Xalavier Nelson, Jr.

In the early 90s, there was this show on ABC called Phenom about a tennis prodigy. If Hollywood were to reboot that for the digital age, Xalavier Nelson Jr. would no doubt be the star of the show. His body of work rivals those of people in the gaming industry for decades!

We kicked off our conversation talking about his studio, Strange Scaffold, and he spoke about several of the games he’s either worked on or created, including An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs and the popular 90s Internet nostalgia title Hypnospace Outlaw. Xalavier also talked about his newest game, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, and he shared how his work as a pre-teen game journalist helped him become a narrative designer. Xalavier’s prudent vision for finding better, faster, cheaper and healthier ways to make video games is so important, and I think that if he’s making waves like this now, just imagine what he’ll do in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Hello. I’m Xalavier Nelson Jr., I’m a studio director at Strange Scaffold, a frequent writer, narrative designer, collaborator, working on dozens of things. I’ve worked on over 60 games in the past five years. And now my current mission is not just finding new and exciting ways to collaborate with people at my own studio and at the studios and projects of others, but also finding ways to advocate for making games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than they are currently assumed to be made.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you? Have you learned anything about yourself over the past year?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think one of the primary things I learned over the past year is just how much I cared about production. I do love telling stories. I do love of putting things into a video game. I love creative content production. Writing a killer page or scene is a thrilling experience, but when I look at the things that consistently get me out of bed in the morning, that make me passionate about waking up and getting to work and collaborating with other people, it’s getting into the nitty gritty of how something comes together.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The scope of a project, defining, reducing, and defining that vision of a project and how it’s accomplished in very calculated ways. The exercise of finding new and interesting formats and arrangements for artists coming together to build things together, that makes me feel alive. And so exploring those paths myself, sharing what I find along the way, and as much as I can, opening those doors for others is something that I’ve discovered I love. Now my mission is finding ways to do that again and again and again, as consistently and healthily as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about what you want to accomplish for this year coming up for 2022?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the big thing I want to accomplish is, we’ve talked about this in a few forums thus far, but Strange Scaffold is moving into publishing and to have at least one of our published signed projects come out. And the exact thing that the developer wanted to bring into being hopefully substantially de-risked and shipped at a scope and form that made the project better while also making it something that they could accomplish without destroying themselves in the process. That’s something I’m really excited to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If we establish ourselves by the end of 2022, as having a perspective that allows us to not just develop intriguing things in unexpectedly small or efficient packages, but provide those resources and that perspective to others on a consistent scale and timeline, I’ll be very happy. And it’s by all indications that were well on our way to already accomplishing those goals.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. Congratulations on that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk more about your studio, Strange Scaffold. First, I want to know how you came up with the name, but like, I just want to hear more about how you started it, how it’s going, things like that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I started Strange Scaffold primarily as an engine for exploring what happens when your explicit goal for a studio is not to build a dream project, but instead to bring as many things into the world as possible in a healthy, consistent and efficient manner. So exploring how, defining the structure of your game ahead of time and considering that to be set in stone and improvising within those lines and constraints that you’ve set, essentially putting a strange scaffold in place. And then making an interesting thing in between that foundation, that was the starting point.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And it pretty quickly evolved from bringing that perspective to the projects of my clients, to bringing that into projects that I originated and directed, and now sharing those resources that we built to make games in that very specific way with other developers who also want to make incredible things, but not ruin their lives in the process. Because we have so many examples of the desire or dream of what a thing could be running someone into the ground as they pursue a path towards it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I feel like game creators and really creative professionals of all forms deserve the right to pursue and contain the same joy in their working processes that they seek to deliver to their player, users and audiences on the other side of that creative process.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’m looking here at the Strange Scaffold website. I see you’ve got three games that are showing here.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
[crosstalk 00:08:31] finished by the by.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. I see you’ve got El Paso Elsewhere, you have An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. I think I heard about that also on Kotaku. And then Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. Those are some pretty interesting names for titles. And I like that each one of them is very different. You’re definitely trying to, I guess, tell different stories with each of these games, it looks like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, the idea is, again, nothing that we bring in into the world will be perfect. We are flawed human beings doing the best we can to bring encapsulations of our souls into being, that process is going to get a little messy. So coming from the starting point of none of these things is going to be perfect, but how can they be interesting? How can they be built in a way that is itself joyful? And how can they deliver and experience you couldn’t get anywhere else, is something that we want to explore in as many ways as possible.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So sometimes that takes the form of an inherently joyful universe, a first person open world comedy adventure game like An Airport For Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Sometimes it’s a sci-fi body horror market tycoon like a Space Warlord, which at the time of this publication will have come out pretty recently on Xbox Game Pass and Steam. There’s a lot of ideas pinging around our heads and finding the shortest point from A to B to express those things and move on to the next project that allows us to deliver the next piece of our souls is my priority.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the first time that I heard about your work was through a game that currently out. I played it on the Switch called Hypnospace Outlaw. And that is such a unique… I’ll put it like this, the Switch often has very unique games. That’s one reason why I really like the Switch over say PlayStation or Xbox. But Hypnospace Outlaw really for me, just hit that sweet spots for early internet nostalgia, like the late ’90s, early 2000s Web 1.0 aesthetic, just like, “Oh, I loved it. Love it so much.” How did you get involved with that game

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
As a teenager actually. I met Jay, as in Jay Thole, the creative director of the game when I was a teenager playing an early version of one of his previous games. Dropsy. Dropsy is a game about a misunderstood, horrific-looking clown who wants nothing more than to bring joy and love into the lives of the people he meets, no matter how much they despise and/or fear his initial appearance. And playing that game, delivering feedback that he took into consideration, and I saw coming to being in the next versions.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And coming to understand how myself and Jay Thole are both Christians. I’ve been raised around a lot of Christian media, which tends to have mixed results, and finding something that was such a perfect encapsulation of what is intended to be the spirit of the faith, sacrifice and deep unconditional transformative love. And how that could be conveyed in a game about something else entirely different, when all I’ve been raised around was for the most part art, where the only thing that justified its existence was that it had a Christian label or would uphold dogma.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That changed my life, changed my perspective, had a huge impact on me. And we stayed in touch, continued to bounce off each other creatively. And when he revealed Hypnospace Outlaw and continued to go down the path of developing it, eventually he was kind enough to bring me aboard and I got to directly collaborate with him and the rest of the team as a narrative director to serve a double purpose. The first being, writing a whole lot of stuff and doing a lot of narrative design to convey the themes and stories that they wanted to tell in that world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But also how to structure those stories in the game flow and progression such that it delivered those themes and made a game of infinite scope. Because when you’re simulating the internet, you can just keep going forever, finding a way of taking existing material and material yet to be created in creating a flow that made it to where we could make all of these things within a human lifetime, in a way that was faster, cheaper, healthier, and more efficient than we originally considered in my it even be possible to do so. We ended up pulling it off.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It got rave reviews, it got nominated for a lot of awards. I’m still friends with the team and we still talk about potential collaborations in the future. So as much as you can judge a collaboration be successful, I certainly am happy with what happened coming out the other side of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you unpacked a bit about what narrative design is, because that’s what I was about to ask. But as you put it, it’s not just, “Oh, we’re writing the dialogue,” but you’re also looking at how that fits into the overall structure. So it’s like writing and almost producing and directing all wrapped up in the one, it sounds like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It depends on the role, when you’re a narrative lead, it certainly gets more into the structure and vision of the overall project as well as potentially managing elements to accomplish that. But narrative design, being the practice of looking at all aspects of a games experience to tell a story. And then collaborating with people to bring that into being as opposed to a writer, which in many teams can also hold narrative design duties, but their primary job is to write dialogue, write things that will be depicted as text on the screen.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It’s a big part of the ambiguity here, because there is a lot of overlap, but there’s very distinct ways in which if you have a killer writer or a out of this world narrative designer, and you put them in a position to focus on their particular intersection, it can genuinely transform the way in which a game comes to life.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the game that you’ve been working on that just came out recently, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. I love have to hear the inspiration behind that. Just from the title alone, it sounds a lot to digest at once perhaps. No pun intended.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The pun is very much appreciated though. The inspiration point, it’s twofold and there’s a lot of different rabbit holes that can be taken. But at its basis for warm, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, a man not wearing doctor’s clothes walked in, closed the door behind him and said, “Well, I’d like to see my insides.” And in that moment I had one of two decisions. The first was, do I run and get out of here and start screaming? Or two, do I keep going along these lines because whatever happens, I’m going to get an interesting story out of it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I ended up going the story direction and I didn’t end up getting murdered. Turns out this was a nurse practitioner, someone who was in process of doing their rounds and I guess accomplishing their residency and they needed practice with ultrasound machine. So I got to watch my heartbeat, my lungs breathe in and out, my liver function, and being connected to the tangible reality of the invisible processes that made up my life. Every moment of every day was such a point of perspective, of being exposed to something bigger than yourself.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It sounds odd, but looking inward can be as perspective-broadening as looking outwards. So looking at this marvelous, complicated fleshy machine that we are and seeing it working had a big impact on my perspective. So, years later, that ends up culminating in a game about buying, selling, and trading the one thing everyone has and needs in a strange and evolving universe, organs. Because if there’s anything that is as large as space or the universal language of commerce, it is how much our equations of value or inherent value change as soon as you slap a dollar sign on something.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It can be a plush beanie baby, it can be a green piece of paper that says one on it, or it can be a human heart. But as soon as you assign and agree upon a shared belief and value, the world changes in some small and inexplicable way that is very hard to reverse once it happens. And exploring those implications has been a very fun and hopefully compelling… Has been a very fun process that I hope has resulted in the compelling result.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know why for some reason, when I first heard the name and then I saw it on Steam, and we’ll have a link to it down in the show notes so people can check it out. I saw that and the first thing I thought of was Spaceballs. Have you seen Spaceballs before?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I am familiar with Spaceballs, but I’ve never properly seen it.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s your homework, you have to see Spaceballs. I want to see what you think about it-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
… after you watched it, but-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Putting it on the list.

Maurice Cherry:
… I don’t know. I saw it and for some reason it got me to thinking about that movie for some reason, even though I’m sure the game is not… Spaceballs is clearly a parody of Star Wars, but your game is not a parody of anything, but for some reason my minds made that connection. I guess, because it’s space and it’s trading and all this sort of stuff. But what does your process look like when you’re creating a game? Because as you’re explaining both this game, as well as the games that are currently on the Strange Scaffold website.

