Joel Ulmer is an emerging artist who is definitely creating buzz with his artistry. His pieces span from classic 90s movie characters to depicting historical issues affecting people of the African diaspora. It was an absolute pleasure listening to this young black visual artist talk about his journey. The discussion also gave me additional perspective into chartering my own creative path.
Me: Can you speak on the significance of using art as a form of activism?
Joel: I feel like art can play a vital role especially with all that’s going on in the world. I feel like there has to be some type of expression other than speaking because people tend to be real sensitive when you say things especially when it’s true. Art can be the mediator and it also can be just as powerful as words, depending on what you’re trying to depict with your art.
Me: Definitely! Describe your upbringing, where you’re originally from, when you started painting, and family background.
Joel: I was born and raised in Southeast, Washington, DC. That part was not the most friendliest, welcoming part of DC, it’s rough. I have a twin sister, and we are the youngest of seven children all together. We’re 20 minutes apart. Overall, I come from a good family so I can’t complain too much. I developed an interest in art pretty young, I think I was about six. Me and my sister, we used to watch Bob Ross on WETA and it was so inspiring. He could just paint things so effortlessly. Then, I started to do my own thing. I didn’t get serious with art though until high school. That’s when I took an AP course, drawing and painting at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School here in DC. Then from there I went on and decided to go to college and major in studio art. That’s when I decided this is really what I want to do.
Me: Wow, that’s really cool man and where did you go to college?
Joel: I went to Central State University. It’s an HBCU in Wilberforce, Ohio.
Me: How was that experience?
Joel: I definitely saw the advantages of going to an HBCU but then I also saw the disadvantages because my high school was really diverse. Just going to a college that was 90 percent black people, that was a bit of a change. Not to mention it was in Ohio. I’m from the city so it was a culture shock. Overall, it was a good experience though. One of my professors, Abner Cope, he taught me a lot about painting and how the art world works.
Me: Can you describe some of your art courses that you took and how that experience shaped you and your artistry? You know, a lot of art students get a bad rap especially when you major in art, many people look down upon that.
Joel: Yea the thing is people don’t really see options as far as jobs. But to me really, the options are pretty much what you make them. I started with the basics like simple design classes where we worked with paper cutouts, and we did a lot of collages. My favorite though was the drawing courses. I remember what my professor used to always say before we start with the painting and getting messy, we got to start with the groundwork which was drawing simple shapes with charcoal. We did a whole lot of still life drawings too. Our classes were really intimate, small classes which I liked versus going to an art school or bigger university where you would have like 30 sometimes 40 people in the class. With my classes it was maybe like 14-15 people at the most. So the help was there when you needed it.
Me: That sounds good man. Going back to the culture of the HBCU you attended, did you feel at home when you were there just being surrounded by so many of your own people? Also, was there at least a broad range of different types of people of the diaspora?
Joel: Yea to be honest, certain people for example, there were guys that you thought were gangsters. You know, like they had their pants sagging, they had the walk, fitted caps. However, they would be some of the most intelligent dudes. It would shock me what they would talk about sometimes. But, it made me check myself really, to not judge people by how they look because you never know.
Me: That’s very true. Describe how you approach your creative process; what’s your ideal environment to bring out your full range of creativity?
Joel: First, let me just say that I’m just always looking for inspiration. I’m always thinking about art pretty much and jotting things down. When I get an idea, I do some research on it. I’ll get some references and then I just go straight to the canvas. I start with a pencil sketch in most cases, then after that I’ll apply some paint and just go from there until I’m finished. Right now I’m working in my dining room (laughing), I don’t have a studio space. My ideal environment would be a studio. But, my dining room has done me good so far. I get so many ideas just from music. I would say Kendrick Lamar definitely inspires me. Certain things he says, I’ll think ‘awww mann, that’ll make a nice painting.’ In fact I thought of a series to a lyric that Kendrick Lamar said from a song off his To Pimp a Butterfly album. He said, “I made a flower for you outta cotton just to chill with you.” That led to me to jotting down a series that I’ll get to pretty soon. Also movies play a major role in my creative process as well as documentaries, but most importantly history. That’s why I’m so excited about the new African-American museum. I haven’t been there yet, my tickets are for November 7th.
