Kamar Thomas

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations on the book.

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
Especially for the person who wrote it.

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What was your inspiration behind it?

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

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds pretty simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. That’s exactly right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
There’s a F.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

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

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. I can imagine.

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
Unfortunately, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What?

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Stone Hill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dr. Perry Sweeper

Avid listeners of the podcast know that whenever I have a Black design educator on the show, eventually I’m going to bring up my alma mater, Morehouse College. And while I’ve had a few Morehouse alums on the show in the past, I’m really excited to have an actual Morehouse faculty member — Dr. Perry Sweeper — as a guest this week. Has Morehouse leveled up since I was a student there *cough cough* years ago?

After a quick summer check-in, we talked about Morehouse’s software engineering major, and about how it feels teaching at a school with such a historic reputation. From there, Dr. Sweeper told the story about growing up in Baltimore, attending Morgan State University, and how his post-grad career led him into education. With great minds like Dr. Sweeper teaching the next generation, I think we’re going to be in good hands for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Hi. My name is Dr. Perry Sweeper. I’m a Professor of Practice at Morehouse College. I’m a designer, an educator, and a researcher.

Maurice Cherry:
What is a Professor of Practice? What does that mean?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So there are different levels at universities. There are Adjunct Professors, who maybe teach one or two classes. There are also people who are on the tenure track, who might be in the Assistant Professor ranks. A Professor of Practice, by my definition, is someone who comes in from industry to teach a particular class or classes for a university.
And one of the benefits of having someone in a Professor of Practice role, is they’re someone who’s both working in industry and academia at the same time, so they can give you a right now experience, from the perspective of a person working in the field, for the students.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That makes sense. So it’s not like someone that’s a career academic essentially?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Correct.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. I got you. I was thinking, I know that there’s some trade schools I know that do that. I think the art institutes do that as well. They’ll have people who are actually working professionals, but then they also will teach courses and stuff.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So how’s the summer going for you so far?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
It is busy. It’s really busy. It’s good. I’m going to try to take some time to rest before classes start in a couple of weeks, but it’s going well.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you ready for the upcoming school year?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. I am. I’m ready to talk to students again, interact with students again. I have some things that I want to do as far as the syllabus is concerned or the curriculum, some tweaks I want to make, but other than that, I’m fully prepared and ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Speaking of school, you teach at Morehouse College, and listeners of this show know I am an alumnus of Morehouse College. You started in the 2021 school year. I’m just curious, how has it been teaching during the pandemic?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
It has been extremely interesting because you have to be agile and flexible, and in your work role, in the way that you assign, you also have to be transparent as well and you have to be empathetic to what’s going on with the students. So during that time, I tried to make sure that I was thinking about what was going on and also trying to get a cadence of where the students were physically, mentally, and emotionally because some of them were stuck at home and not able to come to campus, or they came to campus and they had to leave. There were so many different things going on personally with the students, so it was a really, really interesting time. I think it is actually a time where it felt like we were really, really far apart, but I think it brought the campus community closer together in a way.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you haven’t been to the campus yet though, have you?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
No, I haven’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you got to come down to Atlanta and come to the campus. I don’t live that far from Morehouse actually.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Oh, awesome. Yeah, I actually visited the Morehouse campus years ago, probably 10 or 15 years ago, but I haven’t been there since.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Morehouse is a college that has a distinct history, so I’ve heard a lot about it, read a lot about it. It’s actually an honor to be able to teach at the school.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s changed a lot since I graduated certainly, which is, my God, knocking on 20 years ago. Oh, my God, I just thought about that. I just did the math. I mean, the campus has changed a lot in terms of they’ve expanded in some ways. There’s a performing arts center now. They’ve got campus apartments and things like that. I think even the building where… You’re in the Computer Science Department I think pretty much, right?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Correct, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
So even the building where that is used to be… When I was there, the computer lab and all that stuff used to be in Wheeler, but you haven’t to campus, so you don’t know this. There used to be a Wheeler Hall, which is right near the entrance of Morehouse, and then they built the Technology Tower, which is where they moved it, which is kind of near Sale Hall and near Graves Hall, which is kind of near the big lawn on Morehouse’s campus, the great lawn on Morehouse’s campus. It’s nice if you get a chance to check it out. Actually, I don’t know if this is true, but you’ll have to tell me, does Mrs. Banks still work there?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Mrs. Banks?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
What’s the first name?

Maurice Cherry:
Martha. She’s the Administrative Assistant for the Computer Science Department.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I almost remember her retiring.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Don’t know if it’s the right person, but I’m not a good person to ask when it comes to… I know interacting with the department, I haven’t had a chance to interact with her.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
She was like my mom on campus. I was a math major, so most of my stuff was in Dansby I believe. I’m trying to remember the names of the dorm now that I’m thinking about it, or the names of the buildings. I think most of my stuff was in Dansby, but I was doing work study stuff, so I would always be in the computer lab. I would always be in Mrs. Bank’s office at the desk and everything. I don’t know if she still works there. I mean, I would imagine 20 years from now, probably not, because I think she had been there probably since the ’80s when I started, so I don’t know.
If she is still there, shout out to Mrs. Banks, who has been helping a generation of Black male technologists pass through that school. She is an unsung hero of Morehouse College.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Wow. While we’re shouting out Ms. Banks, who I’m going to look up by the way, we have to shout out all of the Administrative Assistants who were like moms and aunts at HBCUs.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
There’s always one. When you’re talking about Ms. Banks, I’m thinking of Ms. Brown. I’m thinking of countless others, and Ms. Ash in my experiences at HBCUs, so that’s really interesting to hear you talk about her.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about some of the courses that you’re teaching. What are you teaching at Morehouse?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Right now I’m teaching Human-Computer Interaction. Last summer, I also wrote a Data Visualization course as well, and so I’m looking to teach that very soon.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were telling me before we started recording that what you’re doing is kind of… Or at least the program in which you’re teaching is not really a department. It’s like an interdisciplinary studies program. Is that right?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. It’s experiential learning and interdisciplinary studies, and so there are various subjects in the department. I think that it’s a really innovative way to look at education. Morehouse is doing something very interesting as well because they’ve had some shifts in the way that they have designed their program, and even as I’m talking, very recently they’ve changed the structure, the departments, so departments, divisions, chairs, it’s really going to be more of a STEM-oriented environment, more so.
This will be the first semester that we’re under that structure, so I’m looking forward to that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you major in Design at Morehouse? I would imagine with this experiential learning and interdisciplinary studies, you can kind of mix and match kind of different fields of study. When I went there, and I’ve told this story countless times in presentations and stuff, I started at Morehouse in 1999, right around the early days of the web, and I remember telling my Computer Science professor there, Dr. Jones.
I started in a dual degree program doing Computer Science/Computer Engineering, and I remember going to him one day and telling him that I wanted to do Web design. I was interested in Web design. I had been doing view source on websites and stuff, and I told him about it. I remember him telling me that the Internet was a fad, and that if I wanted to study that, I would need to change my major because that’s not what we study here. He’s like, “We do hardcore computer science. We’re learning assembly. We’re teaching you how to be a programmer.”
I wanted to be a programmer, but just not, I guess, a computer programmer. I wanted to do Web design, and so I did end up changing my major, but I’m wondering now, since Morehouse went through all these shifts in curriculum and programs as you mentioned, is it possible now to major in design there?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
No, it’s not. There is an Art Program, and then there’s a Computer Science Program. So a lot of the students that I actually teach in Human-Computer Interaction are Software Engineering majors.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
And so you won’t get the design part, but my background is design, so I teach Human-Computer Interaction from a design standpoint or a UX-design standpoint because the fields are so closely knit. When you look at industry, typically when you look at the waterfall method of software design, you get an idea, you make it, and you give it to the users, and that’s it. Then you have agile and other methodologies where you’re constantly iterating on the design and speaking to users as you go along, so that what you actually produce is something that the users will actually want and need for what they’re doing.
So it’s really interesting to interact with computer science students and engineers because I take pride in bringing this perspective to them and teaching them about psychology and teaching them about doing interviews with your users and finding out about them and learning about the environment that those users are working in, whether they’re going to be looking at a computer screen for a very long time and they might need dark mode, or just a lot of different things. So it’s almost like looking at anthropology or ethnography and really getting to know the users.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really interesting that Morehouse has kind of branched out in that way. I mean, I knew that they had the art major, and I don’t know if they have any more art professors because the one professor they had I remember, Dr. Anderson, I believe he passed away. I’m pretty sure they might have another art professor now if they still have the major, but I often get asked from people when I tell them I went to Morehouse and because I’ve been a working designer for so long, they’re like, “Oh, did you major in design?” I was like, “No, I majored in math,” and they’re like, “What? How’re you a designer and you didn’t go to design school?”
That’s interesting. I would like to see Morehouse still have some kind of a design discipline of some sort because I feel like it’s something that the school is really greatly missing. I mean, they’ve got music. They’ve got so many other things. I just feel like one day, and I’m saying this probably partially out of vanity because I would like to come back and speak at Morehouse one day, but I can’t really speak to the Math Department because I don’t do math and I can’t speak to the Computer Science Department because I don’t do computer science, so yeah.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
We can make that happen now. We can make it happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk about that offline then. We’ll confer about that.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. It’s actually a desire of mine to one day see a design program at Morehouse as well, and so we’ll see how far we get that in the next five years.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been teaching at such a well known institution? Do you feel any kind of pressure or anything?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, Morehouse is looked at… As far as males and Black colleges and excellence and all of the alumni and graduates who are doing great things out there, it’s a lot of pressure as a professor because I’m not a Morehouse Man, but I take pride in having a hand in the education of a Morehouse Man. So being able to understand the history and the distinction behind it is, I think, integral in being a part of the campus in a way, and when I say the campus, I mean just the academic cadre of folks that are there.
I haven’t gotten to interact with certain professors there, like Dr. Muhsinah Morris, who’s doing Morehouse in the Metaverse, or the Metaversity. I’m teaching on Zoom, but in the next year or two, I want to transition to VR headsets and looking at a hybrid way to kind of teach on that campus, and she has been just integral in making sure that that happened during the pandemic. It’s just amazing to see that grow at the university as well.
We had the COVID and all of that. It’s terrible some of the things that happened during that time, but it’s just a great opportunity for innovation in academia.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know last year’s commencement took place in the metaverse. I got an email about that. I was like, “Oh, isn’t that something?”

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. It is. Actually it’s a direction we want to go in. We are partnering with different EdTech companies and trying to make sure that we are looking at education in a different way and making it available to more students.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, if you’re looking for some Black folks that are doing stuff in the metaverse, I can certainly introduce you to a few we’ve had on the show before.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Absolutely. Yeah, definitely. I would love to get those recommendations, and I will comb through it myself and look at it because your podcast is basically a place to go for research at this point. So I’ll definitely do that homework, and I’ll look at those recommendations.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the rest of the department like? Have you had a chance to work with any other professors? Or talk with any other professors?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. So the Division Chair, Dr. Kinnis Gosha, he’s been just integral in my development. He’s the one who posted the job, and so getting an opportunity to speak to him. He’s at the university. He’s an Endowed Professor, so he is been at the university for a while, and he runs the Culturally Relevant Computing Lab there, and so they’re doing some really interesting projects around Black male initiatives and technology. So being able to speak to him and Dr. Morris as well has been great.

