:
It’s typically within those industries like editorial that there’s a little more room for creative freedom, because they’re trying to see how you would interpret the article and how that article maybe is reflected in your style and your own sensibility. So, that’s why I like it a lot, because there’s not too many notes. There’s not too much canceling of ideas. It’s very open ended, which I love.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I don’t know why for some reason, I would imagine working with musicians might be temperamental, but I guess like you said, if it’s an artist that you really like, it probably makes it a bit of an easier match.

Chris Burnett:
Well, that’s a good point. I mean, they’re definitely artists I’ve worked with in the past who are artists. An artist comes in mind a lot. There’s a certain temperament like you said that goes along with it. But I think the reason that I enjoy it and the reason I think I’m able to do it is because I am also an artist, so I understand that sensibility. It allows me to be as flexible as I need to be when working with them. It also informs my own practice of how I go about my music or my art as well. So, it’s fun. It’s a double-edged sword for sure, but I do like it.

Maurice Cherry:
I just want to say to the audience, I don’t know if Chris is being a little humble now, but his music is really good. It’s really good.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
With your permission, I’d like to link to your SoundCloud because I was doing research for the interview and I just put the music on. I was like, “This is good. This is good.” I was like, “I can hear this on Insecure. I can hear this on Insecure. It’s pretty good.”

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. I would love for that to happen, but this is their final season. I’m so sad. Yeah, but thank you. I really appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I guess to that end, talking about Black art and things like that, we started to see over the past few years that with this influx in Black television shows and movies and stuff, we’re really starting to see a much wider range of artists, not just musical artists, but visual artists and stuff portrayed through these works. We had Gabe Gault who I mentioned before on the show, and he’s mentioned that his work has been in a television show. We had Dawn Okoro, who’s an artist in Austin. Her work has been on a BT show.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m wondering, because we hear so much about this Black creative renaissance and you hear about it through these visual artists, does that exposure help you in any way? I don’t know. Has your work been out there in that way where you feel like you’ve got an exposure because it’s been amplified through, say, a musical artist or something like that?

Chris Burnett:
Not necessarily. I guess this is a little hard to explain and this is the whole point of the studio, which is funny, is that because I think the hummingbird is such a secretive animal and it’s very hidden, because it’s so small and it moves really fast, I’ve settled into the idea that my work doesn’t necessarily exist in a public space as much as it could and I’m okay with that. I think when the time comes, some more visibility might help. But in the meantime, I still get to work with the people I love working with. Whether I’m publicly associated with them or not is not really what I’m focusing on. It’s just, “How do we make the best possible thing for this person? Or if it’s for me, how do I make the best possible thing for myself and share it?”

Chris Burnett:
I mean, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had moments where my work was recognized and especially recognized for the culture. There was an article in The New York Times Magazine, I think this was last year, I’m not too sure, but by Isabel Wilkerson. She just wrote a book called Caste that explores the idea of racism, but not through a racist ideology. It’s through a caste system, which is a whole another way of looking at it. I did these two collage pieces for the article in The Times. It was heavily centered around Black imagery and police brutality. That was the first time that I actually incorporated imagery into my work.

Chris Burnett:
It was a very enlightening moment, because I did the collages by hand. I was cutting out images of MLK hanging out with Mahatma Gandhi. I was cutting out images of African American men on the floor with police pointing guns at their heads. It was the first time that I started to have my work speak in a way that was relevant to what was actually happening. That was really eye-opening for me and that led me down a whole new trajectory with my art. But in those instances, I really enjoy when I can speak to what’s happening in the now and speak to the culture.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve just always been really curious about that, because I want to make sure… I mean, I’m saying this like I’m the singular person that can make this happen, but I want to see that Black artists, visual artists, graphic artists, particularly with their work being featured in entertainment get just as much shine as the show that the artists featured on or the actor that might be in front of the art and the piece. I don’t know. Something like that, it’s making me think of… Are you familiar with Brent Rollins? Does that name sound familiar?

Chris Burnett:
No. Who’s Brent Rollins?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God. So, Brent Rollins, so he was on episode 400, but Brent Rollins is like… I forget the moniker that I saw when I was researching, but it was like your favorite hip-hop artist’s favorite designer or something like. He designed the logo for Boys in the Hood when he was, I think, 19. He designed the logo for Poetic Justice when he was 20. He was rolling in that crew with Ice Cube and John Singleton back in the day. He did a bunch of work in the ’90s and 2000s Ego Trip. God, I can’t remember the name of the magazine. It’s escaping me but it’s episode 400 if people are listening. Go back and listen to it.

Chris Burnett:
Hell yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There were these shows on VH1. One was called Race-O-Rama. One was called… I think it was White rapper showcase or something or a reality show or something like that. He had his hand in all these really interesting things around hip hop culture, but it was through his design and eye. So, a lot of stuff that you see in Vibe Magazine and stuff for the ’90s and 2000s was heavily influenced by him and his work. He is such a cool ass, behind-the-scenes dude.

Maurice Cherry:
Him and I were talking. He was like, “Yeah, man, I did this and did this. I exhibited here and there.” I was like, “Do you understand, I grew up on your work, watching your stuff, looking at your stuff at Vibe magazine, be like I want to design like that?”, and was just being so humble about it. I knew who he was because I ended up doing the research on it, but I don’t think the average hip hop fan knows who Brent Rollins is. That’s not to say that diminishes Brent’s work in any way, but why is he not as recognized as artists from that time?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, well, I think there’s a couple of levels to it. I think, on a larger scale, typically, designers are in the background, because the work is what speaks to the public, right? So, if I’m designing a logo for a company, my face isn’t going to be the face of the company, but the logo will, right? So, there’s never really been a need for the designer to be in the public eye as much as maybe the person who runs the company, or say, if you’re working for an artist, the artist is the one who is getting all the focus. So, the designer falls to the background.

Chris Burnett:
I think we’re starting to see a shift in that, especially in Black culture, with people like Virgil Abloh, who became almost like designer of the year for every year for a long time at this point. But he came from Kanye’s group, and he started to create the idea that designer can be the public figure also and not just be the one that sits in the background. So, I think that tide is starting to shift and we’re starting to see it. It also happens in music too. Back then, producers were always just behind the boards and you never really knew who was producing the music, but now, the producers are just as big as some of the artists. So, we’re seeing that shift take place and I think that’s really cool. I don’t know if it’ll happen to me, but it’s all right. I don’t mind being in the shadows.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s true. I do hope to see that day where the designers and the visual artists get that same level of recognition or at least name recognition, where folks know. They look at something. You’re like, “Oh, that’s a Chris Burnett,” if they see a collage or something like that, that thing.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, I’m definitely developing a visual language and a style that feels really specific to me. So, there are certain recognizable aspects of my work. As I’ve ventured more into music, I’m definitely going to be presenting myself and my person out there. So, maybe the moment where the tide turns and this all becomes more public is right around the corner.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, tell me what it was like growing up in L.A.

Chris Burnett:
Growing up in L.A., yeah, I grew up in South Central, specifically Manchester and Vermont for anyone who knows that area. It wasn’t really the best neighborhood at the time. There was a lot of gang violence, a lot of drugs. Police relations with the community were not great. Growing up, there definitely had an impact on me, although my parents were very, very careful in what they allowed me and my older brother to do. We weren’t really allowed to go outside after certain time. I didn’t really have many friends in the neighborhood, because that was the way that I could get caught up in some of the wrong stuff.

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of my time was spent creating indoors, whether that was drawing or painting or my parents would put me in art classes at a pretty young age just to keep me occupied and doing something that I enjoyed versus running around my neighborhood, getting into trouble, like a lot of the kids who were there probably did. It wasn’t until I went to high school that I was taking the bus to high school to public transport. That was the first time I got a little taste of freedom. I started skateboarding at the same time. So, I would take the bus to skate parks and start to explore a little bit. That was when I really started to understand the neighborhood a little bit better.

Chris Burnett:
It wasn’t as dangerous as it was when I was a little kid, but yeah, it definitely influenced my practice and my behavior in terms of I like the area I grew up in, because to me, it feels real. It feels very honest. Where I live now is actually a completely different environment. At this point, I’m not sure that I want to stay there as much, because every time I go home to visit my folks, it’s like, “Oh, I actually really liked this neighborhood.”

Chris Burnett:
Maybe I was scared of it when I was a kid, but now I’m an adult and I know how to move. Certain things become illuminated when you’re in different stages of your life. So, back then, it was a little intimidating, but now it’s more enticing, especially they just built the big stadium in Inglewood. That’s 10 minutes from where I grew up. So, there are things that are happening in that area that wouldn’t necessarily happen. Resources are coming back down there, which I think is great. So, I might move down. Who knows? We’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
L.A. is so big.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, man.

Maurice Cherry:
I was there actually, for the first time last year. We were set to do a live tour throughout 2020 last year. We started off in L.A. and did our first live show out there.

Chris Burnett:
Nice.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I live in Atlanta, which is pretty spread out, but L.A. is gargantuan in terms of scale. I was in the Korea Town neighborhood initially and then we did the live show. We did that down in Leimert Park, but I didn’t really get to see L.A. I saw a couple of neighborhoods.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, there’s always the pockets that people go to, but there’s a lot of hidden treasures in this city. It takes time. It takes time of living here or just having the time to explore. You got to have a car. You got to drive everywhere. But yeah, it’s massive. It’s massive, massive, massive, massive.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you grew up studying art. You were taking art classes and everything. Eventually, you went to college. You went to CalArts. What was that experience like?

Chris Burnett:
CalArts, for me, was extremely transformative. At this point, I was coming out of high school. I took a graphic design course in high school. So, that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to study in college. So, I applied to a couple different art schools in California. I didn’t really want to leave the state. The minute I stepped on the CalArts Campus for a tour is the minute that I knew that was the place I needed to be. I didn’t really even do that much research, I’ll be honest, but the feeling I got when I arrived there, it felt like I definitely made the right decision.

Chris Burnett:
The thing that I loved about that school was that there were so many disciplines in one roof. There was acting, there was costume design, there was character animation, there’s graphic design, there’s fine arts, there was music, there was set design. There was all kinds of creative people who come from all over the world to study and perfect their craft. So, that period of time really opened my eyes to all the things that maybe I didn’t get to experience growing up, especially because my parents were really careful about what I was exposed to. Once I got to CalArts, it was like, “Oh, I’m an individual now. I’m going to do it or what. I can explore. I can see what life really has to offer.”

Chris Burnett:
It was in a bubble of CalArts, but still, within that bubble, there were so many different pockets to explore. A lot of the friends I have now are people from that school. A lot of the people that I try to keep in touch with creatively are people from that school. It was just a really transformative time. I think it really allowed me to grow up. I’ve always been the youngest one in my friend circles. I have funny stories.

Chris Burnett:
When I got to CalArts, I still maybe looked like a 13-year-old or 14-year-old. It was very strange. People would walk up to me and say, “Do you go here? Are you lost?” I’m like, “No, man, I’m headed to the movie class right now.” It was really interesting. It was that time for me to grow up and grow into myself. I wouldn’t trade those four years for the world. Even though I picked up some student debt from it, we all have a little bit of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where you met Bijan?

Chris Burnett:
That’s where I met Bijan, yeah. So, Bijan was my classmate all four years. What happens at CalArts in the design program is that you share a studio. In the graphic design program, you share a studio with your entire year level. So, there were about 19 to maybe 21 of us in our first year, which was pretty large for an incoming class. Bijan was in that class with me. We actually met the day we had a portfolio review. We didn’t know each other. We were just both coming from our high schools and trying to show our work to get accepted. He was literally standing in line right in front of me. Lo and behold, we both got accepted and ended up in the same class.

Chris Burnett:
Bijan was and still is one of my best friends. He became this creative rival, but in the best way possible, where if he was doing something, I would see what he’s doing and be like, “Oh, that’s really good. Okay, now I got to do something that’s really good.” And then he would see what I was doing and it would level him up and then he would level me up. We ping pong off each other like that until we graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s good to have that creative tension in a way, I guess.

Chris Burnett:
For sure. I’m really competitive. So, whether it’s in sports or in making a cool poster, I feel that edge or that desire to want to be the best and bring the best out of myself and others. So, we really thrived on that with each other.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. For folks that are listening, who are like, “Who is Bijan?” Bijan Berahimi founded… Actually, YouTube co-founded FISK together. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
A studio called FISK, like the HBCU but not the HBCU.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, not the college. Everybody knows. So, this came about in our first year. It’s actually a collaboration between a bunch of our classmates. We wanted to create a website where we could showcase student work and just have a digital space for us to talk about design as students. A lot of us contributed to the website. We had a thing called Things We’ve Stolen, which was posters that we stole from the walls of CalArts. We would feature them on the website. There’s a large poster culture at that school. We would interview other designers who were working professionally and ask them questions about the transition from student life to professional life.

Chris Burnett:
We would have zines, where we asked students in the program to submit artwork, and then we would throw a party for the zine release. It was a myriad of things when we were in school. After we all graduated, we settled into our own pockets and practices. Bijan decided to resurrect FISK in Portland, and that’s when it became the studio. I wasn’t a part of inauguration of the studio per se, but the initial idea was a very collaborative thing. It still is to this day. He runs it out of Portland and has a couple employees and they’re doing great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Speaking of Portland, after you graduated, you did eventually head to Portland, because you had an opportunity with Nike, which we’ll get to, but you had another opportunity that happened to you senior year where you got to work with a pretty well-known music group. Can you talk about that?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s actually a crazy story about how that happens. So, my third year of college, we had a project that was to design a magazine of a subculture, any subculture of our choice. I decided at that point, I wanted to focus on Odd Future because they had just started to gain a little traction. I think they were doing most of their stuff independently. It was something that I really resonated with, because of that DIY spirit and because they were from where I was from. It was just cool to see kids like me doing cool stuff. So, I decided to make my magazine about Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I designed the whole thing, printed the whole thing. I gave it to my brother, who was friends with Travis, who used to go by Taco, just so they could see it and be aware of me. I don’t know if Travis ever got the magazine. I have no idea where the magazine was. I would love to see it because it’s been so long. But I did that in hopes that that would be my connection point with them. So, they can know that I’m over here doing my thing. They’re over there doing their thing. Nothing really came of that. So, by the time fourth year came around, I was setting my sights on other jobs and other opportunities.

Chris Burnett:
Randomly, on a trip to Joshua Tree with Bijan, I get an email in the car from a guy who’s running an agency that’s handling all of Odd Future’s merchandising and branding and things like that. He goes, “Hey, Chris, I saw your work. Would you love to come work for Odd Future?” I was like, “What, a year later, what?” It was so random and I was not expecting it, but immediately, I said yes. So, that was midway through the end of my time at CalArts. I started interning there. So, I would have class. After class, I would get in my car and drive all the way back down to L.A. to work with them for a couple of hours, come back to school, do my schoolwork.

Chris Burnett:
That was a balance that I struck at the end of my fourth year until I graduated and then I just started working for them full time. That was a crazy experience for me. It was one of those dream moments where these are artists that I really respect and admire. They’re doing really cool things musically, visually. Just the fact that I got to be a part of it for that span in my life was pretty amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dope story. I mean, when you think of Odd Future and of course, Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt and-

Chris Burnett:
Jasper Dolphin.

Maurice Cherry:
Jasper Dolphin.

Chris Burnett:
Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, yeah, all the OGs.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think of their whole persona, it’s so hard to pin down. I feel like you could just say, “Oh, Black Skater,” or whatever, but it’s so much more than that. I think particularly Tyler, I remember Tyler had this show on Vice a few years ago called Nuts and Bolts.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I love that show.

Maurice Cherry:
He was doing all these different design things. He’s like, “Oh, I’m designing apparel, I’m designing a shoe or something like that. I’m designing furniture.” He was doing all this interesting design stuff. This was going on, I think, right around the time there was also this reality show on YouTube that I’ve mentioned on the show before called Lace Up, which is basically, a sneaker design reality show contest thing. Because you know, there’s a PENSOLE Academy in Portland.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, definitely familiar.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, by the way, but he runs that school. He did this reality show on YouTube, where he was bringing in designers to design shoes and stuff. I remember, I would watch that and I would watch Nuts and Bolts and be like, “Why is nobody talking about these design shows?” I mean, their style is so hard for me to pinpoint. I think most people know Odd Future because of their donut logo. But what stuff were you doing? How did that creative process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, that was definitely wild for sure. I mean, by the time I started helping with a lot of the merchandise and the clothing, there was definitely a visual aesthetic that was already established. That was primarily Tyler’s ideas and the group’s ideas. When I hopped on board, there was definitely a lane to work within. There was definitely visuals that I could reference, things that I knew they liked, things that I knew they didn’t like to stay away from. So, a lot of the times, what would happen is I’d be in the office with… There was me. There’s another designer named Aaron Martinez, shout out to Aaron.

Chris Burnett:
There’s another designer named Phil, who handled mostly the Golf Wang stuff, which was separate from the Odd Future stuff at the time. So, they were the two creative directors, for me, at least. They would pinpoint where I should take things and what directions I should go in. But a lot of the time, the guys, the group of artists and the music makers and the whole clique would just show up at the office. We would have these meetings where they would just pitch ideas to us. I remember Jasper one time saying, “I want a dolphin on the Empire State Building smoking a blunt.” I just graduated with a design degree. I was like, “How am I going to do this weird photo manipulated illustration and pull this off and then put it on a T-shirt? This is wild. It’s so weird.” But I ended up doing it.