Me: Awww mannn, I’m trying to make it down there next year.
Joel: Yea man, that’ll be a much better experience then when I go because it’s still so crazy down there with so many people. By the time you get there it might die down a little bit. But, I’m looking forward to going there because just from looking at their website, I’ve got some inspiration from different people’s stories. I want to tell them through art.
Me: What mediums do you prefer to use when you create your artwork?
Joel: As of right now, I am strictly working in oil paintings. Mostly everything I do so far is in oil. But, I do love sculpture and ceramics as well. I dabbled in that a bit in college and after college. I definitely plan on taking some courses just on sculpture by itself because I feel like making sculptures can really propel my work and make it more impactful.
Me: That’s dope…how long have you been working with sculptures, have you been doing it as long as your oil paintings or is that a fairly recent medium you’ve been using?
Joel: I started when I was a junior in college. That’s when I took my first ceramics course. It was great man. I found that was definitely therapeutic, using your hands to build and mold these sculptures. I did that for about a year. Then after college I taught a ceramics class with some elementary school kids. It was an after-school program. I worked with about 20 kids from fourth and fifth grade. I taught them the basics, how to make simple shapes, tools, and the anatomy.
Me: Wow, that sounds like it’s fulfilling work.
Joel: Yea I was able to take some clay home and work on my own pieces too.
Me: Is that something that you see yourself doing in the future?
Joel: Nah not the teaching, I’m pretty much done with that chapter. For right now I just want to focus on being an artist. I was so close to getting my masters though in Art Therapy and I just pulled the plug on that and said ‘let me just try to be an artist and give that a shot’. I’ve been painting since.
Me: So that’s when you made the decision to pursue art professionally.
Me: If you could collaborate with any artist on an upcoming piece who would it be and why?
Joel: Whitfield Lovell. I’ve been looking forward to seeing his series at The Phillips Collection for so long. I saw it last Friday. I actually work at The Phillips Collection part-time; I’ve been working there for 2 years. His work is sooo good. I didn’t know that he drew different types of objects though. I actually plan on meeting him at The Phillips Collection on November 16th. He’s giving a lecture and I am playing hooky from work that day just so I can catch him (laughing).
Me: I don’t blame you! That’s like a once in a lifetime type of experience!
Joel: His subject matter, the African-American struggle dealing with the early 1900s, I feel like that could really transcend into something great to go along with my pieces. I feel like it could be something powerful.
Me: I definitely agree. The combination of your stellar artistry mixed with his can definitely lead to something that’s groundbreaking, pushing the culture forward.
Joel: Thank you!
Me: No problem, when I saw your work on Instagram, I was like this dude is on point, his work is powerful!
Joel: Thank you, I really appreciate that man!
Me: Yea, with your Friday Series, everything just looked so realistic, you just really have a great grasp on proportions.
Joel: I really appreciate that, it’s good to hear. The whole purpose of that series was to show my versatility in subjects and to generate a mass audience. I didn’t want to just keep my work strictly to subjects like slavery. It did pretty well at the art show. I did 12 original oil paintings each depicting scenes from the movie. It was at The Museum in DC. I actually saw their Instagram back in April and I only had six pieces at that time. I started creating the pieces back in October 2015. I was at a really tough financial situation then and I decided to do some paintings on the movie after watching it with my girl one day. After doing the six pieces, I reached out to The Museum. It’s black-owned and all of the owners are from Washington, DC. They were really excited when I reached out because I was also from DC myself. They said I was the best artist that they’ve seen. They definitely wanted to get me to do a solo show. I told them that I have six Friday pieces and I want to do six more to put on their wall. They said go for it. So, I finished the next six by the beginning of September.