Maurice Cherry:
Well man, you got to come down to the campus. I think you’ve got to come and spend at least a week on campus. Go to Crown Forum, see the King statue, definitely got to eat at Chivers. Got to eat at Chivers.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
You got to go through the Technology Tower. You got to go see the view of the grass. Don’t walk on the grass, that’s the one thing. There’s a big great lawn in front of Graves Hall, which is the main… When you see the Morehouse logo, that building, that’s Graves Hall. It’s a dormitory. Don’t walk on the lawn, it’s supposed to be bad luck. Especially if you didn’t go to Morehouse, it’s supposed to be bad luck. People play soccer on that lawn sometimes, but that was 20 years ago. I don’t know what it is like now. But you got to go and experience really not just Morehouse, but experience the AUC.
You said that you’ve been to Morehouse before though, right? Didn’t you say came here several years ago?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. So I came to Atlanta. I saw the campus. I saw some of the campus. I saw a lot of Dr. King monuments and different artifacts. So I’ve been down there, but it’s been a while. During the pandemic, I planned it once, and then, “Oh, COVID is high,” and it’s all these different things. So it’s been up and down, but I feel it. How can I teach at the university and not actually step on campus? I just feel I have to make it happen. I have to do that. Even if you do it virtually and you walk around campus with some Oculus VR headsets on, I got to go and look at some of these things that you’re referring to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, man. I’m telling you the AUC in the spring is lit. I mean, the Strip, which is this promenade. It’s mostly Clark Atlanta, but it connects Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, and Spelman. It kind of connects us together. I mean, in the springtime, I might be looking at this through filtered 20-year-old rose-colored glasses, but man, I’m telling you, springtime on the Strip is like none other. It’s paradise, just a cavalcade of positive Blackness as far as the eye can see.
People talk about a different world, and Hillman, which of course is based off of Morehouse and Spelman, it’s very much like that. Especially when Spelman opens up, and they have Market Fridays and you get to see Lower Manley and the steps and everything. Oh, it’s such an experience. I have pictures from that time because I was a photographer. Back then, I called myself a photographer, I had a digital camera. I just look back at that time like, “Oh, man. We were so young, just so crazy.”
It was such a wild time, and it’s funny because some of us now have went on to do great things in the world. The current Mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, we were in the same graduating class, in the same class.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
[inaudible 00:21:47].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So it’s really interesting. I don’t know. It’s funny because like I said, I don’t live that far from Morehouse. I don’t really go there because I don’t have a need to as an adult 20 years out of college, but it is right there in the neighborhood. It’s just good to know that it’s there and it’s still kind of doing great things in the community. So what do you learn from your students? What do they teach you?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Well, I had this project during COVID, and it was my attempt… So let’s go to Black Panther for a second. I’m super excited. November is coming, so we’re going to get… But there is this scene in Black Panther where they’re there and they go back, and they want to give this new technology to the United States, I perceive it as, that they’ve never seen before. You have the little kids, and they’re like looking at what looks like to them a spaceship or crazy looking car and this new technology, and their idea was to bring this innovative technology into this urban environment and see how it could improve.
So I thought about that in one of the projects that I gave. So the way that the course works, you learn the principles of the human-computer interaction during the first half of the semester, and as you learn those principles, you get small projects, but the students gain an understanding of what human-computer interaction is.
Then during the second part of the semester, they start putting those things into practice. So the project was to come up with a piece of technology that would be needed in a community like that, and I framed it based on that part of Black Panther. Just some of the projects that came out of that, so what did I learn from them? I learned where their minds are, where their focused at. I was just so, not surprised because I know they’re all bright students there, they teach me that all semester, but to see just a small example of the contribution that some of these students can make and will make in society, it’s amazing.
Some of the projects they came up with, for instance, was this one-line encyclopedia or anthology. So in 2020 and 2021, there are all kinds of things going on in the news and so forth and so on, so if you had to have a conversation or talk to someone about what was going on, a lot of people didn’t want to talk about it. Others wanted to talk about it, but they didn’t know how.
And so one of the students came up with this version of an online encyclopedia or resource, where it had all of these resources on things that were going on racially in the community, how to talk about it, different resources, and so he put his time into it. It’s a human-computer interaction class, so you don’t have to code it, but he went the extra mile and actually coded the site and put it up and running. Their projects, they always just blow me away, some of the things that they come up with.
So in the AUC, as you know, there’s Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, and Spelman, so I’ve had an opportunity to interact with Clark Atlanta students and Spelman students as well. I had a very large group of Spelman students in my class last semester, and it was just excellence. All of the projects, they were always on point. No matter what was going on, they were active in class, asking questions, so forth and so on.
They really, really teach me the greatness of this generation. In society we can go and look and say, “Oh, these kids don’t know anything about music and they’re doing this or doing that,” like generations before, but to see just excellence from the students is extremely encouraging.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I have a feeling that Spelman students are probably pretty good. I mean, probably better than Morehouse students, and I say that not out of rank comparison, but I keep bringing this back to my time there because that’s such a easy reference for me to pull from. But I mean, I went through a summer program before I started my freshman year, and I mean, the women at Spelman were just leaps and bounds above the guys at Morehouse. We were in a similar program. It was a NASA-funded program. I mean, just leaps and bounds. It was amazing, so I can only imagine.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. They’re exceptional.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s kind of switch gears here and learn more about you. Let’s learn more about your origin story. Tell me where you grew up.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So I grew up in Baltimore City, and I grew up not too far from Morgan State University where I later went to school. So as a kid growing up in Baltimore City, all the schools I went to were less than five miles apart. We call it Smalltimore here because it seems like you know someone who knows someone else, and you end up being related to folks that you didn’t know you were related to, or people know your parents and different things like that. So I grew up in Baltimore, Smalltimore. I didn’t know about design growing up, but I loved art, and so I grew up getting Disney Adventures magazines.
When I got older, I used to take my allowance and buy Vibes and XXL and Black Enterprise and all of those magazines, and I would really spend a lot of time in the house, dissecting those magazines, finding out who those people were. It got to a point where I was dissecting them. I was looking at them so in depth that I found out who was designing it and what their job titles were. So going from being an artist per se and drawing all the time, I learned about graphic design. I learned about design.
Fast forward to high school, I went to Baltimore City College High School in Baltimore. There was an opportunity at the school to do independent study when you’re in 12th grade, and so I took two semesters of independent study, drawing, doing artwork, producing a portfolio at that point. That’s how my career started from that point, learning about graphic design.
As I’m matriculating at Morgan State University, I got more into my program and started to get more interested in graphic design, I volunteered to work on the yearbook at the university. They were somehow behind in years, so it might have been the year 2003, and they were behind. They hadn’t given the graduating seniors from the 2001 or 2002 graduating year their yearbooks, so what they did was they contracted us students who had graphic design skills to actually design the yearbook, do all the layout, and make it look like it wasn’t a yearbook, make it look more like a magazine.
That was our objective, to make this interesting. They’ve been waiting a really, really long time, let’s make this good. So for about two or three years, I worked in that office. It was right across the hall from the newspaper office as well, and so before the offices became integrated and it became Student Publications, I worked separately, giving some extra effort to help out with the newspaper and also help out with the yearbook. So while I was learning, I was looking at other opportunities to gain experience while I was on that campus.
It’s like all of these things just kind of snowballed together because I gained an understanding of publication design and that particular office, the Office of Student Publications, was run by Ms. Denise Brown, who was one of those people that felt like your mother. And if she didn’t feel like your mother, she at least felt like your aunt, and she ran those offices and we produced those publications. We caught up, and she gave us other opportunities as well. One of the professionals who was helping out with that newspaper actually worked at the Washington Post, so we talked, and he said, “Keep in touch,” and I kept in touch with him.
So I graduated and after graduation, I got an email from him saying, “Hey, we got an opportunity for a person to come and be a Production Assistant at the Washington Post.” The Washington Post had a Washington Post magazine, and so at the Washington Post, I got to work on that Washington Post magazine, helping to layout those stories that go in it.
I worked in Student Publications, but everybody knows the Washington Post in the States, so it was huge for me to get that opportunity to work there and sit in that room and see news as it happens. Even though I was working on the magazine, I still was in the newsroom or near the newsroom, so I got to see all of that going on. So that is how my story kind of evolved to publication design and graphic design, and I call that my origin story.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s back up because you just took me through 20 years, so let’s back it up. I get the sense that definitely design was something that you were always into. Clearly you went into that with going into school. I want to hear about what the program was like at Morgan State because you were studying design. I guess this was right around maybe 2001, 2002-ish, something like that when you started?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I started in 2001, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
What was the design program like? Because I didn’t even know that… Again, I’m basing this off my experience with Morehouse, I didn’t know that any HBCUs even had design programs back then, so tell me what that program was like.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. Entering into that program, my first couple of years at Morgan I was taking general education classes, so I didn’t even get to the department until the end of my sophomore year or junior year. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I got there, it was in bad shape. They had just let the building actually, and it was leaking and everyone was frustrated and the program didn’t have much money. It didn’t have a whole lot of support, and there weren’t enough professors teaching in it, so I walked into a department that was in chaos.
I think in 2003, they were moved to a brand new building. It’s called the Murphy Fine Arts Building. So, this was a state-of-the-art building, and it had a performance hall. Morgan is known for its choir. The choir is huge. They tour all over the world. People have successful careers as singers and musicians coming from the Morgan program, and so a lot of that building was built for that department. There were other two other departments there, the Theater Department and it was us, the Art Department.
And so our program was really focused. When you first enter in, they taught you the foundation. Even if you’re a graphic design major, you’re taking painting. You’re taking printmaking. You’re taking drawing. You’re taking a couple years of basic design. They want to really make sure that you get an understanding of how this was done before computers really took off, so that was the foundation there. So all of this stuff going on, they didn’t have money, and then they transitioned to this new building and it felt like a hallway in this huge building.
So although they weren’t in the position that they were in before, they were in a better position, they still weren’t where they needed to be. What the department did is they said, “We need to get a professor in here who knows about graphic design, who can come in here and build this department,” and so they hired a person named Joseph Ford. He worked on the campus previously in the Public Relations Department, so he had a hand in making sure that all of the publications that needed to go out, graduation, commencement, the Morgan Magazine, he was working on a lot of that. Any branding or logos that needed to be done, he was working on that.
But before he worked at Morgan, he had a successful career in advertising, and he also worked for TV stations doing graphic design for them, so he had an understanding of the campus, and he also had an understanding of the industry. He came to the department and really built the program, so those last couple years he was there, he was teaching basically almost all of the graphic design courses.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. One professor, and he is really just amazing, what he did with that program. You come to him with a problem, and everybody’s there and they’re like, “Oh, we only got this hallway. We got this, that, and the other,” and he is hearing it, but he’s focused on making sure that this program and the students get what they need. So what he did was he had some friends in the industry, and he somehow connected them all, and he made a way where famous Black artists got together and they produced a poster for the department. The proceeds from selling this piece of original artwork, and they had print made of it, went to scholarships for students there. Then it went to bringing these particular artists to the university to speak to the students.
And so he was bringing these particular Black artists to the department, raising money. Really, he took the money out of his own pocket, but it’s the crazy things that professors do to make sure that students have what they need. He supplied everyone that was there with a scholarship to an AIGA membership, and so he gave that to them. He promoted all of the events that they were having at AIGA in Baltimore and the AIGA Nationals, and he really introduced us to the AIGA.
We had no idea what it was as students, and we would go to the particular programs. We got to know the president of the AIGA, he would come to the campus and support what we were doing there. He also had made a connection where the AIGA brought a conference to Morgan State University. I think it was like a portfolio review, and so we got our portfolios reviewed by people in industry. I remember Ellen Lupton was there, a bunch of other professional designers, and so he came up with all these innovative ways. He bootstrapped basically the Graphic Design Program while I was there and graduated.
When we look back on it, a lot of the students there have had successful careers in graphic design. I mean, some of the students have graduated. They work for the NBA. They work for Major League Baseball, doing design. They work for IBM, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun. [Ogilby 00:38:38] was included in that, but having their own businesses and doing a lot of things, so we really were a program that started from the bottom, but made something of it. Really didn’t have much, but made something out of the program/.
And I think I have to give my hat off to him and all the work that he did. I still speak to him a whole lot now, but I have to give him credit for it. The other professors there absolutely, but as far as graphic design is concerned, he was definitely instrumental in making sure that happened.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So after you graduated, you talked a little bit about the Washington Post. You also talked a little bit about going back and working at Morgan State. Now also after school, you kind of ended up going back to school. You went to MICA for a while, and then you went to the University of Baltimore, which is eventually where you got your doctorate at. Kind of tell me about that time. What sparked that decision for you to decide to go back to school?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
There were two points that I want to make. One was when I was early on in my career at Morgan, I remember one of the professors telling me that you could get a Doctorate in Design. I had no idea. So I think that sparked something in me as well because I was like, “Well, how far can you go in this career as far as education is concerned?”
The other piece is that the graphic design world, the design world, changed so much. Even throughout college and starting out, it was all about publications. I had a love for publications. And then publications started to fold, and the industry started to go digital. It was convergence, where news reporters were now writing the story, taking the photographs, and almost designing the stories at the same time. Multimedia journalists were coming about, and so I really said to myself, “I have to learn more.”
I never really grasped coding a website, and I wanted to learn more about that, so I had a Bachelor of Arts in graphic design and illustration, double major in both of them, and I wanted to learn more about the integration of design. So that’s why I looked at the University of Baltimore and their program.

Maurice Cherry:
And so as you were going through that program, I’m curious, was it much different from what you were learning at Morgan State? It’s kind of interesting you kind of started out at an HBCU and then went to a traditional art school with MICA, and then now to University of Baltimore. Was that a big shift, just education-wise?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
It definitely was. So when I went to MICA, I was taking continuing studies courses. I just always had a love for learning. So after I graduated from Morgan, I automatically wanted to learn more, get better at my craft, and the best way I knew how to do that was to go back to school. I was taking digital illustration courses at MICA. Then I saw the program at the University of Baltimore, and they were one of the only programs at the time where you could get a Doctorate in Design. During that time, I think early on, it used to be a Doctorate of Communication Design.
That just brought so much together, what I was interested in with publication design, this integration of various forms of media and producing it, and seeing that program really attracted me to the University of Baltimore and the level of skills. So one of the first classes that you have to take at the University of Baltimore is a class about writing, so you have to write. You have to design the stories at the same time, so that’s challenging because they want your writing to be just as good as your design.
That’s what you talk about in the class, and that’s what you work on. The class was on a Saturday, early in the morning until in the afternoon, so it was a really long class, challenging subject. When I first got there, I really struggled with those first couple of classes because it was a different level. Not to say that the level of education that I got at Morgan wasn’t high, it was just different at the University of Baltimore. It was pulling different muscles, working different muscles in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re kind of in a rare echelon of Black design professionals with PhDs. Are there any other peers of yours that you work with or you do research with or anything like that?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Most of the time in the environments that I’m in or freelancing, people find out I have a Doctorate in Information Design, and they almost ask the question, “Why?” You may get an MFA, and that’s a terminal degree, but most people, they don’t think there’s a need for it, so it’s hard to understand the value of it. I think looking at the way that the different forms of media come together, and then adding a research perspective and understanding design research and understanding more about the user and pulling in these different disciplines, like psychology and anthropology and computer science, I feel like it puts you in a different class with all of those. You have more in your toolbox to add to the environments that you’re in, and so the peers that I have, sometimes I come into an environment and they’re like, “What are you doing here?” It’s like intimidation, depending on who I’m around.
In other environments, it’s like, “Let’s go. Let’s do this. Bring everything that you have. I’ll bring my skillset, and we can work together.” So the cohort of graduates, there are a couple of people that I still talk to that graduated from the program. There are people in the program now that I speak to. There are people in the industry, some people that you’ve had on this show, that could relate to just that level of education or that thirst for that education, so it’s a small cohort that’s growing.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career now, look back at the span of everything that you’ve done, what advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I would really say, “Be fearless. Just be fearless, and do it. Don’t be afraid of your own greatness.” I say that because I think about my career and how I walked into some situations timidly that I could have taken more advantage of, that I could have went all in and probably benefited more from it. So I think I would say that, “Be fearless.”

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of that, if you knew that you couldn’t fail in your professional life, what would you try to do?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Wow. I would bring a whole bunch of different things together. I think I would just take all the energy that I have and put it into making sure that as many people who are interested in design in my city, in my sphere of influence, knew about it. They had opportunities. They had internships. They had mentors. They had apprenticeships. They had jobs. I think that’s what I would do. If I could just do anything, I would probably do what I’m doing, just at a higher level.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you now?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I think success, to me, looks like not just writing down the idea, but following through and putting action to it. If there’s success in it, great. If it’s successful, great. If it fails, I learn from it. So I think success is either it goes really, really well or I learn from it, and both of those are success for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some projects and things that you’re working on now?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So I’m really excited about a book. I talk a lot about the program that I grew out of at Morgan, and so I’m writing a book about that now, the Morgan story basically, and it’s called Design at a HBCU. It really tells my perspective of what went on there, and so I’m really, really excited about that. I just started my own studio, and so I’m at the beginning stages of building that. That’s called [LADS 00:48:00], and so I’m really excited about that, a studio practice.
Also, after I graduated from the University of Baltimore with my doctorate, one of the decisions I made was to start an endowment for Visual Arts students, and so far since graduation, we’ve raised about $10,000, and so I’m really excited about where we are now and I’m excited about growing that. So I think in the next five years, I’d love to see it reach $100,000. That would be awesome to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Overall, what’s the next step for you? What do you want the next chapter of your legacy to be?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I want it to be a growing a design studio and possibly entering academia full-time instead of part-time. I’m really thinking about that. So having a studio practice, interacting with academia on a regular basis, growing that scholarship fund, raising a family. I have two boys and a wife, so that’s important to me, making sure they get what they need and they grow, and just looking forward to the future.

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

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So I’m available on LinkedIn under Dr. Perry Sweeper. You can find me there. You can find a website at www.psweeper.com. Send me an email. I’d love to talk to you.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Dr. Perry Sweeper, I want to thank you so much for coming on this show, and I want to just thank you for sharing your story about how you really got into design. I could tell it’s something that you’re super passionate about, and the fact that you’re able to also help to teach the next generation of designers and technologists.
You’re teaching in that department at Morehouse, but you’re able to kind of teach the next generation and take your love for design and pass it on to them so they can know that they can make their own mark on the world, just like you’ve made your mark on the world. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. Thanks for having me.

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Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel

Our paths have crossed several times over the past couple of years, but I finally managed to sit down and chat with the one and only Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. Along with being an author, design educator, and community builder, she is one of the editors behind The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection, a compilation of essays from over 70 Black designers, artists, curators, educators, students, and researchers.

Our conversation began with some good news about a recent grand that she won, and from there we talked about her areas research and what she teaches. Dr. Noel spoke about growing up in Trinidad and Tobago and studying design in Brazil, including becoming a Fulbright Scholar and arriving at North Carolina State University. She also talked about motivation, ambition, and about the importance of finding your own community.

Take Dr. Noel’s advice — the world of design is a lot bigger than you think!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
All right. So my name is Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, and I’m an assistant professor of design at North Carolina State University. What I do is a hard question because I do a lot of things. I guess the main thing is that I teach design and I work as a design coach in a kind of consulting capacity. And then I do research because I’m at a research university. So I do research in education, public health, and community engagement. And then, I’m an author and an editor. And maybe I’m a convener. I like to bring people together to talk about design. Yes. So I’ll stop there.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I was going to say I’m glad you mentioned author and convener, because you did bring so many people together, myself included for The Black Experience in Design book that published earlier this year.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. So I’m one of six editors of that book. But I think you see my character and my outlook in the way that I brought people together, I suppose in the chapters that I worked on. Or when we were preparing the book, I brought people together to write together. Because I really believe in I guess the power of community. And I understand everybody’s journey with their own kind of imposter syndrome.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So in that book, one of my key roles was just that. To bring people together and kind of tell people, “Oh my goodness, your writing is amazing. All you need to do is change this little thing.” If you have that kind of approach, people can become so much more productive. So I think that that’s an outlook that I take into a lot of the things that I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember those Saturday morning Zoom writing sessions. Those were really helpful.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. I’ve been doing those maybe for about two and a half years. Actually when I went to Tulane, so I’ve worked at about four different universities. So when I was at Tulane University, I was introduced a little bit more to this culture of writing together with other people. I joined some of their writing workshops that my colleagues had organized. But then I started either joining other people’s writing workshops, or running my own. I have to say that is really what has made me really productive writing wise in the last two years or so, because I write so often. So now it’s like I write every day, I suppose.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you also recently won a grant too, right? The Outreach and Engagement Incentive Grants.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. So I won a grant at NC State. It’s a small grant, but it was an exciting proposal to be funded. It’s called STEM Games Against Oppression. Right? And it was a kind of, I don’t want to say it was a crazy idea. Because the stakes are “low” because it’s a small grant and it’s an internal grant, I felt I could actually be very creative in the way that I put together the grant. So this grant combines a lot of things that I’m interested in. So Afrofuturism or speculative futures. Games. STEM, and teaching STEM in different ways. And of course design. So for this grant, we are going to work with a group. And then the other interest is teenage boys. That sounds weird to say it like that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
My son is 14, and I kind of jokingly say to some of my friends a lot of my research has always been focused at whatever age he’s at. Right? So with this one, I’ve been thinking about how can science be more engaging or more interesting for 14 year old boys? So that’s what this grant is about, this project is about. Where these boys are going to discuss society, and oppression, and all of these things. But they’re going to make these games. And while they’re making the games, we’re going to introduce them to a lot of design-based STEM kind of concepts making. And I don’t know what the content is actually yet. But I’m excited about doing this work, which I’m going to start late fall.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
It was just exciting that I could win that kind of creative grant, to really bring together a lot of the things I was interested in and just create this experimental workshop where we’re just going to make these fun games. But while we’re making these fun games, we’re talking about society. We are going to do some 3D printing and AR/VR kind of stuff. So it’s creative, and it was exciting for that kind of creative activity to be seen as research. So hopefully, it’s another line of work that I’m going to be able to continue in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you’ve had a banner year so far. Not just this year, but last year also. I mean, before we started recording, I was just congratulating you on your honorary doctorate that you got from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Have you kind of had a chance to celebrate all these wins? I mean the doctorate, the book, the grant. Have you had a chance to celebrate?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
No. No, I haven’t. And it’s strange to say it, but I know that the pandemic caused a lot of disruption for a lot of people. For me too. But the pandemic also created access in a way that I might not have had access before. I’m parenting. So before the pandemic, I was always weighing things and trying to figure out, “Okay, what can I say yes to? What can I say no to?” And most things I would have to say no to, because I couldn’t go and participate in things because of my son’s school year or something like that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So what happened with me with the pandemic is that because of these virtual meetings that we do, I could actually say yes to everything, right? Which is not a strategy that I recommend for a lot of people. But that is I suppose what has led to this bumpy year that because we weren’t physically going to places, I could now suddenly be involved in a lot of projects that I couldn’t have been involved in 2019. But also because of the pandemic, I haven’t had time to celebrate. Now I want to go somewhere and celebrate, but I haven’t actually been able to.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah, it’s been an exciting year. It’s an exciting year or a couple of years that have been the result of a lot of collaboration. So people might see me, but it’s hardly ever only about me. I love working with other people. So it’s a lot of these kinds of collaborations with other people that have created a lot of the results and the visibility that exists now.