Chris Burnett:
It actually became one of my favorite pieces, even those one of the strangest things in the world. Yeah, they would just come in. We would print everything out, have these just big jam sessions of getting everyone’s thoughts and ideas and opinions. If they liked what we did, they would rock with it. If not, they would exit immediately and say, “Do this differently,” or “Do a different thing over here and maybe change the color of this and tweak this a little bit.” So, it was a super, super collaborative process and really wild to just hang out with them, because this was really at the peak of their stardom as a group. Super interesting, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have an Odd Future name? Did they give you a name or something?

Chris Burnett:
No, this is another thing that contributes to me being in the shadows. I didn’t really try to infiltrate into the group like that. I knew that they were already so tight knit and close friends. I’ve never really been the type to try to eat off of someone else’s success. So, I purposefully was like, “It’s cool. I enjoy working with you guys. I enjoy creating these things for you, but I’m just going to take my place in the backseat and watch you guys do your thing.” It was so fun for me just to do that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I can’t imagine how some of those design sessions might have went. Just the ideas and the crazy shit that they come up with I imagine is… I mean, I think for any really strong visual designer, that’s a dream to have a client or to have someone that has that creative capacity to just do whatever.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it was definitely really freeing, especially to come from CalArts, which was a similar environment in terms of the freedom of creativity that we had in school and to have that as my first full time gig, I couldn’t ask for anything better. It was great.

Maurice Cherry:
So, after working with them, you got an opportunity to work with Nike, which then eventually had you go to Portland. If you could sum up your time at Nike in one phrase, what would it be?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. One phrase, working at Nike, you put me on the spot. I would say high level hierarchy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Chris Burnett:
I mean, I might have to explain that a little bit. When I say high level, I guess I mean, the quality of work that was being produced and the scale of work, the amount of people that would see it, the amount of reach that it had, that’s what I mean by high level. When I say hierarchy, there’s such a system in play. It’s such a large corporate company like that, that sometimes creativity and new ideas are not necessarily accepted, because it doesn’t fall within the framework of what has been successful for them as a company. So, I’ve always understood that before I started working there, so I wasn’t going in thinking that it would be another Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I went in knowing that, okay, this is going to be a big place where there’s a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of things that I can’t control. There’s a lot of things that I don’t have any impact over. So, it was a humbling experience to be able to contribute my ideas to such a large and fast moving company, but then it also, for me, told me that that environment wasn’t necessarily the one that I wanted to be in for a long time in terms of work in the design world. But it was definitely a great learning experience to get my feet wet. Being a professional was cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we’ve had a few designers on the show before that have worked at Nike and I don’t know if they all liked it. In a way, it’s good, because it’s like, “Oh, this is Nike.” Like you said, there is this high level reach, but each person we’ve had on has said, it’s not a great place to work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, there’s certain aspects of it that are really difficult to stomach if you’re not capable of grinding it out. I think one of the bigger things that I had to do when I was there was just work a lot. When we needed to get a project done, we were up very late working on it on campus until it was done. It really instilled a good work ethic for me, but as far as being a sane human being, it did not contribute to that at all. So, yeah, that was a really difficult part of it, especially coming in as a young designer, who had new ideas and maybe I wanted to bring new innovations to the way they were thinking about design. It’s not that they didn’t want to listen. It’s that they already understood what works for them.

Chris Burnett:
So, for a group of young designers to come in and just shake everything up and try all these new things, it’s not really something they were looking for at the time. Now that Virgil cracked open the door with his initial The Ten collaboration, the shoes, where he was messing with the swoosh and change the game, putting it in different locations where they would never do that, it’s really opened the door for them to expand their creativity to a whole new level, which we’ve been seeing lately. But when I was there, it was still very much you play by the book, because this is the recipe that has worked for them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, if they know that it’s going to work all these different times, we’re not really looking for any variations on that. They just need you to do the same thing.

Chris Burnett:
Right. At the end of the day, if we’re being honest, they’re a company, they’re a business, and they need to make money. So, if they’re experimenting too much and it messes with their stock price or some of the shareholders get upset, it’s going to trickle down. That’s what I mean by hierarchy is that there’s so many layers to it, that it’s really impossible as one designer to go in there and really have your voice heard, but to each their own.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But I mean, like you say, because of the crucible that that design environment is, like you say, it’s strengthened your work ethic and I’m sure probably has helped you out in some way now as a designer, just having that experience working there.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, for sure. So, there were two stints that I did at Nike. The first one was in brand design for sportswear and that was my first experience there. Honestly, all of my co-workers were amazing people. I had a great time working with them. It was, like I said, grinding out a lot, just working hard on campaigns. We were doing the overarching branding system that would then be sent out to all the different categories around the world. They would apply what we designed to whatever product was being released. So, that was really cool to see that.

Chris Burnett:
And then the second stint was for the Olympics, for Rio ’16. That was wow. If I thought the first stint was crazy, the second one was… I don’t even know how I lasted, but it definitely helped put a work ethic into my brain. So, if I need to work on something, I will get it done. There’s no excuses. They always said at Nike, there’s no finish line. That’s one of the taglines. The reason I say that is work just keeps on going and innovation keeps on happening. Things don’t really stop. Even though we’re running, we’re putting our all in, things just keep moving and keep going and keep evolving. It’s a tough environment to be in if you’re not used to that type of pace of work. But if you’re down for it, it can really instill a good work ethic in you.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s how I was when I worked at AT&T. AT&T was one of these places, you walk in and they have this huge banner over their big marble reception desk that says, “Shaping human capital,” or something. You’d go and there would be this never-ending firehose of work. I think when we go in, we were always six months behind on something. Salespeople just kept selling and the work just kept coming in. So, you’re never caught up. We had, I think, roughly about 36 designers that were working there in teams of 12. They had this floor to ceiling LED board. So, everything that you design had a point value to it.

Chris Burnett:
No way.

Maurice Cherry:
As a designer, I think when I started, you have to hit 36 points at the end of the week and then eventually up to the 40. But everything you design had a point value. So, if you design a banner, that’s point nine points. If you design a three-page website, that’s five points. If you design a 10-pager, that’s nine points. So, you could hit your total pretty easily if you just design four websites in a week or something like that. I mean, this was 2006. You would pull the order from the system.

Maurice Cherry:
They have this system called Ice Blue. I don’t work there anymore. So, even if all this stuff is proprietary, I don’t care, but they have this thing called Ice Blue and you pull your rec. So, you have to go to a file cabinet, fish out the envelopes, this is my paper, fish out the envelopes that had all the assets in it. It was usually printed out Word files, scraps that the salespeople got from the company of their logo drawn on a napkin or something. You have to go to the scanner. I’m dating myself, you have to go to the scanner. There was one computer with the scanner for 36 designers.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, my God.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you had to go to the scanner, scan your stuff in, mail it to yourself, because we didn’t have Dropbox because it didn’t exist then. You mail it to yourself, you get back to your station, and then you have to trace it out. We were using Dreamweaver because it’s 2006. You basically had to build a website, retype all the information and everything. Eventually, you got faster because it’s one thing to do the actual coding and the design work and Photoshop and Illustrator, whatever, but then you’ve got all this other operational stuff you have to do like pull the rec and scan and do this and return the folder and walk it over to QA, physically walk it over to QA and all this stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Eventually, you get better just in terms of speed. So, I could knock out four or five websites in a week. If I got the packet in the morning, I could finish it by lunch. And then I could pick up on that lunch and then finish it by the time I was ready to go home. Again, this was 2006. So, this was right around the time when table-based layout was being phased out and CSS layouts were being phased in. I mean, we fired some people because they couldn’t get it. They did not know how to convert the tables to CSS, so they weren’t getting it. We fired people.

Maurice Cherry:
God, this was a long, long time ago. But eventually, I like made a little CSS work template or something that I could easily just plop in and change the value so I could get quicker with it. I still use that to this day, principles from that. But it’s one of those things where if I wasn’t in that type of design environment, would I even know to do something like that? You know what I mean?

Chris Burnett:
Exactly, exactly. So, do you think that having the point system actually helped people stay on track in terms of what they needed to get done? Because I mean, that’s almost public accountability for the work that you have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, yes and no. For some people, it really freaked them out. Because if you didn’t hit your number, because you could see how everyone on the team was doing at any given point in time. So, you could see what your number was and who was above you and who was below you. So, it was one thing for you to know the number but now everyone else knows your number. So, you’ll be sitting at lunch and someone will come and be like, “You got to get the numbers up.” Keep in mind, we only could take a 15-minute lunch. So, you have to wolf down your sandwich or whatever that you brought from home.

Maurice Cherry:
And there would just be random people, random supervisors that don’t even work on your team will just come by you. Points look a little low this week. I don’t need that kind of pressure. I’m trying to try to get the work done. I don’t know if it helped. I mean, certainly, it’s one of those things where you either cut it or you don’t, but you definitely knew at any given point in time where you stood. Eventually, it got to the point where they upped the amount of points you have to get and then they lowered the point value of the items. So, you have to crank out more work to get to a higher target. It was a mess. I left there and said, “I have to do my own thing.” I didn’t want to work for another place after that. I think similarly, when you left Nike, you started freelancing too. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Yes. So, between those two stints that I just mentioned, after the first one was when I decided to leave. I just had a nine-month contract, so I never actually took full time at Nike. I was what was called ETW, it’s like a temporary worker. My contract was up after nine months. I decided that I wanted to try my hand at freelancing, which is something I had never done before. The funny thing is even coming off of the new work ethic that I just developed, all the skills and connections that I had made, freelancing did not really work for me. I think it was because I lacked motivation to do so just because I was coming off of nine months of very, very grueling work. Having this time to set hours for myself, it made me not really want to do that much work and almost like take a vacation.

Chris Burnett:
So, in that period of time, I was focusing a lot on my music and a lot of my artwork, but I wasn’t really successful at the freelance thing. So, by the time the Rio Olympics had come around, the guy who wanted me to work with him on his team, Ibrahim Hassan, shout out to Ibrahim, he became my mentor in that moment. He wanted me to come back and work on the Olympics. So, that’s when I went back. That was even more grueling than the first time, but I learned so much more by working with him and working with our team that it was very much worth it for me to do it.

Chris Burnett:
But after that, I knew that that was it, that I couldn’t keep doing it. That’s when I went freelance. The second time around it, it clicked for me. I’m not necessarily sure what I changed. I think I was just more hungry to make it work, because it didn’t work the first time.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I mean, I think, with freelancing, for me, when I first started out, I left in late 2008, I just quit my job. I was like, “I can’t do this anymore,” and started my studio. I’d say maybe those first three or four months were rough, because even though I was like, “I got all the skills, I know people XYZ,” finding the work ended up being difficult. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t do it. It was just finding the right clients.

Maurice Cherry:
And then eventually, I did end up working for a client. It was a political client. And then working on that campaign kickstarted my studio and kept me going. If I wouldn’t have gotten into that, I don’t know if I would have continued freelancing. I don’t want to say I have to link up with someone. But once you got the right client and it clicked, then you’re like, “Okay, I can keep doing this.” It makes sense. You had worked with an agency called Ceremony of Roses when you were freelancing, right?

Chris Burnett:
Right. So, after I left Nike the second time, I think there was a stint in between where I went overseas, just to travel around for a little bit. That was maybe three months in Southeast Asia, which was really fun. By the time I came back, I did another short contract at Jordan, which was still on Nike campus, so in that world, but just for the Jordan Brand instead. And then after that, it was like, “All right, I think I’m going to move home to L.A.” At the time, that agency, Ceremony of Roses had reached out to me and was like, “We have a position open at our agency down in L.A.” It was literally perfect timing because I was already moving back home.

Chris Burnett:
That’s when I decided that I was going to take that job down in L.A. when I got back. They were heavily focused on music, so a completely different world than sports and branding. They had a lot of clients in the music industry. Their main bread and butter was merchandising and creating the brand that surrounded the artists, whether that’s from tour announcements and flyers and posters to actual merchandising to websites to things for them to post on social media. So, in a similar way to the agency that I worked with for Odd Future, who was just handling a lot of the creativity, that’s what Ceremony of Roses was, but in a updated and more efficient way, I’d like to say. I stayed there for about two years.

Chris Burnett:
My timelines are always a little foggy, but I stayed there for around two years in L.A., just doing a lot of work with artists in the music industry. Janelle Monáe had released her album, Dirty Computer. That was one of the bigger projects that I got to work on. Her and her team were fantastic just because they really trusted me and they gave me a lot of creative freedom to create pieces that worked with her album and with the whole concept of what she was doing. That was one of the highlights of that job for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wonderland Studios has a great team.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, fantastic people to work with. So, I made a lot of good connections from that, from working with that agency. Yeah, we still work together today.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, cool. I know George 2.0. We went to Morehouse together.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, nice. Yeah, 2.0.

Maurice Cherry:
We went to Morehouse together. Now, this was back before she was doing the whole Android thing. She had the CD called The Audition, I think. I remember buying it off The Strip one day in the late 2000s, not late 2000s, way earlier than that. This was early 2000s. I’m not that young. But I remember getting her CD and being like, “Oh, this is really good.” Of course, they have the Atlanta connection, because she’s lived and worked here before and stuff. But their whole crew, their whole studio is doing great work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’ve always admired them because they operate in a way that’s different to a lot of artists. I think just their tight knit community of people that they work with, it was a real family vibe when I would connect with their team and we would talk and discuss work. It just felt really good to be around them, great people.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have really helped you out as mentors throughout the years?

Chris Burnett:
I wouldn’t say that I’ve had specific mentors, where their role was to mentor me through the stage of life that I was in, but I think a lot of the times, the supervisors that I had at the companies I worked with took on that role in maybe a subconscious way. The first being a guy named Michael Spoljaric, who was the… I think, he was brand director or creative director. There’s so many titles at Nike that I forget what he was doing, but he was the head of sportswear brand design when I was there.

Chris Burnett:
So, when I got hired to work with them, he was the introduction into that world of professional corporate design. So, really, in terms of design and creativity, he really helped me to understand good typography, good layouts, how to design a book properly, what images to choose for a campaign, stuff like that.

Chris Burnett:
The next when I was working on the Rio Olympics, I already mentioned Ibrahim. He really became that mentor figure for me. He already saw that I had potential, but he fine-tuned it. That’s what I really appreciated about him was that he really got down to the nitty gritty and the specifics of things, the details of things, because every little detail counts if you’re trying to make something that is impactful. If you leave one little thing out, then it might ruin the whole trajectory of the story. So, he was really a figure like that for me.

Chris Burnett:
When I came to Ceremony of Roses, the two people who really stuck out to me was Brad Scoffern, who’s the owner of the company. He’s the one who brought me on board. I met him when I was working at Odd Future. He always remembered me. So, by the time he started his own agency, he immediately reached out to me and wanted to work with me. And then another guy at that company named Jared Hankey, who became my pseudo mentor at that time when I was working there, too. So, I haven’t really had specific people outside of work environments that have done that for me, but it’s always been supervisors or bosses or those who are in higher positions than me who can show me the ropes and keep me on track.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you call yourself a creative superhero. What does that mean to you?

Chris Burnett:
It means that I have a lot of superpowers. It’s always been really difficult for me specifically to classify what I am or who I am in terms of my creativity, because I can say one day that I’m an artist and then another day, I can say I’m a musician. One day, I can say I’m a designer. I can wear all these hats, and I try to wear them really well. I was always thinking of, “What’s just a cool umbrella term that I could use that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but does speak to the idea that I can do all of these different things?” I came up with that when I was designing the website for Colibri and it just stuck. So, that’s the moniker that I like to use if it’ll be on business cards or any little bios, but yeah, that’s what that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I’ve read where you talked about your ultimate dream project, which was back when you were working with Odd Future. It was this collaboration with their brand, with Golf Wang and Hello Kitty. That was years and years ago. Is that still your ultimate dream project or do you have another dream project you want to do one day?

Chris Burnett:
I think I have a bunch of dream projects. That one specifically came about, my older brother, who’s also a designer, artist, musician, just like me, his name is Jordan. He was really into A Bathing Ape. This was before I was really knowledgeable about these brands at this time. He had this one shirt, which featured a character named Baby Milo, which was a very cute drawing of a little monkey. It was really simple and it had really thick lines. I was just obsessed with that illustration style for the longest time. I remember when I was working for Odd Future, Tyler had created a character called Shark Cat. He was really into cats. We used them a lot, a lot of the merchandise. I decided that I wanted to create a Shark Cat version of almost a Baby Milo-like character.

Chris Burnett:
So, I took this cat head that Tyler had come up with, and I placed it onto a very simplified body with the bold strokes and just really a cute little character. I wanted to use it for something but I didn’t really know what we would use it for. And then my boss at the time told me that Sanrio, which is the company that owns Hello Kitty, they were looking to do a collaboration with Odd Future. That was the moment that I was like, “Okay, Hello kitty is definitely in the same style of Baby Milo, and this is the moment where I can combine those two worlds. So, I can take this little Shark Cat character and I can take the Hello Kitty character. I can put them in one.” I must have created an entire capsule collection for them.

