Tiffany Stewart

While the World Wide Web has evolved tremendously over the past couple of decades, it can still feel like we are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to accessibility, even though this push for accessibility has existed since the first set of guidelines created by the W3C in 1999. Making the Web more accessible is a benefit to everyone, and Tiffany Stewart is working hard to make sure that happens.

Our conversation began with a discussion on her work at Thomson Reuters, and she shared how she got into design systems and accessibility. Tiffany also talked about moving to the U.S. from Jamaica as a teenager, attending college in Mississippi, and spoke on what prompted her to shift her focus from engineering to UX. Thank goodness we have future-thinking designers like Tiffany Stewart to ensure that we have a Web that we can all use!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Tiffany Stewart:
Hi, my name is Tiffany Stewart. I’m a senior UX designer specializing in digital systems with a focus on accessibility. And yeah, that’s me. Very much a blurb and just really passionate about accessibility and UX.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going for you so far? How’s 2022?

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, 2022 has been a blast and then some. I bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Tiffany Stewart:
Right. I am officially now a homeowner and I am in the process of building out my office. So I went and bought the IKEA cabinets and I attached them to the wall and I’m painting and I’m sanding and breaking out the miter saw. That is my life at the moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a huge accomplishment. Congratulations.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you. It was a lot. The process was a lot because I think it was right before the interest rates went up, so it was just like, “Oh my gosh, I have to hustle and get this house before everything just goes to pop.”

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s such a big accomplishment already for the year. Is there anything else that you still want to try to accomplish before 2023?

Tiffany Stewart:
I have so many, but I think for the immediate goal for me is to see this Black Panther movie that’s coming out this year, the second one, the Black Panther. And then on my professional work and getting my design system up and running to a point where it’s doing what it needs to do and folks are able to use it in a meaningful way. So yeah, those are my big ones for the end of the year.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s tap into a little bit about the work that you do. You mentioned you’re a senior UX designer and you’re working at Thomson Reuters. Talk to me about that.

Tiffany Stewart:
I think they initially hired me as a contractor to work on one of their products as a regular UX product designer. And then once they heard about my previous work on a design system prior, they’re like, “Oh, we’ll just move you over to the design system side so we can get that up and running and you can help facilitate that process.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” And so I shifted into that particular space. Design system tends to be more, because I think not many people know what design system designers do. It’s more of a space where you’re looking at applying concepts across the board holistically for several products and several teams and spaces. So my day to day is really thinking about, “Okay, how do I apply the concept of warning across a design system so that all of the products are consistently representing warning in a way that’s meaningful and consistent?”

So my day to day is that, making decisions about what our colors are going to be and how they’re going to be expressed and just setting all of that up so that the designers can build their products relatively quickly because all of these decisions are already made for them. So they can already just bring those into play. And then working closely with the accessibility team, which I’m very excited, the first time I’ve actually ever had one. Usually, it’s just me doing it by myself. But we do have a dedicated accessibility team at TR and they’re amazing to work with and we just make sure that the DS is accessible as possible, that our products are accessible as possible. So that’s my day-to-day.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about that accessibility. I’m curious, what does that look like at a news organization like Thomson Reuters?

Tiffany Stewart:
A lot of it is making sure that we are meeting WCAG requirements. We’re making sure that within the code itself, everything is labeled with the correct ARIA labels, that the DOM is in the correct order, so that when you are tapping through with your headings, everything gets represented semantically type of thing. Making sure that people who are using screen readers are able to get their news in a way that is accessible and meaningful to them. Because I think most people when they think of accessibility, they think, “Oh, I just have to match the color contrast ratio of 3:1 or whatever it is at the time.” But no, it’s actually making sure that the code works, that someone who is a purely keyboard user can tab through, everything makes sense when they tab through, they can read things, whether they are blind or otherwise situationally disabled.

And so we meet with the accessibility team regularly. My particular specialist that we work with is Yvonne, hey Yvonne. And then I think on the other side is Fariel. So we meet with them regularly. There’s a whole team of them, they’re amazing. We reach out, we ask questions, we pair and make sure that the code matches as well as the Figma files match so that all of our products in theory, leave the board fully accessible.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like that’s a lot to do from day to day. What does your regular everyday job look like?

Tiffany Stewart:
It is a lot of pairing. So I will pair with devs, I will pair with like I said, Yvonne on accessibility. And then it’s also a lot of research to make sure that we are meeting the use cases that are given to us by the various teams that we work with. And then figuring out those solutions for how do we solve their problem, but make it agnostic to a design system because it can’t be really specific. The teams are usually responsible for the more specific work that they do in terms of the workflow for their particular product. But from the DS side, it’s more of a super relatively agnostic approach to how can I apply, what does a header look like in an agnostic way that everybody can just pull from the DS and use. Modify here and there. But for the most part, this is generally what a header should look like and where things should go and it is accessible because we’ve already sorted out that when you tab through, it’s going to go through here, here, here and here.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to be clear, a design system would be different from say a brand guide or something because it seems like because you’re applying this across several different products, there’s just going to be different, like you said, situations or use cases where you may not be able to apply it directly, but maybe some elements of it. Am I getting that right?