Maurice Cherry:
It seems like you put a whole lot of thought into like the ethos and the soul of what the game is about and less about maybe the final product with graphics and all that sort of stuff.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Going into the process of how a game or any creative production comes into being is potentially very complicated, but I do try to think of any creative work, which I embark upon. I’ve worked in comics, I’ve worked in other mediums, sometimes in forms that I can’t talk about because of NDA. But I’ve worked in a lot of different mediums, communication styles, genres, and the thing that binds my approach to all of them together is a sense of what brings this to the finish line? And how does every piece of this experience reflect the perspective which birthed it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So the term I like to use for this idea is a prism. Ideally, at least when you’re working on tightly scoped projects, filtering every element of the game through a central prism or perspective. Following those logical conclusions, those leaps of perspective that are grounded because they remain in the same foundation. That drives everything in terms of how I at least approach the directing process. So in An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, the question emerged inside of the team at the beginning of the project, how do we handle currency?”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
How does the player get more money? How do they spend money? How is money and currency represented? And at that moment, I took a step back and I thought about it for a moment and I said, “There is no money in this game,” because the prism, the perspective of the game world is what does it look like for a truly utopian society run by stock photo dog? A universe that is inherently joyful and cares about you specifically. A game that’s playing with you as much as you’re playing with it. How does it communicate with its players?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What are the elements of its world? What is the logic it runs upon? There’s a lot of interesting things you can do with currency or money in that world, but for me in that moment, the truest reflection of the world we wanted to create was one where dogs don’t care about money. A dog isn’t going to not give you a ticket to a FOBO just because you’re $1 short. If anything, they’re just going to give you the ticket or they’ll give you 50 tickets, just because you asked for it. Because they want to be helpful, because they want to see you happy.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Because your joyful existence is more important than exchange of goods and services. Following decision processes like that, of what is this world attempting to express and how is it communicated through every layer and element of the game has become an essential piece of any of my work whether I join as a director or as a contractor. So I really value at this point, the idea of cohesion and how much agency I’ve been allowed in my different assignments to bring that perspective to bear, because sometimes you don’t have that ability.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can run into a project or string of projects or a career of projects where not only are the products disjointed, but your ability to bring any unity to them is nearly absent. So there’s a mixture of skill and execution here, but I’m also just deeply thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity and specific scenarios in which my skill in this area has been allowed to shine.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting when you say that about the dogs not needing money, because I guess, yeah, that makes sense. But to have no currency, what about treats? I don’t know. I guess it’s your game, but I’m curious when you said that about the money, that does make sense now that you’ve pulled back and really explained it in that way. Because what are they going to spend it on? Is there also a supermarket run by dogs? How does that all work? So I get that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And the dogs would just give each other stuff at the supermarket if they have it [crosstalk 00:23:27]-

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
There’s different tree treatments you could do of this definitely. There is a world where there’s much harsher dogs. There are dogs who do demand things in the game. A lot of it is a straight up barter in the project as opposed to using an abstract concept like money. But all in all, yeah, at every single step we ask, “How would this work in a joyful universe? How would this work if dogs were deciding how this should function?” And in many cases, the solution was one that was more kind and more interesting than anything that existed in the real world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And that caused a moment of reflection, at least for myself, whenever that occurred in the project for even how rarely we get the opportunity to imagine a better world. It can be very cathartic to create work that allows you the opportunities to explore that because Lord knows with the 24-hour news cycle, it can be difficult to bring yourself to that point when you’re scrolling through Instagram and it feels like the world is on fire.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that makes sense. So I want to switch it up here, but of course we’re hearing about you as a game developer, studio owner, narrative designer, but I want to know where this all originated from. So tell me more about like where you grew up.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I grew up all over the place. I was a military brat and that perspective in itself traveling so many different places seems so many different perspectives and cultures, has been in a massive contributor to me becoming who I am.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you talk about some of the places where you grew up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, I was in South Korea, I was in Italy, I was in Germany, I was all over the United States. And I’m now based in the Southwest, El Paso, Texas, so been a lot of places.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now I guess while you’re of course traveling all about with your family because of being a military brat, did you get to experience just a lot of different design and tech and all that sort of stuff growing up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. And to top it all off the fact that my dad was so interested in tech when I was growing up, had no doubt a massive impact. One of the earliest photos that exists of me is I am an extremely chubby baby sitting on my dad’s lap with a unplugged controller in my hand, wrapped attention towards a screen that isn’t in the frame while my dad is looking towards the exact same thing, because I thought in that moment that I was playing the game right with him. And in a sense I was, and now, I send him free video games. So, it all works out.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you know what game it was that your dad was playing?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
No, but I do remember certain games for my childhood in a lot of different contexts.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, like what are some of those games?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
One of the big ones was Morrowind.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My dad played it on the original Xbox, the first console with a built-in memory. And he played hundreds of hours of that thing. And I would watch him be enthralled by this world and I, of course wanted to be like my dad. I was like, “Can I play? Can I play? Can I play?” He finally let me do it. And I was like, “Yes, I’m in the world of Morrow ind. I have read this manual from cover to cover dozens of times.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I make a little bit of head way through the game, not really understanding it because it’s a more classic RPG and still having a good time with it, but not really understanding what I’m seeing. I save my game and I log off, a few hours later, I hear this on earthly moan. I walk into the front room and there’s my dad just staring at the screen, because I have overwritten his hundreds of RSAs with all the armor and all the weapons and [crosstalk 00:27:36]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, no.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
… with almost half of his own everything with my misspelled main character in his underwear in the middle of the town square that you first get to. And he was like, “Did you do this?” And I was like, “I do what?” And he explained to me, “You deleted my save.” I was like, “Oh, oh no.” So he went back to it, and if anything, he went back to it harder than last time, it was like the Rocky training sequence, I was so proud of him. He put a blanket over his head, he put a blanket over the TV, he went for it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
He’d work, he’d come home, he’d get it in because he is a good dad. At some point he says, “Yes. Okay. You can play again.” And I start a new game and I get a little bit of weigh in, and I meet an elf who I really hate. He’s just a real son of a bitch. I close the game and I come back out, and it’s very rarely that I’ve seen my dad look defeated, just deflated as a human being nothing inside of the husk, that is his body. But he was sitting, he didn’t even, there was not even the sound or really a conversation, he says, “Was this gone?” And he just like Sisyphus was rolling the boulder up the hill again. And he-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, what, you saved over it again.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yes. I believe [crosstalk 00:29:03].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The third time he didn’t go for it as hard, I think he knew what was coming. Eventually, I asked him, “Hey, can I play the game?” And he is like, “Are you going to delete my save?” I was like, “No, I know how to do it this time. I’ve seen you save, I’ve been watching. I know how to do it.” I didn’t know how to do it. I deleted his save again. And when he stopped playing it in defeat, he’s never turned to that game ever since. I lost interest because it was cool because my dad was doing it. So lesson of the story here is, one, this is on him because he shouldn’t have kept letting me play it. And two, it’s even more on him because he never showed me how the save menu worked. You can tell a five-year-old how games saves work.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can explain the concept. I’ve thought through this for years now, there is a way five-year-old me could have been told about how save games worked. But that process was not undergone, and so consequences were followed and I do feel very bad about it. Every time I can’t log onto my Xbox because he is using the console profile in a different location to have access to my game pass. I’m doing my little bit to pay back the horrible price I incurred by destroying his dreams early on.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good son, that’s what a good son should do. That’s good to hear.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Although now I feel completely old now that you mentioned Morrowind. I was like, “Jesus.” I was in college when Morrow ind came out. I remember the game though, I probably didn’t get as far as you did though. When did I start playing? Not in 2002 certainly. Probably like in maybe ’05, I think I had an Xbox then. And I don’t know, I could never get out the first town. I kept getting killed by rats and I was like, “Eh, forget it.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Because it had a D and D chance to hit. So you would hit it and you wouldn’t know, you’d have to look in the bottom left corner of the screen to be like, “You missed. You missed, it’s before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. That’s not all my fault. So no, I.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What we’re learning in this episode is that abdication and responsibility is good actually. It was my dad’s fault, it wasn’t your fault. It was Morrowind’s fault. We can always find someone to blame and that’s the real takeaway of today’s show.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And speaking of that, when it comes to games, you first got into, well, it sounds like you first got into the gaming industry as a games’ journalist as a 12-year-old. Is that right?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Pretended to be an adult.

Maurice Cherry:
You got to tell me how that happened.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That’s the story in a nutshell, I was 12 years old. I found out that games journalists get games for free. I thought, “Oh wow, there it is. It’s the perfect job, free video games.” And I, as a very driven and precocious young man, pretended to be an adult and somehow I got away with it, and that started what has now been a… Oh, it’s been over a decade in the industry. And people I met back then I have since worked with, and I’m now colleagues with, and everyday I am thankful for not just that journey, but how clearly I can see the journey at every step in my life. I can see the impact that God has had in directing that path, whether it was good or bad, everything came together to produce the person I am now, and the perspective I have.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And so much of what I’m trying to do is without having to go through similar pain in part, any of the things that I’ve learned or discovered along the way to the people that I meet, if I manage to… I think it’s really important to put on your own air mask before you assist other passengers to use an airline reference or metaphor. But I also think none of this stuff really matters if it only goes to benefit me. If I just, even if I make hits, if these games come into the world and all they do is make money.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Money is important, it pays bills, it allows for agency and freedom and a quality of living that’s important and aspirational. But if I work with someone and they don’t come away having learned something, if I come away from working with someone and haven’t learned something, if I am not through my working processes, enabling the people around me to do their best work in the healthiest environment possible, it doesn’t matter what we’ve produced, because the purpose of making that thing has already been lost. What point is a perfect game, If you lose your soul along the way? Or if you never make another thing again.

Maurice Cherry:
I was curious to know, as you started out so early in this industry writing about it, reviewing games and such, did any of your colleagues know that you were that young?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
From what I understand, most didn’t and I don’t know what that says about either my skills for disguise or about my industry in terms of maturity level, but yeah, I somehow skated by.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think that your work as a journalist really helped you out as a narrative designer?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the work I did as a journalist helped me as a narrative designer in a few ways. The first is, I did all of my professional bad writing very early. I got all the bad words out, hopefully, so now I can write good stuff. But the second major thing that I think about in terms of journalism is, when I got older and really leaned into attempting to understand artistic intents and artistic processes and how and why things came to be, or when the creator intended something, why that didn’t emerge onto the screen. And the things that led to that course of events, that gave me an inherent empathy for the people I would come to work with as well as an ability to examine, what was something trying to communicate?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Like reverse engineering, what was something trying to communicate and how, and what pieces of an experience didn’t contribute to that process, led to me now attempting to bring those things to life myself in as cohesive a manner as possible. And I certainly won’t claim to get it right 100% at the time, but I can see how my history as a journalist coming to treasure these things and learning how to form these opinions and thoughts in such a way that I could share them with others and have them be disagreed with or agreed with or spark interesting discussion. It was an incredible training ground, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to come up through that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you ultimately want to accomplish as a game developer? It certainly sounds like, one, your faith factors a lot into your work, just in terms of how you approach the games and it sounds like even the mechanics and the whole ethos behind it, but then also you’ve mentioned earlier about wanting to provide just a more holistic game development experience. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, I’m using a bunch of different metaphors here, but what do you want to accomplish as a game developer? Is there like a bigger goal or message at play here?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The average game developer career lasts about three years. If there’s anything I accomplish in my lifetime as a commercial artist, as a creative professional, I want to see the average career length for someone working in games to be 20 years, 30 years just like Martin Scorsese, says he can be 70, 80 years old, still making interesting films. I want to see games professionals have the same ability to discover what their next story is going to be, what the stories they could deliver if their careers just lasted a little bit longer.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If they had that ability to hit that next rung in the ladder, if they had that ability to fashion their craft that much more. The fact that we get the games of creative potency that we have now, given the relative lack of seniority, we have the ability to crew in, in the industry because our mentors, our elders are few and far between. I treasure and look forward to a future where we find out what breathtaking things can come into being when people have been making these for 30 years instead of three.

