Black Visual Artist Chat – Ryan Leary


Whether Ryan is creating visually compelling pieces of the Moors, brothers and sisters donning their natural hair, or intimate moments between black men and women – there is no denying her immense love for the African diaspora. Her art sends a constant reminder to the black community that our heavily melanated bodies are a gift. Gain deeper insight on Ryan’s artistic and personal evolution in our conversation.

Me: Can you speak on the significance of using art as a form of activism?

Ryan: I think most people think of art from a Western concept as something high-brow and high-society and inaccessible. But, if you look at art from non-western cultures, art is a utilitarian object via pottery from China or Akuaba figures from West Africa, they were purposeful. Art has to be a form of activism because it always has been. I think the Harlem Renaissance is the perfect example of black art activism with art enabling attempts of a New Negro movement. You had Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway with a multitude of voices and images, music, and movements to complement those voices. Art is insightful, it’s reflective.

Ryan: One of my favorite quotes is by Ossie Davis and he said, “Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can affect change – it can not only move us, it makes us move.” Till this day we’re still hearing Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit. We’re seeing the re-ushering in of James Baldwin and his prolific writing. For me, art has always been activism as a celebration of who we are as people of the African diaspora. When I get on social media and see people getting frustrated about cultural appropriation, I think, ‘well they’ve been doing that for centuries.’ We’ve been the creators, they just know how to steal. I definitely believe art is a necessity because images, music, and dance can move you to do greater things. I just posted a picture on Instagram about resistance. Your form of resistance doesn’t always have to be in the form of a protest or march. Me painting pictures of black people obnoxiously large and unapologetically black to hang in places where 50 years ago, they could’ve never hung, is my form of resistance.

“For me, art has always been activism as a celebration of who we are as people of the African diaspora.”

Me: Wow, Ryan you just uncovered so many gems within that question! Just being able to use the art to achieve that form of activism and to be able to move people to action is one of the most powerful things about it. Especially within our culture, dealing with years of oppression, having an outlet like art to be able to express those different types of emotions is vital.

Ryan: Absolutely. I’m currently reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. It looks at each movement literally through times starting from slavery and reconstruction to the New Negro Movement. Each movement is asking a question to visualize, “what did freedom look like at each of those time periods?” I think the art is very reflective of those periods and will encourage us to tell our own narrative.

Ryan: AfriCOBRA which was a black artist movement in the 60s, you had an unapologetic blackness in the dashikis and the vibrancy of colors. This was also at a time when African-American studies was now about to be considered an accredited degree. Each of those major cornerstones in black culture, there was always an art movement. The drug epidemic within our communities was answered through Hip-Hop and the Reaganomic years. I’m excited to see what movement emerges since we have the Mandarin Manchurian candidate as our president.

Me: That’s the truth! Would you like to touch upon any of your pieces in particular that reflect the art activism aspect as well?

Ryan: Well, I have a new series that I’m working on now called Melanated Gold which started one day while I was painting a portrait. I noticed melanin being the new hashtag trend on social media like #melaninonfleek, and #melaninlit. Then, I was like okay well let’s really research melanin and look up what it actually is. I learned that’s what actually gives black and brown people their skin tones and its structure resembles a honeycomb. That’s what led to melanated gold as a way for us to remember that we’re invaluable. I started doing black women first because they’re the only group of women ethnically that still have traces of the mitochondrial DNA of the first human beings. But, we don’t want to have those conversations because some folks feel uncomfortable and you have some black folks thinking that it’s all mumbo jumbo. But, I’m not afraid to explore that.

Ryan: We literally are gold, our culture has been imitated everywhere. The fact that our bodies and our ancestors were the first currency on Wall Street to be traded, we know our value. I think Melanated Gold is really a celebration of us. If you do your research, during the highest trafficking of slaves, black bodies were worth more than gold. I think it’s so interesting the juxtaposition between something that’s inanimate and something that has life have both been exchanged for the same. How is it that we weren’t considered human yet our labor was more valuable than a precious metal? That’s really the vision behind Melanated Gold so of course it’s a range of black men and women with the melanin molecular structure. The fact that I paint black people in the style that I do is revolutionary. People may say there’s no way a black person could reach the level of Caravaggio or Tintoretto. However, my response is, ‘You should know that DaVinci learned a lot of his stuff from the Moors – the North Africans that came to the Iberian Peninsula and civilized Europeans and got them through the plague.’ To be fair Darryl, you also have to understand that I’m also an art historian.