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, that sounds about reasonable. Now brand does sort of inform a lot of the things because we can set those colors and that typography and some of the spacing as set colors within the system. And then if you are that brand and you are on the brand team, we at least have those in the system so that you can pull them if you need to. Those decisions are already made. So your H1 is in whatever font with whatever spacing that’s already set in the base token work. So whenever the engineers go to code it, they don’t have to worry about it. That H1 is always going to be that H1.

Maurice Cherry:
Got you. What’s probably the most difficult part about what you do?

Tiffany Stewart:
Probably convincing other designers that accessibility is the thing. That is probably the hardest thing. Now, I will say that my coworkers and my teammates at TR, we’re all very passionate about accessibility, so it’s not so much a problem there per se. But I’ve worked with other designers before or other strategists or other brand folks who are just… It is pulling teeth to get them to do the bare minimum of a contrast check on a color or a button or trying to understand that there are people… Is there a focus state that’s set? What happens if you try to tab through? Because a lot of sites will break. I think in my example at the State of Black design talk, I was just trying to buy a book from a website, but just using my keyboard and it completely failed. And so I wasn’t able to check out.

So in my mind, if we’re making a use case for it, which I don’t generally like applying to accessibility, but if you do need to make a use case or a business use case for it, you’re preventing people from buying your product by not making it as accessible as possible. It’s easy to throw away accessibility, I think because people as a very general rule, and I mean very generic here, seem to be willing to ignore people with disabilities or having a disability in general. You hear all these stories nowadays of airlines who are completely throwing away people’s wheelchairs or people not allowing the dog for the blind user in this space because of whatever. There’s a level of disposability there that I personally don’t enjoy and I don’t like seeing it. And more so too, if you’re looking at the numbers in the U.S., a good majority of the people who have disabilities do tend to be Black and brown people. So then I’m doubly more so like, “Oh no, no, no, we have to get into this.” We absolutely have to get into this.

Maurice Cherry:
And accessibility is one of those things that has definitely increased in importance over the years. Not just because more and more people have gotten on the web, but there are now more and more ways of experiencing the web that is not just through a standard computer monitor. There’s laptops, there’s smartphones, there’s smart watches, there’s probably a toaster out there that can get online. There’s all these different ways now to access information on the web. And granted those use cases are important, but also just as you mentioned, just differently abled people will have different sorts of things like vision requirements for high contrast or colors or even the alt text that you put on images is I think almost remedial accessibility and that’s still something a lot of people hem and haw over.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, they will fight you down. They will absolutely fight you down. Or they’ll produce this interface that has no contrast whatsoever. And so you’re just guessing at this point as to what is happening on that page? I don’t know. Because I think the new thing now is everything is light and bright, so there’s no borders on anything and everything just fades into the next one. And it’s very pretty aesthetically, I will give it that, but unfortunately it’s not really usable by everyone. And I think often people forget that by and large, when you make something that is accessible, that is usable by everyone, everyone benefits. Everyone benefits there. Like the grab bar in the bathroom, I am not disabled. However, the amount of times that I have slipped on the conditioner and that grab bar saved my life. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
And it can look cute too. So yeah, it’s just accessibility works literally for everyone, so why not just do it?

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And accessibility also makes sure that as many people as possible can experience what it is that you’re putting on the web.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember back in the day, we’re talking this is early 2000s, maybe even before that, when websites would have those badges that are, this site is best viewed an Internet Explorer 6 on a desktop that’s 1024 X 768. It was almost like a bouncer at the door telling you, you have to be this old to get in or something.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. Well, no, it’s a matter too, because I think what people don’t include in accessibility when they are thinking about the digital part of it too, is that they don’t include access. Not everybody has access to the best monitor, not everybody has access to the fastest processor and not everybody has access to a credit card. When we make everything credit card only for the longest time, I think before a Venmo and a PayPal came into the play, it was just the people that don’t have a credit card or don’t have that level of financial literacy don’t deserve to buy things. What are we saying when we don’t include that as part of the conversation around access and accessibility?

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say one thing that is also, I think made accessibility more important is the increase of multimedia on the web.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re recording a podcast. This podcast will have transcripts for accessibility.

Tiffany Stewart:
A transcript? Yes, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Videos with captions-

Tiffany Stewart:
I was going to ask.