Maurice Cherry:
So overall, what are you excited about at the moment? Of course, you got a new game that just came out. Of course, congratulations to you on that, but what are you really the most excited about right now?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the thing is I’m most excited about are honestly the projects. This sounds corny, but it’s the projects made by my friends and colleagues and peers in the industry right now. Games is legitimately a more vibrant, diverse, creatively executed and broad communicator of artistic intent than it’s ever been. The golden age of games is happening right now. And it’s because of the people I often find myself having the ability to work with, no major end point to that other than, “Dang I’m thankful.” And wow, I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like 10, 20 years from now, especially if we can create working conditions to where the folks who are doing this amazing stuff now can continue to evolve their craft and be making things that far into the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Now for people that are listening to this that want to also get into developing games, what would you recommend to them? Any resources or any kind of course of action that they should take?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The most important thing I would recommend is make games or make anything really with the resources you have right now. If you don’t have money, find out what kind of game you can make with no money. It’s possible. That’s to where I started. If you are a fantastic artist, look at how a game can uniquely leverage your art. If you’re a musician, look at how within the resources you have, you can express things that no one else would think to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Or frankly could if only because they have more resources, we tend to forget how sometimes having more resources can be a limitation in itself because it forces the solutions you are finding to take pretty similar forms to things that are successful right now, or that have been done in the past, depending on the environment and which you’re working. So yeah, wherever you are, whatever you have, look for how you can be making something right now, because not only will that advance your portfolio, but whenever you bring something into the world, finish and release it, you learn something about yourself, you learn and what to do, you learn what to not to do, you learn something about who you are. I say you deserve to learn as fully as possible who you are, wouldn’t you?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, sure. Why not? What do you think you would’ve done if you hadn’t gone into game development? It sounds like you had such an early start. Was there anything else that you had in mind even?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My very, very first job was doing landscaping for a cult. Do not recommend it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, landscaping for a cult?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
We’re going to move on from that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But after that, what I got into and what I loved was librarianship. Library science, the practice of serving customers in a community through libraries. I found opportunities with the resources I had and the place that I had in the communities that I was in to end up being a children’s librarian, not just one time, but multiple times. And I loved it. I love what libraries represents. I practically grew up in libraries. The role libraries have in society, the continuing relevance they have, as well as the impact you have on patrons in that environment.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Sorry, I’m getting a little bit emotional in this end, but I loved every single one of those kids who walked in through the door. I loved every single person who came in and didn’t know what they were looking for and came out with a book that ended up changing their lives. I loved every single one of those ridiculous ass romance novels that ended up being, this is a fun fact. Romance novels are the most checked out thing in a library, at least in my experience. Romance readers read voraciously, they’re constantly cycling through those books, same books going in and out, in and out. They’re the secret lifeblood of any library circulation.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And yeah, every single one of those books and the joy that they brought the people who read them. I loved those books and I loved every single one of those people, and I loved everything about that profession. If it didn’t require that master’s in library science to become a quote unquote proper librarian, I might have still even having started my career in games so early, I might have still done librarianship anyway, because if it’s not creative production, if it’s not making games or comics or something in linear media, like film or television. I’ll tell you what feels like home to me, it’s the walls of a library.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Aside from in a library?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure. Why not? I’m sure there’re more games out down the horizon. I’m sure.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. In five years I see Strange Scaffold as a vibrant constellation of projects and people that are sustainable, healthy, and unexpectedly ambitious and well positioned to remain so for the foreseeable future. If I could do exactly what I’m doing now for the next five years and the rest of my life, I would be very happy indeed.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can find my ridiculous Twitter at twitter.com/WritNelson. When I’m not posting puns, I am talking about our projects and how and why we bring them into the world. We have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangescaffold where you can get early access to our work, as well as do things like get pictures of your dog, into the games that we’re bringing out now and get custom content into some of the projects we’re still developing, such as Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And lastly, I work on a lot of games. So if you look on a PlayStation or an Xbox or a Nintendo platform or on Steam, running into something that I’m working on is, or have worked on, there’s a better chance than not that you’ll find it pretty quickly. So Strange Scaffold is the name for a lot of my collaborations, but for a step outside of that, like Skate Bird or Hypnospace Outlaw, if you like one thing we’re doing, there’s a vibrant thread of work to be followed.

Maurice Cherry:
Xalavier Nelson Jr, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, thank you for sharing your really unique look into game development and your very, I think honestly inspiring story about how you even just got involved into games. I love that you really are thinking about not just the stories that you want to tell throughout games, but also how you can make the industry better as a whole. I think that’s something that probably, I don’t know if many other game developers are doing that, but it seems like that’s something that you really tapped into and are trying to put forth. And the games that you’re creating are fun and unique, and I just want to see more of what you’re going to accomplish in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The kind of words mean an immense amount. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Terell Cobb

Back in the day, the path to becoming a designer might have meant attending an expensive art school, interning at a design studio or an ad agency, and then working your way up the corporate ladder. But this week’s guest, Terell Cobb, illustrates how you can become a successful designer by carving your own path!

Our conversation begins with a look at Terell’s work at Microsoft, and he talks about his day-to-day schedule, working with his team of designers and researchers, and gives a peek into Black Designers of Microsoft and how they work as a group. Terell also spoke about how his athletic career as a football player taught him about design, and shared with me some mentors who have helped him become the designer he is today. With his drive and ambition, Terell Cobb is definitely someone to keep your eye on for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Terell Cobb:
My name is Terrell Cobb. I am a design lead over at Microsoft as part of the Digital Transformation Studios.

Maurice Cherry:
Digital Transformation Studios, that sounds super lofty. And I’m sure we’re going to get into that. But before we do, how has 2021 been for you so far? How have things been going?

Terell Cobb:
2021 has been a great ride for me. I believe that last year during the pandemic, it was learning how to be more self-sufficient at home and also taking care of a fam all while taking care of myself as well. And I think within 2021, I’ve gained the appreciation of changing states and moving, and then also starting to center life around just taking care of me and also taking care of the family. It’s been a good ride so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Also you moved to Texas this year then.

Terell Cobb:
When Microsoft had the opportunity for flex work, I took advantage of that and got an opportunity to come back to the Dallas area and get to some familiarity and also just enjoy the atmosphere that we’re in right now. Sorry to rub that into Pacific Northwest folks.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask what’s changed for you last year, but clearly location’s been a big part of that.

Terell Cobb:
Yeah. And the sun, and being able to see the sun.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Being a design lead at Microsoft over the platform that you mentioned, can you tell me about that? What all does that entail?

Terell Cobb:
The Digital Transformation Studios is conglomerate of several spaces within that Microsoft. One of those spaces in which I work in is the business applications group. Business applications group are the parts of the business that actually build applications for large enterprise customers. And being able to sit in that part of the arena of Microsoft, it allows me to see how businesses are, specifically using supply chain and provide certain intelligent solutions to that supply chain space.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your team make up look like?

Terell Cobb:
My team today is made up of a couple of designers and also a researcher. However, one of the things that we kind of anchor to within Microsoft is being able to go with an A1 Microsoft mindset. So I also consider my engineers and PMs as part of my tetra or my team as well. I have an amazing group of people that I get to build amazing things with on a daily basis.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like that’s been a fairly new development within companies to have a researcher on the design team, as it relates to what you’re doing, how does that work?

Terell Cobb:
I appreciate research so much. I believe I’m one of the biggest advocates for research and also content design. But specifically research, I believe that they’re the silver lining of experiences and if we don’t have their heartbeat of what the experience should be, we’re building in the wrong direction and that could be expensive over time.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see how certainly if you feel like you’re going in one direction and internally, you might think that’s a good a thing and then your users are using it and it’s something completely different. They’re not responsive to it or receptive to it like you want to and you have to go back to the drawing board.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. I think just being southern and being from the south, you hear those proverbs like it’s wrong to run 100 miles per hour in the wrong way. You would want to go in the right way so that you’re not making further mistakes. Start of the project, they’re essential to the midpoint of the project and they’re essential to the delivery part of the project.

Maurice Cherry:
Walk me through what a typical day looks like for you.

Terell Cobb:
A typical day for me these days are just a bunch of new negotiating. It’s either negotiating confidence of how much confidence a user is going to be exposed to by the options or things that we’re building. It’s also the negotiation of time of how much should the team be leveraged against a certain initiative? What are we talking about six months from now? What are we planning for a year from now? How do we engage the team itself? And I think recently, really taking a step back away from just design as a delivery, as a process, to more of enjoying the process of actually designing and the delivery will get there, but actually taking the time to enjoy the process of discovery, going into definition, going into actually defining from the research and actually delivering something that’s powerful.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’d imagine in that process, you’re also working in sprints and making sure everyone’s up to speed in other parts of the company or maybe other parts of your team, because you mentioned engineers as well that you’re working with.

Terell Cobb:
Indeed. It’s a healthy balance of speed and quality. And I know not a lot of other designers out there have to deal with most of that. But being at a large enterprise company like Microsoft, there’s nothing new under the sun and you have to bring in your best pudding on what that solution could be next, if that makes any sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. Now, also at Microsoft, you’re the co-founder of an employee resource group there called Black Designers At Microsoft, which is for black designers at Microsoft. Tell me how that whole thing came about.

Terell Cobb:
Yeah. So the amazing story behind that is that I came into Microsoft and previously started other groups like Dallas Black UX. And also while I was at Capital One, worked with a couple of folks to kind of co-found the Black and Design Employee Resource Group there. When I got to Microsoft, it was more of, hey, I’m just going to focus on my career and a climb. I’m going to leave the Employee Resource Group to the side. I’m going to just stay focused and do this. First day walking in, I meet another black designer and she basically says to me, [Cherryanne 00:09:37] Porter from Houston basically says to me that, “Hey, I’ve never worked with a black designer before you are my first black designer that I’ve ever worked with before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Terell Cobb:
And that was the inkling of, okay, here we go. We’re about to do it again.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re like the Grand Theft Auto meme , you’re like, “Oh, shit here we go again.”

Terell Cobb:
Here we go. It then intensified by both of us being on the same team and actually going to orientation. And when we went to orientation, we saw on the screen another black designer that was a part of the studio. We were like, “Wait a second, where is she?” And this is Zoe and she’s been inside of the studio, but pretty much could not find her. And then low and behold, the next all hands we meet with each other and we’re like, “Huh, okay. There has to be more of us. Where are we?” I think along with that and just how big the company is, along with some of the understanding of designers being disenfranchised from not even being inside of the world of design from a black designer standpoint, we took that as an opportunity to build something ourselves inside of Microsoft and grow the talent that’s internal but then also attract talent that’s external to the company as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That sort of feeds into what I was going to ask. What sorts of things is the group doing internally and in the larger community, but recruitment sounds like a big part at least of that external, I guess, outreach of the group. Is that right?

Terell Cobb:
Indeed. I think if we look at just some of the general grounding of the group itself, it’s based in on not just looking at one form of design. That’s one of the biggest differences there. It’s not just a UX designer and you’re a part of the group. It’s more so of design with the capital D as it’s reference from our fearless leader, Jonah Sterling, it is design, it’s research, it’s producers, it’s data science, motion designers, audio designers, front end development, illustration. All of these people are a part of the group and the key points there is getting into the intentional community to influence diversity. Influencing diversity internal to therefore make it external, just creating that ripple so that we can continue to build from the inside out and doing that, it was growing the community itself by creating teams channel in safe places along with the opportunity to do share outs, hackathons right now anybody in the group can kind of spin up a opportunity for someone to have a quick review and they can basically get started and you’ll have multiple people join in to give them feedback.

Terell Cobb:
And it’s different because you’re getting feedback from friends in that sense. I could tell you, “No, bro, that’s not going to make it. That may not make it bro, or I like that, that’s going to be amazing.” And it’ll be a little bit different because it feels that it’s coming from that place that we get most of our things from that feels safe for us. Continuing to drive that type of community was important to us and doing it internally through the community piece, but then also reaching out to external to the community and going after middle schools and high schools and also HBCUs. Last year we had a couple of events where we actually partnered with some of the HBCUs out there to kind of expose the craft of design to them.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. When I was in an HBCU some twenties years ago, one of the first company, one of the first tech companies I interviewed with was Microsoft. And actually, I mean, I think I’ve told this story on the podcast before I’m well outside of college now, so I can sort of tell the story, how I scan my way in there. But essentially I was a math major in college and my whole thing was I was part of this program that was sponsored by NASA, my scholarship and everything. And so the goal was like, oh, well, when you graduate college, you’re going to work for one of these NASA facilities. I had interned at two NASA facilities. So in my mind, I’m thinking, boom career set when I graduate NASA. 911 happens.

Maurice Cherry:
And when that happened, the funding for my program got pulled and it went towards Homeland Security. And so this whole guarantee of, oh, well you’re going to work for NASA when you graduate completely gone. I’m like, damn, I got to find a way to … I don’t know what I’m going to do when I graduate because I was working at the high museum selling tickets for $8.70, not making real kind of money and really had no prospects of career stuff. But I had sort of gotten in really good with the computer science department, with the secretary there, shout out to Mrs. Banks. I don’t know if she is even still there or not, but got in really good with her, started hanging out in the computer lab and stuff, started hanging out in her office and that got me access to this interview book.