Joel: The show itself was a great turnout. The Museum has an enormous platform, they’re really well connected. They were able to promote the show and get some of their supporters to come out. It was a good day man (laughing). I’ll never forget, one of the owners came up to me and said ‘are you sure this is your first show?’
Me: That’s such a great opportunity for an emerging artist! Would you say that was your most rewarding event so far?
Joel: Most definitely! I left with a good amount of money that night. I didn’t sell any of the original paintings, but that wasn’t my plan. I told them that I would sell my prints instead. I had some high quality prints made for each painting on canvas. Each one went for $60. I made over $600 that night just in prints. The show lasted for about two and a half hours.
Me: Wow, that’s impressive! Kudos to you!
Joel: Thanks man! I can get used to this (laughing)!
Me: I feel you! What advice would you give to other artists specifically young black artists trying to profit from their craft?
Joel: I think the most important component in being a successful artist is finding your voice. Figure out what it is that you want to say or do. Work on your craft. Watch tutorials from your favorite artists, do your research on them. Research galleries. Definitely take advantage of all your resources. It’s ways to be successful and I’m definitely learning and seeing different ways myself, like certain people to connect with, certain people to reach out to. Use social media such as Instagram which features accounts such as Young Black Artists. Collaborate with other black artists. There’s a market for different subjects like me doing The Friday pieces versus other pieces I’ve done on slavery.
“I think the most important component in being a successful artist is finding your voice. Figure out what it is that you want to say or do
Me: Do you think your art degree was valuable in helping you to establish your art career?
Joel: I actually got a question from someone while I was in college asking, ‘why are you getting your degree in art, that’s stupid. That shocked me a little bit but, at the same time it motivated me to actually want to make something out of my degree. So to me it was worth it. Most people see it though that you can just learn most of that stuff online. However, actually being in a studio, working with like-minded people, learning from professional artists, professors, the smells of turpentine. You don’t get that experience on a computer. I don’t regret it at all going to school for art. It really prepared me to be the artist that I am today.
“…actually being in a studio, working with like-minded people, learning from professional artists, professors, the smells of turpentine and oil. You don’t get that experience on a computer
Me: Excellent! Great answer! I commend you for pursuing your degree in art despite so many people saying that it’s a horrible decision.
Joel: Yea, and it’s funny because those same people that said that are asking me for commissions. I don’t want to be old and hearing myself saying ‘I wish I would of…’ I just want to give it all I have or just a shot really. I’m not going to lie though I’m still struggling as an artist but thank God I have a full-time job.
Me: Where do you currently work full-time?
Joel: I work at the National Gallery of Art. Prior to that I was working at the United States Capitol. It was ok but it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. When I got an interview with the National Gallery of Art, I told them that ‘I used to skip school sometimes’ to come here (laughing). I think that really helped me get the job though, aside from me just being an artist and having a love for art. Everyday I’m inspired working there. The type of art is so vast. I feel really fortunate that I can work there and actually like it.
Me: That’s cool, so what is your position?
Joel: I am a Gallery Aide. I’m usually equipped with an iPad so I can just browse through the collections and direct people to certain pieces that they want to see. I’m pretty much a walking information booth. But I really like it though.
Me: Yea, and that’s definitely giving you more exposure and more networking opportunities as well.
Joel: Definitely. I have a story for you too. It was a piece that I did called Untitled III. It depicted three figures, a ‘field nigga’, ‘house nigga’, and ‘free nigga’. At the National Gallery of Art they have a staff display case. For the month of October, I was given the opportunity to display my work for the entire month. The first piece I chose to put up was that piece. It caused quite a ruckus. The painting was taken down after only two days. Many people praised me but I also heard some negative feedback, because it made people uncomfortable. I was pulled into a meeting with supervisors and the EEO officer. She pretty much told me to censor the N-word (which was already censored by the way) and gave me the ultimatum if I don’t censor it then the painting would have to come down. There were four separate, lengthy emails that were sent to her from the staff complaining about the painting. The funny thing is, it was both white and black people that made the complaints. That really shocked me. I told her I wasn’t even given the opportunity to explain the piece. I had people who actually wanted to buy the painting. So, instead of changing the painting to satisfy the complaints, I just took it down.