Maurice Cherry:
I know what you mean about taking everything as it happens. I swear that summer, really I’d say from the summer of 2020 on to the end of that year, I just had this influx of opportunities that came in. And I didn’t say no to any of them because I could just do them all from home. So I know exactly what you mean by that, not having to kind of weigh the pros and cons. You can do it all because you happen to be in a place where you can do it all.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. And actually, you reminded me of this other thing of course, which we have to talk about. As Black people, summer 2020 was I suppose a year of hyper visibility for Black designers. So there were a lot more opportunities that would’ve come … or certainly for me. Let me not speak for everybody. A lot more opportunities, many more opportunities came my way after summer 2020. And I didn’t have to worry about could I accept them or not. So that’s why I guess I’m visible now and I’m able to celebrate these things. The book, the honorary doctorate, all of these things. Because really the visibility for us professionally changed that summer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It really did. And it’s interesting because now just two years later now, really kind of looking back on it, I mean we’re recording this right around the time a lot of this stuff happened back in 2020. It’s almost two years to the day when a lot of this really happened. And it’s amazing to see how things have changed just in terms of not only visibility, but also that attention. I don’t know about you. But for me, I feel like the attention has pretty much just completely died down. Like companies that said they were going to do stuff haven’t done it yet. Or they made a pledge and they never actually went through with it. That sort of thing.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I’m an academic. Right? And I guess I’ve maybe been able to use visibility in a slightly different way to other designers. Right? So it’s like if then that hyper visibility of that year and a half or those two years has given me … I don’t want to say it like this, but I will say it like this. It’s like that has given me permission or validation to do other things. Because then, my name became known as a designer who talks about equity or a designer who talks about social justice. I’m kind of channeling that into the research that I want to do or the community engagement that I want to do.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So it’s not quite that I’m depending on the companies that said that they would be doing stuff to do this stuff because I’m in academia. But I am using the little bit of validation that I got during those 18 months then to underpin some of the work that I want to do. Right? Whether it’s this work about futures, and Afrofuturism, and how we combining that with design and world building, right? At least I could use the little bit of name recognition that I created in that time to now continue to do this other work.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of being an academic, you mentioned teaching at North Carolina State University. How has it been teaching and going through all this over the past few years?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So an interesting thing that I found out during the pandemic is that I love teaching online, which is strange. I enjoy teaching face-to-face or online. But what I really enjoyed about working online … and there were ups and downs, right? But I first taught online in I think 2018 or 2019. So just before the pandemic. When we went into that crisis in March 13th, I already had two different experiences to build on. One, I worked at the d.school at Stanford in 2018 to 2019, and I did teach some Zoom-based classes then. And then 2019 to 2020, I was at Tulane. And at Tulane, we had to have a crisis management plan where we had to practice teaching online before the pandemic. We didn’t know the pandemic was coming. It was just part of hurricane crisis management.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So from those experiences, I already had some experience in things like bringing music into the classroom while on the Zoom call or changing up my Zoom backgrounds. I’d already started using these kind of warmup activities to get people comfortable online. So certainly the early days of the pandemic, I actually really enjoyed teaching online. There’s some frustration. As a design teacher, one thing that is complicated or difficult to manage is that we don’t have the same relationship with materials when we’re working remotely. But then we can experiment with other things, like maybe drawing together on a virtual whiteboard. I did some activities where people had to take photographs and add them to the virtual whiteboard. So I really enjoyed that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I think that the last semester that was kind of hybrid was the worst point of the pandemic, because you can’t do both at the same time well. So I really wanted to be either online or in-person, but not both. Because there are these other issues that people hadn’t thought about. Like maybe we can’t hear properly when we’re in that kind of format with booths. Or our classroom suddenly became very accessible during the pandemic. And then when we went back to this kind of strange hybrid space, it became inaccessible again. I had one or two students who just couldn’t come to the classroom anymore because of accessibility issues like stairs and stuff like that. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But what else can I say about the experience? The accessibility issue, the pandemic broad accessibility. Or let me not say the pandemic, but teaching remotely made some classes and design classes accessible in ways that they might not have been before. Like throughout the pandemic, I taught hearing impaired people in many different settings, and I never had a lot of engagement with the deaf community before the pandemic. Right? So I that has always been something that has concerned me as we kind of go back to business as usual. What about all the accessibility that we created? Where is it going to go?

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned North Carolina State University being a research university. Can you talk a bit about what research you’re working on?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. Well maybe, first I’m going to talk about one thing that I teach that might be tied to research. So I teach a class called contemporary issues in art and design. And it is a class about … well contemporary issues yes. But it’s equity and social justice. And that’s kind of one of the areas that underpins some of the engagement, because we do research and engagement. And the public engagement that I’m interested in is very equity and social justice focused.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So out of that class, I’ve been doing writing that’s related to the content of that class. So about race, gender, disability, all of these oppression issues. And I’m starting to bring that into the research that I have to say I want to do, because I’m a new assistant professor at NC State. So not all of it has started.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But there are three areas of research that I plan to continue working in. Right? So the first one is tied to education. And it is about using design, and design principles, and design pedagogy, the way that we teach and learn design. And using that to make STEM education more accessible.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I see this also as a justice issue. So that’s why I said it’s tied to that class that I teach. So when I was at Tulane, we started to do this tiny experiment where we turned a math class into a design class. And that’s a little bit of an example of where I see that research going. Where I worked with a professor, a math professor at Tulane called Marie Dahleh. And she taught me about something called ordinary differential equations, which I knew nothing about before. But when I did a little bit of research, I found it is about actually predicting the future. She might not describe it as that. And mathematicians might not describe it as that. But as someone who’s interested in futures, that’s the thing that I grabbed onto. This equation is to predict the future. And then we turned the math class into a design class about predicting the future and then using the equation to somehow support the prediction. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And I’m playing with making STEM curricular really exciting, engaging, future-focused, and critical at the same time. So maybe overlaying a lot of things, but it is a track that I’ve been following for a little while. In my PhD research, I worked with children who were in fourth grade. And at that time, they had to discuss society and the world around them and then take action through design. And I’m really just continuing that research and saying well okay, you’re going to discuss society. Yes. Take action through design, but we are going to make the STEM principles that are attached to the action that you’re taking a little bit more explicit. So that’s one area of research that I’m involved in.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Another area of research. And again, this is tied to another collaborator again at Tulane. This is Alessandra Bazzano. And in this area of research, we are looking at how can we use the way that designers think, talk, express themselves, the way designers use materials. How can we use all of these things to support patients or members of the public to talk about their public health experience more, or more clearly? So we did some workshops where for example, we gave people prototyping materials. And then we asked them to make something related to their pandemic experience, and then use that thing that they had made as a prompt to open up and talk about issues related to public health, right? Or could we get people to use photographs that they had taken as a prompt to get people to talk more about their public health experience in the pandemic? So that’s another area of research, which is related to patient-centered outcomes research, which is a whole area of research in public health. But it is using design methods and these design ways of thinking to support that patient centered outcomes research.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then the third area of research that I’m into is civic and social innovation, where we are building capacity within cities to get more people within the city or from the public to go through the design process together to address social issues. Right? So it’s civic or social engagement through design. So I mean, maybe I explain all three badly. But these are the three areas that I’m interested in. STEM education, public health, or patient-centered outcomes, and civic and social engagement. And all through design.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s really interesting that you are doing this as you mentioned, all through design. Even the first part that you mentioned about math really kind of struck me, because my degree is in math. So you start talking about differential equations. That took me right back to my 2002 differential equations class at Morehouse with my professor, Dr. Bozeman and him talking about how a lot of engineers and stuff, they use differential equations for futures predictions. For example, if you want to predict the spread of an oil spill, you would use differential equations to try to figure that out. You’re predicting it. You don’t know for sure. But with calculus being the rate of change across a certain period of time or across a certain distance, differential equations helps you to try to chart those paths and stuff. So you’re right on with that. Certainly. It’s really just interesting that you’re able to do all this and tie design into all of it.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. And it’s about access an agency, and creating access and agency through design. But I’ll just share like a little bit of feedback that the professor I was working with that she gave. After we did that math class, that was a design class. She said, “There were different students engaged in the class today. And that’s interesting.” Because there’s some students who just expect, they’re going to love everything about math. But she said, “When we turned the math class into the design class, there were different people who were involved,” because there were people who were involved because maybe they were acting as they presented the future scenario that they had predicted. So I think can we use design to get people engaged in different ways around STEM education, public health, and social innovation? These are the three little pockets I’m interested in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I have to say, I think that’s important for designers now to really think about. So much I feel like design within the past maybe decade or so has really largely been product focused and UX focused. I think as certainly technology, and tech companies, and social media and stuff have started to really become these pervasive entities in our lives. There’s so many designers now that are just getting into product, or UX, or something, but not thinking about other areas of practice where they could use their design. Like the stuff that you’re talking about with social innovation, other non-product oriented design work, community engagement. Speculative futures, which is related to an article that you just published recently. I think it’s important to show that these options are options.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
These options are options. And then also, we create these options. There’s something that I say all the time. So someone’s going to listen to this interview and say, “Oh my God, she’s saying this again.” But when I was finishing up undergrad just before the end, our professor said something like, “You make yourselves relevant?” I did industrial design. And he says, “Nobody needs any industrial designers anywhere.” But you are the one who kind of make yourself relevant to the conversations that everyone is having. So it’s like we make these opportunities for ourselves. So we don’t only have to talk about product and tech. There is work for us as designers in education, in even project management. Because to be a good designer, you know how to manage things, and manage time, and manage people. So these skills kind of don’t have to stay within the design world. We can take these skills and move them to other sectors where the opportunity might be so obvious.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Absolutely. Well said. Also at North Carolina State University, you’re co-chair of the Pluriversal Design Special Interest Group, which is part of the Design Research Society. Talk to me about that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
All right. So that’s an exciting little research group. So the Design Research Society is supposed to be the largest professional organization for design research in the world actually. And they do an annual conference. There’s one that’s going to happen in June or would’ve happened by the time this is. So they do a conference every two years. And I’ve been a member of this association for about five years. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So when I used to go to the annual conference, I used to be very struck that nobody was discussing stuff that I wanted to talk about. Right? And when I say I wanted to talk about, I mean as a Black woman from Trinidad and Tobago. It doesn’t have to be about race, I suppose. But as somebody from the global south, I found there was no one talking about design in ways that I really wanted to talk to. But if in the conference I met someone from Brazil, from Nigeria, from any other place other than Europe or North America, I found that we started to have more overlap of issues.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we created this research group, myself and colleague Renata Marques Leitao, we had created this little research group to focus on issues in design from a non-European and non-North American perspective. Right? Also issues related to challenging the dominant narrative in design. Challenging that kind of white Euro American perspective in design. So this group became a group to talk about these types of issues within this Design Research Society. So it was like where could you find stories about practice from designers in South Africa and in India, for example. This became the group where we could have these kind of multicultural or cross cultural conversations in a way where … in design or very often, these kinds of conversations come with a little bit of a hierarchy where it’s kind of assumed that the person who is from America or from Europe has more authority or more knowledge than the person from wherever else. And this group challenges a lot of that kind of conversation.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we’ve been around since 2018. It’s a vibrant group where the most vibrant thing that we do is actually a book club where we focus on design. We focus on who designers should be reading, authors that designers should be reading that are not from Europe or North America. People from within the group suggest people, so one week we had worked by a Puerto Rican feminist, Aurora Levins Morales. Another week we had someone talking about, N. K. Jemisin who is American, but is not part of that dominant white male perspective.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we bring all of these authors that we think people need to hear from and talk about that, and talk about how their work affects design. And then we share stories about practice. We share research. And it is a group then that is focused on decolonizing design, but not only talking about decolonizing design. Because a lot of people talk about decolonizing design, but it remains as just talk. And in group, we’re asking people to share practice, and share stories. And kind of like, what are you doing that is not focusing on maybe more traditional ways of doing design? How are you shaking things up in your own design practice? And can you share this with us?

Maurice Cherry:
I know you mentioned that about decolonizing design, and it reminded me about well one, I know Dr. Dori Tunstall is doing a lot of work in driving conversations around that. I remember, I think this might have been maybe a couple of years ago, there was some pushback from another Black designer about even using that term decolonizing design. I believe it was … oh my goodness. I think it was Saki Mafundikwa from Zimbabwe. He had written this piece for AIGA’s Eye on Design kind of pushing back on that term. I think thinking of colonialism in the more imperialistic sense, particularly with him being African. Pushing back on that term like can you really say you’re decolonizing design as an American?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Right. So that’s a good point of view. Actually, we had a conversation … when I say our conversation, I mean our group, we led a discussion a few months ago where we actually said that you probably should be an existential crisis if you’re a designer to be. Because you might want to talk about something like decolonizing design, but actually design is modernist and colonial. So how do we decolonize this? And when we decolonize it, is it still going to be design? Even that’s going to be part of the future existential crisis. It might not be design when we reach whatever place we think decolonization is.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And it’s not actually a place, it’s a journey. And the work that I’ve been doing, I guess my step towards this whole decolonizing work is every issue that I look at, I keep asking myself, “Well, what is my perspective as person X?” Which to be really reductionist, this Black woman is from the Caribbean or Black mother from the Caribbean. So that informs a lot of the issues that I am focusing on. And I think that that’s my small step towards decolonizing given the space where I’m practicing as a designer and as a design researcher in my very authentic way. I don’t want to say an authentic way. It’s my way. And I encourage other people to do that. Bring your way into the process. And I see that us moving towards decolonizing the work, right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Because a few years ago, maybe five, six years ago, I really thought about how I would see students kind of struggling to fit in or kind of struggling to replicate what they thought good design was.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I travel a lot or I used to travel a lot, but I went to a design school in India. And at that point, at first I was like, “This is kind of interesting.” To see the similarity in the design world between Brazil, and Trinidad, and India. But actually on the other hand, I found it really disturbing that all of these students would’ve come into design school with their vibrant, vibrant identities, and maybe leave with this more homogenized outlook. And I think that my step towards decolonizing design is making sure that that doesn’t happen. Right? Getting people to really bring themselves back into the design process.