Maurice Cherry:
And the interview book was basically juniors and seniors that were interviewing with all these companies and all you had to do was just kind of slip your resume in, put your name down. And I was like, “I’m just going to slip my resume in there and write my name in it.” And I interviewed with real player to show you how long ago that was, that went nowhere.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I interviewed with Microsoft and I remember, God, I don’t remember the woman’s name, who I interviewed with, but it was a black woman interview with her and she gave me one interview question. She was like, design an alarm clock for a blind person. And she slid over a sheet of paper and a pen. And I was like, just walk me through your process. And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” So I was talking through, oh, we should do this. And it should vibrate and maybe have sound and all this kind of … She was like, okay, all right, great. And she took it and she put it in a folder, shook my hand. And that was it. That was the interview. I was like, “That’s it.” Apparently it was good enough because they flew me out to Seattle to do an interview with Microsoft and they had it in this sort of almost an elimination style.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if the interviews are like this now, but you do the first interview and if you pass the first one, you go to the second one. If you pass the second one, you go to the third one. And this was all day for an internship. I remember because this started at maybe 8:00 AM and it was getting until around maybe 7:00 PM. I was tired. And I forget what the question was, it was something about notepad and right to left text or something. And I think it was at that point that they realized, oh, wait a minute, you’re not a computer science major are you? Because it was some programming stuff and I was like, I don’t know. I don’t know how to do this and I didn’t get the internship, but I remember vividly being on the campus and everything and when I think of companies that have sort of given me a chance in college, like Microsoft was that one company.

Maurice Cherry:
The fact that you all are still doing HBCU research now some 20 something years later is a testament to the fact that you all have put skin in the game and that it’s not just, oh, we need to look for a diversity. Where should we look? Why do I look at black colleges? You all have been doing this now for a long time.

Terell Cobb:
Indeed. It’s incredibly rewarding not just to win by yourself, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to see others win and see that spark in a high school as I, that, wait a second, I can become a designer. I could be a researcher, I can work at Microsoft is like, yeah. Actually, one of the previous workshops with CodeHouse, shout out to CodeHouse in Atlanta who brought in 29 students from Morehouse and Spelman at the time. And we ran through just roughly about a six hour to seven hour workshop with design. And you can kind of see the amazing minds that are there and applying design thinking to those amazing minds, our leaders coming behind us are going to be crazy good. And I think that is the reward that most of us get from that because there’s a great chance that, hey, we will be working with these leaders later on in life. It’s extremely rewarding.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say the fact that you mentioned high schoolers and middle schoolers, you’re going past just reaching them while they’re in college. You’re getting them at a really pivotal age when they can make a decision on where do I want to go in terms of, I want to say my career, I really think it’s unfair to sort of burden an 18 year old with that anyway. But the fact that you’re showing them that this is an option because now social media and technology is ubiquitous. When I was a teenager in the nineties, there was Game Boy, there was Tomagotchi, there were Super Nintendo. It was all consumer electronic sort of stuff. Certainly no smartphones or anything like that. But now you can show them you can be more than just a consumer or a user. You can be a creator. You can be someone that makes this stuff and to show them that at such a pivotal young age, at middle school and high school is really something.

Terell Cobb:
That is so key. I mean, and even if they choose not to become a designer, we still win because we just taught them design thinking. So now from that point on, they have that emotional intelligence or that critical thinking mass to take with them to the next adventure. And I think that’s part of the reward back to us as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Now, let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. You mentioned being in Texas, is that where you also grew up?

Terell Cobb:
No, actually I grew up in South Florida in a small town called Boynton Beach, which is roughly about 40 minutes north of Miami.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Growing up there, were you exposed a lot to design and everything?

Terell Cobb:
Not at all. I like to tell the story this way, that growing up in Boynton and also just South Florida in general, you’re growing up in a football arena. And there’s not much else to do outside of football. You got the notoriety that you had from football. There’s countless of times of pretty much kids starting playing football at four years old. And you could see those kids training and practicing with parachutes at four or five, just trying to get faster and trying to get better there. It’s still to this day, I believe the, South Florida is leading in the most NFL prospects within the country. And it’s not by chance. It’s just simply because of the arena of how important football is in those areas. Because of that, that had gave me an opportunity to be exposed to being a football player, but just doing it a little differently.

Terell Cobb:
I still had some of the tenacity of being on the D line and knowing how to use my hands and knowing how to be fast and running 707s with different people. But I also found a unique ability of me actually setting up the field. I love the aspect of walking each five yards and putting a cone or a shoe or a hat down to say that this was a first down or this was a yard marker. Or this was going to be the goal line, even down to cones. I’ll never look at orange cones the same ever in my life, because I would take these orange cones and you would create different patterns a pentagon, a triangle, a square, a circle, depending on the pattern that’s on the ground, that’s where your feet or your toes would interact with in order to beat the drill.

Terell Cobb:
I got really good at setting up these cones. I really started to understand well, wait a second, I’m good at this. I can also draw a little bit, where is this leading me? I just said no, don’t worry about it. I’m good. I’m going to just put that to the side and continue all with life as is. But the opportunity presented itself when I got into college once leaving the Boynton area. But I appreciate the hardships of Boynton because it taught me the lessons that were needed to be a champion on the things that came to me afterwards.

Maurice Cherry:
I know what you mean about sort of growing up in that crucible of football. I mean, I’m from South Alabama, well, South central, Alabama, and it’s either Alabama or Auburn. One of the two. I know what it is about … And I remember, there were like those Pop Warner football leagues and stuff like that. And I wanted to be, and my mom was like, “No, you’re not doing that.” But I remember there would be six-year-old, seven-year-olds in pads tackling. I remember that vividly exactly about growing up that whole thing about just really getting into football.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. I mean, that’s exactly it, but I think this is how I attribute back how football taught me design because being one of those four-year-olds out there with the helmet that can’t hardly hold myself up, but making tackles, it’s not just the football field, it’s the people, it’s the cars around the football field. It’s the atmosphere of the lights being on at a certain time. It’s the concession stands as part of food trucks before food trucks were food trucks. It was all of that atmosphere that kind of gave me a sense of how not knowing at that time, but how designed was working or things were designed around me.

Maurice Cherry:
I was in the margin band too in middle school and high school. Every Friday night, it’s a whole production. It’s a whole production. The whole thing. Absolutely. Given that football kind of taught you design in that way, that’s also why you ended up studying it I would imagine in college and you went to Washburn University.

Terell Cobb:
Well, the interesting thing, I went to Washburn University but I think prior to Washburn University, I like to tell the story this way that I earned my way to the middle of Kansas at a junior college called Butler County Community College by not getting great grades in high school. That also earned me the opportunity to see a deer for the first time, see a cow for the first time, didn’t know turkeys could fly found that out.

Maurice Cherry:
And they’re mean, they’re very mean bird, probably because we eat them every year.

Terell Cobb:
It was so interesting to have that culture shock from being from the city and brick and hardship and going into country immediately. The school itself was a college, a cemetery, a Walmart and an oil field. The rest was just the school. It was a stark reality of, hey, if you want to excel in life, there are some things that you will have to do. And that stark reality basically helped me understand what the direction I wanted to go into next. And so as part of the Juco experience, you get an opportunity for teams from across the country to come in and actually draft you or actually pick you up or recruit you from that location. It’s actually high school part two. And during that process, the school Washburn drove about maybe three to four hours down the road in Kansas and actually picked me up and took me to the campus.

Terell Cobb:
And it was one of those moments where you step in and look around like, man, this is nice. I think I could do this. And it was slow and it feel like academia that you saw in the movies for my aspect. And I think that’s what drew me to it because I saw a calmness or a piece around it. And I think heading there starting out, it wasn’t immediately designed. It was jumping directly into psychology. And I thought for sure that I was going to be a psychologist actually getting up to somewhat of my senior year in psychology classes and actually stopping and actually working as security as part of the design as part of the work study football job, making sure that people log off the Mac lab, I guess, I got the opportunity to play on the computers from every once in a while. And the classes that were more of the later classes were the illustrator, the photoshop. I’m going to date myself now, flash multimedia or SWiSH Max classes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. SWiSH. Oh my God, you took it back. You really took it back with SWiSH.

Terell Cobb:
Being able to see those classes actually happen gave me an opportunity to be like, “Wait a second, they’re doing what I was doing, but drawing, but they’re making stuff move. They’re making their drawings move.” How is that happening though? Wait a second, and think after talking with the professor that night, I actually went in the next day and changed my major to art and then started to go down this path of being the football player, leaving practice with an easel, running across the football field with an easel and all of my art materials and running into the art lab and of course sitting in the corner because pretty much I’m just leaving football practice and fresh hour, but still just leaving football practice, four hours of practice.

Terell Cobb:
I dealt with that dynamic for two more years and it was incredibly beneficial for me just simply because it started to introduce me into graphic design. I was always exposed to graphic design on via bubble letters, airbrush tees, just drawing certain things for certain people, but just didn’t know that it was actual profession behind it. And being able to make that correlation there kind of sparked my career into the design world.

Maurice Cherry:
Getting that exposure to it, knowing that this is something it’s an option that you can take because prior to that design was something that you just sort of consumed, like you mentioned in these sort of bubble letters and stuff like that. But now knowing, oh wait, I can do that too. I can make that. I mean, even that whole setup about leaving football practice and going to our class with a easel, sounds like a feel good holiday movie or something. I mean, if you ever want to transcribe that to a story, I bet Hallmark can pick it up. That sounds pretty dope.

Terell Cobb:
I may have to do that. That’s a good idea. I receive that.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those early days post-college in terms of your career, you’ve graduated now, you were majoring in graphic design. What was next after that?

Terell Cobb:
It was the real world posting its first challenge to me. I think that first challenge to me was getting into an internship. Well, as a football player, you’re spending 40 hours a week on football. So you’re not able to kind of go and market yourself to other agencies and say, hey, I’m a designer. I could do these things. It just wasn’t acceptable or it wasn’t available for you. But in my case, the real world slap that was put in front of me was in order to work my internship, which I finally got at a local ad agencies, Joan Youths And Partners there in Topeka, Kansas, I was only able to do that into on Fridays from roughly 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. In order to be able to do that, I’m finished with school, but of course I have to make money somehow.

Terell Cobb:
I hustled my way into talking to a Topeka Youth Project, a local small school that taught kids that were 15 to 21 jobs and life skill readiness. It was my job to go out to the local fast food restaurants, the local libraries, anybody who had a job for 18 and actually become a business representative and pitch the school to that company to say, hey, I know you manager, and I know this kid that I just taught this class, you guys sound like you’ll be a great match. You should probably hire this kid. Getting the kid hired, that was the first indication of negotiation and stakeholder agreements. Knowing how to actually have those conversations. While doing that, I was only able to work. I believe it was 28 hours a week or 25 hours a week with that company. In order to do that as a business representative, I bargain to say, hey, let me help you with your website and your logo as well.

Terell Cobb:
I’ll do your website and your logo, and I’ll also be your business representative. I was doing that. A normal day for me post college, and this is how bad I really wanted to be in this world of design. I worked from 8:00 AM to roughly about 3:00 PM, Monday through Wednesday at the Topeka Youth Project. On Tuesday through Thursday, I was working overnight shift at FedEx, unloading trucks. Pretty much from roughly about 3:00 AM to 7:00 AM. And then in between the Thursday to Friday, I was also unloading packages to Target and basically being a Target shelf, stocker. All so that I can get the internship completed and also get the first level of experience out of the way.

Terell Cobb:
Now, I’m not saying that most design now coming out of college, don’t have to worry about those types of stories and those types of hustles but it was just a slightly different for me being in a small town and just wanting to make this work so bad and not wanting to go back home and say hey, I didn’t do it, I didn’t make it. That was the start of hard work makes something out of you. But then also hard work creates the character that you need as you continue to progress.

Maurice Cherry:
You were hustling.

Terell Cobb:
It had to happen.