Me: Wow, that’s crazy man. That incident just shows the strength of your artistry, because when you create a piece that sparks so many different dialogues, that’s when you know a piece is just brilliant in my opinion. You did your thing (laughing)!
Joel: Right…And I was telling people that the piece served its purpose. It exposed some people, and it really made an impact that it was supposed to for the mere two days it was up. It made such a presence. Top people from departments actually approached me. I made relationships with a couple of curators who wanted to learn more about the piece. Also, a couple of conservators extended an invite to their offices to talk about it. Word definitely got out!
Me: That’s incredible! At least you got something out of it!
Joel: Thank you man! The other good news is that days after it was accepted into another museum, the Charles Sumner museum in DC.
Me: That’s awesome! I give you props for that, that’s a bold move your part to put yourself out there like that. It’s difficult as a creative because you know what you intended for a certain piece and then you put it out there and you get so many other opinions and controversy. People can be a trip (laughing)!
Joel: Most definitely! I remember when I did my first piece in the series, I was terrified. I showed that one as part of a group show at The Phillips Collection. Yea, so when I did the Untitled III I didn’t really feel the same timidness as I did so I guess Untitled I paved the way for Untitled III.
Me: By the third one you were like I’m good (laughing)!
Joel: Oh yea! Just threw that one out there (laughing)! I’m definitely happy I had the support that I did for my piece. The funny thing is that they came up with guidelines for the staff showcase because of that one. There was another piece that got rejected after Untitled III too. It was a given though because of the content but I tried to put it up anyway. It depicted a black man who was hanging from a noose, and there were white men pulling it. The Charles Sumner museum accepted that one as well. I’ve been using these incidences as fuel for other paintings I create.
Me: Nice! That sounds like a powerful piece as well. What’s your favorite piece you created?
Joel: The Untitled I has to be my favorite. First, I went through it creating it. I remember the exact day that I thought about doing it. I was working at The Phillips Collection and we had a staff show coming. I wanted to do something that was true to my culture, my background. Something I could relate to. The art world pretty much lacks that type of art, especially The Phillips Collection. I was wondering if people would like it. I had to be brave and I ended up showing it. I prayed over it a lot. My piece was actually the highest priced piece at the show. I priced it at $777 and it actually sold to a private collector. The person contacted me via email and then he called me and left a message. He got my number from the contact sheet. Then, by the end of that day, he came up to the museum with an envelope full of cash. He handed me the envelope and said ‘it’s okay I don’t have to have the piece today, I just want to make sure that I get you the money because I really want the piece.’ I said ‘okay, the piece comes down in 2 weeks after the show ends, and I’ll meet up with you to give you the painting.’
After I gave him his piece, Another collector (an attorney) contacted me to ask if the piece was still available. I told him no but I could replicate it and ship it to him. He agreed. Then, a week later somebody else had the same request and I upped the price of course. It was a blessing. So, there’s 3 original paintings out there.
Me: Wow that’s a phenomenal story!
Joel: Yea, Darryl the crazy thing is though that first price $777 is a divine number, which represents the holy trinity. It ended up being three of those paintings that sold. I really just feel so fortunate, that people actually loved it and appreciated it.
Me: It’s an incredible piece! You deserve all the credit!
Joel: Thanks a lot man, I’m kind of sad that it’s not in my possession though, I didn’t want to let it go.
Me: Yea that’s the tradeoff as an artist, when you sell a piece you’re glad that someone thought it was worthy to buy, but I can imagine the emotional connection that you had to that piece.
Joel: Exactly. I actually want to do another version, add another figure within it, and make it bigger. Maybe next year I can get to that. I also have two sons so it’s a lot to balance.
Me: Oh yea? Looking forward to that one! I don’t have any kids so I can only imagine (laughing). What was the most challenging piece you’ve done?