Chris Burnett:
And then I don’t really know what happened. I was told that the executives at Sanrio saw some of our futures videos and were like, “Maybe not, it’s not really in line with our brand aesthetic.” So, it never went through, but that was definitely just a dream project because I really was into the aesthetic of Hello Kitty and Baby Milo and wish that I could have combined those two worlds, but that never really came to fruition.

Chris Burnett:
But fast forward to now, my biggest dream project is more self-focused. I want to have a gallery show with… I’m working on a new body of work right now, some of the biggest canvases I’ve ever worked on. I want to have a gallery show where all of that new work is there. I want to create a couple of sculptures to go in there. I also want to perform my music at the gallery show. So, then it can be a full representation of my artistic abilities. That’s really what I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the past couple of months. So, that’s where my brain goes when you ask, “What would a dream project be?”

Chris Burnett:
If I could work with a client, it might be Tame Impala. He’s my favorite band. Kevin Parker, the guy who writes and records all the music, is the reason that I started making music. That happened at the end of CalArts, but we can get into that a little later. So, if I could work on some album packaging for him or do some tour visuals or just anything, even if I could just meet them and have a conversation, I’d be happy. But yeah, he’s a big influence on me.

Chris Burnett:
And then I also love the brand Fucking Awesome. It’s a skate brand. Here out of Hollywood, they have a store here. Jason Dill is the creative genius behind that brand. The reason I love it is because his artwork as an artist, as an individual artist, is the aesthetic of the brand. So, I don’t know if it’s still like this, but at a certain point, he was designing all the graphics. He was making all the skateboards that people would ride. That’s always just been a huge dream of mine is to either work with him or create a brand that follows in his footsteps, because I love skateboarding, too. I’ve been skateboarding for 15 years at this point. So, combining those worlds would be amazing to me.

Maurice Cherry:
I could really see that gallery show. I could even see a gallery show that combines all of this. You’ve got that, you’ve got the music. I don’t know. Maybe you have a small halfpipe in there doing some skateboard or something. I could see all of this taking place. It’s interesting now even looking at exhibitions and stuff like that, because we’ve had a few Black artists on the show, exhibitions now are so much more than just a painting on a wall. They’re really these immersive 360 creative experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
I mentioned Dawn Okoro before, and she did a show that had a punk band in it. So, she’s doing her art and has her art on the wall, but then also has a punk man performing. Wow. So, it’s like a whole environment that’s being created with exhibitions. Especially in L.A., I could see all of that really coming together.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, that would definitely be a dream of mine to have this multi-hyphenate experience for people to enjoy. A big thing for me is the more that I look at art, the more that I want it to not exist in just a white walled space.

Chris Burnett:
I understand that that allows the art to speak volumes when there’s nothing else to look at except the piece that’s on the wall, but I’ve also had this dream of having a gallery that’s outside and maybe an old, abandoned warehouse and seeing how the art that’s on the wall in the warehouse communicates with the actual aesthetic of a rusted-out building. I think that could create an interesting tension too, but a lot of these things that I feel like I’ll pursue once I established my footing in the art world and then I can maybe expand on some of these ideas. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, are you still pursuing your music?

Chris Burnett:
So, music for me has been really interesting in terms of my dedication to it. Honestly, this happens with a lot of the facets of my creativity. There are moments where I’m really into making music, and I’ll write a new song every day. And then there are moments where I just want to collage and I don’t even pick up the guitar or play the piano at all. Right now, I’m in a down on the music and I’m really focused on the artwork. So, it tends to fluctuate and I like that. Because if I was too obsessed over one thing all the time, then I think all my other things would suffer. I just can’t let anything go.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can’t ever stop collaging. I can’t ever stop making music, but they ebb and flow in ways that support each other, whether I know it or not. That’s how I feel about it. So, I am planning to release a project next year, but there’s not much in my mind that’s happening with it yet. But I know that it’s going to be released early next year. I’m sitting on a lot of music that no one’s heard. So, it was definitely enough to create a project and give it to the world.

Maurice Cherry:
All in due time.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose or do you think you’re still figuring it out?

Chris Burnett:
Wow. It’s funny that you asked that, because I would say that I learned what that was this year, specifically. It’s been a long journey to get to this point. I’ve always known that I wanted to do art. I’ve always known that I wanted to be creative. I’ve always known that I wanted to do music. But for some reason, recently within the past couple months, the specific focus has been on I’m an artist and telling myself that and believing it and moving towards it. As I moved towards it, the more it feels natural to me, which also tells me that hey, this is probably what you’re supposed to be doing. Because for a long time, I was in the design world. I was a graphic designer, and I would call myself that.

Chris Burnett:
I think the artist’s part of me was really sad that I wasn’t allowing myself to embrace that. I think at heart, I’m an artist. I can do graphic design, but I think at heart, my purpose is to create art and share it with the world. So, yeah, I think I’m getting there. It’s baby steps for me in terms of establishing who I am as an artist and sharing that with the world and being a bit more open with what I’m doing creatively, because I tend to sequester myself a little bit, but that’s all starting to change. So, I’m pretty happy about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want the next chapter of your career to look like?

Chris Burnett:
Next five years, definitely doing more art shows. I think the ultimate goal for me is to have a bunch of solo shows and really focus in on creating work that challenges the way we think about life, that challenges the way that we interact with each other. Yeah, I see myself really settling into the art world and becoming the artists that I know I can be. It’s been so long, because when I graduated with a degree in graphic design, to me, that felt like, “This is who I am now, and this is what I have to do.” After working so long and reaching a certain amount of success that I am satisfied with, I realized that there was just something missing.

Chris Burnett:
So, this year really marks that transition that I mentioned earlier into me fully embracing me as an artist and maybe moving away from a lot of the client work and focusing in on the work that I want to be doing for myself. So, in five years, I’ll be 35. So, hopefully, by then, I’ll have a couple solo shows under my belt. I’m definitely getting better at playing guitar. That’s one of the things I’m focusing on too. I want to put a band together so that I can play shows in Los Angeles, eventually tour around the world if that’s a reality that presents itself. Yeah, but really focusing in on the artist’s aspects of me and myself. That’s where I see myself in five years.

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

Chris Burnett:
So, you can go to colibristudios.com to pretty much see everything that I’m doing. I’m not on social media, and I don’t really like Instagram. We could have a whole another conversation about social media. As much as I understand that it’s something that allows you to connect with people that may have never seen your work before, something about it just doesn’t feel right with me.

Chris Burnett:
Especially given the past couple years that we’ve all experienced in America, we’re starting to realize and understand the effects that these platforms can have on our mental health and our well-being as individuals and our relationships with other people. I’ve decided to remove myself from it. So, I can have a different type of perspective. I think it served me pretty well. So, I only have a website. That’s why I’m saying that. It’s colibristudios.com. That’s where all my music is, photography, artwork, design work, everything. That’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Chris Burnett, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, for just telling your story and really given some insight into the work that you’ve done, but I think also, it’s important when we hear your story and hear you talk about the passion behind your work to know that creativity is something that we all in some way can tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s one of those things where as a kid, we have finger painting and all this stuff. But then as you get older, doing things in art design tend to be looked at as more of a hobby and less of a profession. It really seems like you were able to really lean into a lot of creative work, work with a lot of really interesting and creative companies and people. I’m excited to see what you’re going to do in the next five years, because I think it’s definitely going to be something worth talking about. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Gabe Gault

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get connected with Rob?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Where else do you pull inspiration from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a whole new ballgame.

Gabe Gault:
A whole new ball game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabe Gault:
Shout out.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you feel creatively satisfied?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Dawn Okoro

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. That’s unfortunately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Okay, cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Absolutely.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Oh wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Janessa Robinson

Summer is over, y’all. As we head into a new season, it’s a perfect time to pause and reflect, gain some clarity, and reassure yourself about your purpose. That’s exactly what this week’s guest Janessa Robinson is doing, particularly now that she’s at the beginning of a new adventure — moving to Los Angeles!

Our conversation began with Janessa talking about the recent move, and she spoke a bit about her day job as a content creator. We also dived into the backstory behind her company Artistry Land, and Janessa discussed how she works as a creative with Asperger’s, and how she cleverly uses design thinking as a way to manifest success in her life. Big thanks to Steven Wakabayashi of QTBIPOC Design for the introduction!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Janessa Robinson:
I am Janessa Robinson and I’m an artist and an entertainer.

Maurice Cherry:
So how are things going for you right now? What’s on your mind?

Janessa Robinson:
Oh, well, things are going great. I just moved to Los Angeles a month ago, actually drove down here from San Francisco.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Janessa Robinson:
It was an interesting experience. That’s the first road trip that I’ve taken by myself before. It was amazing because as I pulled into Los Angeles, it really hit me that I live here, that I’m moving here as a resident. Each other time that I came to LA, it was to visit. I stayed with a cousin once who lived in east LA, she’s a screenwriter. Every time before that, it was like I came through LAX Airport on my way somewhere else. So I just wanted to stay. I’m very happy that I’m here. It’s a very significant change for me because I spent three years living in San Francisco. And ever since I was a small child, I’ve always wanted to live here, and not just live here, but be a leader in the community here to contribute something. I just saw that my life is here. So it’s an amazing experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It sounds like you’ve had a pretty transformative year then, especially with this move.

Janessa Robinson:
I would say COVID is interesting. There’s a lot of change for everyone. For me, I went from, oh gosh, spending four hours in traffic, just commuting between San Francisco and Santa Clara to staying at home. And me being like, okay, great. Well, now I can spend all the time I want on my art because we were essentially confined to our homes in the beginning. I decided that I would start dancing every day. I was recording myself and posting these videos on Instagram. I actually made a very intentional decision that I would turn my Instagram page into like a television channel. It’s like a show. It’s like an entertainment show. I called it Variety Nessa. [inaudible 00:06:08] dancing and rapping and singing and just shooting really interesting content in ways that would engage people since we were at home. I was like, “Hey, check this out.”

Janessa Robinson:
That led me into doing music actually. I was producing, writing, singing, taking singing and song arrangement lessons, piano lessons, mixing and mastering my own music. I used an algorithm actually to master my music. Yeah, it was really interesting. And sharing it on Bandcamp. My first project, I actually worked with a producing partner where he did the mixes and masters. So I just spent the last year growing tremendously, artistically, getting in FTs and graphic design, just blossoming, just honestly blossoming. It’s an amazing, amazing year.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re also breaking a bin into Hollywood too, right?

Janessa Robinson:
Yes. Yeah. I actually literally live in Hollywood. That’s my community.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Janessa Robinson:
That’s where my home is located, which is really cool. Yeah, I am training at two Hollywood acting studios right now. One is Shari Shaw Studio, which is physically located in Hollywood, although I haven’t gone there yet because of COVID. And then the other is Leslie Kahn & Co. Both of these studios are very special to me. The instructors there, my classmates, the energy and the way that we all invest into each other, it’s just very special to me. Then I’m very happy because for me, Hollywood, physically, and more metaphorically, the Hollywood community, which is spread out across the world. There’s Hollywood the location, and then there’s Hollywood the industry, which is just, it’s a bunch of us who are very, very fond of entertaining and see a lot of value in it.

Janessa Robinson:
For me, something that over the last year I was really reminded of is my family history in Hollywood. I have a great, great grandmother named Eva Wheatley Jones who danced with Josephine Baker. She’s one of the first “tan girls.” Meaning that she’s light-skin, brown, but not dark-skin brown, but at that time it was considered progress, I suppose.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I guess they all just call it colored back then, right?

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. Yeah, I guess so. I think that didn’t even come on mind. Yeah. She’s one of the first tan girls to dance with Josephine Baker. She is married to a comedian and he was a part of a comedy dance duo, same as Butter Beans. Then I have a great uncle, Arthur, who played in a jazz band for Al Capone at the Copacabana in Chicago. There’s just a lot of people in my family that have really contributed to make the Hollywood entertainment industry what it is today. The inclinations that I have for all of these different forms of art, I just love art, I just love design. For me, it’s about the process and the experience. Whatever the tools are, I’ll just use them to just make something magnificent. I don’t really care what the tools are. I want to do cool stuff.

Janessa Robinson:
It occurred to me when my mom was sharing all this information with me, that was shared with me in my childhood, but this is now, I’m in my adulthood, and now it resonates more to understand, oh, I see. These are the giftings that my family, that my ancestors, recent and much further back, that they’ve bestowed on me. So I feel very, very blessed and very grateful and appreciative to be in the position, to know that, to see that, and to activate on what it is that they have deposited into me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. It sounds like it’s literally in your blood to be an entertainer. You come from that lineage. That’s great.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. It is. It’s in my blood. That’s what my mom says. She goes, “This is who you are. This is in your DNA. These are your genes.” That’s what she tells me.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about one of the things that you’re currently doing. You’re a content creator for a company called News Break. Talk to me about that.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. It’s interesting. So, News Break is a news publication that is available as a website, newsbreak.com, and as a downloadable mobile application. So people can go visit their App Stores or Google Play Store and download News Break. It is interesting because it solves a problem. It solves the problem of gathering local news over, gosh, I don’t know, the last, you could say 20, 30, 40 years. It depends on how far you want to go back. But we know that for some time, there’s been a trend of investment into local news dwindling. News Break prioritizes local news on the app and the website based on the geolocation of the user. It also pulls in national news. But the thing is that national news, it’s pretty repetitive. [crosstalk 00:11:37] the news wires. So it’s the same story over and over. It just has a slightly different, it depends if. It’s a news wire, it’s just going to be the exact same thing.

Janessa Robinson:
But in most cases, it might be a slightly different tone based on the writer’s style or it just has a different mass head that it’s under. But national news, now that we have Twitter and YouTube and all these things that help us communicate one story to billions of people instantaneously, it’s just pretty repetitive. So local news is pretty cool because it’s specific to what’s happening in your community, in your neighborhood. Like what’s going on. I first started writing for News Break just as I was leaving San Francisco. I was writing stories there, and then as I moved here, I switched to writing local stories about Los Angeles. Honestly, I like to report on really interesting people, local businesses. I love reporting on food. I’m a pescatarian and I’m allergic to dairy. So I like to go out and see, well, where are the best seafood tacos? Because I love seafood food tacos. Where can I get a really good salmon sandwich? Just write about that. Also, I like to eat those things.

Janessa Robinson:
I like to be in that moment and just allow my palette to be dazzled and then take all of that energy in and write about that so that I can recommend to people where to go. I’ll say that LA is LA. There’s no place like Los Angeles. Reporting here has been very interesting. I just did a story on a luxury experience service company called the [inaudible 00:13:27]. I hope that people do not, the French people do not criticize French accent, but I do speak a bit of French. I’m sure it’s mostly accurate, but yeah, I got to report on this luxury experience company and meet the owner who’s a very private person. So I’ll respect his privacy.

Janessa Robinson:
But it’s the fact that I’m talking about luxury experience company that we will, if I say, Hey, I wanna fly to Monaco for a private shopping trip tomorrow, they’ll put that together right now. They’ll have a driver come pick me up. They’ll have a private jet waiting for me. There’ll be food, snacks that are on the way, all these things. It’s just this amazing company that in comparison to my time in San Francisco, it’s not to say that that doesn’t exist there, it’s just maybe not as ingrained into the culture like in San Francisco. It’s more like, where’s the best vegan place to eat or what’s a really good mountain to climb, is what draws people there more so than LA, which is how fabulous can I live?

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds very LA, something like that.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, I think so.

Maurice Cherry:
LA was the last city that I visited before all this pandemic stuff. We did a live show there back in Jan… Well, it was January or February. It was February. Yeah, it was February of 2020. We did a live show down in Leimert Park. That was pretty good. I didn’t get to see a ton of LA. I just remember LA being so big. I stayed in Koreatown and the event that we did was in Leimert Park. Then I was in another part of town, not too far from Koreatown. Because I was also there for a work conference. People that were there were like, “Oh, you should go to the beach.” And they’re like, “Oh, but it’s going to take about an hour to get there.” I’m like, “Well, that doesn’t really sound like something I want to do if it’s going to take that long to get there.” It’s still in the city, I guess I didn’t realize the enormity of Los Angeles until I actually got there and was like, this place is huge, really spread out.

Janessa Robinson:
It is, it is very large, honestly. First of all, I hope that you come, that you return to LA and do another live show so that I can be on it. What I was going to say is that before I moved here, the last time I visited was just before the pandemic. I don’t know if it was around the same time that you were here, but it was just before the pandemic, where the Los Angeles Clippers flew me out here for an interview. I was interviewing for a job there and they flew me down from San Francisco. And oh my gosh, when I got to LAX, I had about, I think like maybe 45 minutes or an hour between landing and the time of my interview. I was like, oh, that’s plenty of time [inaudible 00:16:27]. I was like, oh my God, am I going to make it? What is going on?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Janessa Robinson:
It was just so stressful and I almost missed my flight on the way back. Because I was in those interviews all day and then I was like, I don’t think they know what time my flight [inaudible 00:16:47]. No one’s paying attention. So apparently I have to tell them, “Hey, I have to go catch this flight.” I almost missed it. When I was in the process of traveling back to San Francisco, I was like, wow. Yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a city that’s really large. I’m from Chicago. I lived in New York for a bit. Then I started to wonder, I was like, a city with eight million people? LA, do I want to do that? I don’t know. But then I do. I was like, I don’t care. I’ll deal with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Janessa Robinson:
So now it’s like, sure, it’ll take an hour to get to Santa Monica. That’s fine. I’ll just listen to some good music and chill in the car. It’s no big deal.