Maurice Cherry:
That reminds me a lot of, there’s another guest we had on the show several, several years ago, his name is Ben [Lindo 00:32:19]. He’s a industrial engineer out of, I think he’s out of Philly or Pittsburgh, one of the two, but he was mentioning how he would do design school. He was doing design school and it was UPS driver at the same time. And would come to class in his UPS uniform and the teacher would always have something to say and that kind of thing but he made it work. I mean, when you’re out there on your own, you have to hustle to make that happen. You have to make those sacrifices, those compromises. And it sounds like you really, really hustled to make that happen. Props to you.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. And I think it benefited me a lot just because I was exposed to so many different conversations, so many levels of small talk. Many levels of strategy. I knew that I can unload a semi truck of boxes from FedEx in under 56 minutes, holding that record doing that. But I also do the pattern of, if I unload the boxes too fast on the belt it could stop the belt and then pretty much that makes the day longer for other people that are behind me. It’s just so many lessons that are there through that first year out of college.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it really teaches you the value of hard work too. I mean, I think it’s one thing, if you’re going to school and you manage to land that super cushy gig right out of school, and it’s not too hard, but not too easy. It’s kind of Goldilocks kind of situation but I mean, it’s another thing when you get out and you really have to hustle to carve your way into a position or to get to a point where you’re going to be you hopefully setting yourself up for the future in a good way.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. I think, just being the first of the family to go to college, first of the family to graduate college, you knew and understood you are your help. It wasn’t something else that you can wait on, you were your help. You were ascending this next avenue in arena so that you can then help your family on the back end of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like you said, it’s that thing where you don’t want to go back home defeated. You don’t want to go back home like, oh, I couldn’t make it. That also pushes you and drives you to succeed as well, that feeling.

Terell Cobb:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
So you worked for a number of companies between being in Kansas, being in Florida, being in Texas, worked for a lot of places. When you look back at your career, now that you’re at Microsoft, do you feel like there was a particular moment or a particular job or anything where you felt like you had leveled up?

Terell Cobb:
I think it was the first opportunity to leave South Florida in working in the banking industry down there at the credit union where I started to see the shift from design as more so as a graphic or tangible color or button style to design as a product experience element moving forward. And I think that was the transition from working in South Florida at the credit union to getting a first big break at working for Barclays Bank here in the Dallas, Texas area. One of the mentors that I had at the local ad agency who saw the drive of what I was doing actually called me up from the South Florida area like, “Hey, you want to try this out?” It’s like, “Well, no, I’m pretty good. I’m building websites. I’m doing club flyers. I’m good.” I’m around my family, but not too close because I don’t want them to get on my nerves, but pretty much I’m close enough so I can go hug them and come back.

Terell Cobb:
But it really was at that point in which I saw the level kind of change because it went from me being just a single designer/webmaster slash business representative at that local credit union, continuing that trend to not just being a slash, but being a focused disciplined designer. And that was coming into that first level of product design at Barclays there with that company.

Maurice Cherry:
Now also prior to Microsoft, you worked for two other pretty large companies, you worked at Capital One, you also worked at FedEx. Was it a big sort of culture shift going from those two companies? One’s logistics, one’s banking. Going from that to a strict tech company? Was that a big shift?

Terell Cobb:
I mean, the amazing part of my pathway is that each one of those companies had a different element that I’m using today in firms of my leadership and moving forward. Within Capital One in the FinTech arena, you’re constantly thinking about how could you do things as a group? It’s all about innovation, how to be … And I greatly appreciate just being there in that arena because Capital One didn’t consider itself to be a bank. It happened to be, as they say, a tech company that so happens to be a bank. And that opportunity of being with instant innovation all the time and blue sky thinking and being able to stop projects from releasing and saying like, “Hey, wait a second. Was that innovative enough? Are we really proud of this thing.” To the introduction of service design and the introduction of critical thinking and the folks from Adio coming in and merging into that as well.

Terell Cobb:
Capital one taught me somewhat of the college of product thinking and design external to school, external to that other layer of just design as a button color or movement. Capital One gave me the piece of grounding then moving into FedEx it was like, “Wait a second, I’ve learned all these things. I can put these things to use. Do you want to see them?” And they’re like, “Now we’re a little bit more safe here.”

Terell Cobb:
We’re just a bit more safe. But I think the logistics side of FedEx taught me the technical aspect of what an engineer actually has to do in order for packages to arrive at a certain time. Understanding, and I’ll never forget this quote, from one of the engineers he basically said to me, “Terrell, how do you build a tank?” And I was like, “What do you mean? Military builds, tanks? Send a request to the military, they build a tank.” And he was like, “No, if you had to build a tank yourself, how would you start?” And then I think this is similar to your clock challenge here, where an engineer thinking about a tank is going to be the larger items first and then start going into the cogs of the tank and building the cogs to get back out to the larger things, having a base building in, and then starting building out the shell of the tank and the color of the tank, none of that matters to them.

Terell Cobb:
And that gave me the perspective of how an engineer thinks versus a PM thinks versus a designer thinks. Wrapping all of that around and kind of turning the corner here and going back to where I’m at at Microsoft, it was the critical thinking and also being able to take chances at Capital One, also along with the technical understanding and saying, “Hey, I can’t go build this tank without these particular cogs. They’re important to somebody they’re important to the experience. And then they’re also important to the team that’s building it.” So how do I become a technical designer/team player and then entering into one of the largest tech companies in the world, it’s how do you mash up all of that experience into something and make sure that you can speak the engineering language, you can speak the PM language and you also provide the quality and also the confidence within a customer using this product moving forward. Hopefully I’m answering that question in the best way.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. I mean I think that you always want to think about how you can transfer skills when you’re going from one really big, I think, type of company to another one. And granted all of these do have tech sort of at their core in some way, you’re just using that tech to solve different problems.

Terell Cobb:
I think doing that and also keeping the duality of going back to football, no man left behind or no person left behind and going back and sitting having lunch with the engineers, sitting next to them and saying, “Hey, show me what you did because that was kind of dope. How did you do that.” Spending the time to get to know your teammates, getting the time to actually make this analogy football there’s 93 plays to a game. How many times have you talked to your coworkers in a week? How could you start to understand what they’re going through? How could you start to extend to your team and actually give them the same type of comradery that they’re looking for because you are spending a lot of time with that person. Just anchoring back those principles inside of the duality of also having the technical chops to talk workshop, if you needed to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And one other interesting thing, and you sort of talked about this, I think a little bit at the top of the interview was that you’ve also, maybe not at each of these companies, but certainly you did this at Capital One and now Microsoft, you started these black ERGs. Was it important for you to sort of build that community as you started? How did that manifest itself?

Terell Cobb:
It was incredibly important to see other people like me within the design world. I think like most designers starting out, you’re constantly looking for mentorship and sometimes you have to be the mentor as you rising yourself and you’re providing advice to people, however, you are looking for some advice yourself. And I think within the different groups, it was the opportunity to not only see people that look like you doing amazing things and being able to connect with them and saying or resonating against saying, “Hey, I’ve gone through that as well or I have had this conversation as well,” to more of just that comradery of, have you had an ethics conversation about this design? What did they say about this ethics conversation and being able to just talk shop with them in that way? I think the pleasure that I have within all of these groups is they’re all unique and all based on just different stories of how they got started.

Terell Cobb:
I think within the Capital One space, there were roughly about six of us that stood up at an all hands and were like, hey, I see you. I see you. And it was like, “Well, maybe we should stay in touch.” And then it went from, maybe we should stay in touch to maybe we should have meetings to maybe we should influence more recruiting and to maybe we should have somewhat of a council or somewhat of a type of event. And then with the Capital One piece, it was then like, how do I extend that outside of the company because I can’t just do it from Capital One. How do I also extend inside of the Dallas area? So then it was working with the Bobby Lloyds, the Michael [Tingling 00:44:03], the Labora Willis, the Adrian [inaudible 00:44:06] to kind of expand just create a ripple here in the Dallas area but then also move around to the Houston area.

Terell Cobb:
Just trying our best to create events and also create community for us here. And I think that just followed me just going into the Black Designer space at, at Microsoft because it was so welcomed by other people in that community too. And also the aspect of being able to create something that you know 20 years from now will still be there is something that I get chills over just simply thinking like, hey, that group is going to be amazing because we set it up in that way and they have their heart in the right place.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think back throughout your career, you mentioned mentorship. Who have been some of the mentors that have really helped you out in your career?

Terell Cobb:
Oh, wow. I think there’s some really awesome people out there. I say, some folks like Ty Griffin comes to mind, then there’s, people who were helping that didn’t even know that they were helping, that were just more friendships, right? Like the Tim Allens out there, the Danley Davis is out there. The folks like Dr. [Oco 00:45:30] who was pretty much the person who kind of helped me shift from saying I’m just going to work in a hospital to, hey, I’m going to go to college. I’d say those people along with the Pastor Hicks in Topeka Kansas, the Lisa Carters that are out there and all the football coaches associated with it. Those are some of the people that kind of gave me the drive, but also instilled that I cannot just keep this to myself. I have to also throw the rope back for somebody else or leave a breadcrumb for somebody else behind me so that how I can help them would be beneficial to the future.

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

Terell Cobb:
I would say that I’ve learned that I am incredibly a nerd when it comes to setting things up and being deeply in process. I read some of the similar books throughout the week. I have my coffee and sit on the stoop and actually bask in the sun, but also just that appreciation of designing the little things. And I think this recent trip that I just took to Denmark for a designed workshop there kind of reminded me as I saw enabled person, actually leave the train with with a wand who was basically visually impaired, actually get off the train, stumble on the little ground stubbles and pretty much make their way like a boss to the escalator without any help. It was a reminder to me of, somebody thought in process of this person leaving the train in this way, somebody thought about the doorknobs that’s in front of me. Somebody thought about the angles that in front of me, what are the processes that I’m creating for people behind me as well.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Terell Cobb:
I define success a little differently from other people. And I say that just to say that I look at success as an opportunity to succeed. As long as you have that opportunity, I don’t believe that you fail. I believe that you learn. And if you have that opportunity, you started in part of that success you’ve already … To start is success.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. Because oftentimes really, it’s just that first step that you have to make.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. You have the thought and you have a couple of seconds to go about that thought or a couple of minutes or that first step. I think we’re a little bit hard on ourselves sometimes and I think just to start in itself is success.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you like the next chapter of your story to be?

Terell Cobb:
I have this grand dream of creating pillars of design practices across the country and their anchor inside of some of the experiences that I’ve had over in the past of the different tech companies or the different businesses that I worked for. But I think mostly the desire to have those communities or those practices is kind of related back to just one in the lead break grounds. My desire is to work on the next 20 years now. There’s an amazing book out there Called What The Forecast. And I look at it almost every week because it kind of puts these brain like exercises in front of you that says it’s five years from now. I am doing this, I’m driving this. I am living here. And it goes from five years to 15 years to 20 years. And I’m constantly thinking about those 20 years just because if you don’t start on it, it’ll just sneak up on you.

Terell Cobb:
That’s my next step here. Just continuing on that path of thinking about those next 20 years. And I have breakfast with some amazing guys, almost every other weekend. And we joke and say, well, we’re talking about our 85 year old self and what our 85 year old self is eating. What could we do now to help our 85 year old self? Are we at 85 and we’re riding motorcycles to eat for breakfast? Are we pulling up in our wheelchairs? Do we have scooters? How mobile do we want to be when we get to that age? I’m constantly thinking about the future in normal yet intriguing terms of life now.

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

Terell Cobb:
Yeah. So if anyone wants to find me on LinkedIn, definitely reach out to me. If I can’t get back to you, I promise you, I will find somebody that can get back to you. Terrell Cobb, T-E-R-E-L-L C-O-B-B on LinkedIn. If you want to follow me on Instagram, it’s a vintage_424. I’m always there. And those are some of the main channels right now where people can find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Terrell Cobb, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One for just giving a peak behind the curtain as to what it is that you do at Microsoft and even how you’ve helped to create community not just inside of Microsoft or designers there, black designers there, but also the help out in the community as well, but really sort of showing the fact that perseverance really the way. There’s so many paths into design, there’s so many ways to be a success or to do anything really in this industry. And I think what your story really illustrates is that there’s no one single way to do things. There’s no one way to be a success. And so hopefully people will get a chance to hear your story and we’ll take that to heart. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Terell Cobb:
This was incredible. Thank you so much, Maurice, I really appreciate it.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Roneka Patterson

These past two years have been stressful for all of us in a lot of ways, but this week’s guest is proof that you can find a way to redirect those feelings into something positive. Meet Roneka Patterson, an associate creative director at Hawkeye in Dallas, Texas, and the co-creator of The Unwritten Rules.