Joel: I would have to go again with Untitled I. I went through so much trying to create that piece. Just going back and forth adding strokes and being scared just of the content of the piece itself. To add to that, I had pulled an all-nighter trying to get it done before the deadline for the show. I ended up finishing it the day before, so when I turned the piece in it was still wet. It was just me in my dining room with all these different emotions I was feeling painting the piece. What I reaped from that was so incredible!
“It was just me in my dining room with all these different emotions I was feeling painting the piece
Me: Yea man, you deserve all the blessings from that piece!
Joel: Thank you!
Me: Describe a time when you experienced a creative block, and how did you overcome it?
Joel: There was a time when I suffered from depression. It stemmed from difficulties in life like financial struggles and being a young father. Also, working a job that I didn’t like and not feeling inspired that really affected me. At that time I did a lot of reflecting and investigating of artist block and also a lot of prayer. I changed my lifestyle as well, which I really think played a major role in why I couldn’t or even want to produce anything. I had to re-evaluate myself and change my ways. In that process, I stumbled upon this book The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. This book really aided me in recovering from my creative block. That’s one of the things she focused on in the book, taking that leap of faith and recognize those little miracles that align you with where you’re going in life. She said to pay attention to those things.
“…recognize those little miracles that align you with where you’re going in life. Pay attention to those things
Me: Wow, those words and your experiences just struck a cord within me too going through a similar situation. I’m just gaining the motivation to keep pursuing my own creative passion and just go for it.
Joel: Yea, it’s really our fear. We get in the way of ourselves. It’s really not fair because we don’t deserve that. But we can do it. You can do it!
Me: Wow, thank you so much! Got me in my feelings right now!
Joel: That’s a good thing man, she was also really big on affirmations too. Telling yourself that you are…creative, strong. You definitely gotta get this book. Here’s a quote from Duke Ellington that was mentioned in the book:
“I merely took the energy to pout and wrote some blues
So he made a choice. I really have to read this book again.
Me: Yea, seriously. These types of conversations are needed.
Joel: Definitely, I feel you. I’m glad I could share this with you.
Me: Forreal man. This is therapy for me too. Thank you so much!
Joel: I’m glad to be of assistance. This book is one of the main reasons why I decided to take the leap myself. Here’s another quote from the author:
“In order to effect a real recovery, one that lasts, you need to move out of the head and into the body of work. Creativity requires action
Me: Boom! Drop the mic on that one (laughing)!
Joel: (laughing) yea drop it. I really hope that helps you though man.
Me: Yea, I’m going to definitely get that book! How has your artwork shaped you as a person?
Joel: It has rooted me culturally. It made me retaliate through art and become more conscious of the black struggle. I’m more brave with my content and subject matter. It helped me overcome that fear. Just learning more about how families that were torn apart during slavery, I see the importance of family. It really makes me want to keep my family intact. I’m just trying to be the best father, the best role model, the best lover for my sons and their mother. My artwork has definitely made me hyper aware of that.
Me: Wow, that’s real. Beautiful answer! Would you like to share any upcoming projects/exhibitions?
Joel: I’m extending the Friday series. I talked to the owners at The Museum and we talked about hosting the show at a bigger gallery. Since it’s a bigger gallery they said that they’ll need more art. There’s going to be 21 pieces in total for this event.
Me: That’s amazing! What’s your vision for the future?
Joel: I want to open up a gallery here in DC. I want to explore subjects like gentrification and racism, history, slavery and stuff like that. I also want to feature other artists as well. I don’t want to be selfish and only show my work. I want to give them an opportunity to tell their story. It’s always good to see things from different perspectives. I want to still have my own works in different museums, art galleries, and private collections.
Me: Excellent! Joel, this was a great conversation, thank you for being so open in sharing your story!
Joel: Thank you! I’m happy I did this! You’ve inspired me too!
To view more of Joel’s artwork and contact him with inquiries, visit him on Instagram @joelvincii.