Maurice Cherry:
And things like that.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re starting to see it be more and more commonplace now that the media that we consume is not just what we read, it’s also what we hear, what we see. Even smart speakers and devices, you have to talk to them in a certain way in order to get back what you need. All of that is a factor of accessibility.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, no. I think they just released a study maybe day before yesterday that Netflix was saying that the good majority of their users that have subtitles turned on are not blind or deaf.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s some shows I would watch with subtitles. I used to watch Scandal with subtitles just so I can make sure I can catch everything.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, I keep mine on. Yeah, I know because I’m like, “I don’t know what’s happening.”

Maurice Cherry:
Another thing that it’s good for, and this is not so much accessibility, but if you’re watching foreign language programs, to have subtitles in a different language. For me, it can help with learning a bit of the language because you know what they’re trying to say and what you hear, your mind connects those things together. But even with accessibility, there’s bad captions out there.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, I live for those.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a whole thing.

Tiffany Stewart:
I need to make a website that’s just bad captions. Because they’ll be like, “Pop music playing enthusiastically.” And you’re like, “What, where did that caption come from?” The descriptions are great, I love it. Yeah, yeah. No.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
But I’m just glad that they’re there at this point because like I said, people don’t think about those things a lot of times.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’re talking about now accessibility in a largely, I don’t want to say 2D context. You might see where I’m going here, but there’s been all this talk about Web3 and the metaverse, and you want to talk about inaccessibility? It’s inaccessible even for the average person because, it’s not only about what you can hear or see, but just to get it… And maybe this is a tangent of accessibility, but you have to be watching on a certain device that costs a certain amount of money and you’ve got to have a high speed internet connection. There are other barriers that I think people might not look at as accessibility that does factor into accessible web experiences.

Tiffany Stewart:
Absolutely. I talk about it all the time. I’m like, “So let’s talk about the actual experience part of this. How am I meant to experience this when I don’t have access to any of these things?” Maybe your point is to gatekeep, I don’t know, maybe. Because that’s usually the argument that will come up too, is that like, “Oh, well those people are not my target demographic.” And I’m like, “Run me by again, what exactly is your target demographic?” Because every demographic has someone who may or may not be disabled. So I’m not really sure why. Again, it just plays back the disposability of people with disabilities. So it’s stressful to me. I get annoyed all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. Let’s learn more about you, about your origin story. I can tell you’re very passionate about UX and about accessibility, but I’d like to get a sense of where that came from. So just to start off, where’d you grow up?

Tiffany Stewart:
So I am originally from Jamaica. I moved here when I was about maybe 14, 15. Don’t ask me about the numbers. It was a long time ago. And then moved here. And the immigrant family story, my options were either engineer, doctor, MBA. My career choices were very narrow based on that particular set of criteria, which to be fair, I gave my mom her engineering degree so I could be left alone. Right? But everyone in my family is either a physician or a NASA scientist in my cousin’s part. So we’re all pretty diverse in terms of our applications to STEAM and STEM work.

I was actually going to be a surgeon at one point. I was attending NYU as a bio major to do that. But I think working with my mom in terms of listening to her talk about medicine as it’s in medical practice as it functions today in the U.S. and really hearing the stories about how people with disabilities or even older people are treated in the hospital system. I was like, “I can’t sit back and not say anything about it.” So I think I got a lot of it from going to work with my mom and seeing how people were being treated within the medical space. And even being handed their prescriptions and they couldn’t read it or they had to fill out online forms and they didn’t know how. And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to fill out online form via a hospital, but it’s usually a very bad process. Nothing is readable, any of those things. Don’t even ask them about a language option for you.

So going through all of that and watching my mom do it and then getting into the digital space and then understanding and linking the two was probably what drove most of my passion for accessibility.

Maurice Cherry:
From what it sounds like, just based on life experience, that you had this early desire to get into this, but then you also just said, I gave my mom her engineering degree. I want to talk a little bit about that. You went to undergrad, you went to the University of Mississippi and majored in electrical engineering. Did you have an interest in it or were you just like, “This is what I need to do to get my family off my back?”

Tiffany Stewart:
No, no, no, no. I did. I really, really did. So back, oh my gosh, my mom is going to be so mad. So I dropped out of NYU, to which my mother was livid and that’s fair. But then I dropped out of NYU because the company that I worked for at the time had given me a promotion and wanted to send me out to California to train their engineers on a particular ticketing system that we were using for our IT program. And so while I was out there, I ended up switching jobs and then my job was basically what they call a client support specialist is what they called it. And I was basically a liaison between the engineering department, project management and the sales people and customers in order to get them moved into their co-location space, set up their routers, all of that extraneous good stuff.

This was back before when we were doing network address translations and you had to do a letter of justification in order to get IPs because they thought that the IPs were going to run out. It was a whole thing. It was pre 2000, so pre Y2K, they were very concerned about these things. So I did that. But then the Dotcom Bubble essentially burst. And so a lot of us in Silicon Valley got let go. And so I came back and I was like, “Okay mom, I’m ready.” So because of that work that I did with that ISP, I determined that I wanted to build computers because I thought that was fun. So I did electrical engineering specializing in computer engineering. So in theory, I could build you a badass circuit. So yeah, that’s how that happened.