Maurice Cherry:
I was surprised by how much traffic there was. I live in Atlanta, which is notorious for traffic, but Los Angeles has Atlanta beat it hands down. The traffic that I would see, or that actually was stuck in on the one on one was hellish. It was ridiculous.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, it’s tough. I’ll say, I don’t have my only comparison points for being in traffic or me being a passenger because this is the first time in my life that I’ve ever driven regularly. This is the first car that I’ve ever owned. [inaudible 00:18:03]. I don’t know. When I was growing up, everyone drove me around for the most part. Even when I got a license, that was still the case. And then when I graduated high school, I went to undergrad. I studied at St. John’s University in New York, where very few people drove regularly around there.

Janessa Robinson:
Then by the time, I transferred and graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans, so by the time I did that, Uber was a thing. It was not yet an app, it’s text-based, but you could just text this number and a black car would pull up. I thought it was sketchy at first. I was like, [inaudible 00:18:47] kidnap me. Who’s in the car? But yeah, so then I just Ubered around for almost eight years. Now I own a car and I’m like, oh, traffic, this is what it’s like to drive in traffic. So yeah, it’s interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
I missed those early days of Uber when they just had the black cars. But for what I remember, I would take them in different cities, but the one thing that I remember is how much the drivers hated it. Because for them, they’re used to, I guess if you’re a black car driver, like a Lincolnton car or something like that, there’s a certain, I think, clientele that you’re used to in terms of decorum and all that stuff. Now they’re picking up drunk kids at the bar and driving them three blocks and then having to clean up vomit from the back seat.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember talking to, I did it for an article, this was back in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Jesus, maybe 10 years ago, I think. God, wow, [inaudible 00:19:48] services have been around that long. But I remember talking to some drivers and them being like, “Yeah, I hate it. I don’t know what this Uber thing is, but it’s some extra money. But I don’t like the fact that we have to pick up these folks and they give us attitude. And it’s just a different thing.” Now of course, ride sharing is a pretty, I think, common thing because now folks can even use their own cars. But I remember in the beginning though, just taking those black cars and it just felt so official. Like, oh, this is nice. I felt wealthy.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, it is. I would agree. I’m sure they’re used to a very specific persona for clientele. I remember when I was in D.C., I was out with some friends and we ordered, this is when Uber was an app, but I think we got Uber black, because it was so many of us and we’re like, “Let’s get a SUV or whatever.” I had this friend who was giving the Uber driver directions, which is already like, I don’t know why you’re doing this, he has a map, what are you doing? He tells the driver, he was like, “Yeah, bang a right right here.” And the driver drove straight through the intersection.

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa.

Janessa Robinson:
He doesn’t know what bang a right means. He was like, “I don’t know what that is.” He was like, “Bang a right, what is this?” And just kept going straight. I think also, he maybe didn’t like that this guy was leaning over the seat, giving him directions. But yeah, there was some clear maybe mismatch of energy there. So, those funny.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to talk to you about this term, content creator, because it’s certainly one that I think has popped up, I don’t know, maybe with over the past two years or so. We’ve been seeing this generalization of people that maybe before have done specialized stuff, like they’ve been writers or illustrators or whatever. Now it’s just this generic term, content creator. When I hear it, I feel like it’s mostly associated with video. But I’m curious, when you hear that phrase, content creator, what does that mean to you?

Janessa Robinson:
Honestly, I don’t know what… I don’t know. It could be in a lot of things. I have Asperger’s. One of the characteristics of that is a person might see a word or a phrase and their mind starts to run through the multiple meanings or ways that it could be used, the etymology, at least for me because I’m a linguist. Honestly for me, it’s like a placeholder, just some words, just some letters, some syllables that go there to describe the way that someone moves through the world. It’s used in a lot of ways, I agree. Like sometimes it’s used for writers, sometimes it’s used for people who run podcasts, sometimes it’s for video people. I think in the context of News Break, it’s [inaudible 00:22:45]. I think it’s because they use content creator because in a lot of cases, they’re looking for someone who’s more than a writer.

Janessa Robinson:
Being a writer is great. It’s an excellent skill. But in the digital space, when you’re developing articles, unless you have a full editorial staff where you have photographers and art directors and video producers that are their own individual team, then the writer, the journalist becomes the person who wears all those hats. So I’m that person. I do interview people. I develop sources and relationships, I interview them. I shoot photography, I edit photography, I shoot video, I edit video and I polish it all up and I drop there. So for me, I guess that’s what I associate with now, is if I’m a content creator, I’m someone who I create any kind of content.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s like the same thing where I’m like, yeah, I can make my own music from end to end. Whatever the content is, it’s something I can create. It’s [inaudible 00:23:48] the way that I see it, but I don’t know. I think it can be one, is that now going to be the expectation. Our specialties no longer going to be as prized being a really excellent writer. I think for some people that might be maybe all they want or maybe they only want to do photography. I don’t know. I feel good about it because I can do all those things and I like doing all those things, but what about someone who doesn’t want to do all those things? But if they have a very strong interest in one area, I hope there’s still space for those people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It sounds like it’s a new way of looking at Jack of all trades. That’s how, I guess, it used to be called, where you did a lot of different things. You just brought a lot of different skills to the table. I had a friend that, actually, he really explained it to me in a way that made sense. It’s like, he says, “Content these days is water and whatever the medium is or the platform is the container that content can fill.” So for example, let’s say, oh, so there’s this guy, he’s a chef. His name is chef John Kung. He was mostly doing stuff on TikTok, I think. But the concept is him cooking, which can be extrapolated to any number of different platforms because he’s using video.

Maurice Cherry:
So in that video format, yes, it could go on TikTok, but it could also go on Instagram. It could also go on YouTube, but you could see how these different platforms would have different audiences, different levels of engagement, et cetera. But someone could also take that and take the video out, and now you just have the audio and that could be a podcast. Or someone could transcribe that audio, and now that’s an article. Or someone can take that article and make images of it, and now it’s an infographic.

Maurice Cherry:
So content ends up being this, it’s the idea and then whatever that medium or platform is, is how it can trickle down and filter down. But yeah, that’s if you want to do all of that stuff. For example, I consider myself a podcaster, but I have had people call me a content creator because I can do video dah, dah, dah, dah. I mostly just do podcasting because that’s what form this particular idea is in. But yeah, Revision Path could be video and articles and all this stuff. I choose for it not to be, but it could be. I hear that term, content creator, and it’s like, I was bristle at it a little bit because I’m like, be specific. But then maybe that’s just me being older thinking it has to be in one of these finite categories or whatever.

Janessa Robinson:
That’s interesting. I think I like it because it is flexible and broad. For me, today I might want to write articles, tomorrow I might want to shoot a film. I don’t like figuring out the way to label myself in regards to the way that I contribute artistically. I don’t know. I end up with a lot of words. If you go to my website right on Janessarobinson.com or artistryland.space, there’s an area in both places to read my bio. And it says Janessa Robinson is a publish journalist, a writer, an actor, a photographer, a this, a that. There’s so many, what would I call this? I was like, I don’t know what to… I like when there’s something that’s flexible or broad enough. The word artist, I love it because you could be a performance artist, you could be a singer, you could be a poet.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s flexible enough in a way where someone who creates art at this point is not just a singer or not just a poet. If you’re an artist, it means that you have a particular artistic vision, artistic gaze and artistic process and you apply that to whatever medium. The medium at that point isn’t as relevant as it is to maybe whatever the message is that you want to communicate. The question that becomes, is this the best medium or is this the proper medium or the best way to reach people? What’s the goal? So with content creator, I like it because otherwise, it’s like, well, am I a writer, video producer or this? And it’s like, it becomes this long list. In Hollywood when someone is multi talented that way, we used to call it a triple threat. Like Jamie Foxx, he’ll sing, he’ll act, he’ll produce like comedy, whatever. You call this person a triple threat. Today, we call it a multi hyphenate because triple is not true.

Janessa Robinson:
At that point, it’s less about the specific activities, like what it is that someone’s doing and more about who they are and what they bring to whatever they touch. That’s how I identify. It’s like if you give me a camera, I’m going to start shooting things. If you give me a microphone, I’m going to start singing. It’s more this artistic energy. So with content creation, I feel very similar. Whereas my content creation might be NFTs and graphic design today. It might be videos and editing, cutting together audio the next day. I like that.

Janessa Robinson:
When I formed my company, Artistry Land, you have to fill out this business paperwork and articulate, well, what are the products of the services? One of the things that I put is digital and physical content. Then I put some examples. I said, including but not limited to, because it’s Artistry Land, it’s a land of art. It’s just going to be whatever I need it to be. I don’t know, I’m figuring that out every day. I love that exploration. I think that’s amazing. I get to learn a lot and connect with people in ways that are relevant and timely to the present.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about Artistry Land. This is a company that you started a few years ago. Tell me more about it. What are some of the projects and things that you’ve done through Artistry Land?

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. I was already operating as an entrepreneur since maybe 2014. I began freelance writing and I was gaining all of these opportunities to be published in really great sources and publications like Huffington Post and Salon and Ebony and WAC, [inaudible 00:30:21], The Crisis Magazine and The Guardian. I just thought that was a cool thing to do on the side. And then maybe two years ago, I think, it was occurring to me that I could formalize this business. I could formalize this business into something that grows beyond just freelance writing. My father is an entrepreneur. He’s been an entrepreneur for a long, long time. He actually is a former professional basketball player. He was drafted to the Utah Jazz and then he went to play in Europe for about eight years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah. Then when he came back, he did some sales stuff while he still had entrepreneurial things going on, and then I just grew up with watching him build businesses. So I thought to myself, well, you know what I really like about my dad’s entrepreneurship, that it allows him to live, to be fully human, to not be tied to someone else’s schedule, to make his own decisions about where he needs to be, and when particularly as it relates to him living his purpose. So with Artistry Land, I did these brainstorm exercises and I was like, well, what is my business? What does it do? Who does it serve? Before I came to a name, by the time I went through my research, I was like, okay, well, who’s Janessa? Janessa does love to write, but Janessa is so much more than that. Here I was dancing on Instagram and I was like, yeah.

Janessa Robinson:
At this point I had also had a short film. It’s a 30 second film featured in Time Magazine and Ava DuVernay’s Optimist issue, [inaudible 00:32:10] Optimist issue video project. I was like, I do love film. I studied cinema and I grew up in theater and I did do some acting classes in college. I was like, here I am, I want to do music. I was like, well, what is this company? So I just formalized it into Artistry Land as I developed my own artistry. I operate a blog at artistryland.space, where I do produce content. It’s mostly written, something I started doing. But this year, I think in the summer, was just highlighting artists because Artistry Land is really focused on the intersection of art and wellness. I see these things as so intrinsically tied together. I don’t know a single artist whose mental health or physical or otherwise holistic health isn’t impacted by their art or their ability to produce their art or the reception of it.

Janessa Robinson:
Every artist I know has some health related experience to practicing their art. And for many of us, I’ll speak for myself, art is healing. I love the idea of artists who are doing well and living well. And that’s exploring what that means, what it means to do well for yourself and to do good in the world and to live well. What are the practices that you do that cultivate that experience? I’ve begun interviewing artists who do good in the world and they live well. I ask them questions about what artistic projects are most meaningful to them, what art they practice?

Janessa Robinson:
I interviewed a friend of mine who’s an opera singer. She lives Japan. She’s a black woman. She’s an opera singer. It’s the year 2021 and she lives in Japan. She’s a rarity by definition. She talks about her time studying Buddhism, particularly while living in Japan. For just discussing how important it is for her to be a black woman, opera singer in this very old, traditional art form, I get to learn a lot. I think it’s really important that artists continue to learn from each other. There’s a lot of folks who talk about the need for artists to support each other, which I agree 100%. I just find that it is maybe more motivating if it’s clear in terms of what we’re learning from each other. If I’m learning something, I’m going to show up. If you just go, “Hey man, you should support me.” I’m going to be like, “I would like to, but this is like you’re asking me to hug a porcupine right now. You’re not being super endearing about this.” So if you go, Hey, this is what we’re learning together, then I’m very motivated to show up.

Janessa Robinson:
That’s my approach with Artistry Land, is to say, well, I want to learn from you. I hope that people, by reading your interview and being introduced to your art, by following you on Instagram or Twitter, or checking out your website, that they learn from you as well. I think that’s what’s really important. Something else that I’ve done with Artistry Land is I’m developing relationships with clients. I do design work under Artistry Land. Graphic design, brand strategy, brand design work. So I have some business to business clients. One of them is called, Where is My Meeting, which is a digital video production company. I think most recently they ran a press conference for Muriel Bowser in D.C. about COVID and vaccinations. But they also did, I partner with them on this, it’s like a virtual talent show in February, which feels like a really long time ago. I was like, is that last year? It was definitely [inaudible 00:36:07]. It is called Celebrate Black Voices Talent Show. Where is My Meeting did the video production for, and we gathered all of these black artists to spotlight. So there’s poetry and there’s rap.

Janessa Robinson:
I shot and edited my own music video and aired it in that talent show, which is really cool. Then I also, I’ve just been searching for organizations to partner with and invest in. One of them is, oh, you probably know this, it’s the Queer BiPAP Design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. [inaudible 00:36:47].

Janessa Robinson:
Exactly. I saw what they’re doing in terms of promoting design, thinking, empowering queer BiPAP people with resources to be designers professionally. And I said, “Oh, I would love to contribute.” So I decided to donate after our call that I had with Steve to just learn more about who they’re serving, how they’re serving people, what the offerings are. And then another organization that I decided to donate to is one that I used to, it’s a theater that I used to train at when I was in Chicago, it was called the Chicago Beverly Arts Center.

Janessa Robinson:
When I was in high school at Morgan Park High School, I participated in an off-campus drama program at the Sphere. Because every Thursday, I was done with classes, maybe like, I think halfway through the day. Then I would go to the theater and we’d be in class all afternoon to the evening. It was me and a small group of students. The staff at the Beverly Arts Center trained us one theater. They took us into the theater onto the stage, which is not the first time I’d been on stage because I did do stage plays in elementary school. But they go, “This is downstage. This is upstage. This is what happens behind the curtains.” And then we went and we started to replays and then they had us write our own play, produce it. Do costume design, then we get to act in it.

Janessa Robinson:
It was the most amazing experience ever. I called the Beverly Arts Center a few weeks ago and I said, “Hey, do you still have this partnership with Morgan Park High School?” The artistic director at the time said, “Yeah, I actually need to write a grant for scholarships.” I said, “Okay.” So I donated some money for that purpose so that students there would have a scholarship to help cover their classes at the Beverly Arts Center, because it now dawns on me that someone did that for me at some point. I didn’t know. I just was there having fun, but I didn’t know that someone paid for it. Now something that I’m exploring with the Beverly Arts Center is as someone who has Asperger’s and has learned in my adult life in the last maybe year and a half, two years about it.

Janessa Robinson:
When I look back, I see how much growing up in theater camp and drama class really helped me understand social settings, social norms and expectations and experiences. Because when you’re reading a play, whether it’s a table reading or you’re performing, you could be off book, whatever, you have this concept of setting and characters and relationship and subtexts under the dialogue and action. It just broke down things to me that were somewhat confusing. So I thought, Hey, maybe I can talk to the Beverly Arts Center and see if they’re interested in doing something that focuses on empowering people on the autism spectrum through this particular medium, through theater and acting.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s something we’re having a conversation about. It’s something we’re exploring. I hope that we’re able to come up with something because I just know the impact of that on my life. People have all these conceptions about, if they’re aware of autism or Asperger’s to begin with, then they might have conceptions about the way that it presents itself or what the person looks like. Generally speaking, people seem to think that I don’t “look like someone with Asperger’s,” which is like, whatever. [crosstalk 00:40:32]

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, what does that mean?

Janessa Robinson:
I don’t know. I cringe, but then I’m like, I just listen. Thanks for sharing that. Thanks for being open and honest, but I agree. There’s not a look. And then the second thing they’ll say is, well, also I can’t tell. You don’t seem awkward or whatever. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s interesting. Because, one, I studied communication. I work in that field. So I was like, this is a very intentional set of choices of media. And two, I’ve spent my life in acting and theater and speech class and all these things that I guess at this point, people, they have no idea. But when I was a child, I remember being sent home a lot because I would go play with friends and then something would happen.