Maurice Cherry:
Now we’ve talked a lot about your work. But I really want to kind of dive more into your origin story, because you’ve sort of dropped some little breadcrumbs here and there about going to India, and Brazil, and stuff like that. I know you’re originally from Trinidad and Tobago. So let’s start there. Tell me about growing up there. What was your childhood like?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. I grew up, from Trinidad who might be listening to this, I’m from Diamond Vale Diego Martin. I had probably a really kind of ordinary, middle class kind of existence. And I was a middle child. So growing up in my sister’s shadow and then kind of the baby after me. But you probably want to know about okay, design in Trinidad. And people in Trinidad don’t see this, but Trinidad is a very designerly place. Right? Because we have carnival culture. So it means that you are talking and thinking about design every year. And it’s a very fashion-conscious place.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So there’s a design language in Trinidad that I think people use from [inaudible 00:37:48], and at different festivals. Maybe they’re talking about design with regard to the way bamboo structures are made for some of the festivals and things like that. You know? So there’s that designerly sensibility I think all the time.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
The first design that I remember is in the equivalent of sixth grade, which is like form one. I remember designing maybe my first carnival costume and doing some work with lettering, which I still had. I still have somewhere. I saw the image the other day. But I can’t say that I know when I made the real conscious choice that design would’ve been it, right? But I guess maybe somewhere between 10th grade and 11th grade, this was the path that I joined. I became a ‘designer’ from that age, became really interested in things like typography. I did a lot of book covers in school. I remember one design exam where I did a popup book with Christopher Columbus. So maybe this was me already challenging the world. Right? So Christopher Columbus was sailing across the ocean. And then when you pulled the little tab, he fell off the flat earth or something like that. But I always thought that design was exciting.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I went to high school where art and design were really considered respectable professions or respectable areas. My parents probably wondered if I would’ve been able to pay for myself, survive as a designer. But my parents were really very open-minded and maybe focused on making sure that their children felt empowered. So when I wanted to study in Brazil, nobody ever told me no.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So actually, maybe I have to go backtrack a little bit and say how I ended up in Brazil. But I couldn’t study design in the way that I wanted to in Trinidad. And again, my parents, because they spoke a language that was very open. They kind of said, “Well, you could study anywhere in the world, as long as we don’t have to pay for it.”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And that’s a good challenge to give 17 year old or 18 year old child. Right? Because I then started to just look for places around the world that I could study and my parents wouldn’t have to pay for it. Because what they were saying is that, “If we have to pay for it, we are going to tell you where you have to study. If you want to study anywhere, then you find the opportunity.”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So eventually, I ended up starting school in Bahia in Brazil. So I started graphic design in Bahia in Federal University of Bahia, but then eventually I moved to a town called Curitiba in the south of Brazil. And I did industrial design. And I spent a really long time in Brazil. But it was an amazing … I actually spent six years in Brazil. An amazing six years where I was just able to grow without family influence. I just really became very independent and very worldly. I lived in a community, a university community that was very politically conscious and politically active.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So my interest in equity and social justice really started then with my roommates who were in social sciences and psychology. Because we didn’t have those conversations in design. Those conversations were happening on other floors in the building that I studied in. But those fueled me and world view.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
From Brazil, I went back to Trinidad in the late ’90s. And then kind of almost immediately started working as a kind of design consultant with agencies that was somehow tied to export. So within Trinidad, I worked as a consultant with our trade and export agency for a few years. Then I worked with, there was a regional agency, Caribbean Export. I worked with them also as a consultant. Then I worked in East Africa in different places. Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya also as a consultant in trade and export. And, I was also adjunct faculty at the same time at the University of the West Indies in design.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But I suppose it’s a little bit of that work with the export agencies, because this is kind of like development, international development kind of work. That work encouraged me to ask questions that eventually led me to do a PhD. And there was pressure from the university as well, because I eventually moved from being an adjunct to full-time. And you probably know how this academic thing is, but you probably need a PhD if you’re going to stay in academia.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So it was both the internal pressure from the university as well as these questions I was asking about the work we were doing as designers working in the area of development that eventually led me to do a PhD. Because I just thought that we needed to be asking harder questions, different questions. Really about how do we engage communities? What’s our role as designers when we are doing this work with people and trying to tell them, “This is the kind of product you need to make to get more sales and export you.” I just thought that we needed to reflect more on the work that we were doing. And I took a step back, and I started to apply to PhD programs in the mid, I don’t even even know how to call that decade in 2015. With no name.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So how did I end up here in the states? I actually got a Fulbright award. NC State, and the Fulbright Association have a good relationship. So it was a school that was recommended to me. I knew about the work that NC State was doing in education and design education. And that’s kind of how I ended up with the Fulbright Award. And because of NC State’s reputation, I ended up applying here, and coming here, and really enjoying the program. I spent three years here. I did not actually pursue the questions that I was thinking about pursuing, where I was thinking about design and development, because I was interested in education as well. My PhD is more tied to design education and developing critical design curriculum. So design curricula where people are asking hard questions about society. That was what my PhD research was about.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But yeah, I spent three years here. Then I spent a year at Stanford and two years at Tulane. And now I’m back here at NC State. So I don’t know if that’s an origin story, but that’s a little bit of a story.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s quite a journey. I think what I kind of want to pull from that is what drove you to really make these big jumps not just geographically, but culturally? I mean, you’re going from Trinidad to Brazil, then from Brazil back to Trinidad, and then from Trinidad to the states. So there’s that. But then also it seems like you’re also leveling up educationally and vocationally I should say, in each situation. You’re going to undergraduate in Brazil. You’re pursuing your masters and working in Trinidad. Now you’re pursuing your PhD in the states. What was driving you during that time? What was really fueling that ambition?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Oh my goodness. I don’t even know. So what got me to Brazil … or maybe I’ll give a kind of umbrella statement. I’ve had people around me who have made me feel that I could do anything. So it was like the openness of that conversation with my parents. So that challenge that they gave me, that got me to go to Brazil. That got me to find Brazil as a place to go to. Right? Or little things that I would’ve heard from that professor in undergrad that made me just feel fearless.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
For most of my adult or professional life, I have felt that I could do anything. I have to say I’m grateful to the people around me who have made me feel like I can do anything. I guess the leveling up is just kind of what had to be done. That was part of the opportunity. I wouldn’t really have come to the states maybe without doing the PhD. But again, the people around me just made me think, “Well okay, of course you can go and get a PhD. Why wouldn’t you be able to get a PhD?” You know? Or, “Of course go to Brazil. Why wouldn’t you be able to go to Brazil?”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I’ve had that kind of empowering language around me all the time. And that has opened up my world. I really would say though, that I credit my parents for giving me the openness to think of going to Brazil. And I will say to any parent who might be listening to this, that changed my whole outlook on life. Because learning a new language, learning a new culture, that kind of removed all of the barriers on the world. Because I was able to do that, encourage other parents, “Push your children to kind of open up their worlds a little bit more.” That open world will just continue to take you to other places.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So of course Brazil, that experience of going back and forth between Trinidad and Brazil for six years made it seem like going between Trinidad and Tanzania for a few months, or Trinidad and Kenya, it was just another thing like that. All of this travel, and getting to know new cultures, and new people, and understanding that the world happens differently for other people. And that curiosity of wanting to know more about how other people experience the world. All that started because of that very open experience I had, I think in undergrad.

Maurice Cherry:
And what is it that sort of keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
There are a few things. I’m still very excited about conversations with other people in other parts of the world, and how they live, and think, and do. So the Pluriversal Design group is a little bit of that. How do we create a space where we can really listen to how other people, whoever other is, how people do things differently. So that’s one thing that continues to inspire me, just my curiosity about other people in the world. So that also affects the way that I do research, because that’s why I’m interested I suppose in anthropology, or anthropological methods, or ethnographic methods. Because I have that curiosity about the world and people.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
What continues to inspire me as well is that … well, this is where we get wishy washy, I suppose. Because I think my son, and my niece, and my nephew. What is the world that they’re going into? I suppose that’s why I’ve always had this one area of research that has focused on child centered methods or questions that I think are from a child’s point of view, or questions about making things better for other children so that other children don’t have to deal with some of the legacy systems that we have that don’t work. I’ve been very interested in redesigning or challenging things that we think just have to be the way they are. Right? So one example I’ll give is we have an exam in Trinidad called the Common Entrance Exam. And that is actually one of the things that started my PhD research when I changed direction. I was like, “But why do we even have to have that exam?” And that’s why I started to do that research.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So that’s something that continues to inspire me. How can we change the things that don’t work? And that’s also tied to my interest in futurism or Afrofuturism, because it’s how do we build new things, and new worlds, and new systems? How do we use design to do all of that? So I’m very interested in first having these critical conversations so that we could see clearly the things that don’t work, because sometimes we’ve been so brainwashed, that we don’t actually see the systems that don’t serve us. So everything that I do has to start off with that kind of conversation where we actually talk about what are the things that are wrong? But then we don’t just stay in that space of talking about the things that are wrong. We try to kind of move beyond that and take action through design. So I mean, that kind of social change also is something that motivates me as well. So I guess internally, it’s a curiosity. And then externally, it’s about changing systems, and fighting oppression, and social justice, and equity, and stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you want to tell any designers out there listening who might be feeling a bit lost right now as to what to do with their future? And I’m asking this because I’ve had several people right into the show, particularly over the past two years, that maybe they just got out of design school through the pandemic. They got a job, but it’s not what they wanted, because they’re working from home, which is not really an ideal place for them to work, because this is their first job. And in some cases, it’s their first department.

Maurice Cherry:
And then there’s also people that have been working at places … I mean, we’re recording this right now in mid-June. But there’s been a huge slate of design and layoffs in the tech community over the past couple of weeks now. And some people have just ridden into the show just wanting some advice like, “I don’t know what to do now with my future.” What advice would you tell them?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I’m not actually going to give people the job advice. I’m going to ask them about the non-job stuff. Right? Or my advice might be about the non-job. So one thing is about finding community or creating community. So because your job might be fantastic, but maybe you’re lonely in your job. But it’s like we need other people to go along this journey with us. Right? And they make the process more interesting, more exciting. They might validate us as we do the work. So like for me personally, when we created that Pluriversal Design group, that kind of changed again my outlook on the world. Because my group was also then feeding me and my work, you know? So for people who might be a little bit lost, I would definitely advise them to make sure that they’re not just doing this alone. Right? And find these groups, whether there’s a meetup group about the area of design that you’re interested in. Or groups probably exist or you can create the group, but you don’t find that community.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then the other bit of advice I would give people is figure out what your passion project is so that you aren’t only pouring your energy or your creative energy into the work that your employer is giving you. There must be a side creative project that is also feeding you. And maybe that’s the project that you’ll get known for later on. Right? Or maybe that’s going to be the thing that’s really going to eventually take over, and pay your bills, and whatnot. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But I think that for me professionally, those two things of making sure that they’ve always been communities of support, and then making sure that I’m doing work that is very, very fulfilling and satisfying. Even if that’s not the work that the employer’s giving me. I think that those two components of me, and my life, and my work have been really important. So that’s what I’d recommend to young designers. Find that stuff. And then the professional work hopefully will get better because of those two buckets.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then maybe a third bit of advice I would give to young designers is just about, well this is tied to the community thing. Networking sounds crass or crude, but make sure that you are yes, meeting people and telling them about their work so that you’re not invisible. I think that that’s also really important to be talking to new people often about the work that you do. And that’s going lead into other opportunities in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I like gardening. But actually, because I talk about design in a very abstract way now, because I teach about the design process and maybe helping people to see the design process. This means that I now see the design process as I’m gardening, or as I’m cooking, or as I’m dressing in the morning. And all of this, I do appreciate. I really do love choosing where I’m going to put that gladioli bulb in my garden, or choosing which salt I’m going to use as I cook dinner. I think there’s a real ordinariness in my life now that I’m happy for. I’m very appreciative for. Because I move a lot. I’ve had like a lot of chaos I suppose, or kind of been in constant flux. So what I really appreciate now is not being in flux like that, and just being able to relax and watch the plants grow.

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

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I really want to continue doing the civic and social innovation work that I’m doing. I do some of this work with a foundation. And I’d love to do more of it with other cities. So what I do is I work with a city for about nine months, and we address some issue that the city has been interested in. Right? And I really enjoy that work. I love working with design students at the College of Design. But I also love working with people who are using design for the first time.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So in five years’ time, I hope to be doing more either public engagement or research around Design for Social Innovation. And working with cities and close to, whether here in North Carolina or back in Trinidad or in the Caribbean. But I really like that kind of public design work that is done with community members and maybe local government representatives, and having people co-create solutions to the issues that they’re concerned about. So I hope to be doing that more of that in five years’ time.

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

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I’m on a lot of different platforms. But actually, LinkedIn is probably the best place for people to find me. They just have to look for my name, Lesley-Ann Noel. L-E-S-L-E-Y. That’s the thing. So if they want to know more about the general work that I’m doing, LinkedIn is the place. As an academic, I’ll repost some of the academic articles that I’ve written on ResearchGate. And then I’m also pretty active on Twitter actually. But if people Google me, they’ll find me on some platform that they can reach out to me. And I actually do respond to people generally. But LinkedIn is generally the easiest place to find me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well Lesley-Ann Noel, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been a long time coming I think. I feel like you and I have intersected quite a few times over the past few years, so I’m really glad to finally have you on the show. Not just to of course share your story and your research, but I think to inspire. I mean, so much of what you’re doing is about pursuing your own curiosities and interests. And I think that’s something sometimes as designers, we tend to lose sight of. Especially if you’re like working in product, I hate to say that. But if you’re working in UX or product, it’s hard to kind of see the forest for the trees sometimes because what you’re doing is so laden into a specific thing, whereas it sounds like at least you’ve been able to indulge a lot of your creativity across many different passions throughout your career, which is just super inspiring to hear about. I’m sure of course, we’ll hear about you now for years and years to come. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Thank you so much for the invitation. And I hope that at least this conversation is able to help people see that they could kind of craft a bit of a path that works for them. Even when the path looks like it’s been clearly marked, they could kind of shake up the path a little bit and do a little bit of what they want hopefully. So thank you for the invitation.

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Treavor Wagoner

Summer is here, and with the start of a new month, I’m bringing you my conversation with Treavor Wagoner, senior product designer, author, and quite the avid traveler! We spoke just as Treavor wrapped up his latest trip and right before the launch of the ebook version of his latest book, “So Much Trouble”.

Treavor talked about what drew him to working at Redfin, and from there he spoke about life growing up in a small Texas town. Treavor also went into his college days at University of North Texas, and shared how his love of writing drew him to teaching himself HTML and CSS. We also touched on a number of different topics after that, including how he’s unlearning harmful habits and how his non-linear career path has allowed him to indulge in a lot of his personal passions. According to Treavor, being Black and queer in tech is hard, but navigating it is possible — keep going!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Hi, my name is Treavor Wagoner. My pronouns are he/him, and I am a system designer by day, and then a seeker, traveler by the rest of my life.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Treavor Wagoner:
I would say it’s been going pretty well. I moved back to Austin to kind of start going after my dreams. It’s been going well so far. Well, it’s been kind of going well so far. I just adopted a dog and so it’s a little bit of a harrowing experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. What kind of dog?

Treavor Wagoner:
So he’s a mutt, but we just got back his DNA results and he is German shepherd, Australian cattle dog, Shih Tzu, and a small poodle mix.

Maurice Cherry:
That is quite a mix.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, a lot of energy.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. Yeah. Aside from the new dog, do you have any kind of plans for the summer I saw on Twitter, you mentioned that you’re touring US national parks. Is that still going on?

Treavor Wagoner:
No, actually, I did that last year, so that kind of ties into what I’m back in Austin for. But last year I did a seven month road trip around the west and where I was seeing national parks, as well as seeing friends who hadn’t seen in years because of the pandemic. And then also kind of keeping an eye out for land to buy or a house to buy or whatnot because Texas prices have gone up so wildly, so it’s been kind of difficult to find places to live. But I moved back to Austin to kind of reassess, save money, just prepare for the next five years of my life. But as far as this summer, no big plans. I think it’s just beat out the heat here in Texas, train my dog, take care of my dog and hang out with my friends who live here while I can.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now you were there for South By this year. This was sort of the first year back, I think, after two years, roughly of sort of remote South by Southwest. Did you notice like a big change in the city with South By coming back?

Treavor Wagoner:
Typically, before or BC, before COVID, South By would shut down the whole city and all the local residents would leave or just stay in the house until South by went away. But this year, it was very quiet. It was a slow ease back into city shutdown. Typically, when South By is going on, you can’t go downtown, can’t find a parking space to save your life. But I went down to downtown once or twice and it was like any other day, to be honest. No streets were shut down as far as I saw. So yeah. I mean, I didn’t really participate in South By, but just because I didn’t want to deal with crowds and COVID and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And you live there, so what’s the draw?

Treavor Wagoner:
Exactly. But the thing about South By which a lot of people don’t really realize is that you have South By film, music and all the other treks associated with South By, but there’s also a lot of free shows or peripheral shows that are happening that you can go to, parties and things like that. Restaurants and local vendors are doing cool things for all the traffic, all the South By people coming into town. So yeah, I mean, that stuff is fun, but like I said, dealing with traffic and parking, all that stuff kind of is a drain sometimes.

Maurice Cherry:
So currently I see you’re working as a senior product designer at Redfin. Tell me about that. What drew you to the company?

Treavor Wagoner:
Actually, I didn’t see it for Redfin initially. So I was the former head of design. Colin Gregson reached out to me on LinkedIn and he was like, “We’re trying to start up the design system at Redfin and we need someone like you.” I guess he had heard about what I did with Indeed. And he wanted to kind of do the same with Redfin, but at the time I wasn’t really looking for a job. I wasn’t working at the time. I was actually taking a break. I was on another sabbatical. I had just left a company where I had experienced racial discrimination and was taking some time to heal from all of that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I let him know. I was like, “Hey, I’m not feeling it right now. I’m not feeling it right now. I’m healing from that. I’m dealing with COVID.” I mean, I didn’t catch COVID, but the pandemic was fresh and new. This was like March 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So I was like, “Uh-uh (negative), I’m not.” It was at a time where I was once again, wondering if I wanted to stick with the tech industry or just, I don’t know, do something else, but I’m a completist and obviously I decided to stick with it and he kept reaching out a couple of times to see how I was doing, where I was at. I think that the next time that he reached out was around June 2020, and of course around that time, it was not a good time at all because of protests and police murders and things like that. Which again, just kind of reopened the bullshit that I had experienced. And I was just very frustrated and angry and jaded and bitter and old.

Treavor Wagoner:
I think it was around December is when I told him, “Hey, I feel that I can jump back in and actually provide or do what I’m here to do when it comes to systems design and really help you out.” So we began interviewing and all that stuff, and it was probably the best interviewing experience that I’ve ever had hands down. They really made me feel comfortable, and in the past, what I’ve experienced with interviewing as a black person is that people don’t really see it for you, or they don’t think that you actually have the expertise that you do have. And with Redfin, I just felt like they allowed me to present my work and the stuff that I consider to be my craft, the things that I study, things that I love to do, which is signing a system and they heard me out, and they loved it. And they were like, “Yeah, you’re the on.” And then they offered me a deal. And I was like, “Yeah.”