Roneka and I talked about adjusting to work from home life, and she shared a bit about her process and what it’s like to be a creative director. From there, we discussed The Unwritten Rules, including how the project was launched last summer with other Black creatives, and she shared how she got Hawkeye on board with amplifying its message. Roneka also spoke about mentorship and how she’s helping local high schoolers discover their creativity as well. Roneka’s motto — “keep going” — is one I think we can all adopt as we move forward and chart our own paths to success in this industry!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Roneka Patterson:
I’m Roneka Patterson. I’m an associate creative director with an art director background. I work at Hawkeye, which is an agency, an ad agency in Dallas, Texas. I’ve been at Hawkeye for about four and a half years, and I work on the Capital One account. So we do just basically a little bit of everything for Capital One, but a lot of CRM and direct mail, email messaging for them.

Maurice Cherry:
Now we’ve had quite a few advertising folks on the show, probably since the beginning of Revision Path, but certainly over the past year or so. How has it been adjusting to the work from home life?

Roneka Patterson:
It’s had its ups and downs. I think when we first started last year, there was definitely a lot of anxiety for me. I’m kind of an introvert and so I really relished having my time at my home with my family away from work. I think there was just a lot of nervousness on our team when we first went home. I was just getting pinged all night, 7:00, 8:00, 9:00 at night through our messaging apps. Finally had to like, “Guys, we still need to have some boundaries here even though we’re at home.” So that stuff has kind of leveled out, but there’s still I’ve three year old daughter and so there’s times when she’s at home trying to work and my wife and I are juggling who’s got her now. It’s been a challenge.

Roneka Patterson:
I’ll say that from a creative standpoint, I don’t feel like the work for our team has dipped any. I feel like we’ve actually been a little bit more creative working from home. I don’t know. I think there’s a freedom of being able to work at your own pace with things, whereas if you’re in an office there’s a little bit more like, “Okay, how are things coming,” you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roneka Patterson:
But this has definitely been my most creative year in a while in terms of just the types of ideas that I’ve had, the thinking I’ve been able to do. I’m grateful for that. It’s been ups and downs, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
How long did it take for you to get into a groove where you’re like, “Okay, I can do this day to day.”

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, man. I think maybe over the summer. Maybe the fall of last year, of 2020, I think that’s when things kind of started to level out. So it was a good six months of it just being very chaotic. Not chaotic in the sense like, “Oh, I wish we could go back to the office,” but just this is just a lot. And I know that it’s a lot more than it would be if we were in the office. I think that fall is pretty much when it started to feel like okay, I feel like I’ve got the handle of this and it just wasn’t as intense.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your work at Hawkeye. You mentioned you’re an associate creative director. Is the Capital One account the only project you’re working on or do you work with other clients?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, I work with a couple of other clients just on project by project basis. I’m dedicated to Capital One. Our team that I work on, there’s about 30 of us. I think we’re one of the larger accounts in the agency and so we work pretty much primarily on them. But there are little things that come in the door that we can help out with for other clients. So I’ll say it’s about a 90/10 split.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s say a new project comes in. Talk to me about that process. Where do you come in? How do you work with the particular client? How does that work?

Roneka Patterson:
So as an associate creative director, I’m a half manager, half hands kind of person, I think moving a little bit more towards manager. So basically when a project comes in, I’m helping staff the job. So it’s like, “Okay, we think this project is going to need two art directors and a writer, or two art directors and two writers.” I’ll help with that and then I’ll just be providing oversight and guidance as those projects happen. So I’m helping out with brainstorming, helping check files to make sure that they’re built correctly per the standards of the client. Basically just oversight.

Roneka Patterson:
Occasionally I’ll still get in there and do some design work. If we’re a little understaffed and we’ve got some people out on PTO, I can definitely help out in those cases. But generally just providing oversight and guidance based on the experience that I’ve had working on the account.

Maurice Cherry:
And so how long did it take you to get to that point within Hawkeye? Because I would imagine coming in you have to work your way up to that, right?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. So I’ve been an associate creative director for a year and a half now. I think it’ll be two years in January. So prior to that I was a senior art director, and so a lot of what I was doing was the associate creative director level of things where I’m having to lead presentations and oversight on jobs. It hasn’t changed much, but yeah, a lot of it was just getting familiar with the company, getting familiar with the team, establishing a name for myself on the team. And then again, just starting to do that next level of work that finally they’re like, “Okay, yeah, you should definitely be doing this job because you should be getting paid for this because that’s the job that you’ve been doing.”

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a typical day for you working at Hawkeye?

Roneka Patterson:
So a typical day for me now, a lot of meetings. Whether it’s kickoff calls, like we’re kicking off new jobs, status calls just to see what everyone on the team is working with and help allot resources for the different projects. We do a lot of check-ins. Our account is very agile, so they love to meet. They’d much rather over communicate than things get dropped. And so we’ll do a lot of check-ins internally with our creative folks, like this is how the work is coming along. We’ll give feedback, we’ll do check-ins.

Roneka Patterson:
Capital One has their own robust creative department, so we’ll do check-ins with them to make sure that the work that we’re creating meets the brand needs. And then we’ll do check-ins with the client, the business managers who’ve actually requested the work. So a lot of meetings. In between there is time for brainstorms and occasional sketching, but a lot of it is just making sure that things are moving properly, that creative folks have the help they need so if they’re stuck on something or if they need an extra set of eyes on something, providing that support. But that’s pretty much how my days go nowadays.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something that you think people underestimate about your role?

Roneka Patterson:
So when you’re at a CD level, and this may be me making assumption about that level, there’s a lot more strictly oversight. It’s understood that your job is to lead and to direct. With an associate creative director, you’re kind of in this in between area where there’s an expectation that if we get in a jam, you’re going to have to help out designing something or laying out something. Because of that, even though my workload, it may look like Roneka is only designing on a couple of things, I’m actually overseeing seven or eight things. So I think sometimes there’s the assumption that because you don’t see me doing the art direction stuff, that I’m not doing direction.

Roneka Patterson:
It’s one of those things, it’s not like a woe is me type of thing, but it’s something that I didn’t realize about the role before I got into it was just that there’s a lot of oversight takes time, to make sure to check in projects, to be able to switch on a dime to remembering, where are we at with this one? What kind of feedback can I give here that would be helpful? Presenting to clients, just being able to manage if something goes wrong and how do you talk to that? How do you speak to that in the moment? There’s just a lot of that kind of stuff that I think I wasn’t cognizant of before I got into the role.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard that from other folks that are in advertising as well, so what you’re saying definitely lines up with that. I want to go more into your background. I know you’re at Hawkeye, which is located in Dallas. Are you originally from Dallas?

Roneka Patterson:
So I’m from Austin, which is about three hours south of Dallas, so I didn’t go very far. Yeah, most of my family is from the Dallas Fort Worth area and my parents just kind of branched down to Austin and had me. I just stuck down there while I grew up and then I ended up moving back to Fort Worth for school.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you know early on that you were into design and advertising and all of that?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, so I always loved art. I love to paint, I love to draw, I love sculptures. Always had a passion for that. I mean, I can do think back to grade school and just being super into that kind of stuff. So I didn’t necessarily understand how to make a career out of that in terms of what design was, what advertising, art direction, all that kind of stuff. But I knew that I was really passionate about that.

Roneka Patterson:
Funny, actually, when I was in middle school, I used to run track. Pretty good at it. We were city champions my eighth grade year, which was a highlight for me. When I got to high school, it’s a different ball game when you’re changing sports in high school. There was a lot of practice for running track in high school. And I remember going home with my mom one day and I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I was like, “I want to just focus on my art.” And my mom was like, “Well, whatever you do, just make sure you go a 100%.” So she let me get out of track and I really started focusing on art.

Roneka Patterson:
I was taking art classes. I got some AP credit in art that I was able to take to college with me. I loved to create, to draw. I used to joke that my favorite class in high school other than art was history class because it allowed me time to just draw. I’d sit in my seat and just draw during the class and I loved that. But that’s where that love started to really strengthen. From there I was like, “Okay, I want to go to school, to college, and I don’t know how to do this.” So I was able to find TCU had a really good graphic design program, so I was able to get into that and the rest was history.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about that. Tell me what your time was like at TCU.

Roneka Patterson:
It was good. It’s a small private school and there’s a lot of money that gets poured into that school. They’ve got a pretty good football program. The Black community there is pretty tight knit because I think there’s only like 8% Black students there out of the entire school. So created some camaraderie that was nice.

Roneka Patterson:
In terms of the design program there, I think I was the only Black woman in my coursework, but there were other Black folks in the fine arts, studio arts degree path. So I was able to make some connections with them. Some of them I still speak to to this day.

Roneka Patterson:
So I think that overall, with all of the creatives that I’ve met through my career, I do feel like it was a really solid education, a really solid foundation. It taught me design fundamentals, an understanding of conceptual advertising thinking. I’ve met some folks that didn’t have one or the other, who went to an ad school or a design school. I just feel like TCU gave me a really good balance of the two things.

Roneka Patterson:
I’ll say that that’s where I had my first design job. I had a professor who pulled me this side one day and he was like, “Roneka, the dining hall is hiring.” And I’m like, “Excuse me? What’s that have to do with me?” He was like, “No, no, no.” He was like, “They have a marketing department and they’re hiring. They’re looking for a designer and so I think you should check that out. I think it might be a good fit for you.” It was great. I got to design posters and little logos for advertising around the dining hall. I got a free meal every day, which was amazing. And so that was my first design job was at TCU.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. In a way they really did prepare you for getting out there, working as a designer because you got a job working for the college while you were there.

Roneka Patterson:
Yep. Yeah, it was awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So when you graduated, what was your early career like? I see you worked for an agency called Sonus. Tell me about that experience.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. So that was a privately owned small boutique marketing agency. And so I think when I got hired, there was one other designer there and then I think she left within a year so I was the sole designer there. We had an account person and me. It gave me a good foundation of these are all the things that are entailed with marketing, kind of had to do it all. I learned how to present to clients because I was the person that had to present. I did the work and I had to present the work. Timelines, budgeting, all that kind of stuff. I think I learned more in that experience than I think I would’ve learned just being dropped into an agency environment or a larger agency because there just wasn’t enough hands. I had to do a lot of it.

Roneka Patterson:
I left there to work at an ad agency, and I worked there for six or seven years. It was at Moroch in Dallas. That experience, high highs and low lows. I think that I got to work on a bunch of different clients. I got to do a lot of different types of projects. The range of work that I got to do there really was amazing. It was the aughts, the mid-aughts, the late-aughts, so there was a lot of… I don’t know, the reckoning that’s happened in advertising over the last year or so, that was not a thing back then. So there was a lot of just political, cultural things that just really just wore me down.

Roneka Patterson:
There’s too many things to name. Just random things that happened that I think if you talk to any Black person who’s worked in corporate America, they could probably be like, “Yeah, yeah. That sounds about right.” After the time that I spent there, I left that agency and I said that I was never going to work in advertising again. I don’t care where I work. I’ll be a postal worker, I’ll work at the art museum. I don’t care. I can’t do this anymore and I don’t want to go back. This isn’t for me.

Roneka Patterson:
So I ended up at a greeting card company. So we did basically the B2B greeting cards, the type of cards that corporations send out during the holidays. So I worked in the marketing department there and got to lead and also just to see how things go from the business side because that’s another thing that you don’t really get to see when you’re working in an agency is just the business side of things. How are some of those decisions made? How are our agencies received? Because we worked with some freelance agencies, some of our projects and just sitting on the other side of the table, how are those things received?

Roneka Patterson:
So I did that for a little while and then I started to get the itch about potentially moving back into an agency environment. I’d said for myself it needed to be the right agency. It needed to be the right environment. I needed to feel safe. I don’t mean safe in the sense of boring, but safe as a Black queer woman, am I going to be safe in that environment? Am I going to have opportunities in that environment? So that’s how I ended up at Hawkeye. Actually, I got interviewed by two women who were creative directors and immediately I was like, “Okay, this may be it.” I’d never actually worked with a female creative director before in my entire career. So that was a very big reason why I wanted to work there. There are a bunch of other women creative directors at Hawkeye, which was really, really comforting for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that appealed to you about going back to work at an agency?