Maurice Cherry:
But you had the interest in it though. That’s the important part, right?

Tiffany Stewart:
I am of a person who I like to take things apart and tinker. I like to work with my hands. Like I said, I’m building the shelves in my office. So miter saw, table saw, planar, let’s go. And I’ve always been that person. And then I’m also an only child, my mom’s only child. So she was very much of this is broken, you need to figure out how to fix it because I have to go to work. So I was like, “Well, got to figure it out.” But I’ve always had an interest in it and it was fine. I enjoy taking things apart. I’m a very curious person by nature. So I’m always fascinated about how things work, how things are put together. And you’ll see, you see me use the phrase all the time, “Oh my God, that’s fascinating.” Because I’m generally, I am that person.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I understand. I went to college and I majored in math… Well, no, let me roll that back.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, math major.

Maurice Cherry:
I first majored in computer science, computer engineering because this was turn of the century, like ’99, 2000. Started college in ’99 and I had been already dipping my toe into web design with Tripod and Angel Fire, GeoCities, reverse engineering view source websites and stuff like that. And I thought, “Oh, if I become a computer engineer, I can design a website,” because I didn’t know. I had not heard of what a web designer was or if that was a thing. And I that first semester, I was taking courses in I think it was intro to computer programming, learning C++. And I was like, “This is not HTML. What is this? How do I make a website with this?” And I’m going to my advisor and telling him what I want to do. And my advisor, Dr. Jones, he was like, “If you want to do this internet stuff, that’s just a fad. If you want to get into that, this isn’t going to last. That’s not what we do here.”

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh no. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s like, “We don’t do that here.”

Tiffany Stewart:
But I will say they are teaching you the backend part of it. So they just completely tossed you over for the front end. But they gave you the backend part.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but again, this was-

Tiffany Stewart:
You had that Java stuff too.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. And this was ’99. Our lab had Sun Microsystems and SGI Machines and stuff like that. So this was still very, very early in the web/internet days. And he was like, “We don’t do that here. We’ll teach you assembly, we’ll teach you C++, but if you want to do this web design thing, you might want to change your major.” And so the next semester, I changed my major to math. And then that’s just what I ended up getting my degree in. I like math, but people are always surprised with me being a designer that I have a math degree. I would imagine people are probably surprised you as a designer have an electrical engineering degree. They’re like, “How does that work?” For me, math teaches me how to think. Yeah, go ahead.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, that’s what I was going to say. I think for engineering, it teaches you how to identify a problem and think about the steps needed to solve the problem. So engineering for me teaches you how to think about problem solving, which as a UX designer, that is pretty much all that we do is problem solve. How do we get the checkout flow to work in such a way that they actually finish checking out? What are those steps? And if there’s an error, what happens? So going through all of those steps and iterating on that process by testing every time. It’s very much an engineering mindset, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I know with math, the thing I think that struck me at one point learning math in college was that, “Oh, there are some equations that have either no solution or infinitely many solutions.” And that blew my mind at the time because I was like, “Wait a minute, I’ve been taking algebra and trig and calc and all these things.” They resolve to something. And they’re like, “Well, there are often going to sometimes be equations that don’t make sense, that are not going to have a solution or they’re going to have an infinite amount of solutions.” And so when I say it teaches you how to think, at least for me, it teaches me how to take something I may not know and process it and break it down. The steps of writing a mathematical proof to me are the same steps to writing a research paper, the same steps to writing a proposal for a client or a statement of work. It’s the same logical flow of take these elements, prove this thing, therefore this, all of that.

Tiffany Stewart:
I used to love those.

Maurice Cherry:
I look back at some-

Tiffany Stewart:
I was that weird kid in class who loves doing the geometric proofs. I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to show you that this is a right angle. Let me break it down right quick.”

Maurice Cherry:
I looked back at some of my old stuff. I found my thesis from, god, 20 years ago. I found my thesis recently that I wrote in college on sigma algebra and measure theoretic entropy with the existence of Lie groups. I have no idea what any of those things mean now. But I’m looking back at it and it’s just symbols and letters. I’m like, “I used to really know this. I don’t know it now.”

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes. Listen, I stopped because with electrical engineering, especially at Ole Miss, they were like, “We can’t let you do a math minor. You’d have to double major do EE and math.” And I was like, “Listen, after differential equations, I’m good.” It was differential, discreet, all of that. And I think after those classes is when you start getting into the theoretical math where they just don’t use numbers at all. It’s just theory and proving that this process works.