Treavor Wagoner:
The story of trauma doesn’t stop there. In Texas, we had the winter storm maybe a week before I was supposed to start.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, with the power grid and all that stuff, right?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It was very bad. I was one of the unlucky few who did not have power or running water the whole time, and we’re talking single digits. Yeah. It was traumatizing. The whole time I was thinking, “Am I going to survive?” I’m checking in with friends and they’re telling me, I’m not going to say it here, but it’s pretty traumatic stuff that they experienced. We’re talking death and things like that. And I, like a crazy person who has experienced a lot of trauma in his life, I was like, “You know what? Sure, I can start a job following all that.” So I started the next week and I did it with a smile on my face, but definitely it was a mental wear down for me eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, I think we’re going to look back in the history books and just see how much repeated trauma and shit black people had to put up with that summer of 2020, because I got laid off right around that time, in May, around Memorial day. And I remember I didn’t really feel like going back and trying to jump into finding another job. I had just been at this place for two and a half years and I sort of wanted to take a break, but I felt extremely guilty about taking a break at a time when people were out protesting in the streets for such a worthy cause. And I’m like, I really need this rest, though. I don’t know what I’m going to have another time in my professional career to actually be okay with staying still for a few months because we got severance and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And what ended up happening, and I think a lot of black folks, again, during this time will mention this is that now you have this influx of companies that are not only pledging to do better in the face of all of this, but now all of a sudden I got work. I’m getting bombarded with offers and things to do and talking to companies internally about ways that they can change their DEI and all this sort of stuff. But then also being said, this is such a watershed moment, and do you think that this will continue? And I’m like, no, but also it’s not really up to me to do that because you, as the white people in power, it’s on y’all to continue this. It’s not on us. It’s not on the aggrieved to try to fix this. It’s on y’all. And of course now two years later, pretty much all of those promises have gone up in smoke.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I think I would say with Redfin, you asked me about Redfin. I would say that I’ve really seen them try. Not trying to be the spokesperson for Redfin, because I don’t think I could do a good job at it, but I’m really impressed with how they’ve been leaders in the real estate industry of trying to do the right thing for not only black people, but marginalized individuals.

Treavor Wagoner:
They’ve removed crime stats. Because our researchers are amazing, they’ve removed crime stats from house listings or property listings because they found that the areas that see a lot of “crime” are over policed and are predominantly black or brown, it’s kind of skewed data that they’re getting. So why have that on there? It’s not clean data, it’s not representative of the actual neighborhood, so let’s remove that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think they’ve kind of put the pressure on other real estate companies to do the same as well. So that really impressed me. Not only have you cleaned up house, clean up your own house, but you’re also encouraging other people to clean up their houses too. I thought that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
And I should mention, this whole conversation is not to bash your employer. So I don’ want them to think that we’re going in on Redfin or anything.

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh, no.

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I think it’s just worth mentioning that during that time in particular, there were so many friends of mine I know that were finally getting more speaking gigs, getting more design gigs, more companies were hitting them up. They were getting more job offers and it’s kind of bittersweet because yeah, it’s great that you see what I’m able to offer, but this is what it had to take for that to happen? And for it to not even be a sustained thing, it’s just sort of this one spike, and then that’s that. It’s crazy.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It’s interesting because it’s like, finally. For me, someone who’s been in the industry for almost 15+ years, who has been around a lot of designers who get awards and things like that, or whatever or just get a lot of recognition; it felt good to finally be recognized in some way, but it was also bittersweet because I’ve been here, I’ve been doing the dang thing. I’ve been doing a great job at it, and in a sense, it’s like you’re not really recognizing me, the work. You’re recognizing me, the black designer. I’m more than that. I do more than that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Or if anything, they’re kind of trying to maybe wallpaper over some corporate guilt.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, not to dwell too much on work or anything, but I’m curious what’s a typical day like for you at Redfin? What’s your day-to-day look like?

Treavor Wagoner:
So my title is product designer, but our design system team is very small. It’s just mainly me and my co-lead, who is a designer as well. So we don’t have a direct manager. We don’t have a product manager in our “pod.” We work with an engineering team, but they’re a separate team. They’re not actually a part of our team, but we work very closely together all the time. So my day-to-day is looking at roadmaps and kind of filling in for the product manager role. It’s also doing some design tasks as well, so designing components, researching systems, checking in with my co-lead to make sure that we’re on track to meet our goals for our MVP of the design system and things like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
Sometimes we get questions from our design system customers, which are designers and engineers from the company. If I know the answer, which most of the time I don’t, I’ll chime in and kind of help out wherever I can. So doing support, thinking about educating, how we’re going to educate our customers about the new system that we’re working on, checking in with our stakeholders as we’re building the design system, to make sure that we’re in alignment and we’re doing fulfilling business needs as well as our customer needs. And then also making sure our partners we work with to build the system are happy and aligned with us as well. It’s a lot of engagement. It’s a lot of communication, which for me as an introvert can be a little draining sometimes. But I would say that I have a pretty good self care regimen. I could do better, but I try my best.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think especially throughout the pandemic, we’re all just trying to hold on. Especially with all these other things that are happening out in the world that are not pandemic related that are still compounding stress. I don’t want to specifically give name to any tragedies, but for folks that are listening, they know what’s going on right now in this time in the world. It’s heavy, it’s heavy.

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s like a landmine. You’re just walking through this really beautiful field and you come across landmines here and there. Like you mentioned, not to name any tragedies that have happened, but there’s so many, so take your pick. But each one of those, it affects me. It affects me in some way. I’m an empath, so I see people hurting and I want to do something. I want to take the hurt away, but I can’t do anything about it. Yeah. I feel like the closest I can get is donating money, but even that feels like it’s not enough.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here and learn more about you and your origin story. Like you mentioned, you’re in Austin, Texas right now. Is that where you grew up?

Treavor Wagoner:
I did not grow up in Austin. Austin was always this cool city, but I grew up near Waco, Texas. Which, if you’re not familiar with Waco for some reason, it is in the center of Texas, central Texas. I grew up in a very small town, maybe 15-20 minutes north of Waco. Very small town, we’re talking less than 900 people growing up. Yeah. I’m from the country. Right now, you’re probably not hearing my Texas accent, but it’s deep in there somewhere.

Treavor Wagoner:
At a certain point, my mother who at the time was a microbiologist, couldn’t find a job in the Waco area. She was also involved with the military. So we had our house in near Waco, but we also lived up in Arlington, Texas, which is in DFW. So we had a dual-residence type situation where we would live in Arlington throughout the week and then go down to the country on the weekends. So I had a city life and a country life at the same time, which I think hopping up and down I-35, sitting in a car for an hour and a half each way kind of yielded into me being a traveler when I got older, and just wanting to explore more of the world, more of our country.

Treavor Wagoner:
When I was at the age where I needed to start going to school, I started going to Christian private school in Arlington. It was non-denominational, so all walks of life were there. Catholic, baptist, Christian, Asian, black, white, Latino, et cetera. The neighborhood that we eventually settled in in Arlington was predominantly Hispanic, or at least it became predominantly Hispanic. And my babysitter who I went to hang out with after school was Hispanic, she was from south Texas and she taught me Spanish.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I was exposed to a lot of culture at a young age, but I was also from a small town, so I faced a lot of small town mindset, which is not being exposed to a lot of different cultures. So I was always met up with encountering people who did not realize that there’s a world outside of the small town, outside of where Walmart Super Center was the biggest thing, the happy place.

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, it was fun. It was interesting, but I eventually had to get out of there because I’m a queer person and it’s a small Texas town, so you can gather what that means for me. But I had to go find myself. I had to see what kind of life I could lead being a black queer person. And that’s where I ended up in Denton, Texas, going to UNT, or University of North Texas.

Maurice Cherry:
So before that, though, you started off at a community college at McLennan, was that in Waco or nearby Waco?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was in Waco. So I went at the same time. I’ve always been kind of an overachiever. I think it’s because of the private school education that I had. But while I was a, I think junior and senior at West High, which is in West comma Texas. We say West comma Texas because when we say West Texas people think Western Texas, and it’s a town called West. You may have heard of it. Speaking of tragedy, there was a fertilizer explosion that kind of almost demolished the whole town. It was around the time the Boston shooting happened in 2013, ’14.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. Anyway, so I went to high school there, but at the same time I did dual credit, which is when you take government and economics and some other courses, you also get college credit for them. So the local community college that was doing that was McClennan community college. So I didn’t actually do full fall spring semesters. I did summer school, summer classes. And then I eventually went to, I transferred those credits to UNT. So I consider University of North Texas my full on college experience, and McClennan, or MCC was my kind of interim exposure to college.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that a big shift, going from a community college to a four year?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. It was less of a big shift going from community college to a full on university and more of a big shift going from being very sheltered to just all of a sudden having no rules, no one to watch over me or keep me out of trouble or whatever. No one to keep me from figuring out what queerness is or my identity is. So yeah, it was a unique experience, I would say. It wasn’t something that I wasn’t used to, because I would say going from a private education to a public education was far more of a big shift, and that happened when I was in sixth grade, where all of a sudden you’re enforced to be very prim and proper, no cursing, to being in an environment where people are fighting, kids are fighting all over the place, cursing, having sex. Like, what did I get myself into?

Maurice Cherry:
It was a totally different world, it sounds like.

Treavor Wagoner:
It was a totally different world. No offense to Mormons, but I felt like I was a Mormon kid actually going into the real world.

Maurice Cherry:
Was your Rumspringa.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. But at 12, 13. Looking back, it’s funny and hilarious, but at the time it was kind of scary. So I would say when I transitioned from graduating from high school and attending some community college courses or doing some community college courses to full on living in a dorm, being on a college campus, meeting people from different parts of the world, I would say that was very exciting for me. I just felt very free.

Maurice Cherry:
I hear that you were dubbed “the guru” while you were there.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, that was a nickname that my manager at the time gave me. That’s funny. I started as a web designer, so I was designing blogs when I was in high school, and online blogs were my saving grace as a black queer person. I didn’t have any friends, really, in high school, so I would just write online and that was my escape. So in escaping to writing blogs, I started designing them and created a service out of that for other bloggers. So I would create their templates, their blog templates. I learned CSS from doing that, and I think a little bit of HTML at the same time, and also got to flex my creative muscle as well and creating color schemes and finding this rinky dink image creation software, editing software, and creating mass heads for blogs and stuff like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
But that led me into wanting to do that as for actually getting paid to do it. And so within a couple of months of being on campus in my freshman year, I found a job flyer for a web designer for the rec center on campus. And I kind of just begged my way into that job. They gave me the job and after about a year or so of doing that, the head of IT for the division that the rec center department was under saw my work, and he was like, “Hey, would you like to do this for the whole division?” And I was like, “What does that entail?” He was like, “That’s like, you get to be the webmaster, web designer for 30 to 40 websites.” And I was like, “Okay, sure.”

Treavor Wagoner:
He was grateful for it because it was cheap labor, but I think that was the first time that I learned how to be… Not learned how to be, but I think that’s where I adopted my skill as in what I call an octopus. Like I mentioned, I had to maintain design, develop 30, 40 sites and they all kind of looked the same, but they had all had to look the same because they reflected the division, not so much their department. So I guess in a sense, it was my first time working with multi-brand design systems, which is crazy, because I didn’t really make that connection until just now. Like oh, I’ve always been working on multi-brand design systems.

Treavor Wagoner:
But because I understood system thinking, even at that age, which was around, I think it was 20, 22, he called me guru. So I understood our process was important. It was almost necessary to maintain that many properties all at once. You have to have some semblance of organization. So he just saw my approach and the fact that I plastered this cubby hole wall that I had. I was working from the storage room because we didn’t have an office or a desk for me to work in. And so while I was in the storage room, I would just plaster all the walls with site maps and diagrams and whatever, just to keep myself organized with all these many different properties that I was maintaining.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was that early post-graduation career like?

Treavor Wagoner:
Because I had already had a lot of experience under my belt already having been paid to do web design, salary wise, I was able to get a high wage for my first job out of college. It was hard because it was at the time where we were having the recession in 2010, so it was very hard to find a job. But once I got a job, I was able to get a high salary. And high salary at that time for me for a, I guess, relatively kind of new designer was $45K in Dallas area. Yeah. I felt like I was going from ravioli eating every night to having a luxury apartment overnight, it felt like. It was interesting. It was a little bit of adjustment, and I don’t think I quite found the balance. Eventually I was let go from that job, and I think that was pretty devastating to experience that. But it led me to creating my own business with my former partner, romantic partner, which was a bad idea.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that business Braver?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was, yeah. It was a combination of our names, but it was also a representative of the kind of work that we wanted to do, which was a traveling philanthropic, but also providing web development solutions to small businesses in the Dallas area. So yeah, and we were able to do that. We actually started our company cash positive, so that’s always been a great accomplishment of my own. It’s not something that people know about, but it’s something that I’m really proud of, that I was able to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re also the co-founder and the executive director of a group called Black UX austin. Tell me about that, and what did you want to sort of get out of that group?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. So going back to talking about leaving a company that I was working for, that I faced some racial discrimination, a researcher that I was working with at the time, Carmen Brunes, she’s also black as well, but she saw what I was going through and she was like, “You need a release. You’re way too talented to be treated this way. And I want to provide an outlet for you to do what you do best.” Two other researchers had started Black UX Austin before I even came along and they just had never been able to get it off the ground, and so she told me that she wanted to actually take it all the way.

Treavor Wagoner:
She wanted to be nationally recognized and be the one stop shop for black people wanting to get into tech, specifically in the Austin area, largely because black people in tech are usually the onlies in the company. That’s the typical experience, whether you’re the only black person on your team, in your organization, in your department. And so you may experience things that if someone like you was around, they would tell you “Girl, you’re going through some shit right now. They’re treating you badly. It’s gaslighting.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So there wasn’t that community there before we came along. I don’t think there was that kind of community in Austin specifically, and if you’ve been to Austin, you know that it’s very white. There’s not that many black people here at all. It’s funny, because one of my best friends asked, I think he was asking someone else and I think one of his other friends had visited Austin and he was like, “Did you see any black people there?” And he was like, “No.” I told him, I was just joking, but I was like, “Yeah, I’m the only one here. I’m right here. You’re talking to the black people or the black community in Austin.” No, just kidding. There’s more than that of course, more than me.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. We started Black UX Austin as a means for black people in tech to have a community, to have a safe space, to not feel like you are being tone policed, to just let your hair down and just be yourself. We started right before the pandemic started and as we were reforming and making it kind of formalized COVID started. And so we were like, “Oh, crap.” So by that point, we had only had one in person event. And then we had to shift everything to be all virtual. And we got so good at it that other black organizations that were in and out of tech were like, “How are you guys doing this?” Because we got really good at it that people on LinkedIn, on maybe Instagram, too, or whatever were seeing what we were doing and were wanting to support.

Treavor Wagoner:
And these are not just black people, but also white people, organizations where they’ve seen or witnessed black people being oppressed or mistreated in some way. They just wanted to support. So there were other black organizations or organizations in general were just asking us, “How are you guys able to grow and thrive online as you’re doing?” Part of it was that I know a lot about creating online community, having been someone who grew up needing community when I was growing up in rural Texas and being the only very sensitive black person in probably a 20-30 mile radius. So I sought online community as much and as often as I could, and so I just learned from that and I think that has warmed its way into or carried its way up to now, which is providing community or safe spaces for other black people.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I feel like I’m mentioning all these aside, but as I did my research, I saw that you’re a poet and you’re an author. Tell me about that, particularly about the impetus behind your latest book. Where did the drive come from for that?

Treavor Wagoner:
My gosh. So first of all, I don’t call myself a poet. I do write poetry, but I don’t feel that it fits me well. I call myself a writer. Poetry is not the only writing that I will do. I want to do more memoirs and things like that, but actually I didn’t get my degree in design or web design or anything like that. I got my degree in creative writing. I had started to pursue creative writing and communication design, which if you’re not familiar, communication design, at least at UNT, it encompasses advertising and graphic design. So not web design, but it is design or the visual aspect of design. And at the time, it was the closest thing that I could get to a design degree.

Treavor Wagoner:
And my minor is in computer education and cognitive systems, which translation, that means a couple of courses in installing Linux systems and some Adobe Photoshop courses. So yeah, that was the closest I could get to having a web design degree at that time, which was between 2006 and 2010. But eventually I ran out of financial aid and I just stuck with the English creative writing aspect of my life. So growing up, I’ve always had, I guess, an affinity for writing. I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter, and so I started writing songs at 12, just because I had seen one of my favorite songwriters, Mariah Carey. You may laugh, but she’s a great songwriter. Obviously we know a lot of our songs. I’ve always just written lyrical poems. Yeah. There’s a floppy disk somewhere in my storage somewhere of maybe 500 lyrical poems I had written when I was a kid.

Maurice Cherry:
Not a floppy disc. You got to get it off the floppy disk, man.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I know. You know what, I think at some point I did translate them to modern digital at some point, so they’re probably somewhere on a hard drive somewhere maybe. But yeah, I don’t know if I want to revisit those, to be honest. They’re probably terrible. But yeah, while I was at UNT, I got my English degree and like I mentioned before, I had started my UX product design career. Product design is kind of like a jealous mistress when it comes to my other abilities, so my writing kind of had to be pushed to the side, but eventually I was approaching 30 and I was like, “What can I do very quickly that I can be proud of my twenties for?” And that was creating or writing a book.

Treavor Wagoner:
And so I self-published my first title, which is called The Remaining Trouble and Other Battles. And then during the pandemic, I kind of remixed it and expanded it and republished it as So Much Trouble. And in terms of writing, it’s probably the project that I’m most proud of, because the way I was able to produce it is how I envisioned it, and the quality is great in terms of design and writing. I was just very proud of it. I think all creatives should have something that they’re just absolutely proud of that they did. I feel like that’s very rare. Even if you do great work that other people admire, this level of self deprecation that designers have, or they don’t fully love the work that they do, even if it’s great. So I think that everybody should have that one project where they’re just like, “I absolutely love the shit out of this thing.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, the book is about, it’s a book of poetry, a collection of poetry about based on a time in my life where I had experienced relationship trauma. What I aimed to do with the book was to really just tell a story of a black kid who didn’t know how, but just really wanted to be loved and to love. And I feel it’s intense at times, but I love how it came out and anyone who’s read it has told me the same.