Roneka Patterson:
I missed the creative department. I missed having a team of other creatives that you could bounce ideas off of, that could help push you and help push your work. I missed that. I missed having writers that could help me generate ideas and say it in a way, a lot more concisely than I could say it. I missed all of that. I missed the direction and just opportunities to just solve different types of business problems for people. I missed all that.

Roneka Patterson:
I didn’t realize it when I left that first agency, but I was like, “Yeah, I definitely miss…” When you don’t have it, that’s when you realize, yeah, there’s some value in having people around you that are super smart and super talented and they can just help make your work better. Also, they get it. You’re not having to explain and reexplain why creative is valuable and why it’s important.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s good that you had that break after working for two agencies for a long time. You can sort of separate yourself a bit from it. There’s that saying that hindsight is 2020. So you’re able to then look back and say, “All right, well, these are things I liked and this is why I want to have more of these things and maybe less of something else.”

Roneka Patterson:
Yep. You got it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you talk about encountering a female creative director and that’s sort of what made you decide to work with Hawkeye, but did you encounter a lot of Black creatives in advertising throughout your career?

Roneka Patterson:
A handful, Maurice, a handful. when I was at Moroch I think there was about maybe five of us total Black creatives there. Traditionally in advertising, I met more Black strategists, account folks, relationship management folks. We had a few of those there. But creative, it was just few and far between really, and it was very discouraging.

Roneka Patterson:
I never saw anyone that outranked me. It was either a peer or someone that was a junior level. It gets in your head a little bit because you’re like, “Okay, maybe this is not thing that women can do. Maybe this is not a thing that Black women can do to be leaders, to be creative leaders.” I know logically that’s not true. I keep an eye on the industry, I know that that’s a thing that happens outside of where I’m at right now. But when you’re young coming up, you just don’t know. I was like, “Maybe I have to move account side or move into strategy and that will allow me to grow, have advancement.” But yeah, it messes with your head a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you found now that you’re more into your career in terms of tenure that you’ve encountered more Black creatives?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, definitely, definitely. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable and confident with networking. Like I said earlier, there is a camaraderie that we have, those of us in this business, even if we don’t know each other. There’s just a little like, “Oh, yep, yep, yep.” You know you’re probably fighting some of the same battles and trying to champion some of the same causes. And so yeah, I definitely, any time I’m out and about, whether it’s an industry thing, an industry event or a conference or something, I’m definitely connecting with folks because you just never know.

Roneka Patterson:
You never know when you’ll run into those folks again, there may be an opportunity that you can provide someone or vice versa. I see a lot more now and I’m able to connect with a lot more now, which is really, really nice.

Maurice Cherry:
You created a project called The Unwritten Rules, which you did in conjunction with a former Revision Path guest we had on the show before, Alex Pierce, along with some other Black creatives. Talk to me about that. How did this come about?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, so this came about last summer. Obviously we had just a period of months of just… It was like a drumbeat of violence against Black people. Shootings and police violence and intimidation and gaslighting. Obviously a lot of that, the feelings of that culminated with George Floyd’s passing, murder rather.

Roneka Patterson:
So Alex reached out to me and he’s like, “Hey, I’m going to get some folks together to see if there’s just something that we can do or create just to get some of our feelings out about what’s happening.” And so I’m like, “Yep, just invite me to the meeting. I’ll be there.” There was about 20 of us, and so mostly creatives, couple of strategy folks. And Hawkeye, like most agencies, it’s a predominantly white agency, but the Black creatives there, we all have a side group chat and we keep in contact with each other, check in with each other. It was Alex and myself and Adam Johnson who’s a Black copywriter formerly, at Hawkeye. He was at Hawkeye at the time. Couple of other creatives.

Roneka Patterson:
We just talked, the Black folks on the team, we just kind of talked. We were like, “What are we feeling? What message can we say? What can we create? What can we do?” We did some brainstorming, we just did some really just brainstorming. What could we do? What could we create? We settled in this idea about these rules, these unwritten rules that Black folks all know that the larger population may not be cognizant of. In the conversation, it was just a little bit like, “What if we came up with an encyclopedia or just a foundry of these different rules?”

Roneka Patterson:
We talked a lot about tone because part of the thing last year that happened with a lot of agencies, immediately there was a lot of like, “Things are bad and here’s your black square and we need to do better. And we will.” Okay, great. It was like the universal we need to do better. Okay. We’ve been telling you that for a while, but okay. I’m glad you caught up. Tonally, we were like, “These rules are not melodramatic, trauma porny kind of stuff.” As a Black person, they don’t make me feel anything other than, yeah, this is just the way we have to… These are the things we have to know to stay safe and to avoid craziness.

Roneka Patterson:
It was very similar, in a lot of ways, to we’re doing some research on The Green Book If you read The Green Book, or any of The Green Books, there is a very matter of fact tone about the fact that this magazine needed to be created to keep Black people safe. It wasn’t like a so and so got lynched yesterday. It was very much like, “Hey, if you’re going to be driving to El Paso, here’s a body shop that you can go and get your car serviced. They won’t hassle you.” Very matter of fact. That kind of tone resonated with us. It made sense to us as Black folks. Again, these are rules that we just have to know, and we thought it would be a great matter of fact way to present these rules.

Roneka Patterson:
One of the main things that we really wanted to do with it was not just to say, “Hey, these are rules that Black people need to know.” But the so what. So what is here’s some data that backs up why this rule is a thing. Here are some things that you, person who’s reading this rule, can do to help make this situation better. For all of the rules that we have that we outlined, we came up with some different resources that we thought would help pay off. You read this rule, here’s something if you want to get involved, here’s a thing that you can do that can hopefully help make this rule not be a thing anymore, to erase that rule.

Roneka Patterson:
And so once we solidified this idea, we did some design exploration. There’s a designer at our agency. Her name is Rosie Ulloa, I always mispronounce her name. But she helped create the visual, the color scheme, the fonts, the visual direction for this. And from there, we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to build a website. We’re going to do a social media campaign. We’re going to start creating some things with this.” And so from there, we started developing the website and we had an interactive designer, a web developer rather, from the company who was able to donate his time to help us build this thing. From there, it was once we had the look established we started working on our social calendar, because we did want to do an entire social media campaign that’s tied to this website to help promote the website. We wanted to do some user generated content. We want people to write in about rules that they’ve experienced that we may not have covered.

Roneka Patterson:
The website ended up being pretty robust just from a researching standpoint. We did the audio, we did audio narration of all the rules so you’ll hear my voice on the website in some spots. We really wanted to do a full audio visual kind of multidimensional thing.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, that’s kind of the origin of it. We did this on our own time. I do think the pandemic helped make this a thing. I think had we been in the office it would’ve been a little bit more challenging to, “Hey, we’re meeting on the fourth floor at four,” kind of thing. It’s a lot easier to just, here’s a Zoom link. Let’s link up. Just a lot of nights and weekends and some holidays just turning on it and refining it and getting the content, the writing.

Roneka Patterson:
We had some great writers that have helped flesh things out. Oversight is what I was talking about earlier, making sure that the tone is right and making sure that we’re not saying things that are improper. Yeah, it was a big thing. At a certain point we had to tell our agency, “Hey, this is the thing that we built.” And they were super supportive. It was really just a passion project that’s still going, still reviewing social posts once a week. But yeah, it was a side of desk thing that took a lot of love and heart and we wanted to do it for Black people so that when Black folks see it they’ll know we got you. You’re being heard. You’re not alone in that experience. And then we wanted to do it for the broader population so that they see in writing that these are things that Black folks have to be aware of and why.

Maurice Cherry:
You said something interesting in there I want to, I guess, learn more about. You said at some point you had to let Hawkeye know that this was something that you were doing. Why is that?

Roneka Patterson:
Well, we needed some support. I think part of it, we needed some legal counsel with some of the user generated content stuff, ideas that we were thinking about. We wanted to be clear with Hawkeye that, while we are all representatives of Hawkeye in our day to day, this was a separate thing. We don’t want this to be The Unwritten Rules courtesy of Hawkeye. Our CEO, Joe DeMiero, he’s a great guy. He was very much from the get go like, “Whatever you guys need, let me know. I will help provide it. We are here to support. So whatever you guys want to do.” They’ve been very, very, just the right kind of support.

Roneka Patterson:
We did want to do some promoting. [inaudible 00:30:53] has 70,000 employees globally. It’s like, “Hey, can we get this on some of our inner agency communications?” They were more than willing to do that. So we got some articles in our inner agency ecosystem. Hawkeye social promoted it and they basically were providing some promotional support, which was really, really, really appreciated on our part. But yeah, that was the extent.

Roneka Patterson:
One other thing that we definitely said we wanted to do from the get go is we don’t want to really submit this for awards. This is not just a how to fix racism from an ad agency. We just so happen to work at an ad agency and we’re going to use the talents that we have just because we work in advertising to do this. But this isn’t awards bait. This isn’t a play to get advertisers to care about this cause. We wanted it to be bigger than that. We wanted it to be for the general public to experience and react to. Yeah, that’s kind of how we ended up where we are now.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see this project going from here?

Roneka Patterson:
So we have some things in the works. I’m not going to say specifically, but I probably should just to make sure we name it, claim it. Our social media calendar, we’ve got that planned out through next summer. And our social media, we’re basically taking the idea of the encyclopedia and kind of expanding it a little bit. We have a rule breaker series. These people in history who’ve broken rules, broken some of those unwritten rules. We’re doing definitions like defining what do we mean when we say defund the police? What does that mean? Sometimes just putting it in writing for people, making a record of it. We’re not the first people to talk about the unwritten rules. We’re not the first people to try to define defund the police and why it matters. But those are the types of things that we feel like The Unwritten Rules should talk about. That’s the big thing that’s continuing to happen. And like I said, we’ve got a couple of other things that we’re working on down the line.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s been the feedback so far from the project?

Roneka Patterson:
It’s been positive. The best feedback I’ve gotten I think was from my family, who I’ve got Black Texans. Grew up in West Texas, East Texas, for them to be like, “This is amazing,” that says it. It says it in it’s beautiful. It says it in the right way. That’s been the best feedback for me. It’s been very, very positive, very, very affirmative. And it definitely does make the time and the love… There’s this moment when you send stuff out where you’re like, “I don’t know how this is going to be received. Is this going to work on Black Twitter?” Yeah, it’s been overwhelmingly positive and I think that’s part of why we’re like, “Okay, let’s keep going.”

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. The reason I was asking that before about why get your employer involved, because it sounded like this was something you really were all doing as a labor of love. I’m not saying this to cast dispersions on Hawkeye specifically, but I could see how an agency, particularly during this sort of time, would look at a project like that and try to claim ownership over it in some kind of way, you know?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. I’m sure there was probably a little twinge because there was some things that were presented to us where we had to turn it down. It’s like, “Hey, we have this newsletter.” It’s like, “No. It doesn’t really align with what we’re trying to do.” It was like, “Oh, we’re thinking we can create a training module that’s…” Like, “No, nope. It doesn’t really align with the time commitment that we have for this, for that.”

Roneka Patterson:
I know that if it had been a specifically Hawkeye driven project, I think definitely the rollout would’ve been different. And that’s just the nature of they’re in the business. They’re trying to get clients, they’re trying to show their clients that they’re a different type of agency than they are in a lot of ways, hence the support that we got for the project. I know it’s a fine balance, but they were all very, very respectful. Our executive leadership folks, they were very, very respectful and very grateful that we did this and just very supportive of whatever you guys need, we’re going to do it. We’re going to help you make it happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s really great to hear, yeah.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, in your spare time, I noticed from going through on your website, you’re quite the photographer.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first get into photography?

Roneka Patterson:
I’ve always loved photography, even back to when I was in high school, picking up, figuring out what kind of art I wanted to create. I got my first camera in college. I’d had to take some photo classes to get my degree, and love it. I love being in the lightroom. I shoot all digital now so just love the ease of that.