Janessa Robinson:
I don’t really know what it is, but they would send me home and be like, “I don’t know, sometimes she’s not getting along with the children. She won’t apologize.” And I’m like, “What would I be apologizing for?” I just didn’t understand. They’re like, “Are you sorry?” I’m like, “No.” And they’re like, “You’re supposed to say you’re sorry.” I was like, “Why would I say something I don’t mean?” It’s not that I don’t have a problem with remorse or regret. I’m a human. It’s just that whatever the social norm or expectation that I broke, I didn’t understand the concept of it. I was like, what is it that you’re expecting? Because you haven’t stated it directly to me. And if you haven’t expressed it verbally to me or in writing, that’s preferable. If you put it in writing, then I don’t know what’s going on. I was like, I just don’t…

Janessa Robinson:
Simple things like… A friend was mentioning to me the other day, he knew a child on the spectrum and he sat down as a child on the sofa and started talking to him and the kid was just locked gazed on the television and wouldn’t look my friend in the eye. And I was like, even that, I don’t get that. If you came over to sit down next to me and I’m watching television, you’re now disrupting me. I was like, [inaudible 00:42:38]. I don’t understand. So anyway, I like Artistry Land because it gets to explore these different aspects of art in the way that it shows up in people’s lives. It’s typically connected to someone’s early childhood experience or some transformative life change that they’ve made in their adulthood, but people that I talk to feel drawn to it.

Janessa Robinson:
I see Artistry Land as a publication by an artists for artists and also this house, this art house of content that I am developing as I grow my business. At some point I want to hire people. I’m just trying to figure out how to go about that. The whole thing about being a business owner with employees, that seems intimidating, but it’s really important because I want to employ artists. So I’m figuring it out along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I think LA certainly is going to be a great city for that. To me, I always see it as this destination location for people that are trying to strike out on their own. I think that’s just part of the, how am I going to say part of the American story of moving out west, manifest destiny, going into parts unknown and that sort of thing? But LA in particular, when it comes to creativity, it’s one of the few cities people really look to make a name for themselves. They’ll do that in LA or they’ll do it in New York. It’s one of those two places.

Janessa Robinson:
I agree, 100% agree. So funny you say that because what led me out here at this point in my life is a series of very mystical metaphysical experiences that drew me to say, I was working in policy in Washington, D.C. at the time, which is if you work in DC, you pretty much work in policy. What else are you going to do there? Yeah, I enjoyed the work in that it’s so impactful. I worked with an environmentalist organization, human rights organization. I met community leaders and organizers from Guatemala, from Brazil. People were literally fighting for their land rights, for their homes, for their access to food and water. Yet as an artist, I was not being fed. I don’t know what the bounds are of this podcast, but I’ll just mention that I did [shrooms 00:44:59].

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Janessa Robinson:
Okay. It was a very, very interesting experience that led me to being reconnected with these aspects of myself that weren’t being fed. So art and being an artist is one of those things. I had all of these moments in meditation, where I saw myself living in Los Angeles as an artist and doing so in a way that’s incredibly meaningful. Because I had built up all of this awareness about politics and the intersection of race, gender class. And these are all things that I was writing about. Yet we were looking at Hollywood at that time like, why is it not getting what’s going on in the world? Why does Hollywood not understand that some of these pictures are not going to do well or that some of these narratives are no longer acceptable?

Janessa Robinson:
Basically, it just came to me that I’m going to be moving here and I’ll be someone to contribute something of significance in the area of progress. It all happened very quickly. I found myself quitting my job. I was in a relationship, breaking up with my boyfriend, breaking my lease and just all in two weeks, everything changed. I actually traveled around the country for a bit at that time. I visited LA, where I stayed with my cousin in east LA and I spent time walking around. I visited Vegas and Arizona and I went to concerts and then I spent all my money and I had to go back to Chicago.

Janessa Robinson:
I had to go back to Chicago. I actually went to take care of my grandfather because he was in his late age at the time. And then I worked at my father’s basketball program called In the Paint Basketball. I had to go back to Chicago, not just because I ran out of money, because I had $70,000 in student loan debt at the time. So I needed a lot of money, and that’s where I rebuilt myself. I spent about eight hours in meditation per day just getting to understand what most fulfills me and allowing my subconscious to open itself up to my super conscious mind so that it became very clear to me about what to do and how to do it. So I went through the process of job seeking. I did some temp work for a little bit and I was interviewing.

Janessa Robinson:
Then I landed a job at Greater Good Studio in Logan Square on the north side of Chicago. It was a really amazing experience because when I got there, I was introduced to design thinking. I had been curious about it, heard about it, but when I got there and I learned about design thinking, I learned that there are some elements of it that I had already been using, which helped me find that job, like this idea of developing product features. So sometimes designers will write whatever product is or what it’s meant to do at the top of a page or they’ll use a board and use post-its or whatever. And then they’ll write down its features. Like what does the product do? How it does it feel like physically? What color is it? If it makes sounds, what are the sounds it makes, what do those sounds indicate? Where’s the product use?

Janessa Robinson:
You have to think about designing this. And it could be a physical product or it could be software, it could be artistic project. But I was stunned because I had already written down on a sheet of, excuse me. I had already written down on a sheet of paper, “Janessa’s ideal work environment and Janessa’s ideal job.” Then I wrote down all these characteristics, which as a writer, is the word that [inaudible 00:48:55]. Like these are the characteristics that make up this experience. As a designer, you go, these are the features. I wrote down that it has to have sunlight and people were really kind. I wanted something that had an industrial feel and it was open air and I needed it to be near places I could eat at. So when I showed up for my interview at Greater Good Studio, I was like, this open air office with exposed brick had these huge windows and across the street is this vegan place. I was like, “Oh my God, this is the place. This is so cool.”

Janessa Robinson:
I got to work with people that were very artistically and creatively inclined, as well as people that are very research driven. I worked on a project where our client was the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. And the name of the project is called Raising Places. It’s basically a community design project where we went to communities across the United States, those six communities from the west coast to the east coast, and we taught them the process of design. So we had workshops and design sprints and research fronts. We just helped them map their community challenges. Some of the challenges that came up were street lighting and safety, safety for bikers on the streets, like people who are bicycling across the road and they want to feel that there’s enough space for them, food security.

Janessa Robinson:
I spent time on a native American reservation, it’s Crow Nation, reservation in Montana, and they have one grocery store on the reservation and it didn’t carry very many fresh foods and vegetables. And there are so many systemic reasons about what created those conditions. We could look at policy, we could look at legislation, we could look at the land grabs from native Americans, colonization overall. These were very, very heavy, serious conversations. Yet there was a lot of fun because the people are, they’re just families, they’re just people.

Janessa Robinson:
We got to get to know people and share a bit about ourselves and do as best as we can to empower them through that process. It was a very good experience. It was a lot of traveling, is what I’ll say. I did 18 trips in six months across the country. Some of those flights were from Jersey to LAX or [inaudible 00:51:35]. And it was like, when I got on the plane, I was eating dinner. When I got off the plane, I was like, should I eat breakfast? Because I don’t know if my food is digested. It was very confusing. It was just [inaudible 00:51:49], but it was an amazing experience. I hope that there is some lasting impact overall that really improves the conditions that people experience.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a post that you had up on Artistry Land, where you wrote about using design thinking to help manifest. I’m curious, how has that practice helped you as a creative? Because I’m pretty sure our listeners might be able to learn about how they can do that themselves.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, it’s interesting. Some of that gets into the example I gave with Greater Good Studio, where I was as a writer, writing down characteristics. I was like, oh, Janessa really loves politics and photography and writing and she loves traveling. I was just writing down all of these lists of things about myself. I was doing that as a manifestation tool. So I meditate in a space that’s very open and honest and vulnerable. That might be physically, it could be anywhere. I just mostly sat on the bed or laid on my bed or sat on a yoga mat. But when I closed my eyes and began to breathe very intently, I did so with the intention of being vulnerable and being honest and being true to myself. Because previously living in Washington, D.C., I ended up there because I basically decided not to go to law school.

Janessa Robinson:
I’d spend all this time applying to law school again and got in to Loyola in Chicago, decided not to go and move to DC. Wasn’t really happy with my life there, and it’s because I wasn’t being honest with myself. I didn’t really want to go to law school either. I wasn’t being honest with myself. So I had to sit down and go, what do I want? And find this intersection of what do I want with what is very meaningful to contribute to the world? Because the thing about manifestation is sure, people can manifest objects or experiences. However, I believe that the point at least for me, is to do so in a way that is contributing to my purpose. So I’ve come here with a life assignment. So I would just visualize what is most meaningful to me. I have allowed these visions to pour into me.

Janessa Robinson:
Sometimes they’re very sharp and clear and sometimes it was like a little bit of light in a room full of darkness. And in any case, I’ll be come out of meditation and then go and write those things down on a sheet of paper. Then as I was job searching or apartment hunting or meeting strangers, I just found that the things that I have written down on a sheet of paper with a pen, it’s not like, no one can see this, just me, just me in the universe. Those things manifested before me. It just happened. So there’s a particular frequency that I was operating on that is beyond myself though. I think that’s really important to say that the intention for me was to move beyond my own ego. Because if it was just ego, it would have been like, I probably would have gone to law school because lawyers make a lot of money. [inaudible 00:55:01].

Maurice Cherry:
Pay up those student loans. Yeah.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, done. But that would have made me happy. I think the issue with that is that it not making me happy means that my contribution to the world wouldn’t have been from a place of love. So even as an attorney, I may have thought that I would have been helping people, but how much would I have been helping people if I wasn’t operating from a place of love and compassion because I wasn’t being loving and compassionate to myself? So finding some balance between, this makes Janessa happy and this is what Janessa contributes that also makes people happy and is compassionate. So it decreases their suffering. There has to be balance there. So yeah, the design studio, I became more trained in design and I’ve since worked in Silicon Valley and completed a product design bootcamp in addition to that. Now I use design thinking and manifestation. I don’t know, they’re the same thing to me at this point.

Janessa Robinson:
What I do is I’ll write at the top of a page the year, like 2021, and then I’ll sketch things that come to me. At one point I sketched a studio, and in the studio there’s a microphone and a camera and a whole desk set up. Then maybe nine months later, I realized that I was living in a place that I sketched on that book. And I didn’t even [inaudible 00:56:30]. I didn’t go out and say, oh, let me match this sketch. It was just, it happened. So I think that when it comes to design thinking, design thinking is about understanding a problem and you apply these phases of design thinking to the process. So there’s a point where you’re only focused on the problem. And for me, that was, well, I just blew my life up. I was like, I really need to understand what’s going on here.

Janessa Robinson:
So I spent months just focusing on that. It doesn’t have to be months, but you do have to focus on the problem so that you can be clear about what solutions you can develop. My solutions were, it’s pretty simple, what area of my life do I want to focus on? Personal life, family relationships, intimate relationships, career, home. I can find solutions in these three areas. And those solutions would be, well, what is that balance between Janessa’s happiness and increasing happiness in the world? Going to work in a design studio is one of those things. Because I knew I’d learn a lot of things that I could use in other aspects. Moving to Los Angeles, moving to California in general, it’s very sunny and there’s a lot of nature and I’m surrounded by people who also value those things.

Janessa Robinson:
Then also, it is important to me to have economic security and to develop wealth because in order to do the things that I see myself doing, where I see myself contributing, I have to have some resources. So for me to say, Hey, I want to donate to the Beverley Arts Center because that place helped make me who I am, I have to have money to do that. I can donate my time too, that’s a thing. But I was specifically wanted to donate money because that’s what got me the time to be there in the first place when I was in high school. Well, someone somewhere got a grant or developed a relationship with a funder, and that pulled me to the Beverly Arts Center. So for me, it is really important to look at the intention behind whatever is desired to manifest and to be very clear and honorable in that intention.

Janessa Robinson:
Once there’s clarity about that intention, I use design thinking as a way to align my physical reality with my metaphysical reality. I think sometimes with manifestation, I’ve learned that someone might be seeking to manifest something and they’ve created, say a vision board. Maybe they stop there. So they’ve gone to the metaphysical reality by using intention and finding things that represent these experiences or objects they desire. And in the physical world, they’ve gathered magazines or cut them out. But then they stopped. Where I think it’s important to look at is to say, well, how do you continue to align your present physical reality with the metaphysical? And metaphysically, all things exist simultaneously. But the way that we experience them in a physical reality is a bit different. We have this perception of time or limitation. Metaphysically, there are no limitations. Everything is infinite.

Janessa Robinson:
Yeah, sure. In infinity somewhere, there might be a version of you that has whatever you put on this vision board and this reality, what are you going to do? What steps are you going to take to actualize that? Now, design thinking can say, let’s research it. If you want to manifest a trip to Paris, well, let’s research that. What does it take to get to Paris? I would add, and this is my secret sauce in manifestation and design thinking, is who do I need to be? Who is that version of me that’s living in Paris? What am I doing there? Who am I meant to meet? Whose life am I meant to contribute to? What lessons do I bring back with me? Those are the things that make it very clear about what I meant to do. If I know that I’m living in Paris one day and I’m there as a filmmaker, and I’m telling the stories of people who otherwise might go unheard, then I know, okay, I need to be someone who is somewhere contributing to a community that needs me. Otherwise, I don’t become that person.

Janessa Robinson:
So, design thinking can say, okay, let’s research it and let’s ask questions about, well, if it could be very basic, what do you need to get to Paris? Passport, all these things. But what types of people visit Paris? What are the choices those people make? What are the problems they’re looking to solve or the solutions they bring if they’re business people? What person might be an expert there? How do I become that type of person? What version of myself is that? And it becomes very clear once you’re doing persona-based work, what the decisions are that someone’s making, but it’s important to be clear about the desired outcomes.

Janessa Robinson:
So is it just to live in Paris? Oh yeah, I would love to live in Paris. Is it to cultivate a sense of culture there so that I can translate? Because I do speak French and I want, personally, I’d like to increase my proficiency so that I could be a translator in a way that’s very diplomatic and I can particularly communicate amongst French-speaking countries and English-speaking countries across the world. I think it’s really important to think big and to be specific about what can I do for where I am right now? So if I want to be a translator, a diplomat who translates and deals with issues and builds alliances between French-speaking and English-speaking countries, well, where can I learn more about French-speaking countries? I can research that for my computer. It doesn’t stop me from doing that. That’s simple.

Janessa Robinson:
It’s something that I use in a way that at this point it’s very intertwined. I think I need to find my own name for this approach because design thinking is a very specific thing and manifestation can show up in a lot of different ways. There are folks who do have approaches and particular rituals and ceremonies that they use. A vision board is a great example. It’s just that it has a title and I don’t have a title for my process yet. So I’ll add that to my list of things to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I know you’re, it seems like throughout your creative career, you’ve been on this never ending Odyssey in a way. And now you’re here in Los Angeles, you’re about to start off with this new, really this new chapter of your life. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want to accomplish?

Janessa Robinson:
I see myself as continuing to lead innovation. I don’t just mean from a technical standpoint or innovation and business. Innovation and business, of course, innovation in the way that we experience our human lives. That would be leading in Hollywood in the area of diversity, inclusion, equity. I’m looking at things that would create system change and practices change, particularly when it comes to people on the autism spectrum. But also people generally, that identify to have disabilities, people of color, queer people and women. Because when I was in Silicon Valley, I got to lead, I got to advocate for and develop the existence of employee resource groups at a publicly traded company. And then I became the co-chair of a specific employee resource group or employee belonging group is what they call it there. So I want to apply those learnings to Hollywood and develop ways of working with people to grow our consciousness awareness and to shift our habits and behaviors to reflect our values.

Janessa Robinson:
Then simultaneously, I see myself continuing to build relationships more broadly across the business to make it more collaborative and to make it more reflective of a community oriented mindset. That may be the millennial in me, where for me what’s really important is to collaborate with people and yes, be inclusive. I think that competition is somewhat innate to us as humans, as human beings. There is some sense of an animalistic side where there’s competition. I don’t think that we need to over-rotate on that, particularly given the circumstances of climate change or a public health pandemic. I don’t think that we need to over-rotate on being competitive. I think it’s a time where it actually behooves us to be more collaborative. That’s something I see myself approaching through content development, through my choices in who I partner with business-wise, through working with different organizations to see how do we embed those values into the way that we practice our work, whatever that is?

Janessa Robinson:
I’m interested in seeing Hollywood be more dynamic in the stories that we tell and how we tell and what we do with those results. And when I say results, I mean monetary results in this sense. I would like to see that Hollywood is contributing to the communities of the stories that we’re telling and that we’re telling stories that are broad enough to represent all communities because people show up. Well, most of theaters are closed or limited, but people show up to the theater to watch stories. They’re watching those stories either in their own community or in a community that’s adjacent to them, but someone across the world or across the country might’ve produced that picture. I would like to see that all of the parties that are participating and contributing to that picture are compensated well. Additionally, that the communities, it’s not enough basically to have black folks in your movies. That’s what I’m saying.

Janessa Robinson:
I want to see that these communities who are having their stories told are, one, having those stories told in a way that’s justified and respectful. And two, that they get to benefit in some way economically from having their stories told. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but basically it’s to say it’s not enough to commodify someone’s story and be like, oh, but I told your story. It was like, okay, yeah, you walked away with all of the material benefits of that. I want to see that communities are being reinvested into, and that people have the chance to develop their own content and their own stories. And that the way that the system operates is in a way that’s more integrated and collaborative. That may be, I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s a new idea or a repackaged idea. I’m not sure.