Maurice Cherry:
Now when I asked you earlier about what you wanted to discuss, you had told me a few things that I kind of want to unpack a little bit. You said navigating a box-based world as an odd shape. You said unlearning harmful habits, and you said self parenting. Talk to me about it. What’s on your heart?

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s very woo woo, and that’s kind of where I’m at in my mid-thirties right now. This is not the case for everybody, but for a few millennials, we’ve grown up in and seen some shit. We’ve grown up in a time where our parents told us one thing and the world is actually another. So there’s a great deal of, at least when you identify as black and queer or gay, and so those are two communities that have seen a lot of shit go down and who have experienced a lot of things, a lot of terrible things we’re talking. If you’re black, you know what we’ve been through, but in terms of the queer community, AIDS, I grew up during the AIDS epidemic/pandemic and the fallout, the religious fallout of that. People who are religious saying you’re going to hell because you got aids or because you’re gay or whatever.

Treavor Wagoner:
And just living in fear of identifying as gay and over time, I’ve learned to unlearn all of the survival tactics that I’ve had to learn growing up in rural Texas or growing up in Texas in general. Age 35, I’m trying to just radically authentically be myself and love myself and encourage other people to do the same. Not living under any guises, any false pretenses or anything like that. Just be yourself and love in that. I’m finding that it is yielding a great improvement in your health, in your physical health and your mental health as well. It’s really important to just be yourself. So that’s where I’m at.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think you mentioned self parenting, I was talking to a friend of mine who is also a black queer person and he was like, “We need somebody to speak on the unique experience of being a black queer cis male and the relationship with our mothers.” My relationship with my mother has been very rocky. When I came out to her at 19, I wasn’t under her roof. She maybe would have disowned me completely, so I’m glad that I had the wherewithal and the knowledge to just wait until I was out of her house to tell her who I actually am.

Treavor Wagoner:
After that, I think we were even more distant than we were already, because I think moms know, but once you say the words, then they actually know, and there’s no denying it, and so I think that created a bigger rift between you, too. And so because of that, there were things that as a, what we call in the community “baby gay,” or somebody who’s fresh to the gay community, there are some things that I experienced that I really could have benefited from having a parent there or some kind of mentor or something to kind of guide me through all this newness, and I didn’t have that necessarily.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I had to learn how to self parent. I had to learn how to look at the seven year old, who was scared to be himself and say, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” To just learn to love myself. And I think that plays out in every aspect of my life, even my professional career. There are times where I deal with imposter syndrome or just being in spaces where I wasn’t previously, and now I all of a sudden am because of the great shift in thinking in the industry. I’m specifically talking about summer 2020, where all of a sudden the gates that I wasn’t allowed to enter through, all of a sudden I am, but I have no understanding of how this new arena plays out or how to be or anything like that. So I deal with imposter syndrome.

Treavor Wagoner:
And then you know what I do? The kid who just felt very ostracized, very on the outside of everything, on the outside of blackness, on the outside of queerness, just because I didn’t have access to it, that plays out. And so what ends up happening is when that little kid comes out, the 35 year old bubbles up and says, “You’re okay, I got you.” And that is essentially self parenting, basically being your own advocate and standing up for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think you’re still trying to find yourself?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think if you’re living, you should be, because we’re always changing. I identify as a seeker. I think it plays out in my travel habit. I’m usually traveling by myself, and I prefer it that way, largely because traveling is not vacation for me most of the time. It’s me thinking and writing in exotic places, in dirty places or whatever, what have you. Just being here, there and everywhere, just trying to learn about myself in different environments.

Treavor Wagoner:
Also, I feel like growth happens when you’re out of your comfort zone, and so that’s why I do that. I want to learn as much as possible about myself. And I find it to be a common thing where people don’t want to do that either it’s from fear or they’re afraid of what they might find or lack of self confidence, which I totally understand. But I don’t want to live in fear in my life, so I put on a brave face and I go into the unknown. So, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there was a lot of subtext in that inhale just then. But black person to black person, I felt that. I felt that. If you knew that you couldn’t fail in your professional life, what would you want to do? What would you want to try to do?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. That’s related to the question of if you weren’t a designer, what would you be? And I would say if I weren’t a designer, I would probably be a professional entertainer, a singer or songwriter or something. Being a designer in the tech world, it can be very technical, very heady stuff. I find I want to flex my emotional muscle more. I try to do that as a system designer. As designers, we’re empathic anyway, or we have a lot of empathy. It’s just a part of the job, but it’s in a technical space most of the time, so you can’t really go too deep with it and understand fully what your empathic abilities are. But with creative careers like music or writing or even acting, you get to explore that more and understand humanity more or better. That’s what I would be.

Treavor Wagoner:
But if I were to stay in this hypothetical situation, if I were to stay within the tech industry, I think I’m close to what I dream of being. This is going to sound very nerdy, but hey, we’re all nerds here. Kind of like a special agent designer in the realm of design systems where I help teams adopt the design system, where I basically do the dirty work for them of taking the existing product and essentially almost creating kind of a new version of that product with the design system and basically going “bippity boppity boo,” over amount of time, taking what was old and crusty and putting some shine on it, making it golden, saving the day in that way. I’m almost there.

Treavor Wagoner:
A part of it is trying to get business to understand what design systems even are, and then also getting them to understand the pain point of a feature team adopting a design system and how hard and strenuous it is. So if there was someone like me or a team that I was a part of to go in and do that hard work for them and essentially save the day, get some happy smiles in there, make the business feel like their employees are happy just because somebody came in and helped them out, then that’s what I would love to do. I’m a person who, I don’t care about promotion. I don’t care about money. It’s more about how I make people feel. I want to help people. And if I can help people with their jobs, their day to day, that makes me feel good. That makes me feel like my job is rewarding. So yeah, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
What career advice would you give to somebody, they’re listening to you talk, they’re listening to your story and they see that you’ve had this very, I think non-linear career path, is probably a good way to describe it. What career advice would you give to someone who is walking that same sort of path?

Treavor Wagoner:
There was advice that I’d gotten from design evangelist Steven Anderson, when I was, I guess, fresh out of college and at the height of being really unhappy with my first job out of college. He gave the advice of have fun with your career. And I’m going to expound on that and say, don’t just get a job get a craft, something that you can believe in, something that makes you happy and makes you joyful. It makes you want to wake up in the morning and get to it, jump into it. I’m so glad that design systems has become a thing, because when I wake up in the morning, I’m really excited to just jump in with design system stuff. I really geek out on it to the point where people don’t understand what the heck I’m talking about, because I’m speaking a different language, I’m speaking a systems’ language, and they’re usually speaking a product language.

Treavor Wagoner:
But yeah, that’s what my advice would be is have fun with your career. I think something that we didn’t talk about really was at a certain point, I was a career contractor, so I was kind of like a handyman and that meant I was taking on jobs three months or six months at a time in Austin, Dallas, Seattle, or if I wasn’t anchored to a city, I was traveling full time around the country, doing things. At times, I was working from Costa Rica while I was backpacking and things like that. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to just not do things the typical way, and it has always made it fun. My favorite thing is to tell people things like that and to see their face is like, “Really? What?” Just shock people. So have fun with your career.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Treavor Wagoner:
I’m going to ask a clarifying question. Do you mean professionally or do you mean in my personal life?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean any way that you wish to take it.

Treavor Wagoner:
I was hoping you would say one or the other, because that would make it easier. But I’m in my mid-thirties and I’m thinking a lot about my personal life. I’ve given a lot of attention to my professional life up to this point, and like I mentioned before, product design or my design career has been like a jealous mistress of anything else that I try to focus on. So I had the great ability during my seven month road trip last year to kind of do both. I think about where I want to go from here or from that point, and also foster my design career. And I see myself retiring from design. I haven’t really told anybody that. I don’t think it’s feasible, but I would love to.

Maurice Cherry:
Why don’t you think it’s feasible?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think because I’m thinking very realistically, I’m looking at my finances and I’m thinking, “Okay, you want to do this and this and this and this and this and this. How are you going to pay for that? Oh, right. You have to have a job, Treavor. Come on. Get real.” So I would love to get to a point where design is not my only main means of income. I’ll say it that way, where it’s not my only means of income. Maybe I’m still doing design systems in some way, but it’s not the only thing that I’m doing. I’m finding balance. That’s where I want to be in five years, is maintaining a balance where I’m loving life still, I’m loving doing design systems or helping people with design systems, but I’m also creating a family.

Treavor Wagoner:
I feel like with my career, I haven’t fully been able to do that. I’ve been very much a career girl. So yeah. So to be able to kind of invest more in, like I mentioned before, the emotional side of myself and have family and people. I guess just foster more relationships. It’s kind of a long-winded answer, but that’s where I’m at. I’m kind of thinking on the spot a little bit, but that’s where I want to see myself in five years, is feeling balanced, full of joy, and loving what I do in terms of work. And I’m almost there. I feel like I’m almost there, and it feels really good to be almost there, whereas before it felt like it was a long time away.

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So you can find out more about my writing and my design@treavorwagoner.com. My name is spelled a little weird, I have some extra letters in there, so I’ll spell it for you. It’s T-R-E-A-V-O-R W-A-G-O-N-E-R.com, and you can go to my design page and you won’t have access to my portfolio, but you’ll see all the other nerdy things that I write about there as well. You can also follow me on Twitter @TreavorWagoner. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Treavor Wagoner, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I get the sense that you are someone that is at a crossroads right now. Usually when I give these post scripts, when I’m talking to the guests, I’m saying that you’re doing great work, which is not to say that you’re not doing great work, but I really feel this sense of tension within you, like you’re at a crossroads right now. I would be interested to see if in the next five years you fulfilled that balance that you’re seeking.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. I’ve been seeking, living that persona for years, and as a seeker, you eventually find. And so that’s probably part of the tension, is the realization, I would say, as a seeker is that you realize what you’re looking for, you have already had. And so now that I’ve kind of realized that I’ve always had it, now I get to actually discover it more, what I already have, and enjoy it. That’s where I’m at.

Maurice Cherry:
How profound.

Treavor Wagoner:
I am a writer.

Maurice Cherry:
Treavor Wagoner, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Treavor Wagoner:
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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Liz Montague

If you’ve been a regular reader of The New Yorker magazine, then you may already be familiar with this week’s guest, Liz Montague. (But if you’re not, then this conversation is a perfect introduction!) Liz is the first Black woman to have a cartoon featured in The New Yorker, and now she’s an author with her first book set to hit bookstores everywhere in the Fall. Everything’s coming up Liz!

Our conversation begin with a quick life update, and from there Liz talked about starting her comic “Liz at Large” as a college student. She also talked about how she began contributing to The New Yorker, and spoke about representation, how that’s reflected in her work, and her future books (plural!) that are on the way. Liz is proof that self-determination and hard work definitely pay off in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Liz Montague:
Hi, my name is Liz Montague, and I’m an author, illustrator and cartoonist.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, before we get more into learning about your work and about your journey as an author/illustrator/cartoonist, tell me, how has this year been going for you so far?

Liz Montague:
This has actually been a really good year. I mean, I think personally, it’s been really good year. I just got married. I just bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

Liz Montague:
Thank you. In a personal and material way, I guess it’s been super good. I mean, professionally it’s been really good, too. It’s been my first year working on book projects, which is very new for me, having come from the news media world. It was a very tumultuous past few years for everybody, and being on the news side of that was really exhausting. So I think this has been a really calm year, I’d say

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I mean, I guess as calm as getting married and also moving into a new house. I’d imagine there’s probably been some stress around that, even just with the pandemic and everything.

Liz Montague:
I mean, it’s less stressful than covering the Trump presidency and 2020, COVID, all of that and trying to do it in record time with deadlines and everything. That was way more stressful than this, 100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair. I get that, totally. I totally do. What lessons did you learn over this past year? How would you say you’ve grown and improved?

Liz Montague:
I would say that I prioritized just my mental health. I feel like everyone’s saying that and that people say it so much, it starts to not mean anything. This is the first year I really started saying no to things. And that’s been kind of scary, but empowering, but also terrifying. I don’t know. I’m still learning.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, I think that’s something that a lot of people are still learning, is to say no. I think the pandemic, of course, forced everyone to not just slow down, but in many cases to just stop.

Maurice Cherry:
And now that we’re at this point, though we’re not completely out of the pandemic, we’re at this point where restrictions are being lifted and rates have gone down to a point where we now have to try to come out of this period with some new normal. And what this time has forced everyone to do is just sort of reevaluate their commitment to work, their commitment to being busy and all that sort of stuff.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. And the pandemic and the pause that it caused happened at such a weird time in my life where I was 24, and I’d already been working at The New Yorker for two years and had been doing this work for about two years. And now where we’re at now, I’m 26 and I’m trying to really figure out, “Holy crap, what do I want to be when I grow up?” And I didn’t expect that question to scare me so much. It’s terrifying.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, in your 20s, it is a scary thing. Especially, God, I’m thinking even now with everything that’s happening right now, it can be hard to think about, “What does a future look like?” I totally understand that.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Thoughts around that right now is just like, “Okay, so I’m done, what do I want to keep doing? What new things do I want to do? What do I want to try? Is there still time to try things and be bad at them and new at them? Or am I at a point where I’m just supposed to try things and automatically be good, because that’s what people might expect?”

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll say with you being in your 20s, you totally have the time to try and fail at stuff. The 20s are for that, the 20s are your time to do that. Your 30s are sort of your time to sort of refine the process. And then hopefully by your 40s, you have it figured out. I’m saying this now because I just turned 41 recently. But you hope to have it figured out by that point.

Liz Montague:
[crosstalk 00:06:02].

Maurice Cherry:
But I can definitely say in hindsight, in your 20s, that’s the time to… I don’t want to say make those mistakes, but that’s the time where you can sort of have those errors and it doesn’t affect you long-term into the future, that kind of thing.

Liz Montague:
Everything feels like you’re one wrong move away from crumbling it all. But I know that that’s not actually true. Even if it feels like it’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go ahead and jump into Liz at Large. For those listening who for some reason have never heard of Liz at Large, can you give an introduction?

Liz Montague:
Liz at Large is a single panel cartoon series that I actually started my sophomore year of college. I was just trying to sort out my own mind to myself. And I just kind of started drawing these cartoons where my dog, my childhood dog, to me would give me advice.

Liz Montague:
And it just started as a super casual thing that I would post on Instagram. And my teammates, because I was on the track and field team in college, would be like, “Oh my God, I love that cartoon. Where’s the next one?” And they would really kind of just hold me accountable to just keep doing it. And I just really just stuck with it.

Liz Montague:
And then eventually after I was out of college, I was working as a graphic designer. I was already working for The New Yorker at the time. I was able to make it into a single panel cartoon into the Washington City Paper, which was a lot of fun.

Liz Montague:
But then it’s a different ballgame once you have deadlines and you need to worry about, “Well, how is this going to print?” And the kind of evergreen nature that it needed to be, because when the deadline is versus when it would print was two weeks apart. So it’s really kind of grown and shifted with me, which is kind of cool to have that to look back on and know where I was mentally when I made it. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to ask, have there been new changes and things that you have introduced to the comic as your life has gone on?

Liz Montague:
Stylistically it’s changed a bit, where I think it got a little bit more fluid as time went on. When I look at the old versions of it and old cartoons of it, it feels very rigid, like I was really afraid of messing up. And then as time went on, I think it got a little bit looser. I think I was willing to kind of play around with environments more.

Liz Montague:
And then it changed even more once it was in the Washington City Paper, because then it’s like, “Okay, there’s a deadline. Okay, there’s an audience that’s actually going to see this.” As opposed to, the internet is kind of a black hole. You’re kind of, sort of thinking of an audience, but you’re not really thinking about, “Oh wow, someone’s going to tangibly hold this in their hand.” And that tangibility kind of made me a bit more nervous.

Liz Montague:
And then I think that the content of it kind of had to zoom out a lot more. Again, because there was that two week period versus when it was due and when it would print. For a daily, local newspaper, you don’t know what could be going on in the world at that time. And then what ended up going on in the world at that time was the Trump presidency and eventually COVID, and we were in the middle of Washington DC. So it was big news there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to say, I’m thinking during that time, I can imagine everything during that time was about voting, the presidency. Yeah, I could see in DC how that would be really… Well, I’m curious. Knowing that stuff was going on as you were doing the comic, did you sort of feel a need to speak to the times in that sort of way?

Liz Montague:
I mean, it was almost impossible for me to be super responsive in the way that I would be for a New Yorker daily cartoon or something just because I knew, like, “Okay, by the time that this is actually printed a week or two from now, there could be a whole new thing. There could be a whole new something else going on.” I actually ended up zooming in to my own life and making it hyperspecific to whatever I needed to hear, and then just hoping that it would work out for whenever it was printed.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s probably a really good strategy too, I mean, to just make it more focused on you. I mean, it is called Liz at Large, it’s not World at Large.

Liz Montague:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
So it makes sense to focus it on you and your life as opposed to trying to make it some sort of regular bulletin about what’s happening in the world.

Liz Montague:
[inaudible 00:10:09] sure, and there was already enough of that. And I was like, “You know what? This isn’t for that. So I’m going to just do it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. To that ends, what was the feeling that you wanted to really capture with Liz at Large?