Maurice Cherry:
My last year and a half because I majored in pure math and my last year and a half, it was differential equations, it was topology. And my teachers, great teachers, but absolute sadists. They would be like, “I’m going to give this test and not everybody is going to pass this test.” Or they’ll say, “Well, these last two questions are only for my top students.” And there will be infinitely just wild stuff like, “What in the world? When am I ever going to use this?” I’ve never had to use anything with differential equations, ever. I love it though. The thing is, I went into math because I love it. I love to do the problems and solving and all that sort of stuff, which is a lot about what design is. It’s about solving problems, different kind of problems, but you’re still solving problems. And math teaches you those steps and ways to think and consider in a way that… I didn’t go to design school, so I don’t know, but I feel like it teaches you that logical way of thinking through something that perhaps design school may not.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. Because I think for me at least, it felt like design school was more about the psychology of things. So understanding color theory and understanding that different colors make people feel a different way than other colors do. So it’s more so about how these things make you feel more so than anything else. And so it was the engineering part that taught me the problem solving and then the design part that taught me the aesthetic piece. Is that the word?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the aesthetic piece. Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
The aesthetic piece Of it, and how things make you feel.

Maurice Cherry:
I totally get that. Yeah. Because for example, if you put red text on a blue background, yes, that’s going to be really jarring.

Tiffany Stewart:
I will fight you.

Maurice Cherry:
They won’t go together. But then mathematically, I know it’s because of the frequency of the color red against the color blue causes your eyes to do this weird jump shift. It’s really tiring to read that. So I’m like, “Okay, that’s why it doesn’t make sense.” I’ll always be trying to think of the reason behind the feeling instead of just going with the feeling, which I don’t know, maybe if I went to design school, I’d have more of that, “Oh yes, these colors, they mesh. I get it.” As supposed to being like, “Well, this makes sense because of some other reason.” But you end up going and majoring in design after you got your degree from Ole Miss, you went to Mississippi State and you majored in graphic design. Why did you make that switch?

Tiffany Stewart:
Well, because I wanted to be an animator. Funnily enough, I think they had not updated their website at the time. So Mississippi State was like, “Oh, we have an animation program.” Because I really wanted to do graphic design for film or design for film. And so I was like, “Oh, I can combine my problem solving with design if I become an animator and do that.” That was a thought process in my mind. I don’t know why. So on their website, they hadn’t updated it. And so I enrolled and got in and I was super excited and they were like, “Oh, we no longer have that program. All we have for you is graphic design, good luck.” And I was like, “Huh? Okay. Well let’s try it and we’ll see.”

But then I think at the time, maybe it was more so print focused than anything else. So I could tell you all the things about the GSM of paper. We did watercolor photography, all of those things. One of my favorite classes was 3D design. And so that’s when I spent most of my time in the wood shop. The instructor at the time, I think he was a famous furniture designer, but he was teaching us how to build things by sketching it out, thinking about from a 3D space perspective, how something would look and then we would have to build it, build it, build it. So did some sculptural work. It was great. Oh my gosh, that design program at Mississippi State, I loved it. It was great.

And then they also allowed me to pair with video game designers they had. And so I was doing design work for that too. So it was a good time. Even though it wasn’t necessarily an animation program, I learned a lot from the graphic design program at State. I will say that.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds like a lot of fun, actually.

Tiffany Stewart:
Oh my gosh, it was so much fun. And I’m still friends with a lot of people there. And the people that left that school went on to do amazing things. I think Tim is out here designing the graphics for Roku. Let’s see, there’s another young lady, She went on to work at Gensler as an architect. So the class is good. The classes are really, really good. And some of the students that came out of there based on the teachers that we had at the time were just amazing, amazing folks to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like your background in engineering helped you out in any way when you were majoring in design?

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes and no. It helped me figure out how to approach thinking about what I was going to do if I needed to put together a logo per se. I knew, I’m like, “Okay, this is the result that I wanted. What are the steps to get there?” So in that sense, the planning of how to do it was helpful. However, engineering is very much, I like things to be symmetrical. There’s always those projects that we had to do that were you had to make something asymmetrical. And I did not enjoy that because my brain just refused. And I think that just came from the engineering side. It was like, “No, it has to either be in order or it has to be on a scale of some sort that I can understand like 2, 4, 6, 8,” that type of thing. I can’t have you jumping around all over the place in the design. It makes my brain not work well.

So it does both. And more so now with the digital side of things. Like I said, it mainly applies to the problem solving part of it where I’m like, “Oh, okay, if we want to get this result. How do we apply that concept in a way that scales on a DS?” And I can do that through my engineering thinking, coupled with my design thinking.

Maurice Cherry:
So once you graduated from Mississippi State, you’ve got your design degree, you’ve got your engineering degree. Did you go right into UX design after that?

Tiffany Stewart:
No. I actually got a job at a church. It was one of those big churches, biggest churches in Austin, Texas. And I basically was doing everything. So I was doing all of their print work, so designed magazines, all of their photography. So I was a photographer. And then I was also responsible for building and maintaining their website. So it was a full on, you’re the only person here, you have to do everything type of moment. And I learned a lot from that job for sure. Yeah, printmaking and printing things is no joke. Web work is no joke. Because I think at the time they only had access to, what is it, WordPress? So that was the medium that I was working with. And WordPress has its own caveats. So putting all of that together and making sure everything got out on time every Sunday, I learned a lot. I learned a lot.

