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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Gabe Gault

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get connected with Rob?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Where else do you pull inspiration from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a whole new ballgame.

Gabe Gault:
A whole new ball game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabe Gault:
Shout out.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you feel creatively satisfied?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dawn Okoro

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. That’s unfortunately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Okay, cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Absolutely.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Oh wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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