Roneka Patterson:
But I really got more serious about taking portraits when I was working back at the first agency that I was working at. This business, it’s a grind. And so I don’t think you’ll meet a single person in advertising, creative, who doesn’t have some type of side hustle or is like, “Oh yeah, I do murals. I paint.” And so that just ended up being the side hustle that I really gravitated towards.

Roneka Patterson:
And so I started shooting with my friends and then that had started to lead to some actual work, some paid work. And it’s something that I love to do. It’s something that I’ve kept up with. I take classes and tutorials. I’m a part of the Black Women Photographers group. They have speakers speak to us about working photographers who talk about the business. So I’m always just soaking in all of that stuff. I hope, as I get older, that that’s something that I can retire into. I would love to do that full time in my golden years.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career, and even to where you are right now at the moment, talk to me about mentorship. Has mentorship been something that has really helped you out throughout your career? Is this something that, at the level you’re at now, you feel you have to give back? Talk to me about that.

Roneka Patterson:
So mentorship has always been valuable to me. I feel like I’ve only in the last maybe four or five years been able to adequately provide it to others. I had to get over my issues with advertising and be able to view it in a way to where I could actually impart words of wisdom or good vibes on someone who wants to make it in this industry. But I love it. I’ve worked with the Marcus Graham Project last summer to… I had a couple of guys that I was mentoring. Anytime I’ve been around Black creatives, I’m like, “Hey, let’s network, let’s talk. How can I connect you with something?” So it’s definitely something that I’ve pushed.

Roneka Patterson:
This year, my group at Hawkeye, the team that I work on, we started a mentorship program with Dallas ISD. So there’s a school here locally, a high school, it’s mostly predominantly Black and Brown. And we wanted to teach them about advertising. We basically figured out that part of two twofold issue that’s happening with Black and Brown folks in advertising, it’s recruitment and retention, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roneka Patterson:
Retention is how do we make this environment inhabitable for Black and Brown folks? Make them feel like they have a sense of community and safety. And then with recruiting, do kids know what advertising is? A lot of us backed into it. If you had asked me in high school if I wanted to work in advertising, I probably probably would’ve told you no because it sounded like, I don’t know. It sounds like suits and briefcases, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Roneka Patterson:
I didn’t know that it was something that I could do and still have creativity and also pay the bills every month. So we partnered up with a high school in Dallas, and so we meet with them once a month and we just tell them about advertising. At the beginning of each meeting, we have rotating people that are hosting each meeting. They’ll explain how they got into the business.

Roneka Patterson:
Our session that we had the week before last, we used the Apples Shot On iPhone campaign to talk about all of the different roles in an agency that would help contribute to an idea like that, to help execute a campaign like that. It was really cool. We do quizzes with them to see what kind of things did they want to be? Do you want to be a strategist? Could you see yourself being an account person who manages relationships, client relationships? Could you see yourself creative or a production role?

Roneka Patterson:
And so it’s just an opportunity for us just to impart some knowledge and hopefully make some connection so that in a couple of years, when those kids are in college, they’ve got a connection with us and we can help link them up with someone. We do internships at Hawkeye, provide some opportunities for them. It’s something we’re really, really excited about. I love working with kids, so it’s just definitely fulfilling for me.

Roneka Patterson:
I just recently stepped down. I was the co-chair of my Delta… I’m a Delta. We have a group that we work with with middle school girls and I’d been doing that for 10 years. Finally I was like, “Okay, chapter president, I’m going to have to step down because I’m exhausted.” But picked this up just in time and so it’s just fun working with them and they’re open to learning. And hopefully we’re planting some seeds that will grow into an understanding of the business and hopefully some pathways for getting into this business.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. See, I think that’s awesome on multiple accounts. One, it goes back to that old adage of you can’t be what you don’t see. So the fact that you’re able to expose them to these career paths so early on gives them a sense of knowledge to know that this is a possibility for them to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and I feel like also that’s the best way that you learn is by teaching. By showing other folks what it is that you know, and it can help you become more effective communicator and things of that nature. I think that’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
I talk with a lot of companies and they’re always like, “Well, we have to establish a pipeline and how do we do this pipeline and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” I never liked the term pipeline because to me pipelines always strip resources away. It’s not about putting things back into the place where you have discovered them, it’s always about take, take, take, you know?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s very kind of like Western paternalistic in some kind of way, doing that sort of thing. What you’re doing though is establishing this connection. It’s almost like you’re planting flowers in a way, you know?

Roneka Patterson:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Because you’re not recruiting them directly from middle school or elementary school or whatever to come work for the agency, but you’re letting them know this is what I do in case you’ve never seen this as a position. This is the work that I do and if it sounds interesting to you, then this is how you can do it as well. That opportunity is what we’re really looking to give to the next generation.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. We took a vote. We were like, “Do we want to focus this on high schoolers or colleges?” Because we’ve got a couple of HBCUs in Texas. We could work with Paul Quinn over in Dallas. And we said there is something really nice about talking to high schoolers who are still trying to connect some of those dots, as you said, planting those flowers. Let’s say, okay, the goal of this is not to… You guys are going to be interned at Hawkeye sometime, but if we can figure out this framework, we can hand this to other agencies. Hey, you’re in Chicago. This is something you could set up with a local school in Chicago. I think we felt like there was a void. And not to say that there aren’t other people doing this elsewhere, but we knew that here in Dallas it wasn’t being done, or this way rather, because I’ve definitely worked with some other agencies before.

Roneka Patterson:
But is there something unique and special that we can do just to drop some knowledge? Because there’s a big push for STEM and business. That’s great, but we’re STEAM. That A, that art. What if people have the creative? There’s this little creative nugget. Black folks are hella creative, Brown folks are hella creative. If we can make that connect connection, you that are supremely awesome at editing TikToks, that’s a production role. You could make a lot of money doing that. If we could start to make some of those connections for kids, I think we felt like we will have done our part. Obviously we’re going to do more than that, but this is definitely how we wanted to start that kind conversation with them.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of that mentorship, who are some of the mentors that have helped you out in your career?

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, man. Honestly, I’m kind of on an Issa Rae thing where it’s been peers that have really helped me along the most. Fellow creatives who were in the trenches with me that gave me encouragement. I’ve had a couple of creative directors where it was just like, “Okay, this person is definitely…” I had a creative director when I was at Moroch that I still keep in touch with today. We’ll occasionally have lunch together. He was just super brilliant, creative and helped push me creatively.

Roneka Patterson:
But yeah, a lot of it has been peers. It’s been one of the writers that I work with on The Unwritten Rules. He’s helped inspire me and just a connector. He’s like, “Hey, there’s this thing that I found out about. You should try this out.” Or, “Let’s go to the museum. I heard about this thing that’s happening.” To me, that stuff, it encourages me because being around super talented people, it just helps raise you up a little bit. But just that friendship has been invaluable to me.

Roneka Patterson:
I don’t want to name drop anyone specific, but I’ll just say that it’s been a lot of people being in the trenches with me, peers that have helped push me and encourage me. And I do that for them too.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, this is bad. In my personal life or my work life?

Maurice Cherry:
Personal life.

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, this is bad. So my wife and I have been watching The Haves and the Have Nots by Tyler Perry. It’s on Hulu. There’s eight seasons of it. There’s 30 episodes a season. It’s insane. We’ve been binging it. It’s a soap opera. I grew up watching soap operas. Me and my mom used to watch The Young and the Restless and my grandmother and I used to watch it together. So I kind of got out of that over the last maybe five or six years, because life just got too busy and I didn’t have time to be watching soaps every day. But yeah, we’ve gotten into it the last couple of weeks and it’s just been insane. It’s like an addiction. We just got to get one hit tonight and then we’ll… It’s crazy. But yeah, that’s probably the thing right now. It’s kind of crazy.

Maurice Cherry:
I think we’ve all got an escape show that we dive into every now and then. There’s nothing wrong with that. Especially during this pandemic.

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, yeah. This is a judgment free zone here. [crosstalk 00:46:25].

Maurice Cherry:
Look, grab your creature comforts wherever you can. Absolutely.

Roneka Patterson:
I could turn my brain off and set it on the table and just zone out, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you feel creatively satisfied at this point in your career?

Roneka Patterson:
I feel like the last year and a half have allowed me to do things creatively that were kind of passion projects, explorations, just the type of work that I’ve all always wanted to work on in my career. A lot of it was the pandemic and just having the freedom, the personal freedom to do those things, to explore those things. And so, yeah, I would say I am feeling creatively fulfilled.

Roneka Patterson:
I’m definitely thinking about the next five or 10 years. What is that going to look like? Leadership is great. Being able to lead teams. I’m definitely doing more of that now. But the downside is that you’re not getting to create as much. You’re giving feedback and helping push other creatives to come up with really brilliant, amazing ideas. And so I think there’s always a little bit of tension with that. Do I want to continue on this path where I’m just going to be pushing and challenging and supporting? Or do I want to be in a position where I can still roll my sleeves up and do some of the work? I kind of go back and forth on that.

Roneka Patterson:
But I will say, between my photography and just the personal projects that I’ve gotten to work on over the last couple of years, I do feel like I’m getting a lot of the stuff in my brain out into the world, which has been nice and fulfilling.

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

Roneka Patterson:
I hope that I’m doing work that has positive impacts on the world. So whether that is more pro bono work, I’ve gotten to do a lot of that over the last couple of years and it’s super fulfilling for me. It’s merging the two things that I care about a lot, which is how can I help make things better out there and how can I create and express myself. So I think I would love to do more of that over the next five years.

Roneka Patterson:
As I said, I’m in a leadership role now, so I would like to continue that. I’m very much a let me pull some people up with me kind of person. So that’s a natural fit for a leadership. I’m trying to find opportunities for people. I’m trying to connect people, I’m trying to make sure that especially younger creatives don’t feel grinded up in this business the way I did. I don’t want anyone to feel like I got to quit because this isn’t… I got to quit this stuff because it’s not for me. I want to definitely encourage folks and get them to find that right balance to where they are getting their fulfillment, they’re safe and they’re allowed to grow. Any ways that I can help do that, that’s what I want to be doing over the next five years.

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

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. So you can visit ronekapatterson.com. So it’s R-O-N-E-K-A, Patterson with two T’s, .com. I’ve got design work and photo work there. You can find me on the gram, @RonekaP. And you can find me on LinkedIn too. I think you just search Roneka Patterson, I’ll probably pop up.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’ll also make sure to put a link to The Unwritten Rules in the show notes as well so people can check that out.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, that’d be awesome. Would love that.

Maurice Cherry:
Awesome. Roneka Patterson, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. One, of course, for telling us more about this project that I’ve heard about now probably for the better part of a year, in terms of it getting around in the world and getting around amongst other Black creatives. But also about just giving your own story and testimony about being a Black creative in this industry. And that even if there are setbacks, you can still find your way towards something that’s fulfilling, which I think we all need to hear that from time to time. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Roneka Patterson:
Thank you so much, Maurice. This has been great. I’m so glad to get to talk to you finally and just happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Dawn Okoro

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. That’s unfortunately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Okay, cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Absolutely.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Oh wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Tolu Ajayi

If you’re thinking about getting into product design, then this week’s interview with Tolu Ajayi is just for you! Tolu has made it her mission to help inspire the next generation of product designers, and her passion and energy are infectious.

Our conversation began with Tolu talking about her current work as a product designer, and she told her story about how she transitioned from graphic design to UI/UX, and shared what sparked her to create UI Narrative, a platform and podcast that helps inspire and connect her to the greater design community. She also spoke on the Black women in design who help inspire her, and shared some of her goals for the future. I’m really excited to see just how far Tolu will go!

Sponsor

Facebook Design is a proud sponsor of Revision Path. The Facebook Design community is designing for human needs at unprecedented scale. Across Facebook’s family of apps and new product platforms, multi-disciplinary teams come together to create, build and shape communication experiences in service of the essential, universal human need for connection. To learn more, please visit facebook.design.