What I remember the most is we had to print magazines because the rector at the time wanted us to put out a monthly magazine where we interviewed various people from the church. We had to take pictures of everything and there was whole thing. So I was like a Vogue Magazine editor with the big old board where you put things up and your articles are there, and you pick what pictures and you basically art direct that whole entire process. But then after that was done, assembling them in this giant InDesign file and then sending that to the printer because we had a dedicated printer room. And figuring out how the printer worked, troubleshooting all of that, and then actually printing it, trimming the edges, cutting it, mailing it. I actually ended up sleeping at the office doing a magazine run. It was a good time. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a good time.

Maurice Cherry:
You were truly a webmaster.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Doing all of that. I especially tip my hat to you about the magazine thing. The last gig that I worked at, we put together a quarterly magazine and that was a lot just to try to get it out the door, hopefully every three months. I can’t imagine every month. How big was the magazine?

Tiffany Stewart:
It wasn’t very big. It was a very… I want to say how many sheets as I’m looking through my paper. Maybe like 24, 32.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s still a lot though-

Tiffany Stewart:
So it wasn’t too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
To try to pull together every month.

Tiffany Stewart:
Listen, my main thing was because people would submit photos and the photos that they would submit, I’m like, “This cannot be printed. It’s entirely too small.” So then I’d have to schedule a photo shoot and run out there and retake all the photos and then run back. But the church had money, so we did what we had to do. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
It was a good time. Like I said, I learned a lot because it was literally only me. So I was responsible for all of it. From the rooter to the tooter, as they say.

Maurice Cherry:
As they say.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, as they say, the rooter to the tooter. And so it was just picking the font, understanding how the typography was going to be laid out in an enticing way on the cover page. Figuring out how the table of content should be displayed, what was the concept and theme for the magazine. And then making sure that we got all the articles and everybody returned their corrections on time. And then making sure that we had the correct paper in stock and making sure that the printer didn’t jam. And then after all of that, running it through the cycle of getting it mailed out to the individual households that were part of the membership was a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
That alone is a job. The fact that you were doing that on top of web stuff, on top of graphic stuff. My hat goes off to you because I’ve had those positions before where you’re doing all the things because you’re the only person that can do all the things.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah. It makes you indispensable to a point, but you get serious burnout after a while because it was one thing after another. And I think a few minutes later or a few months after the choir director left and the choir director was responsible for printing the Sunday brochures. So after he left, guess who was responsible for printing the Sunday brochures?

Maurice Cherry:
That was you.

Tiffany Stewart:
Mm-hmm, yep. I was at that job all the time, actually slept there. And one would not think that of like, “Oh, you’re just a graphic designer at a church.” No, no friend.

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Tiffany Stewart:
No, no friend.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve done church work before. Because sometimes what will happen, and I don’t know if this happened maybe in your case, but sometimes what will happen is that your obligation to your job ends up getting wrapped up in some level of religiosity where it’s not just the work that you’re doing for the church, but you’re doing the work for God.

Tiffany Stewart:
None of that, fortunately that was not. They were very nice. I want to say the church was Episcopalian. And I just was like, “Mm-hmm, Mm-hmm. This is great. I’m very happy for everyone involved. Yes, exactly that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I feel like maybe if it had been, for lack of a better word, a Black church, that might have changed. Because I feel like there’s a level of guilt, I find.

Maurice Cherry:
Guilt? Yeah, that’s what I was going to say.

Tiffany Stewart:
I know, I’m trying. How do I say this nicely? But there’s a level of guilt that only Black churches because-

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Tiffany Stewart:
Because they’ll be like, “Oh well, your grand mama Marlene.” And I’m like, “Oh no. So now I have to do this flyer.”

Maurice Cherry:
I empathize with that a 100%. Oh my God. Okay, yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Especially if your parents or family members or members of the church too. It’s just like, “Yeah, no, I’m absolutely going to just have to make this flyer and make Miss Martha look good.”

Maurice Cherry:
So after your work at the church is when you got more into, I would say digital design. You worked as a product designer and then a UX designer, which is what you’re doing now. Was it a big shift to go from doing all the things at the church to now just focusing on product or focusing on UX?

Tiffany Stewart:
Honestly, no. And I think that’s because the church in its way of making me do everything, prepared me for the slightly, and I do mean slightly, slightly less work of being a product or UX designer because I’m only focused on one thing at that point. I’m not focused on doing everything. So it was a breath of fresh air because I was like, “Oh, okay, I can just focus on the digital. I don’t have to worry about the magazine and whatever and whatever, whatever. I can just do the digital.” And then it also helped that I worked for a luxury travel agency. So I was just staring at beautiful pictures of hotels all day long and being like, “I will go there some day. Absolutely.” But yeah, no, it wasn’t too bad at all.