Liz Montague:
When I first started, it was really just for fun. Just to see what my friends would say, what I would say. But I think as I continued doing it, I realized that the power that emotional literacy could have of just taking a second to stop and think, and think about how you feel. Think about what you need to hear, what I needed to hear and taking the time to write that down, and that could actually have a profound effect on your life.

Liz Montague:
And I think that that kind of really became a big why for me, as far as just emotional literacy matters, the way that especially in… It’s always weird to speak on the Black community, but it’s like how in the Black community, emotional literacy talking about your feelings, addressing your feelings is kind of just an issue that really needs to be sorted out. And how it could just make everything so much better if we just stopped and felt and processed. And I don’t know, just the impact that it have. I hope that made sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, it made sense. I think if that’s something people can grasp from the comic, particularly from a single panel comic, I think that’s really powerful. To that end, there’s so much about Black people that’s reflected through not just the media, but through different types of media, through cartoons, through movies, et cetera. And so if you’re able to not only make it hyperspecific to your life, but then also try to make it unique to the quote/unquote “Black experience,” which is such a varied, vast concept, it’s impossible to do that.

Liz Montague:
I worked in nonprofit at the time. I was a graphic designer at a nonprofit when I lived in DC. And I remember I read research on the racial empathy gap. And about how there’s research on it, about how for whatever reason… I mean, not for whatever reason, we know what the reasons are. But white on audiences have a really hard time connecting with people of different skin tones, especially darker skin tones.

Liz Montague:
Because at the time I was working for a nonprofit that was mainly geared toward and focused on brown people, Middle Eastern people. So it was just wild to realize that this is empirically researched information and that the impact of it is everywhere where it is. Well, why are there so many white leads in these cartoon shows? Why are there so many white leads in these regular movies and books, et cetera? And the idea that it’s harder for white audiences to connect with, I don’t know, different skin tones, different genders.

Liz Montague:
I mean, I think that’s more on the forefront now with people talking about the recent movie Turning Red and about how people felt like they couldn’t… Not people. There was one white man in particular who did an interview who said that he couldn’t connect with it. And it was just, “I can’t connect with this, da, da, da, da, da.”

Liz Montague:
And it was because it was about a girl going through puberty who didn’t look like him. And it’s like, “Okay, but we all watched A Bug’s Life and Ratatouille, and I’m not a rat and I was able to connect with Ratatouille, but.” I just totally went on a whole tangent there, I’m sorry.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, I’m glad you mentioned the Turning Red thing, because I was thinking about that as you were saying that, that sort of empathy gap. Because as people of color, we are forced to kind of make that gap when we see so much media that doesn’t involve us.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when you have this one thing, particularly an animated thing geared towards children and then some grown-ass white man is like, “Well, this doesn’t represent me.” Well, it probably doesn’t because it’s not geared towards you. It’s not about you. But look how many other things out there in the world are geared towards you and about you. Do you know what I mean? It’s so weird.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Yep. It’s the weirdest thing, but there’s literal evidence on it. And how much can a single panel, or even whatever other cartoons in the world, how much impact can they really have? I don’t know. But I was like, “Maybe if I put these universal feelings with a darker-skinned Black girl, maybe this could help someone close that gap.” Not that it’s Black people’s job to teach anybody how to feel, but I think that that was part of the intent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Walk me a bit through the process of creating the comic. You mentioned having to sort of have it in by these specific deadlines. Does that mean that you sort of batch a bunch of comics together? How does that work?

Liz Montague:
Oh my God. It was the jankiest process ever. I was still figuring things out and working my full-time graphic design job and a million other things. And it was due every Thursday, and it would print two Thursdays after it was due. And I would have to get done the… There would have to be the social media size and then the regular size for when it would print.

Liz Montague:
And I would only submit one each week and I would sit there for, I kid you not, hours and stare at the wall and be like, “Oh my God, I have no idea what to say right now, and I have a deadline, and the editor’s texting me.” It was a mess. It was a hot mess really, but we made it through.

Maurice Cherry:
And you said that there was also kind of the added thing of seeing it in the paper. I’m sure at that point, you’re gaining a whole new audience outside of your friends on Instagram. How did people react to it when they saw this in the paper? Did you get a boost in clients or anything? How did that happen? What happened?

Liz Montague:
Honestly, I don’t really know. I guess I got wider reach, for sure. I think that tangible media, things that you can hold, just ends up in different people’s hands in a way that… There’s a lot of digital noise and people scroll and don’t always really stop and look. And I think that it being something tangible in people’s hands enabled them to stop and look more.

Liz Montague:
But I do know that after, once it was in the Washington City Paper, I ended up getting reached out to by a random blog. And they were like, “Oh, can we interview you or whatever?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And then I did that interview, and then through that, that’s how the editor from Random House founded me, and that’s how I got my first book deal. So you never know what can lead to what. So the two things are probably distantly connected.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I want to kind of dig a bit more into your origin story. Now you mentioned living in DC, is that where you’re from originally?

Liz Montague:
No, I’m from South Jersey.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. So being from South Jersey and growing up there, were you exposed to a lot of drawing and art as a kid?

Liz Montague:
I mean, yeah, I think I was. I think I have a very artsy family. Both my parents went to Pratt. My mom’s an architect, my dad’s an engineer. So I have two older sisters and we were all very exposed to that. And it was super encouraged. And my parents had a lot of friends who had been artists or were artists.

Liz Montague:
But it was always, “Oh yeah, Charlie can be artist, his parents just gave him a brownstone.” It was very clear who could be kind of what you think about when you think of a traditional quote/unquote “studio artist.” And that there was definitely a wealth gap in between that, versus who needed to have a more desk job type artist thing. Architecture, engineering, graphic design, which is what I ended up going into. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I guess knowing that growing up, you were drawing and kind of having this interest in it… And you said both of your parents went to Pratt, but you didn’t go to Pratt. You went to the University of Richmond.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Well, so my mom’s from the south side of Chicago, my dad’s from Brooklyn and he grew up in the projects. So they didn’t have traditional four-year college experiences. My dad went to junior college first and then went to Pratt on a basketball scholarship. My mom started out at Hampton and then eventually made her way to New York and finished her degree over a decade.

Liz Montague:
So for me, they were just kind of like, “Well, you run track and your older sister ran track and she got a scholarship, so you’re going to get a scholarship too.” And I was just kind of like, “Okay.” And University of Richmond just happened to be where I got my athletic scholarship. And that’s why I went there. I had fun.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I was going to say, there’s actually a pretty strong Hampton University to pipeline.

Liz Montague:
There is?

Maurice Cherry:
I want to say I probably had about… I know I’ve had at least three guests on the show where that’s been the case. Yeah, it’s a pretty strong pipeline. I don’t know if a lot of people know that, that it’s from HBCU to design school in that way. Tell me about your time at University of Richmond. How was that experience?

Liz Montague:
I flipped around majors a lot. I went into college knowing that I liked to draw, but not really… Even with parents who went to Pratt and were in the arts, I had no intention whatsoever of even studying art, minoring it, anything. I was like, “I’m going to get a business degree.”

Liz Montague:
And that totally didn’t work out. I hated it so much. I tried to do computer science, anthropology, English, and none of it worked. And then it was towards the end of my sophomore year and my academic advisor was like, “Listen, you need to pick a major or you might not graduate on time.” And my scholarship was for four years and I was determined to graduate in four years. And then I was like, “Okay, just put down studio art.” And that’s how it happened. I know it’s not the best story, but it’s the truth, so.

Maurice Cherry:
How was the program there?

Liz Montague:
It was really intimate, which I think I needed, especially at that time. There were more faculty than students in the major. It’s a very, very small school. I think University of Richmond has 3000 students, which was smaller than my high school. I went to a really huge rural New Jersey high school that had thousands of kids.

Liz Montague:
And our senior year, my senior year, there were five majors, we were all women, and we had six professors. So we were outnumbered by our professors. It just allowed you to have a really one-on-one experience. There was room to just try things and figure things out, and we were given a lot of freedom, which I really appreciated. It helped to really just kind of be self-motivated and not rely on, “Okay, well here’s a syllabus. Do this, this and this.” You’re really able to kind of carve your own path, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, it does. I was going to say, I imagine that’s really super empowering. To have not only that kind of intimate class kind of setting and makeup, but then your being able to kind of work closer with your professors, with people like that. Because I’ve had folks on the show before that have went to larger schools or went to art schools and stuff, and that kind of one-to-one kind of relationship is tough to get.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. And I knew that it was definitely like I kind of lucked out.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, something pretty cool happened. Now you’ve kind of alluded to it a bit earlier in the interview, but something pretty cool happened around your senior year with The New Yorker magazine. Tell me about that.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. I was a super brand new 22, felt very old and mature. I had just heard back a graphic design job, was super pumped, I was like, “I’m moving to DC. I’m about to be such a grownup.” And then was at the office for something, I don’t even know what, and was supposed to be working, fully supposed to be not on my phone, but I was.

Liz Montague:
And I was on Instagram, scrolling through, and on my explore page or something, The New Yorker cartoons page came up and I was just scrolling through it. And I was like, “Oh, wow. All of these cartoons are white. Every single character in these are white, it’s all kind of the same perspective over and over again. I wonder if they know?”

Liz Montague:
At the time, my headspace was in brand new, about to start at a nonprofit job in DC where I’ve just been trained on all of these unknown biases that people have and corporate structures and yada, yada, yada. So in my mind I was like, “Oh, they just must not know that they’re using all white characters. Let me just tell them, they have no idea.” And so I just hit the email button and was like, “Hey guys, don’t know if you’re aware, but all of your cartoons are white. You guys should do something about that. Best of luck.”

Liz Montague:
And that was really it. And I did not expect to hear anything back. And then I got an email back and they were like, “Oh…” It was Emma Allen, who’s the editor there. She was like, “Oh yeah, we’re aware, da, da, da, da. Is there anyone that you would recommend?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, me. Yeah, I draw cartoons.” Literally, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, at all.

Maurice Cherry:
But I mean, you shot, though.

Liz Montague:
I saw an opportunity and I took it. I saw a window and I ran through that thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, one of my favorite sayings is fortune favors the bold. And I mean, you saw an opportunity, you went for it. And so after you did that, after you pitched yourself and said that, did they reach out to you and say, “Let’s see what you got?” What happened?

Liz Montague:
Basically. It was like, “Okay, well send us something.” And then I think I that night was trying to cobble together some sketches. And it was 50 sketches before I got one yes. Once I got one, I was like, “Okay, so this is what they’re looking for.” And then you get two, and then three, and then four. And then you’re able to start contributing regularly.

Liz Montague:
But there was definitely a very steep learning curve. Because I remember when I first told my dad, “Oh, I’m going to have a cartoon in The New Yorker.” He was like, “What’s The New Yorker?” That was not-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Liz Montague:
And he’s from New York, but he’s not from that New York. So it’s just like my frame of reference for The New Yorker was their Instagram account. I had no frame of reference for a physical magazine for The New Yorker brand.

Liz Montague:
But I think that was kind of a really big advantage, to come from the outside. Because I think that a common problem that they have, or a common thing that happens with people who submit is that they’re trying to emulate The New Yorker voice. But I had no idea that there was a New Yorker voice, so.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, and also when I think… I mean I’m in Atlanta, so I don’t know… I mean, I know of The New Yorker, but when I think of that magazine just in my mind’s eye, I’m thinking it’s a maybe more upper middle class audience, white audience that mostly would be paying attention to or reading The New Yorker.

Maurice Cherry:
But then it’s also online and I look at a ton of stuff from The New Yorker online, so. Even in it’s just design stylings, I feel like that’s who it’s trying to sort of cater itself towards. So when you said you have to try to find what that voice was, was it about trying to tailor yourself to that audience, or more so tailoring yourself to what just the editor wanted at The New Yorker?

Liz Montague:
I mean, I think probably a little of both, because this was my first professional art job ever. Kind of straight into the fire, so to speak, where I didn’t have any concept of, “Oh, this is the deadline and if it’s not in by the deadline, it’s not going to print.” And of, “Oh, these are finals and you’re going to keep doing it until it’s right.”

Liz Montague:
And of atmosphere and what skin tones can print and what skin tones can’t print. And will it smudge into the black lines so then you won’t be able to read facial expressions?There’s such a learning curve there in general, and then on top of that… And I talked really openly with my editor, Emma, about that at the time, about, “Well, Black humor isn’t going to be funny to people who read The New Yorkers.”

Liz Montague:
And I remember I said that to her point blank, via email. I talked to her about that, where it was just, what I might find culturally funny might not be able to be in this magazine because of the voice and the audience that you’re targeting. So where does that leave me if what, because of cultural things, because of societal things, I find funny but can’t be published here, what am I… Am I supposed to, I don’t know, put myself in the shoes of if I were middle class and white?” So that was a huge barrier, but I figured it out. I mean, I got some zingers in there. I definitely got some zingers in there.

Maurice Cherry:
I would imagine once people discovered that you were the first Black woman cartoonist in The New Yorker, that probably also expanded who read The New Yorker.

Liz Montague:
I mean, I would get DMs like that where it’s like, “Oh, I read The New Yorker now because of you.” And I’m like, “Oh God, $12 a magazine? Please, spare yourself.” But I mean, I don’t know. It’s such a weird, hard conversation to have, because it’s-

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, let’s dig into that a little bit. What makes it weird?

Liz Montague:
I think because it can be hard for institutions to own that conversation, and then it’s kind of deflected into, “Oh, well maybe there was somebody else, and what about this? And well, we don’t really know people’s racial identity and what…”

Liz Montague:
And then it’s interesting how with these conversations about first and what’s overdue, whatever, it’s like a lot of times the conversation ends up on the individuals rather than the institutions where it’s like, “So why didn’t you guys hire anybody in the last 100 years?” You know? And it’s like, “Am I at 22,” or at the time at 22, “equipped to have that conversation? Equipped to really navigate the waters of this and navigate other people’s identities, navigate the commodification of my own identity? Am I really?”

Liz Montague:
It’s a minefield, and I think that especially right now, where we’re at as a society, it’s just whatever you share is then up for sale and you have to be willing to be not just branded, but then speak on behalf of that entire community, and then have it challenged.

Liz Montague:
And then especially for The New Yorker audience, which was used to a very specific kind of perspective and thing, and then to have me not offer that very specific thing, people didn’t take it very well sometimes. I got some wild emails. Yeah, I think that there’s one cartoon I have where it’s the girl’s hair bit off someone’s hand. They don’t sell it on the Condé Nast store. It’s the only cartoon of mine that they don’t sell on the Condé Nast store.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Liz Montague:
It’s just weird. Did I answer that well?

Maurice Cherry:
No, I think you did. Because as you sort of said that, what sort of becomes apparent to me and hopefully to the listener is there’s this layer of activism that ends up getting added to your work that you not only didn’t ask for or volunteer for, but you didn’t include in the original work.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:29:05].

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I mean your cartoons, like you said, they’re about kind of slice of life sorts of things. You didn’t intend to layer some deep social message or anything into it, but that’s how people are perceiving it based on your identity.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. I don’t know. It’s like everybody who’s from a marginalized group is forced into the role of activist. And it’s like, especially having lived in DC, I’m first generation suburban, nobody else in my family grew up in the suburbs. The people are fighting a good fight, but that’s such a thing to just put on somebody, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Liz Montague:
It’s just a hard thing to navigate because then it’s like you don’t get a rest ever. And I think that that’s kind of what I realized, especially towards the end of 2020, with everything going on with the police and with George Floyd and everything, where I was just like, “Man, I’m tired.” I was just so tired and drained.

Liz Montague:
And that was the last cartoon I did for The New Yorker where it was, I think the text was, “Oh, my white friends think racism is new.” Or something like that. It just makes you tired.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the feeling. I totally know that feeling. Prior to doing this podcast, when I was… when did I start the Black Weblog Awards? I think it was 24? 23 or 24. I started this event online called the Black Weblog Awards. And this was back in 2004 or 2005, really kind of pre-social media. Definitely pre-Twitter, but pre-social media. Facebook, I think, was just starting to transition out of being only for college students and opening it up to everyone in the world, essentially.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I wanted to do, because I was an active blogger at the time myself, what I wanted to do was make this event that would celebrate Black bloggers that I knew of that were doing great things. Because I saw that there were other blog awards out there. There were two that were both called The Weblog Awards, although one kind of shortened their name to The Bloggies or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I saw with the winners is like, “Well, all the winners are white.” And I know that there’s people of color that are out here blogging, particularly Black people. And what got me was one of the awards had a category that was Best African or Middle Eastern Blog, and all of the nominees were white and the winner was white. And I’m like, “You mean to tell me out of the entire huge continent of Africa and the probably similarly huge section of the Middle East, only white people? I find that’s very hard to believe.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so I started the Black Weblog Awards sort of in opposition, but also to celebrate the community that I knew about that I was kind of a part of. And when I sort of talked about that layer of activism that gets added onto there, just calling it the Black Weblog Awards invited so much criticism and unnecessary hate. And this is, again, this is pre-Obama. So this is this at a time in the world, it’s post-9/11, pre-Obama, where Black and brown people really not really favored that well in terms of the media and such.