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

Janessa Robinson:
The audience can find out more about me at janessarobinson.com. They can find out more about me also on social media. So on Instagram @JanessaE.Robinson, it’s here I’m often hanging out, is on Instagram. And then folks can also find out more about Artistry Land at www.artistryland.space.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Janessa Robinson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really, one, describing where you’re at right now in embarking on this new journey in your creative career, But also really diving deep into how the sum total of your other experiences, whether it’s been traveling or working in other industries and such have brought you to where you are right now. I hope that when people listen to this, they take away that they can have these divergent paths that can lead them towards what their goals are, Because it certainly seems like you’re doing that for yourself. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Janessa Robinson:
Thank you for having me, Maurice. Thank you. I love your show. I love the work that you’re doing and I’m very excited to be a part of it.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

Adobe MAX Logo

Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

Did I mention it’s free?

Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills…all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Black in Design 2021 Conference

Black in Design Logo

On the weekend of October 8-10th, join the Harvard Graduate School of Design virtually for the Black in Design 2021 Conference!

This year’s theme, Black Matter, is a celebration of Black space and creativity from the magical to the mundane. Our speakers, performers, and panelists will bring nuance to the trope of Black excellence and acknowledge the urgent political, spatial, and ecological crises facing Black communities across the diaspora. You don’t want to miss out on this weekend of learning, community, and connection!

Visit them online at blackmatter.tv to learn more and be a part of the event.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

It’s time for our annual audience survey! Tell us what you think about Revision Path, and you could win a $100 Amazon.com gift card! Visit revisionpath.com/survey to give us your feedback. Survey ends on May 31.

Brent Rollins

This week’s guest is a true creative changemaker. If you’re a hip-hop fan, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen his work somewhere over the past 30 years. He’s your favorite designer’s favorite designer. For our monumental 400th episode, meet the one and only Brent Rollins.

We have a wide-ranging conversation where Brent goes into some of his current projects and collaborations, and shares a bit about his creative process when starting on something new. Brent also talked about growing up in Los Angeles around the entertainment industry, how he helped co-found Ego Trip, and we have a great discussion around Black design aesthetics and defining success. Brent is someone who has been a huge inspiration to me as a designer and a creator, and having him share his story for this milestone episode is truly awesome.

Thank you all for supporting Revision Path!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Brent Rollins:
My name is Brent Rollins, and the short answer is that I’m a multi disciplinary designer, the long answer would be that I’m a creative who collaborates with people, organizations that are passionate and sort of driven in their mission to kind of spread their ideas and positivity to the world and to sort of create guiding paths for people.

Maurice Cherry:
How is 2021 been for you so far?

Brent Rollins:
You know what, man? 2021, I’m ready to go. 2020 was actually the year that I was like, “Let’s do this. Weird. I’m ready to make some stuff happen.” Well, we know how that sort of ended up. So I think it’s been… I think a lot of people, including myself have been kind of bubbling and if you’re driven and if you have ideas and you’re creative, you’ve been using this sort of sabbatical or this time or this kind of slower period to think about things and formulate things and come up with ideas and plan. Like the people that have passed unfortunately, I know a few people that have been affected by the virus and stuff. So my heart goes out to them, but for those of us who are alive, this is a moment for us to be alive and to embrace that, and to really like… This is a blessing in that sense, if we haven’t been devastatingly affected. This has been a blessing to have this moment, to think about what we want to do and what we want to accomplish into what’s a forced introspection.

Brent Rollins:
And I hope rather that people kind of use it to better themselves. So, that’s what I’m about, man, I can’t wait for this year, unlike I’m ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I have talked to a lot of people that are saying that this is going to be like the new roaring 20s in a way?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man. Is it ever? This is going to be yo, roaring 20s, baby boom, it’s going to be crazy. I think, come June, July, this is going to be wild, bro.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, No. And I think even now, there’s this sort of like, I can feel this renewed energy in the air, especially as people are starting to get the vaccine. And even as some places are starting to relax restrictions, things are starting to open up again. So, people are anxious to get back out there and experience the world, whatever that may look like.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Some people unfortunately continue to experience the world and they didn’t really care, no shots, no judgment. But for the rest of us hopefully like I said, we’re sensible enough to kind of use it to our advantage and kind of make plans and sort of think about things. And it’s really funny because at the top of 2020, I distinctly remember thinking, I can’t tell you where it was, but I can distinctly remember thinking. I was like, “Man, the world is moving really fast. This thing needs to slow down.” It was like I felt just how much stuff was going on. Because I live in New York City, and I see construction going on everywhere. And I see all this stuff happening. And it just felt like things were kind of out of control. And so it was… Like I said, it’s been a weird, mixed, I guess, [inaudible 00:07:08] and kind of blessing that this thing sort of forced everyone to slow down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you now?

Brent Rollins:
It’s funny, because I was never a very structured person, and I’ve become a little bit more regimented. And I actually really enjoy it. Or I feel like I need that. So, typical day for me right now is I’m in this kind of like new cycle. So, I’m actually implementing kind of new sort of regimens that I didn’t really do. So, I don’t know how typical it is. It’s only like maybe four months old. It seems like this has been Rollins’s day. But I typically go to sleep late, just because I’m a night owl. And I don’t get much sleep. So, I sort of wake up maybe about five or six hours later. And kind of like I want to read and sort of see what’s going on in the world and fix myself a little pot of coffee, and maybe take a little walk, get some air, get out the house, kind of just sort of take in what the environment has to offer, and start working on one of the multiple sort of projects that I got going on.

Maurice Cherry:
And what are some of those projects? I mean, as much of them as you can sort of talk about at liberty.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s really funny like… Because I was thinking about before this interview, I was like, “Man, you know what? I can’t really talk about the things that I’m working on right now.” Not because they’re secret, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. A few of the things that are maybe like projects for people, again, like people that are doing sort of very interesting, sort of passion projects, or things that have sort of a larger good, I think that’s the kind of stuff that I can maybe talk about, as far as there’s this brother Waajeed, who is a DJ based in Detroit, who is pretty well known. And Detroit as you know, has amazing music history. And so, Waajeed has got this fantastic opportunity to open. I don’t want to call it a school, but he is spearheading this project to create a… I think it’s called underground music academy. It’s sort of a place for people to sort of engage in musical creativity. And it’s on this Boulevard in Detroit, that has a lot of insane Detroit musical history. So, I’m working on the identity for that. And I’m very excited about that.

Brent Rollins:
Some of the other projects that I’m working on, are really entrepreneurial projects that have been in the works for the past year. One of them, I had to put the brakes on because of COVID, but is still moving and I’m super excited about it. And I really can’t wait to sort of show the world what that’s about. But the short story is that it’ll be a sort of a restaurant or cafe or something. And then the other project, there’s another entrepreneurial project that I kind of don’t want to talk about. But I’m also very excited about. Other than that, yeah, everything else is really working on stuff for people for short films and some album covers and things that… Or people that I’ve creative history with, people that really want to kind of put something out into the world that’s a little bit different. I’m at the point in my sort of life or career, or however you want to talk about it, or however you want to think about it, where I just want to be a little bit selective, and I’m okay.

Brent Rollins:
I need to figure out… Everything has to… You have to make a living. But I can be a little bit selective about things because I don’t want to depend on those projects for the things to make a living, I’d rather have the entrepreneurial things be the things that I use to make a living.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And that way, I have more control over the creativity, because it’s my projects. And then if I’m working with anybody, it’s going to be because I really believe in what they’re doing. There are people that have hit me up via social media. Man, people are like, “Yo, I’m doing this, would you do an album cover for me?” And I’m like, “Number one, you don’t talk to people like that.” You know what I mean? I also am like, “I’m not getting your hustle, but I’m also… I want to lend myself to projects that I feel that I understand and I feel have some sort of worth and value, and prove it to me.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how Twitter… And I guess you could say social media as a whole. But it’s amazing how Twitter has kind of almost flattened the… Like it’s flattened the hustle in a way. People will talk to you on Twitter in any kind of way. They don’t know who you are, and to that respect, I guess it’s that way with social media in general, they’ll just approach you on like some, “Hey, can you do this for me?” I get so many people that will… I wouldn’t even say that they write to the show, they tell the show, “I don’t know why you haven’t interviewed me yet.” Who are you? Person with no website and I can’t tell what kind of work that you do and you have 100 followers?

Brent Rollins:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how social media kind of flattens out in a way. People just don’t approach you with the same kind of not necessarily gravitas, but just the same sort of urgency. It’s just like, “Hey, do this for me.”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Well, I mean, people don’t… I can get into my old man, I’m going to put my old man pants on right now. It’s a little bit of number one, you should just learn if you’re going to… Like I said, if you’re going to approach people, show some respect, if you really like their work, at least be like, “Hey, I really like your work, this is what I’m trying to do,” and come with some humility and be like, “I’m doing this thing, would you be interested in it?” Yes, no, if not, I understand. I don’t really appreciate this sort of informality. I think social media enables people to be in contact, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
But it doesn’t mean that you should abandon sort of what has been traditional decorum and sort of like, just respect in terms of like how you approach people. I wouldn’t talk to any of these kind of design heroes that I have, as though they were my peers, they’re not my peers. Those are people that I look up to, and they’re deserving of that respect. And you’re right, yeah, as far as flattening, I think most of the people or a large amount of people that are using social media, it is flat, because they’re all peers. So, they can sort of approach people like that, but then there are other people that are within that space that are old like myself, that are like, “No, man, this is not how you run up on folks.” I didn’t run up on people like that. I was very-

Maurice Cherry:
Respectful?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, respectful. But whenever I’d meet people that were in a particular state, I would just approach them [inaudible 00:13:57]. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
I think that that’s… Not that I’m suggesting, “Yo, I’m better than you,” but I’m just kind of like, “Come on, man, I’m a grown man. Don’t talk to me like that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And also, it’s clearly when someone’s approaching in that way, it’s one way transactional. Like, “What can I get?”

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
“Can you do something for me?” Not like, “How do we help each other out in that kind of way?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, yeah. But you know what? I mean, if you’ve been doing anything for a moment, and you’re worth, you’re like us all, you can filter out who’s real and who’s not.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s true.

Brent Rollins:
And even the people that are not, maybe they haven’t found their tribe yet, but you can tell that, “Oh, you’re looking.” If you can identify the people that are like the junior use.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
Like, “Oh, yeah, no, I get it. Yeah, this person, they’re definitely on that vibe. And you know what? I’m going to put you under my wing because I can see that in you, and come along for the ride homie.” So, yeah. Oh, man, people hacked up on social media.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you’ve mentioned all these different kind of projects. First of all, I have to say I love the way you kind of just slowly was like, “Yeah, this is DJ in Detroit Waajeed.” You’re not talking about what Waajeed from slum village.

Brent Rollins:
No, no, no. Not at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Just like, “Yeah, this guy, he’s starting a school.” Doing the thing like, okay, all right. But when it comes to all these different projects that you do, what does your creative process look like when you’re starting a project?

Brent Rollins:
That is depending on the project, but I think that… I do a little research depending on what it is, one of the things that I try to tap into where… It’s really funny, because I have a great appreciation for sort of like, very learned kind of design approaches. But I think I’m really like a designer that came from an art background, I think, or more so just the act of creativity itself. And so I approach things in a way that’s more about emotion. And oftentimes, what is the feeling that I got when I encountered X? And so that’s what I’m trying to tap into in terms of like that sort of intuitive sort of feeling. I’m sure there have been moments in your life where there’s been some baby… I’m going to just use music, because it’s such a common denominator. When you… There was like maybe a club that you were just like, “Oh, man, that club was just… That was it. Because the DJ, the music was just right, and the vibe was right and the crowd, and the this and the that, and the…” All those kind of things.

Brent Rollins:
That’s a feeling. And if it’s done right, there’s a visual component to it as well. And so what I look towards is tapping into that visual trigger. That’s the thing because that’s my language. So, that’s the thing that whenever I was in any of these kind of environments, that’s what I latched on to, as my sort of like, this is my flotation device, this is what’s going to keep me up in this space. And I’m going to use this design thing or this visual thing and I’m going to sit back on my floaty and chill, while I’m observing the rest of the stuff that’s going on. That’s kind of like how I go. The creative process is about tapping into that vibe, that thing, that emotion that people get that is very subconscious. If you’ve been to the Caribbean, or certain countries, I don’t want to say third world countries, but just developing countries or something. There’s like the smell of like gasoline and burning jungle foilage. I was exposed to it as a young age.

Brent Rollins:
And then as an adult, I go back to those places and I’m like, “Oh, whoa!” It’s like automatically, it’s something that I totally forgot about, like, boom, it just triggered me. And I was like, “Oh, I’m back here. I’m ready to roll.” So, that’s what I’m trying to try to reach for, is to think about those kinds of things.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So yeah, you try to tap into a certain… You said like a visual trigger or a vibe, or a feeling and then you kind of build out from their sounds like?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s really funny man, the emotions and the memories. Like I said, people don’t necessarily… Sometimes people don’t remember them. But when they see them, they get excited. Like, I love remembering things that I’ve totally forgot. Sometimes there’s a thing that maybe happened to me as a child, or that maybe I went to, and someone else will bring it up and I’m like, “Oh, whoa! Oh, man, I totally remember.” I love that. That’s like the best feeling ever, because you’re taken back to something that you had kind of pushed in the… It’s like in the back of the storage room. It’s like if you have stuff in storage, and you kind of go through things, and you rediscover them. Like recently, I was going through my parent’s garage sort of cleaning things out. And kind of came across two boxes of old comics that I had left behind when I left Los Angeles from New York. And I hadn’t thought about those comic books in 20 plus years, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
It’s not that I… I knew that I had comics, but I had got to the point where I just sort of disassociated and attached myself to those as possessions. Comic books are really important to me, the stories and the illustrations were… Some of the artists were very significant to me, and rediscovering those comic books in the back of my dad’s garage, and kind of going through it, man, I got a little teary eyed because I was like, “Oh man, a few comics.” I was just like, “Oh, man.” Because I decided to sell them because I haven’t looked at these things in so long. What’s the point of keeping these things? I just sort of resolved to sell them. I was going through some of the comments, I was like, “Man, do I really get rid of this? Oh, this is so awesome.” And it was like, yeah, I reconnected with something that I completely forgot about.

Brent Rollins:
So yeah, when I do… So, take it full circle. So, when I do design, there’s a tinge of nostalgia I guess, in some of the things because I think that’s what people are relating to, in some cases. And then other cases it’s like, “Well, I want to do something completely new.” And how do you do that? Even when you make something new, it’s rooted in something because if you do something that’s too new, you lose people. So, you want to put a little bit of something familiar in it.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting you mentioned that sort of tinge of nostalgia, because I feel like there’s… We’ll get into the work that you’ve done with Ego Trip and Rap Pages, et cetera. But there’s a very temporal quality to your work that is kind of evocative of the 60s and the 70s in different ways. I think one, there’s this sort of like collage, mixed media kind of thing that I see you do sometimes. But then there’s also… And maybe I’m thinking of the more visual stuff that I see on television, but it’s also like a nod back to projectors. And there’s an audio element of a film reel, or noise grain that you see on film and stuff like that. And then just even the playful way that you use typography, it’s almost like you see those old school horror movie title cards or something. I get what you mean about that kind of tinge of nostalgia. But I think that’s a pretty big theme in your work though.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. The thing about using that as a device, it’s funny, because I don’t know what… I really want to talk to some younger designers now and kind of get where their head is at, because when I would resort to those options, it’s because that’s what I know is familiar to people. And the idea of design, in my world design meaning kind of visual communications, graphics, that type of design. It’s really about I want to communicate with you. What’s our shared language? What are our shared memories? What is our shared sort of commonalities? And when I pull from those kinds of things, this is very conscious. Those are things that I want to trigger you. I want you to be like, “Oh, I get it.”

Brent Rollins:
I think there’s the idea of design as ornament and sort of fireworks, where it’s like, “Yo, I’m doing something new and this is [inaudible 00:22:39].” And you’re going to get about five people that understand what you’re doing, which is cool. I’m not against that. I love that kind of stuff. But the idea of design, my foundation, or my understanding of design is rooted in the old idea of what a graphic artist was, which was communication design. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
So the idea of, I’m trying to reach you, I’m trying to talk with you. And for me, the shortcut is shared experiences. For me, the shortcut is what I’d surmise as being the things that we grew up with. And that’s how we begin to talk to each other. That’s kind of where I’m coming from. When I was doing that kind of stuff, it was based off of… It’s not the nostalgia because it looks… Sometimes that nostalgia can be about the kitsch factor or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm, okay.

Brent Rollins:
I could… Man, I can go [inaudible 00:23:33].

Maurice Cherry:
I was actually careful not to use the word kitsch. So, I’m surprised you brought that up.