I think a lot of my experience with my work in print actually helped with my work at digital because they actually also did print magazines, but I was responsible for the digital version of it. So since I already knew how to do all of that work from the church, it was like, “Oh no, no, this is good. This is great. I can do this.” And I think the engineering team had already set up a pretty decent templating system. So at that point it was basically just making sure that all of the digital stuff was set up in a way that I could just very quickly upload it to the web what I needed it to, whenever they needed to release a digital article. And on my side, it wasn’t a set thing. So we only had released maybe one or two articles a week. And so it was just basically sourcing photos and making sure that all of the digital stuff was set up on there.

It wasn’t until they decided to end the print half or move the print half and mainly focus on digital in terms of booking flights and booking hotels. Then that’s when it was like, “Okay, so now we’ve shifted to the user experience side of things.” Because before, it was a lot of really just allowing consumers to just read articles based on our recommendations for things. And so it was very narrow in that sense. And then when it came time to book things, then it became, “Okay, so how does our booking thing work? How does search work? What is the experience if someone were to try to book a flight?” Is it that it goes to the travel agent or can they book directly? And what did the steps look like for that?

So that’s where it shifted is that that last piece of the UX of completing a full entire process to get that booked result versus I’m just serving you up an article on the best restaurant in LA type of thing. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. And I think for people that are listening, I feel like at least nowadays, UX and product tend to get conflated in a way. There may be subbed out one thing for another. So I’m glad that you were pointing out what the differences are between those two.

Tiffany Stewart:
They do both carry an aspect of user experience in the very basic sense of how is a user meant to experience reading an article on restaurants versus how is a user meant to experience a checkout flow for booking a flight? So they do share that in that regard. You could use them interchangeably, I don’t think anybody would be mad. However, I do have friends who are product designers and I think they call them industrial designers now. I remember they’d be like, “Oh, I’m applying for a position for a product designer.” And I’m like, “Ooh, that’s not what you think it is, friend.” So it also depends on what the company defines a product designer or a UX designer as well in the job description. And so a lot of my industrial designer friends were like, “This is lame, we’re the product designers, not you guys.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
So, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you purpose to keep doing the work that you do?

Tiffany Stewart:
So I follow several people on Twitter who are in the disability activism space. And while I don’t comment per se, them sharing their experiences fuels me to make the web better. The internet is not going anywhere as far as I know. I would love it if they made it a utility, but I digress. And so I want everyone to have an equitable experience on the web. I want for, or I would like to be able to help that further along, whether it’s being passionate about making sure that there’s a contrast and the code is right and whatever.

But I want the web to be as equitable as possible. Because a lot of times when folks don’t have access to these things, people’s lives are in danger. No one talks about that side of it. But if all of a sudden you’re saying access to government grants and access to COVID vaccinations can only be achieved by going to a website, how many people are you cutting out with that one decision alone? Especially if the web is not accessible enough to accommodate everybody. And so following these women and their work in that space really fuels me to make sure that I champion it on my end as best as I can.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you work to stay your authentic self throughout your career? certainly I think when people hear this interview, they get that you’ve got a bubbly personality and working in tech and then working in design and working in tech in news. I would imagine you encounter a lot of different types of folks, we’ll just put it that way. But how have you worked to stay your authentic self?

Tiffany Stewart:
Antionette told me to, I think you’ve interviewed Antionette Carroll?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I’ve had her on the show. Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. So she used to come hang out at the house whenever she would come in for South by Southwest and we would have these long conversations about the work that she was doing in design equity. And she’s amazing and she’s also another inspiration. But Antionette was like, “Listen, you have to be authentic in your work all the time. You just have to be.” And I said, “Okay, yes ma’am.” I just did what she said. I trust her and she’s an amazing human. And I do find that it is helpful because people then know what they’re getting from you. And I do tell people in front. I remember teasing my poor boss. I was like, “Are you sure you want to hire me? Because you were getting this mouth along with the hire, so I need you to be okay with that.” And he was like, “No, no, it’s fine. Please, by all means, bring your authentic self to work.”

And so I appreciate that about my bosses at my company. They’re very much supportive of that. And I have not run into a situation, because sometimes they’ll say that and they don’t mean that. But I have not run into that thus far here.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good.

Tiffany Stewart:
So I’m very grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Tiffany Stewart:
Very grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
#AntionetteTaughtMe.

Tiffany Stewart:
Listen, that could be a series in and of itself. My goodness, I miss her so much.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best piece of advice that you would give to somebody that wants to follow in your footsteps? They’ve heard your story, they want to be like you, they want to be where you’re at, at that level. What would you tell them?

