You recently illustrated the cover for TIME’s “America Must Change” issue and also created paintings showcased inside the magazine. What insights did you take away from the experience? The joy in doing this assignment was that the art director D.W. Pine gave me the freedom to interpret the idea of what is going on in America and how I as a fine artist would portray that subject.
How have you used art as a medium to explore the themes of Black identity, activism and race in the United States? It has always been my intention to explore and express the narrative of the journey of being Black in America, to be direct in addressing my political beliefs and, at times, my anger. There is often so much symbolism.
How did you discover your passion for painting? Having an absolute love of history—in particular, African American history. If I wasn’t an artist, I would have been a history teacher. Fortunately, more than 20 years ago, I discovered that I could be both. I could tell historical stories through my art and be a visual historian.
Which painters do you most admire? Alfred Conteh, because he is unapologetically Black and an amazing craftsman when it comes to his printmaking, as well as his abilities to paint and sculpt. I’m really in love with the work of LaToya Hobbs, especially her line work and subtle introduction of color. Fabian Williams is also a great painter; I love his lines and edges, his ability to work on a larger scale and his aptness to get likenesses so well. And Maurice Evans, an Atlanta-based artist who’s one of my favorite colorists—his use of color is exciting.
What led you to start incorporating flowers into your work? About twelve years ago, the passing of my mother caused me to lose my passion to make art for a year. It was the longest I’d ever gone without painting since I first learned how. Then one day, I painted a picture of a little boy with a large bouquet, and the name of the piece was Not Enough Flowers. That’s when I realized that I was in a state of mourning for my biggest supporter and my biggest fan. And that’s when flowers became an ongoing theme in my work. Flowers represent life, death, celebration and beauty. I’m always thinking about the fragility of flowers, how they wilt and die. And of course, I am always intrigued by the vibrant colors they offer. Flowers can also be used to distract from the truth, so I strategically place them in certain areas as a distraction, to pull you away from my paintings’ the overall theme.
What was the inspiration behind the cover art for John Legend’s newest album Bigger Love? For this project, my then-fiancée now-wife Karida Brown-Palmer and I took a trip to South Africa. While we were there, we visited Cape Town. I was intrigued and fascinated by the beautiful landscape. Before visiting South Africa, I had wanted my work to be more universal, but in looking at what was happening in Africa, I realized that Black is universal. There was nothing that I needed to add or take away from it to make it universally appealing. I started to incorporate galaxies and stars in John Legend’s album cover. During my conversations with John Legend, we spoke about the influence of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s album Bitches Brew and how South Africa was his second best market. With this in mind, I incorporated the universe, the landscapes and the king protea, which is the national flower of South Africa. It all represented a type of bigger love. Love is universal and so much bigger than we are.
When did you develop your interest in children’s books, and how has it influenced your fine art work? I fell in love with children’s books the day I read Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. In the book, I saw a little boy who looked like me and a mother who looked like my mom. I was also raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where there were always snowy days. There was something about this book that warmed my heart, and since then I had always dreamed of illustrating a children’s book. As I started to develop as a fine artist, I realized that Keats’s approach to creating with patterns, textures and collage influenced what I did in my own illustrations. Later on, I was blessed with my first major children’s book project Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song, which is about the story of singer Miriam Makeba. Also, the publisher gave me the freedom to interpret the story the way I wanted to.
How does your approach to illustrating children’s books differ from how you approach your editorial and commercial work? In both cases, the only difference is that there is a second party. With my fine art, I simply create what I feel and what inspires me. With any kind of commercial work, there is an art director. In my opinion, the best work comes from art directors who step back and let me create, but there are times when there is something in particular that they want me to communicate. Because the field of children’s book illustrations is so new to me, it’s important to get that kind of feedback. During my last project, My Rainy Day Rocketship, which was published by Denene Millner Books and Simon and Schuster, what I enjoyed most were the conversations I had with the art director, producing loose sketches and then having full reign over the illustrations. Those books happened more organically and more naturally.
You’re tackling an anthology based on W.E.B. Du Bois children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book with your wife. What challenges have you encountered while working on this anthology? The beauty is that we haven’t experienced any real challenges. W.E.B Du Bois did when he reached out to Black authors, illustrators and photographers, and asked them to submit images for the publication almost 100 years ago. Most of them weren’t compensated, but the magazine was an expression of love for Black children. Because of our devotion and passion for Black children, we needed to create this collaborative literary and visual project. Reaching out has been the easy part; we just had to keep in mind who might share the same passion.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? As a visual artist, whatever you do will live longer than you do. Do your best because a bad piece of artwork could always surface and be embarrassing.