Maurice Cherry:
But I did that for seven years, ended up selling it to a friend of mine. And I mean, even as the years went on with it, it was amazing how the reception to the event changed as society changed. So around 2007, 2008, Obama’s running for president and such. Comments I kept getting back about the Black Weblog Awards is, “Well, I mean, we’re post-racial now. Why does it have to be the Black Weblog Awards? Why can’t it just be the Weblog Awards?” And I’m like, “Well, two of those already exist. And I’m only doing this for Black people. So it is the Black Weblog Awards.”

Maurice Cherry:
But as society changed and the way that people perceived the work that I did changed, I even experienced that with Revision Path when in 2015, I did a talk at South by Southwest in Austin called Where Are the Black Designers? And I was about two years into doing Revision Path, managed to land at South by Southwest with a speaker proposal, did a speech to a room of maybe about… the room sat close to 500 people. There may have been 15 or 20 people in there.

Liz Montague:
Whoa. Intimidating.

Maurice Cherry:
Nobody was there. People were charging their phones, people were asleep in the back, nobody was really paying attention, and I gave this talk. And there were a handful of folks there, “Good job,” that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
When I tell you that presentation didn’t pick up traction until five years later during the summer of unrest, when we heard about what happened with George Floyd and the Minneapolis Police Department, then it started to pick up steam. And people were like, “Oh, well this is so great. This is so wonderful. We’re trying to center Black voices. We want to know about this presentation.”

Maurice Cherry:
And in my mind, I’m like, “This is five years old, but the way that people are perceiving it now has changed because the culture has changed.” Like I said, there is this layer of activism that gets added to the work that I didn’t necessarily put it there, but you’re attaching it onto it based on your societal values or what’s happening in the world and how you think you should feel about it because it exists.

Liz Montague:
You just said a word. You just said a word.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s a lot. And I mean, I can imagine. I mean, I was going to ask this question a little bit later, but that whole thing about representation, we’ve seen this influx of Black artistic talent with cartoons and animation and fine art and such.

Maurice Cherry:
One, you see all these new Black shows and stuff. A lot of those Black shows also have fine art and they’re from Black fine artists. Now you never hear about those artists, that’s a whole other conversation. But it’s so interesting how all of these things and all these shows and movies and such, and they’re in these different genres, but they all kind of have this layer/burden of having to represent for the community. Do you feel like you have to do that through your work now?

Liz Montague:
When I first started, I definitely did. I definitely felt a lot of pressure. I mean, especially based on where I’m from. So I’m from rural South Jersey. There was a soybean farm behind my childhood house. So very, very rural, very white.

Liz Montague:
And I just remember what we would be told as the few Black people in town was, “Every white person’s opinion of a Black person is going to be formed based on how you act. So you better act right. Or else you’re damning every other Black person they’re going to meet.”

Liz Montague:
And so that was kind of the framework that I had. And I think that I just kept feeling like, “I don’t want to mess this up for anybody else.” In the cartooning world, at The New Yorker, I don’t know, in the spaces that I felt that I was at, I just didn’t want to mess it up for anyone else. So I wanted to make sure that I was saying yes to everything and super amenable and like, “Oh, no worries, it’s fine. It’s okay if you don’t have the budget for it.” Just very overly accommodating.

Liz Montague:
And then I just got sick of it and was just like, “You know what? This isn’t sustainable. It’s just not sustainable.” But I think that also as I got older, just maturity-wise, I just realized the only person I can control is me. I can’t control how I’m interpreted. I can’t control another person’s actions to a fictional future person who may or may not exist. I need to just live as a single human being in this moment and not as every possible iteration of Black person that this person could interact with. I think I was doing that for a while.

Maurice Cherry:
Well I mean also, I think whenever you’re doing work that has such a large kind of public footprint, and I feel like actors probably do this a lot. You learn eventually what strategies you have to kind of, I guess cope is the best way to put it. But you don’t read the comments, you don’t read the reviews, you just do the work and just keep moving on.

Liz Montague:
I don’t know. I think I didn’t want to not be what everyone expected me to be and then miss out on opportunities, too. Because especially early 2020 when the pandemic was starting, it was like all this stuff came out of nowhere.

Liz Montague:
And I felt really conflicted about it because I was like, “God, am I [inaudible 00:38:00] off of all of this terrible stuff happening to the Black community? Am I benefiting off of the George Floyd shootings? All of the shootings that happen to Black people that aren’t talked about, and just this collective white guilt that’s happening right now?”

Liz Montague:
Where all of a sudden, I’m getting to do stuff for Food Network and the Obama Foundation. I worked on a Biden presidential commercial. I did a Google Doodle. I don’t know. My mom was just kind of like, “Oh, just take it. Just take it and just be happy.” And I was like, “You don’t understand. What are the ethics behind this?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, your mom’s right, just take it.

Liz Montague:
[crosstalk 00:38:40] take it.

Maurice Cherry:
If the opportunity comes, just take it. I mean, there are a lot of us that did have a bit of a come up during that time. And I think that’s kind of a bit of the secret shame around it. I guess you could call it shame, I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
But the fact that now people are paying attention to the work that we do, but that it had to come at a time of such civil unrest, at the death of an innocent person. That it had to come to that in order for us to be recognized. And there are some people I’ve talked to about it and they’ve said to me, “Is this what it’s like for white people all the time?”

Liz Montague:
Is it?

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m like, “I don’t know. Is it? I mean, that would be interesting if that’s the case. But it is this sort of weird tension, like you’re being recognized because… You know the hard work that you’ve done to get to this point. And yes, you’re being recognized, but the fact that you’re being recognized because of all this injustice and inequity and other things that are happening in the world, it’s sort of…

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know. It is a very weird feeling, but at the end of the day, take the work. Take the work, get the check. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Take the work. So your mom’s right in that aspect, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
But I get where you’re coming from too, because I had an influx of speaking gigs and a whole bunch of stuff like that. Because I got fired from my job, they cut my whole department right before the summer of 2020. And so for all of this to happen, it’s like, “Oh, well at least I’ll be able to eat for a few more months.”

Maurice Cherry:
But it does sort of come with this psychic weight of, “Yeah, but all this other horrible stuff in the world had to happen. And it was during a global pandemic, but I’ll take it.” One thing Black folks are going to do, it’s make a way out of no way, so. Just take it.

Liz Montague:
Yeah, that’s for sure. That’s for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So now you’re a full-time cartoonist, you mentioned working at this nonprofit for a while after you graduated. What do your work days look like now?

Liz Montague:
Right now I just finished my first book, my graphic novel, Maybe An Artist. It’s available for pre-order. That’s with Penguin Random House. So that’s just finished, and that was taking up literally all of my time up until a month ago, maybe. And now I’m working on a picture book, also for Random House. And I also have a three book deal with Scholastic for a three book Y-series.

Liz Montague:
So my days are pretty much split between those two projects, with the series grouped together. I’m one of those crazy people who wake up really early and run. I don’t know, I like being out in the sun. So my days just start with me waking up, going for a run, I usually do some kind of HIIT class or something. My husband makes me a coffee, I try not to check my phone or my email because if I do, I’ll get sucked in and then I’ll just be on my phone and suddenly it’s three o’clock.

Liz Montague:
I actually try to get done all… I do a to-do list of everything that needs to get done. Look at chapter one, or finish sketches, the ending or beginning of whatever. So I’ll do those early in the morning when I can rely on my focus, because as soon as it’s lunchtime, all bets are off. I pretty much do that until lunch, and then in the late afternoon do emails, and then whatever else is left on the to-do list. That’s pretty much my day. I usually have the same day every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Are you still doing the Liz at Large comic?

Liz Montague:
I haven’t posted any of them. I still do them sometimes for myself. I don’t know, the cartooning world, there’s just so much going on. And it’s very rare that I even watch the news these days to even… I think that the thing with cartooning, or at least for me back when I was doing it more than I am now, it’s very reactive.

Liz Montague:
And it’s usually very reactive to news specifically, where it’s like I’m looking at the news, I’m looking at social events, I’m looking at what’s going on and then I’m reacting to it. But these days, it’s like I don’t really give my myself things to react to anymore. Because I feel like I learned the hard way in 2020 and early 2021 that there can be a breaking point to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. How do you kind of keep motivated and inspired with the work that you’re doing?

Liz Montague:
I think that right now, I kind of just want to see, “Okay, let’s see how far I could go.” That’s definitely part of it, of just like, “Okay, let’s see when the wheels fall off. How long can I really pull this off for?” That’s definitely a part of it.

Liz Montague:
And the other part of it, I think, does go back to even why I started Liz at Large. This idea of emotional literacy and of just seeing Black characters and of providing Black characters in general, and being able to provide Black characters as a Black woman. Because you wouldn’t believe, I mean, I’m sure you would believe the amount of Black characters and characters of color in general that are not made by people of color.

Liz Montague:
And to be able to… I mean, authentic is such a weird word. But to be able to provide a… to be able to showcase an experience that I’ve actually lived, I think, is something really powerful. And something that I’m really proud to be able to do. But I don’t know, it’s also that whole idea of, “If not me, who?” That’s a trap, that’s a total trap. So I think my why is day to day. It’s day to day.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, at this stage, I think we’re all kind of taking it day by day. So I completely understand that.

Liz Montague:
I wish I had some big, “Well, you know…” A reason or something. But I think I’m just figuring this out.

Maurice Cherry:
And at this stage of your life, that’s the time to do it. That’s the time to just try to figure it out, you know? I know that you and I have sort of talked about this prior to the interview about what you want sort of people to take away from it. But don’t be so hard on yourself. Take it day by day, as things happen.

Maurice Cherry:
I think certainly, with what you’ve just described already, you are at a great place in life right now. Great. Great. So take it day by day-

Liz Montague:
I can appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
… and kind of just go through the days and your feelings and work as it happens. Because I’m telling you, I’m telling you, there’s a lot of people at your age that would love to have that kind of just opportunity and work lined up. I mean, a three book deal? A three book deal. That’s major. That’s major.

Liz Montague:
No. It’s just like-

Maurice Cherry:
A three book deal, on top of a book you’re already working on, on top of a book that’s about to come out. Come on now.

Liz Montague:
It’s so weird though, because I feel like day to day is also so solitary. I don’t have coworkers, I don’t know people. I mean, it’s hard because the only people… So I’m comparing. You shouldn’t be comparing yourself to, you shouldn’t be, but everybody does it. And it’s like you end up comparing yourself to your wildest ideals and your biggest insecurities of just like, “Well, you should be doing more. Well, what about this? Well, what about Instagram?”

Liz Montague:
And then that’s a whole other can of worms, because it’s like the social presence, the social media presence part of it. Because I feel like there’s a huge pressure, especially nowadays, to have this very big social media presence to… I don’t know, exist on all platforms, be approachable at all times, be connecting at all times.

Liz Montague:
And I remember I texted my agent Wendy and was like, “Listen, man. I can’t do TikTok. I can’t do it, please.” Yeah. And she was like, “Of course not. You don’t have to.” But it’s crazy though, because these days in meetings and for negotiations, they’ll ask you your followers. And it’s just like, “What? What?” I don’t know. It’s to think about the longevity, the sustainability of this, of such a fast paced world where we’re consuming so much so quickly, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’ll tell you though, the way to not burn out from that is to focus on the audience and the community that you have. The thing with a lot of social media, and I know this from one, just from being old and being around on the internet forever.

Maurice Cherry:
But there’s so much about modern social media that is about trying to attract an audience that you don’t have. And I think what can end up happening with that is you end up exhausting all of these efforts and jumping through all these hoops to try to impress people that don’t know you, don’t know your work, et cetera.

Maurice Cherry:
The reality is if the work is good, the people that already support you will kind of do some of that legwork for you. They’ll tell people, they’ll tell friends, they’ll mention you in rooms that you’re not in. So you don’t have to be on all the things all the time. I think probably for a visual media or a visual artist like you are, being an illustrator and a cartoonist, being on Instagram does make sense because it is a visual medium. TikTok is the Wild Wild West.

Liz Montague:
It really is. It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, aside from just the ever-changing and shifting algorithm of the platform, it’s also super toxic. And I know art, I’ve seen artists on TikTok that I’ve had on the show. So I know that it is helpful to kind of get the word out to people. But then it also exposes you to so many just idiots that don’t get it. And they spend their free time trying to instill the seeds of doubt into you so you don’t do the work that people love you for. You know what I mean?

Liz Montague:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t have to be on all the things, because you spread yourself too thin. Focus on the audience that you have and on the platforms that you feel you can at least control and have some semblance of yourself on there, where you don’t have to change who you are or what you do to kind of get your work out there.

Liz Montague:
So that’s been the hardest part lately, is just being like, “Okay, who I am right now, right this moment, not me 10 years from now or me three years ago, who I am right now is capable of doing this work and is enough.” I feel like everyone’s kind of dealing with that. I feel like now we’re in a stable enough place as a country and as… well, I mean as stable as America ever is, for people to reflect on, “In the thick of it for two years, and what happened to me during those two years? What did I lose? What did I gain? Am I proud of what came out on the other side of it?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Liz Montague:
I think a lot of people are dealing with that. I think I’m especially dealing with that as just, I don’t know, especially… 30 is looking pretty close coming from this side of 25. 30’s looking pretty close. And I’m just like, “Jesus,” trying to figure it out. We don’t need to figure it all out, that’s not real, social media and everything else, but.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean give yourself some grace, certainly. And realize that, I mean, like I said before, where you’re at right now at your age is great. But I mean, and whatever way you feel is I think the best way that doesn’t take too much out of your regular process. But even just documenting where you’re at in some way I think is helpful for other people so they know that… Again, like you said, we’re all kind of figuring it out. But I think particularly for Black creatives, there’s this strong propaganda to hustle hard and “They sleep, we grind.”

Liz Montague:
Oh, for sure. For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that is not sustainable at all. I get these naps in everyday. Please believe it.

Liz Montague:
Exactly. [crosstalk 00:50:53], oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
I work smart, but I’m sleeping over here, a lot. So once you sort of find what that balance is, I think even just documenting it… Even if it’s just for yourself, not even for the public. But just so you know, “This is how I felt as I was going through this time in life, as I was trying to figure these things out,” I think is super helpful.

Liz Montague:
I mean I feel even just talking about as Black creatives or Black artists or whatever, what’s attainable, I didn’t really think that it was possible to be your own boss for real. Or have stability. Does that make sense? Where it’s like-

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense.

Liz Montague:
And I think that it shocked me more than anyone, that, “Holy crap, I’m a homeowner. When did that happen? How did that happen?”

Liz Montague:
… wild that we don’t even realize what we’ve written off for ourselves because of whatever paths we choose or wherever we find ourselves. And I think that especially for myself, there was a lot that I didn’t think was achievable. And it’s like, “Oh, wow. Actually, this is.”

Liz Montague:
And I think that a lot more Black artists especially need to realize that. Because I think that especially the eat, sleep, grind culture, as someone who lived it, that burned me out so quick. I was like, “I’m never going to draw again. I hate this.” It took a year to come out of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now even with these books that you are working on and everything, do you have a dream project that you’d love to do one day?

Liz Montague:
You know what, speaking into existence now, I would love to work with Disney. Hit me up, I’m a huge Princess and the Frog fan. Beyond that, I don’t really know. I think I’d like to teach somewhere down the line, or even now. I used to teach really fun community art classes when I was in DC, but then the pandemic kind of put an end to that.

Liz Montague:
I think I’d like to teach. Who knows? I swear, every other week I’m talking myself out of going to medical school or something, or becoming a pastry chef. It could be anything at this point. I would definitely love to do something centered around Black mental health, for sure. And diving into that and different ways of just connecting.

Liz Montague:
Because I know that people love to say, “Hold space,” and whatever that means. But I think that beyond just face-to-face talk therapy, which in a perfect world would be accessible to everyone and they would be able to have Black therapists who could understand where they’re coming from, we need to deal with the world that we’re in right now. Where there need to be more accessible ways of connecting beyond just this one way that is very not accessible for most people. And I feel like there’s some kind of world where there’s an art-based solution to that. Or at least in the world that I want to exist in.

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

Liz Montague:
I hope in the next five years, or not “I hope,” I know. In the next five years, I’m going to be spearheading a lot more projects. I feel like up until this point, I really just… people have approached me and I’ve said yes.

Liz Montague:
Whereas especially with the series at Scholastic, that was the first thing that I pitched myself, I came up with myself and that was fully my idea that I’m going to be taking to fruition. So more of that, more of me getting to execute my ideas instead of executing other people’s ideas. I hope a lot more of that.

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

Liz Montague:
My website is lizatlarge.org. I’m on Instagram, @lizatlarge. I’m also on Twitter, but I don’t really tweet that much. It’s also @lizatlarge.

Maurice Cherry:
Liz Montague, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, as I was doing my research for this interview and everything, I was like, “I think I’m becoming a fan of you and the work that you’re doing.” I mean, even the fact that you’ve managed to accomplish this much at a young age is phenomenal. And I’m really excited to kind of see where you go from here.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think it’s one thing to have these accolades about first Black women cartoonist in The New Yorker and then to have all this success. But being able to sustain that as you go forward in your career is going to be super important. And I hope that this interview kind of has given you something to think about. But then also I’m excited to kind of come back to this in a few years after we see you really blow up huge and do big things. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Liz Montague:
Thank you so much for having me and reaching out to me and just having this space in general. This is actually so awesome. Really. I really enjoyed this.