Tiffany Stewart:
Stay curious. Be curious about everything. How everything works, how people feel about things. Be observant. Watch people, watch how things function. You would be surprised what you can learn just by looking at a thing and being like, “So what was that meant for?” We always used to joke that there’s these products out there that the designers built them for one way and then the users use them in a completely different way and you’re just like, “That’s not what that was meant for.” But even that is some semblance of feedback. So just observing and being curious and watching and learning. Stay learning. Stay curious and stay learning. Never stop learning.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Tiffany Stewart:
I feel like at the moment, my big thing is I’m planning on having my mom come live with me. So learning more about accessibility in terms of interior design and home design and making sure that everything is set up for her to live comfortably if she chooses to come live with me. So just furthering my experience in accessibility, but just applying it to different things and seeing what that looks like. And then whatever I learned, share it with everybody who asks or didn’t ask. Y’all gon’ get this accessibility on today, as I say, often.

Maurice Cherry:
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?

Tiffany Stewart:
I tend to keep a low profile, but I am on LinkedIn. You can find me there. I am on Instagram, but I don’t post often. I am a lurker, as it were, one of those things. Those are my two spots that I’m usually-

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the Instagram name?

Tiffany Stewart:
Elemango.design. It’s from an old graphic design project that I did for my senior year at university.

Maurice Cherry:
All right.

Tiffany Stewart:
But yeah, elemango.design. Elephants and mangoes.

Maurice Cherry:
I thought that what it might be.

Tiffany Stewart:
My two favorite things.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounded like that’s what it might be elephants and mangoes.

Tiffany Stewart:
Elephants and mangoes. My two favorite things. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Awesome. Well, Tiffany Stewart, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you for sharing your story. It sounds like you’re someone that is just passionately curious about a lot of things and you had the opportunity to be able to really go into a lot of places with your career. Engineering degree, then doing design and then doing all these other things. It sounds like you’re someone that is always trying to keep on the pulse of what’s next. And I think of course, with accessibility being such an important topic to our world right now, I feel like we’ll be hearing and seeing a lot more from you in the future. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tiffany Stewart:
Thank you. So lovely to do this. This is a lot of fun. So yeah, no, I appreciate it very much. Thank you.

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Kamar Thomas

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations on the book.

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
Especially for the person who wrote it.

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What was your inspiration behind it?

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

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds pretty simple.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
Yeah. That’s exactly right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
There’s a F.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

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

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. I can imagine.

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
Unfortunately, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What?

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Stone Hill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamar Thomas:
Thank you, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Darold Pinnock

2020 has been a year full of difficult changes for a lot of people, but Darold Pinnock has managed to navigate this difficult time pretty well! Aside from his work as a brand designer for Georgia-based agency M&R Marketing, he’s also interviewed creatives and artists from all over the world through his podcast Passion Behind The Art.

We talked about the changes and challenges with working in person in the office during COVID-19, and he shared how his love of architecture led him into creating his own studio, as well as how starting his podcast helped him get clients. Darold also discussed how his faith and family help motivate him, spoke about growing up in Jamaica, and gave some great advice on how we can all help build a more equitable future. Take these words of wisdom from Darold and go after your dreams!

Sponsors

Scissor is a small but fruitful graphic design studio based in Ojai, California. We love our work, we sweat the details, and we like to think it shows. Check out their work at studioscissor.com.

It’s easy to see why Kim Goulbourne calls herself a “chronic creator”. Whether she’s helping first-time renters in NYC or helping others experience more of their city, this Webby award-winning maker is full of ideas with a focus on creating purpose-driven experiences with design and code.

Kim talked me through her thought process for new projects, and she shared some information about her latest venture. Her and I also spent some time talking shop about entrepreneurship, finding leads, her dream project, and some of her inspirations. Kim is definitely someone you’ll want to watch, so make sure you follow her and see what gets “Bourn” next!


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Revision Path is sponsored by Facebook Design. No one designs at scale quite like Facebook does, and that scale is only matched by their commitment to giving back to the design community.
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We’re back in the Caribbean this week and talking with Djuvane Browne, UI designer and owner of One Great Studio in Kingston, Jamaica. If you’re a freelancer and looking to level up in 2017, then you will want to hear what Djuvane has to say!

Djuvane gives me a quick rundown on an average day at his studio, and shares the one secret that transformed his business to where it is today. We also talk about the design scene in Kingston, the notion of a “Caribbean aesthetic”, and what he would be doing if he didn’t become a designer. Djuvane says that you’ll never know what will work until you try, so hopefully his words will inspire you to do bigger things!


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Revision Path is sponsored by Facebook Design. No one designs at scale quite like Facebook does, and that scale is only matched by their commitment to giving back to the design community.
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Revision Path is also sponsored by Hover. Visit hover.com/revisionpath and save 10% off your first purchase! Big thanks to Hover!
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Revision Path is brought to you by MailChimp. Huge thanks to them for their support of the show! Visit them today and say thanks!
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