Brent Rollins:
Well, it’s sort of like the idea of… Well, when I say kitsch, I think… Let’s talk about the 70s for instance.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And when you see things that are about the 70s and particularly black culture, it’s always expressed in these very kind of superficial, simple… It’s like the lettering is groovy, whatever that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Hobo standard kind of… I know what you mean. Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. You think of afros as kitsch. It’s a little bit kitsch, right? People don’t look at afros as… They don’t look at afros as what it was, which was like this assertion of black identity and being sort of proud of kinky hair and all this other kind of stuff. They look at it as being a style. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
And how big it was, or how large your afro was. And sometimes there’s this sort of… There’s definitely like a silliness to some stuff from the 70s. I think that’s the sort of kitsch thing and it becomes like this kind of joke. I think about that movie, Black Dynamite, which avoided it because it was… That movie wasn’t… It took place in the 70s, but it wasn’t about afro jokes.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
It was, but it wasn’t. It was really like a very loving, sort of understanding about that sort of aesthetic. But it was deeper than an afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes… [inaudible 00:25:10] my fist on the table. Yeah, it’s not about the kitsch today, kitsch isn’t about… It’s about like, “Oh, I remember that vibe.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
So you mentioned Los Angeles, where you’re originally from. Tell me what it was like growing up there.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, what a weird place! I have a love and hate relationship with Los Angeles, because it made me who I am. So, I can’t hate on it. And there’re some really beautiful things about the city. There are some other things that I didn’t like, because I grew up around the entertainment industry. And so it was just sort of like a preoccupation that… Yes, it generates money and it generates attention. But sometimes I have to wonder why people sort of got into that world. But the world that I grew up in, was a middle class, black neighborhood called Windsor Hills, which I love to say, the Issa Rae’s character on Insecure, she’s from the neighborhood that I grew up. So-

Maurice Cherry:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
They got to her and when that show came out, I was just like, I just couldn’t believe that anything was shot in my neighborhood. I’m like, “Oh, my God, they’re shooting there, they’re doing a scene there or some other place.” And it just blows my mind. So, I have to admit, it’s like a place that I’m very proud to come from, even though ironically, when I was growing up, I wasn’t. It was very conflicting because it was a neighborhood that in the 60s, I would say was probably… It was… I think my understanding was predominantly white, predominantly… A lot of maybe Jewish people who lived also in the neighborhood of Windsor Hills, View Park, Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, that area. And I think as black people started… I like to say or not like to say, but I kind of refer to the 60s as being like when black people actually arrived in the United States.

Brent Rollins:
That was when actual opportunities started opening up in the same way that other immigrants sort of arrived in the United States and they have to kind of scrapped their way, they’re at the bottom, but they still have this sort of legitimate way to sort of move on. In some ways, the 60s was kind of like that, finally being able to participate. And so a lot of folks who had been able to get like civil service jobs, or other types of sort of middle class jobs started buying into the neighborhood that I grew up in. And so, I think that was great to see. Some things I didn’t necessarily like, because I don’t… I had problems with sort of the kind of class segregation that was apparent and less about money, but more about social segregation. And the idea that… The idea society was something that I kind of struggled with. I grew up around people that… I want to make it very clear, I’m not knocking something like Jack and Jill or those kinds of organizations.

Brent Rollins:
I think at the time, I wasn’t part of those things and I didn’t understand them at the time. So, my limited understanding was, this was just a weird, boujee, kind of whatever, I understand it, or have a better appreciation of it now in the sense of… The way I like to think about it, is if your parents, regardless of the situation that they come from, they want something better for you. And so, that sort of situation exists because they want their children to succeed, or they want their children to have a guaranteed better life. But I didn’t understand that at the time. And so even though my father worked in or rather was trying to make his way in entertainment during that time, we ourselves were not probably as well off as maybe the people that were around me. So, that kind of gave me a different sort of perspective on things.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I remember Jack and Jill growing up, but I didn’t think it was just some boujee black people. Like, seriously. But then I grew up as folks who listen to the show know. I grew up in Selma, Alabama, and it’s like at the end of the day, we’re all poor black people in the country. I think when I was looking at it from sort of as like from a teenage perspective, and I don’t know if it’s this way for all of Jack and Jill, but it certainly was this way back then in Alabama. It was by sort of social class of course, but then also by skin color. Pretty much everyone in Jack and Jill was light skinned and I am not. And it’s like I would have people say, “Well, you would be so good at Jack and Jill, but you know.” So, if you were just a few shades lighter maybe and this other thing that we had, we’re like…

Maurice Cherry:
And this was in high school, I don’t know if this is even a thing or if this was just a thing endemic to our high school, but we had these high school fraternities and sororities that were based off of black fraternities and sororities. So, you had the mini Alpha Phi Alpha, we’re the African Knights, and like the mini AKAs, Alpha Kappa Alphas we’re culture Rama, and the mini Delta Sigma Theta, were delta teams. And I never understood any of it. My mother was in a sorority, my mother’s a delta, but I didn’t get it. Like, “Why are we doing this? This doesn’t make any sense. You’re just sort of lording this imaginary social position over someone else for what?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s funny, I don’t… Again, I don’t really understand the motivation for that. I could say that as I’ve grown older, I don’t want to say I’ve grown more boujee. I’m not going to say that though. I’m not going to say that I don’t like nice things. Let’s put it that way. But I don’t really quite understand that point of view. An interesting thing that… And I don’t know how this connects, really. But what comes to mind is, I got the opportunity to work with Don Cornelius.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow!

Brent Rollins:
And one of the things that he said to me was, black people don’t recognize class.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
And which sort of defies what we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
But in some ways, I understand what he’s saying because at the end of the day, in the United States, we’re all black people. We’re all structurally, socially, second class. And so, that’s our commonality. And I don’t know, I just thought it was a really interesting statement from him. I think we are people in general, I don’t know. Sort of seek to separate ourselves. But at least in the United States, there’s still this thread, that we’re all on the same boat.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think in the south, certainly there was probably just an additional… There may have just been an additional element of wanting to… I don’t know, maybe have what white people had in some way?

Brent Rollins:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that’s part of it. For example, like I mentioned the high school fraternities, we had both a cotillion and a beautillion. I had a beautillion that was stupid. But like you-

Brent Rollins:
Congratulations.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. But you’re like-

Brent Rollins:
Black tie.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s like, “Oh, you’re a distinguished man of a certain age.” And it’s a whole thing with like, they do a cakewalk and you have to be in a suit. A tux actually, be in a tux and you do the waltz. It’s so stupid, I don’t know if any other… I hope they don’t still do that. Because when I think back on, I’m like, “This is like some midnight in the garden of good and evil kind of shit. This is weird.”

Brent Rollins:
I’m going to offer the inverse of that. I think that there’s an opportunity to create expressions that are highly developed. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I think that, to your point, when it becomes about emulating the surface aspects of white culture, then that’s where it becomes problematic. But if you’re celebrating the things that are great about your culture, I think that’s a different point of view. And maybe that’s not the way we’re going to solve this problem, or be able to put a suggestion box to Jack and Jill, but maybe that’s how it transforms, or maybe there’s some other organizations or people who are less about that sort of take on things. And more about, “This is what’s beautiful about black culture.” And we should celebrate those things. And we should aspire to those things. I think that that’s the thing.

Brent Rollins:
There should be a quality and execution and decorum level that a lot of cultures have that are had been sort of codified and sort of expected like we were talking earlier about like, I go to Japan or something like that. I expect Japanese design to be kick ass. Or even like Scandinavian design. I expect it to be pretty damn good. And so that’s okay to me to be like, “Are you at that level?” No. And when you reach that level, dope, we’re going to knight you. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, you did it. We have a sense of that with music in terms of it doesn’t matter necessarily what genre it is. And even if you don’t like it, you might be like, “Okay, I’m not really necessarily feeling this particular take, but I can tell that it’s the person behind it, they put a lot into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah

Brent Rollins:
I think music is like one of the things that black Americans do very well, and is worldwide considered to be of excellence. And we have grown up and been exposed to something of excellence, that when it’s time for those who decide to participate into those avenues, even when they’re doing something new, they’re trying to shoot for a particular bar.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Brent Rollins:
And I think that having those kinds of standards, absolutely. I think that I see no problem in that sort of higher culture participation. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. Certainly, I get what you’re saying about when you’d look at another nation’s culture for example, there’s a certain expectation there. And I think that’s because that play that particular aesthetic, similar to what you’re saying with like black people in music, it’s been distilled and exported in a way where you already have a presupposition of what it’s going to be before you even know what it is. Like if you order… I’ll give you an example. I ordered some pants from, I forget what the… It was something I saw on Instagram, that was probably my fault. But I saw some dope pants on Instagram and I was like, “Oh, they’re like some Japanese, Myketo pants. So I expect when I get them, they’re going to have a certain flattering cut or something different than maybe you wouldn’t see with American apparel or something like that. Not the brand, but just apparel in general.

Maurice Cherry:
And like for black design, I think that’s a moving target in a way, because it’s going to depend on your experiences, where you grew up, where you pull inspiration from. I just had a German American designer on the show, Julian Williams, who is currently in Amsterdam. Young kid, 25 years old, has done design work for Karl Lagerfeld, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, has this very distinct, bold graphic type of graphical design. But then he also pulls inspiration from voguing and the ballroom scene that he’s a part of. And so it’s all a part of his general design aesthetic. Is that black design? Because he’s a black designer? Yes?

Brent Rollins:
Absolutely. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
But I’m saying like it’s like a moving target, because then you could look at your work, and your work is definitely very steeped in like I said, these kind of references from the 60s and the 70s, and this tinge of nostalgia. And a lot of what you have done has kind of set the… I feel like has set the visual cornerstone for an entire culture when people think of hip hop design, it comes down to a lot of the stuff that you did with Eagle Trip, a lot of the stuff you did with Complex, these very interesting graphic styles. That also is black design.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s the goal. Like I said, it’s not one… What you’re alluding to, it’s not one thing, it’s not one particular genre, but is when you enter that space, it’s going to be executed at a particular level. It’s going to be… It’s going to cover specific things. And there are sort of expectations that you get. Like jazz is totally different from R&B and is totally different from Samba, is totally different from reggae, is totally different from dancehall, but it’s all black music, right? It’s totally different from the blues, it’s all black music, they all sound different, right? But there’s this thread of expression and commonality. And when these genres develop themselves, the execution is you can’t deny it. So, that’s a goal, is to create things that even though they’re not in one particular space, or they may jump from place to place, which is what’s going to happen, you want them to leave a mark.

Maurice Cherry:
And I will say speaking about how kind of having black design being internationally recognized in a way similar to how black music is, a lot of your work has been exhibited in group exhibitions, both here in the US, as well as internationally. What does it mean to have your work kind of shown in that kind of fashion?

Brent Rollins:
When my stuff is recognized internationally, it means a lot because a lot of it was pre-internet and that means that the people that decided to talk about design or whatever, they’re seeking, they’re looking for. They’re looking for content like anybody like anything or anybody now, but they have a certain standard in mind. And there’s a filter that they have in their head. So, what I’m most proud of, I guess, is publications and people that have reached out to me. Yeah, like I said, particularly before the internet was popping. Because they were like, “Oh, I’ve seen this, I’ve seen a few of these things. I really was affected by this, or this was a music artist that really meant a lot to me. And I see that a couple of other artists that mean a lot to me were represented visually by this guy, Brent Rollins. And so let me look into it.” That’s a good feeling. And to know that people around the world who are on the same wavelength as you, and who are seeking out things, find you. That’s incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
That makes me feel good. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, we’ve talked about Ego Trip, just kind of briefly touching on it. But I want to go more in depth about that. You came on as our director, you’re kind of one of the co founders of this group with some titans in the industry, Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Jeff Mao, take me back to that time. What did it feel like sort of coming together and building something like Ego Trip and the work that you all were able to do?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, sure yeah. And we have to remember the one titan who is always like never wants attention, was Gabriel Alvarez. Yeah. I mean, Ego Trip was kind of like… We were like a band. And in some ways for that world, we were like a supergroup. And I got to know… I started working with Gabriel Alvarez when I was working at Rap Pages, got the gig through very awesome, incredible woman named Sheena Lester. And Rap Pages was an early sort of competitor to The Source Magazine. And-

Maurice Cherry:
Larry Flynt.

Brent Rollins:
Larry Flynt, my man. Yeah. Enough respect to that guy, rest in peace. What a person to work for. I didn’t work for him specifically, but just to know that he was in the building, what a… Very bizarre to be early 20s and working for a pornographer. But yeah, he had started this magazine, Rap Pages basically to kind of reap some attention that The Source was getting. And Sheena had taken it over, after maybe a few issues, I guess. And we wanted to build an editorial team. I was one of the later people to join, and one of my compatriots, there was Gabriel Alvarez. So, between myself, Sheena, Gabe, Blau, Dorothy, and I apologize if I can’t remember Hannibal and some other folks that… Nikki, incredible person. We kind of were a little kind of a group who kind of wanted to take on The Source. At the time, that was like the main kind of hip hop music magazine. It was the first and undeniably significant. But we sort of had our take on things or whatever.

Brent Rollins:
But we had hired freelance writers, and among them was Sacha Jenkins, and Elliott Wilson, and I’m not sure if Mel… I believe Mel may have been hired as well, as a freelance writer, but that’s how I got to know those guys. Or that’s how I made first contact with them. And after a few years of working at the magazine, Gabe had moved to New York to work with Sacha, on Ego Trip. And Sacha Jenkins, who for people that don’t know, I would say in recent years, he’s probably known for producing these documentaries called, I believe it’s called Fresh Dressed, which is about hip hop fashion. He also directed this Wu Tang documentary on Showtime. And so he’s been… And he’s also in a punk band and all this other kind of stuff. And Sacha has always been doing all these kind of great self-started initiating things and had this sort of fledgling magazine, or zin rather, called the Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And Ego Trip was… It was coming from the perspective of mainly, mostly writers of color to talk about hip hop, with a love and reverence, but also an irreverence towards the subject matter, and also had interest in other music such as punk rock, indie rock, what have you. And so, as Sacha would say, it was like Rolling Stones, but the inverse. So Rolling Stone would mostly cover rock, and maybe occasionally do hip hop. And so, Ego Trip was the flip side of that. And so that’s how I got to know those guys, and I eventually moved to New York in 1997, because of having some contact with Sacha. Sacha had sort of said, “Hey, we need to step up our magazine visually,” sort of invited me to join the team for no money, but more just out of like an outlet to do something creative.

Brent Rollins:
I looked at myself, as the Terry Gilliam to everybody else’s John Cleese, and the rest of the Monty Python crew. As far as being the visual person, I understood editorial, and I also wanted to do sort of humor. We were doing a lot of funny, goofy stuff. And so I had my take on how to express that. And eventually, that became the collage. There were… The magazine itself was instrumental to me in terms of my creative development, because it was very DIY, it was like, “Let’s just take…” We used to do precursors to memes called Ego Trip Ads. So we would find these funny images from Jet Magazine or, or Ebony or something like that. Just older magazines, like ads of black people in Burger King ads and write funny captions to them. But the captions were always like hip hop lyrics. And then we would kind of put the little slug like Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And so basically, they became ads to fill in the unused ad space in the magazine. But they were fun. They helped us sort of develop our creative voice and make the magazine more individual and sort of unique. And so, that’s how I kind of got down with them. I had myself this irreverent take on hip hop and sort of making fun of hip hop, but loving it at the same time. This was the vehicle for it. And so, once we got together, yeah, Sacha was working, I think at Vibe Magazine. Elliott was working at The Source, Jeff was writing for a lot of other music magazines and Gabe, he’s the glue and like I said, he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves because he’s very much behind the scenes, he doesn’t want the attention, but he is the funniest MF around the planet, and super creative.

Brent Rollins:
And so, collectively, yeah, we kind of just became like Voltron, like superhero group and looked at the magazine as a vehicle to express just how we… Just things that we were interested in, and also to try to put it to… Like every issue, I only did like the last three issues, but it felt like making an album. And each issue got more and more personal. Like there’s running… It’s a magazine literally with like running jokes. Because if you turn the pages, you’ll see a reference to something that came earlier, and we made it this kind of like goofy puzzle. And it became semi… Everything in Ego Trip became this… It started blurring the line between music, journalism and autobiography.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. How was it received at the time?

Brent Rollins:
I think you’d have to ask a lot of journalists maybe how they thought about it. I guess at the time, no one was doing what we were doing. And I don’t say that to sound like arrogant, I just mean in a sense-

Maurice Cherry:
No. Hey, talk your shit.

Brent Rollins:
But I’m not [inaudible 00:48:30]. It wasn’t usual for people to get together to be like, “Hey, we want to talk about this with this particular voice. That isn’t straight ahead. So, when we got together to do that stuff, we just had fun. We would just goof around and just make jokes and it was like one of the… Those guys were like my brothers, brothers that I never had. And so, like I said, it’s kind of like we were sort of a supergroup. Yeah, we used to do some stupid things. In my head, I’m thinking about this time we kidnapped this journalist.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait. What?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Yeah. So, there’s this journalist who writes for the New York Times now named John Caramanica.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God! Okay. No, I’m sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
Wait, do you know…

Maurice Cherry:
I know of him because of some of his shitty reviews. But no, go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
So, I can’t remember what he was interviewing us for, maybe it was for our first book. I can’t remember probably. But we were like, “Okay, this is how we want to be legendary.” So at the time, we used to have this one office on 16th Street in Chelsea Market, and we used to have this really dope… The fourth floor, we had almost all to ourselves. We were sharing it with this graffiti brand named Bullets of Brooklyn, but they were never there. So, we kind of just had the run of the space. And then for reasons that I won’t get into, we had to vacate that space. And so we ended up moving into the basement of the building. So, we wrote our first book in the basement of this building on 16th Street in Chelsea. And so, there were pipes of bolus than you’d hear like toilet flushing, and you’d just hear all this sewage going by and stuff like that.

Brent Rollins:
And then we have this room in the back… We only have like two rooms, we have this one room that was where, if you see the cover of our book, the book of Rap List, that was the room that we shot this in. And we were like, “Okay, I guess we’re going to get interviewed.” I think it was probably for the New York Times, and we’re going to get interviewed and we can’t just do a normal thing, man. We’re like, “We’re Ego Trip dude, we’re [inaudible 00:50:49] this shit.” So we told them to meet or show up someplace in the Chelsea Market, which is like this kind of food court now. This glorified food court in Chelsea. And we had this really cute girl who was a friend of ours, go meet him and she was like, “Are you John Caramanica?” He’s like, “Yes.” She’s like, “Come with me.”

Brent Rollins:
We wanted him to have a story to tell. So, she leads him… I can’t remember if she… We weren’t there. So, I can’t say exactly. But I believe she probably blindfolded him at this venue, and probably walked him outside across the street and then walked into the building took him downstairs in the elevator. He shows up, he’s blindfolded, we walked in [inaudible 00:51:39].

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve still a thought of the fact that he just went with this woman and got blindfolded, just went with her.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, man. It’s like, what is he going to do? Is he going to say no?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. He did it. So, it was just funny.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you say kidnapping, I’m thinking like somebody got shoved in the back of a panel van or something. He sounds like a willing participant in this case. Well, go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
I can imagine that for someone in his position, it must have been definitely strange. He thought he’s going to an office to talk to somebody, he’s being blindfolded by some attractive young lady and brought to who he doesn’t even know where he’s going.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
This white van as far as we’re concerned. She takes him into the back room and we have the lights down low. I remember exhaustion now, Jeff and I we’re back there. So we had turntables in there. And I remember because I was in the other room. I just remember Sacha had something… He had some record on the turntable, and he kept looping it. So it was just super creepy. He was just scratching it, [inaudible 00:52:50] just back spinning it. Super creepy thing. And then we instruct Caramanica to take off his blindfold. And then the guys proceeded to talk with the flashlight under their heads.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow!.

Brent Rollins:
And then they do the interview. And finally, it’s time to leave. I do remember Jeff going like, “It’s time to go.” And I do remember Jeff now going like, “Hey, thanks. Thanks for coming by, you know what you got to do now, right?” He’s like, “Yeah.” So we asked our friend to… The young lady to blindfold him again. We span him around a few times, and he exited the building. And the rest is history.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow! That’s a wild story. That’s a wild story. So, Ego Trip eventually evolved from this magazine to a book, to several television shows. I mentioned prior to us recording how I remember watching those shows on VH1 as a teenager, the White Rapper Show and Miss Rap Supreme, and Race-O-Rama and everything, and just being so… Well, maybe not so much the reality shows, but certainly, the visual elements from like Race-O-Rama and stuff like that being so enamored with… I had never seen anything like that before talking about black culture, hip hop culture, that kind of thing. I’ve never seen it done in that way. And it blew my mind. It was really… I have to say it was kind of an early design reference for me, I wanted to make stuff like that. I wanted to be able to kind of have that sort of tongue in cheek irreverence towards culture in that way, in a way that felt familiar, but also felt kind of new and fresh, unlike something that you haven’t really seen before.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, thank you. Thank you. Yeah. I think that was again, the… For me, that was a little bit of a Terry Gilliam in terms of all the crazy animations that you would see from Monty Python. That was my inspiration in the sense of the humor of stuff. And how do you express that stuff visually. And everything that we were doing in Ego Trip was really… It’s funny, because I’d like to think that we… I don’t want to say that we originated things, but there definitely wasn’t any sort of bigger reference. And it’s funny how meme culture has years later sort of assumed some of the similarities to what we were doing. So, was it a human thing? I don’t know. But it was in terms of like pairing these references and music lyrics to things and doing so like tongue and cheek, but I don’t know, but we definitely did it early. And so yeah, for Race-O-Rama, each episode, or there was three series, I’m sorry, three episodes in the series.

Brent Rollins:
And Race-O-Rama was this kind of fun house idea. And the idea that looking at race through this sort of voyeuristic lens. And so each of the shows was blackophobia, which used sort of the visual language of horror films, and pulp alien invasion movies and stuff like that. In Race We Lost, which was pulling from the visuals of like… I mean, I love this time square CD, porno theater graphics and all that kind of stuff. And the other one was, “Dude, Where’s My Ghetto Pass?” Which was kind of like this we call an urban safari. So this idea of cultural sort of, not necessarily appropriation, but this sort of… Everything was about the voyeurism of race, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
So, once we started thinking about those kinds of things, it was just like, it was just super fun to kind of riff off of them, because our take on on discussing race or presenting race was about the idea of not so much making fun of it, but at least making it less about some of the typical things or things that people would immediately associate when you’re talking about race. Particularly at that time, that series was based off of… Well, that series sprang from a book that we wrote called The Big Book of Racism. And that was a book that Dana Albarella, our beloved editor, who also produced our Ego Trip’s, Book of Rap Lists, she had moved on from St. Martin’s Press to HarperCollins, which was headed by Judith Regan, who was kind of a big shot in the publishing world, particularly at that time. And so we had the opportunity to do that book called The Big Book of Racism.

Brent Rollins:
And our thing about that book was that it was about race, because that was our secondary preoccupation after hip hop, the title and the premise kind of started off as a joke. And then we actually kind of started really getting into it. The thing about that book was we wanted to talk about race in a way that people could relate to, because generally, when people talked about race, they talked about sort of the history and we’re talking about the history of race from the arrival of slaves in America, up until the civil rights era. And so… And it tended to be very academic. And our lens as far as how we related to each other and joked with each other, was always through the lens of popular culture. And so the idea of doing a look at race through the lens of popular culture, was an interesting challenge. It was a crazy challenge for us.

Brent Rollins:
And on top of that, to bring attention to things and to make fun of it, or to joke about it, in that sort of sarcastic sort of coping mechanism kind of way. And it was really hard because we wrote it during 911.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh!

Brent Rollins:
Which really… Yeah. There was a point where we had started writing that book, The Big Book of Racism, and then 911 happened and we were just like, “Man, we don’t hate anybody, we’re critiquing things.” But it was very difficult. But we kind of decided if we’re going to do this, it’s going to be… If we’re going to fail, it’s going to be a magnificent failure. We were just like, let’s… Man, I’ve never doubted myself as much. I don’t edit and perhaps I’m speaking for the rest of the guys when we were doing that thing because we were just like, “Should we do this at a time when people needed unity?” And we’re just writing, not so much a divisive book, but a book to sort of in our minds, illustrate why people of color feel the way they do based off of the treatment that popular culture has presented. And so that was always my interest personally, was understanding how popular culture affects the perception of people. And so like I was saying, a lot of the academic books spoke to a very specific audience. And our goal was to be anti-academic.

Brent Rollins:
Chock full of information and intended to be sort of ingested sporadically wherever you want to enter it, but also for you to walk away to understand like, “Oh, damn, this country is built on race, there’s so much race in this country that people want to not acknowledge. And here’s our sort of listical way of doing it with jokes.” With comedy, but trying to make it apparent. That’s the role of an artist, is to make you see things that are right there in front of you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow! During 911. Yeah. That was certainly a very interesting. I think that was definitely a pivotal point in the country as it relates to race relations. Because aside from that, you got the formation of the TSA and how that has changed. Just so many things around screening in airports and stuff like that. But it really turned the dial on how race relations were in this country.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, there was a lot of internal examination going on. And that tragedy. Tragedy sort of expose what you’re made of, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Even just the recent craziness that we, as a country have been going through the past few years, it’s ultimately I guess, a good thing because it’s being brought to light. And then you see where people are trying to reach out and where people are trying to find those commonalities, and that common ground, and where they’re not. And so that just reemerges.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that you have worked with Ego Trip for a number of years, but during that time, you also were the creative director at Complex for a while. What were some of your memories from that time?

Brent Rollins:
I was creative director after Ego Trip, we had sort of kind of fizzled and disbanded.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. So there was a period where I was kind of back to sort of doing… I was always kind of working on independent projects concurrently while doing Ego Trip, when Ego Trip was in sort of in full rev, that’s where I spent the most focus on. But there were always opportunities to do album covers, or things like that during that time. But complex kind of came about because actually our former Ego Trip intern, Noah was an editor at complex and he sort of, he needed, I like to call myself a substitute teacher, because the previous art director had left, and they needed to finish a few issues. And so that’s when I kind of came in to work on the magazine. And then what was interesting about working there, was I came in and sort of helped finish the issues. And I was like, “Okay, cool, this is fun.” Got to work with some younger designers, and really start to exercise my kind of delegation, and start to teach in some ways or pass along whatever information that I could and knowledge that I could to other people, and to learn how to shape things.

Brent Rollins:
Because when you’re creative, you tend to keep it to yourself and you do things that you don’t need to do. Like you don’t need to scan, you don’t need to… If we’re talking about graphics, you don’t need to do the silhouetting. You don’t need to do that stuff. Maybe you do it sometimes out of necessity, and maybe you might get really good at it. But the bigger thing is just really putting all those pieces together. So it was a great exercise to learn how to orchestrate a symphony. And that’s kind of what I refer to myself as a creative conductor, because at a certain point, it’s less about my actual hands and more about my actual thought and how do you put all those elements together. And so Complex became from a magazine, and this is during start of the decline of print as a popular media form, and the ascension of the web as the dominant media form. And so Complex, all the business heads behind it, were very perceptive in terms of growing that business.

Brent Rollins:
And so that’s what also kept me there, was learning. I learned about media when we were doing stuff with VH1, but the opportunity to work with teams of people and to build a business really, was exciting. That was an exciting opportunity because now, I’m dealing with for the first time in my life, a generation of people whose references are different than mine. And I’m now in this position of also learning from them. So, I like to learn new things. And I get excited by new stuff. And I’m always looking for that new drug. Like, “Yo, I need to get high again, give me that design crack. Give me that culture crack.” That was an opportunity to stay plugged in and to learn new things. And also to be able to work with people. And also Ego Trip as “successful” as we were, we hit a wall in a sense, and going to Complex was an opportunity to sort of flex some different muscles and to see…

Brent Rollins:
Ego Trip was patronizing in the sense of that we had the VH1 give us money. VH1 gave us money and before that the book publishers gave us money. But we were not successful in the sense of able to generate money ourselves. So, Complex was an opportunity to sort of look behind the curtain and then kind of step behind that curtain and see how business, or how entrepreneurial minded business grows and develops and becomes like this media titan that it is today. So, that’s what kept me there, was to learn from the younger designers, to help shape them also, to pass on that information and that knowledge, and they would also show me some things or helped me… I used to say they helped me think. Because they would try different things and I’d be like, “No, no, no, no, no.” They would create these different options… I’m a good critic, I think. As a graphic designer or a communication designer, or that kind of visual designer, you’re taking these kind of existing elements, and arranging them versus an artist necessarily who kind of create something from scratch.

Brent Rollins:
So, they would create these things from scratch in some ways, or create these options and then I can look at them and be like, “Oh, yeah, no, no, no, no, no, this is not communicating, or this is not tapping into that feeling that we were talking about before. This is not communicating this thing.” And helping to shape them. So, that was immensely satisfying. And working with celebrities is interesting and fun. And traveling around the world is great. And so, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Brent Rollins:
Success is kind of about satisfying the need to create projects that actually propel ideas and culture. And I guess that’s maybe always the idea of success for me. I think the idea of monetary success, yes, I’m not going to say that that’s not important. But I’ve come closer to this understanding of when my time is up, for me, what am I putting forth in the world, or what’s my legacy? And so I can’t do everything myself, there are things that I’m working on that are about personal vision, but as a group, we can accomplish a lot of things. Ego Trip as a group, we accomplished things that we didn’t think we would ever accomplish. Working in Complex, we accomplished things that were in that… The metrics for that world, we surpassed them. And so for me, when people tell me that they’ve been influenced by something that I did, or they show some sort of appreciation for the things that I’ve done, and even more so when these things are attached to something that has some sort of cultural importance, man, that’s a great feeling.

Brent Rollins:
I want to keep doing that. For me, that’s the metric of success. Again, know how to make money, [inaudible 01:08:48] money, love me some money. But we’re put on this world to do things. And so I’m happy and fortunate that whatever mark I’ve made in the world, I’ve been able to do. I think the thing about it is, it’s also fleeting, and it’s also like you got to keep doing things. Success is also somewhat short lived. You know what I mean? I’m happy to inspire people, but I’m also like, I want to inspire more people and I need to keep doing to continue to be relevant, not because I’m trying to be the cool of the week, but because a large enough body of people are viewing and affected by the things that I work on. Right now, that would be the marker of success to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. That’s a very interesting answer.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I guess because I’ve been kind of dropping these little pins like throughout the interview like your work, and the work that you did with Ego Trip, the work you did with Complex, is really like been a cornerstone in the design style of when people think of hip hop culture, a lot of that boils down to work that you have done, whether that’s been magazines, we didn’t even touch on the album covers that you’ve done. I feel like a lot of people are inspired by your work, but they may not know that it’s from you, maybe.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah. It’s funny. The thing about [inaudible 01:10:15] is because it’s still kind of being done in the service of whoever. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who more or less are like, “Hey, Brent, I like your style.” I had to develop a style because the more you do something, the more people recognize it. And then if they like it, then they come to you. But in some cases, yeah. There’s been the suppression of Ego in the sense of, it’s not about me, it’s about I’m doing this for someone else. And so yeah, there’s been things that I’ve done that maybe people don’t see that thread, I have a good friend, Phil McMillan, who he was another designer. And he’s… Some people are really in tune with it. He’ll be like, “I saw this and I was like, yo, I think Brent did that.”

Brent Rollins:
So he sees it. And so whatever is the essence of me creatively shows up in those things and he’s in tune with that, and he can find that. And there are other people that can do that too. And so that’s a much more honest relationship, when you can work with those people, because that means you guys are on the same wavelength. And so that’s… I found that those have been the best projects for me, is when people come to me because they do know, because they are familiar with the things that I’ve done, and they’re like, “That’s the vibe that I want.” And it’s freeing because it lets me be me. I’m a designer in the sense that I’m problem solving, but I’m also an artist in the sense that I’m trying to express something emotionally and I connected with those people. And so, yeah. Ramble, ramble, ramble, ramble.

Maurice Cherry:
So, is there a dream project that you would love to do one day? I feel like you’ve done television, you’ve done magazines, you’ve done album covers, you’ve done a book. What’s next? What do you really want to do one day?

Brent Rollins:
There are many dream projects that I want to do. There’s personal projects that I’ve finally started initiating. One is really getting into furniture design.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. And so I had gone to Italy in 2019 to start that. I’m working with a friend of mine over there. And then just the nature of the project really meant that I couldn’t restart it until the warmer months. Totally happens and dashes those dreams on the Mediterranean rocks. That’ll still happen. And then I have a sort of a creative… The dream projects, yeah. I mean, it’s really more about when does Brent start putting his own voice forward more? Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
My voice has been forward in people’s projects, and mostly because I’d never… I would probably say that there’s one critique with myself, it’s like I devalue what I think I have to say. I have an idea… I actually started this project during the pandemia, I’m going to is like Black Star Wars, and let people kind of go from there. But I started some stuff in making models, telling friends who are also creative, and they got super excited about that stuff. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I wanted the soundtrack.” And you got to have this character do this, and you got to do that. And it’ll happen. And I’m not afraid to say it. I thought about like, “Should I even talk about this?” But hall yeah. But really, just more personal projects are exciting. My father was a phenomenal creative person who passed away recently.

Brent Rollins:
And my mission I guess, is to let the world kind of see what this guy who inspired me, what he did, and with the hope that maybe he also inspires other people, so that’s also another project. Man, I got a lot of projects. God, I got a lot of things. Yeah. Like I said, 2021 let’s go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I hear you. Well, Brent, just to kind of wrap things up here. Where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Brent Rollins:
I guess online you can look me up Brettrollins.com under my website that really needs to be updated. You can follow me on Instagram, my handle is Brentronic, B-R-E-N-T-R-O-N-I-C, and then at that point, by the end 2021, hopefully you’ll be seeing my name in a lot more places when you won’t even try.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Brent Rollins, I have to thank you. Just thank you so much for coming on the show. I guess prior to us recording about how much of a design influence you’ve been to me seeing your early work, and it’s been just such a pleasure to one just introduce you to the Revision Path audience, I have a feeling that people are going to listen to this. And they’ll be like, “Wait a minute, he did that!” They’re going to now know that you are the person behind so much iconic work out there. It’s just been a joy to talk to you, it’s been a joy to hear about the work that you’re doing. And I want to see what comes next absolutely, because I have no doubt it’s going to be hot. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Brent Rollins:
Man, thank you so much. And I know other people will say the same thing to you, man. But dude, you’re doing God’s work. Thank you so much for doing Revision Path.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.