“We literally are gold, our culture has been imitated everywhere.”

Me: Wooo! Yes I figured that (laughing) just from the conversation and some of the artists that you mentioned I’ve never heard of.

Ryan: Well these were considered the masters of that time period. Where did they learn it from though? I don’t understand how Picasso is considered this amazing artist, yes he did do analytical and synthetic cubism, but he went to Columbia and studied pre-Columbian, West African and Central African masks. So, with white people talking about how they continuously discovered things, how do you discover something with a bunch of people already here?

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Something new…

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Me: Preach! I think in regards to the global African community, we’re so deeply rooted within racial oppression and I think to alleviate that we have to continuously express ourselves and educate each other with the art and other platforms.

Ryan: Absolutely. This is where me and the hotep coalition divide. These are the brothers and sisters that claim to be conscious because they’ve seen all four episodes of Hidden Colors but have not done research for themselves. The authenticity and the breadth of blackness is ridiculous. There are black folks in Asia, and there are Greecian blacks. As a matter of fact, last year Mexico finally recognized a group of indigenous Mexicans who are of African descent as citizens. So, the spectrum of melanated folks is everywhere. This also brings me to the aesthetic of blackness. It is not limited to Hip-Hop and Neo-Soul. I thank God for things like Afropunk and Comic Con. We come in every shade, what makes you think that what we do and who we are wouldn’t either?

“The authenticity and the breadth of blackness is ridiculous.”

Me: Exactly! There’s so much depth to the African diaspora, there’s more than one way to define us as a people.

Ryan: To be black in America, we have to also understand that white supremacy has affected us, we cannot ignore that. That brings a whole other conversation of whether integration was beneficial or destructive. Even Dr. King said, “I fear I may have integrated my people into a burning house.” A lot of our leaders had second thoughts about integration. I think now for black people to have some semblance of a community, we have to recognize that not everybody’s a hater. If we disagree these days we’ll say “you’re a hater.” Think about it, we had Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and W.E.B Du Bois all existing at the same time – wanting the same goal of black liberation. But, they had various viewpoints that even opposed each other. For God’s sakes they had friendly debates about them and they were still respected but all of them knew at the end of the day, they all wanted liberation for their people.

Ryan: We don’t even have a visual concept of what freedom should look like for us. We’ve been so conditioned to being a victim, that we’ve done a better job than those who wanted us to be in the first place. I feel like collectively whether we believe it or not, we have taken the whips out of our overseers hand and started to beat ourselves. It’s frustrating and it’s unfortunate.

“We’ve been so conditioned to being a victim, that we’ve done a better job than those who wanted us to be in the first place.”

Ryan: If you’re into documentaries, it’s this one on Netflix called Zeitgeist. It’s so much information. The first part talks about Christianity and the story of Christ and how that story mimics so much of the story of Horus in Egypt. The second part talks about what we didn’t know about 911 and the third part talks about the Federal Reserve. There was a breakdown of how long the dollar lasts in communities – I think they said the Asian community it lasts 28 days, 14 days in the Jewish community, and only a few hours in the black community. I just don’t understand how we have a 1.3 trillion dollar buying power but we’re still in debt. I try to support black businesses here in the city but at the same time I wonder what are they doing to give back to the community?

Me: Amen, wow I feel you, that hit me to the core! Describe your upbringing, where you’re originally from – when you started painting, family background, and education.

Ryan: I was born and raised in Cincinnati. I have an incredible family, it’s four of us – my brother my Mom and Dad. My parents never said no to myself or my brother for wanting to learn to try something new. Every vacation included a visit to at least two museums. Library trips and art museums were frequent. My parents taught us to fall in love with learning. I started drawing when I was one on the walls. Instead of putting me on the floor with pieces of paper, my parents went and bought picture paper and lined the walls so I could continue to draw on the walls. My Mom taught me how to play the piano when I was five. My Dad introduced me to Jazz which led me to learn how to play the soprano and alto saxophone. I remember the day when Lion King first came out and it was a family tradition to go see a Disney film on the opening day. We were in line and I wandered away from my Dad and I drew one of the characters in my spiral notebook. When I came back he said, “how’d you trace that?” I said, ‘I didn’t, I drew it.’ Then he said, “go draw another one.” I think I drew Zazu first and then I drew Timon and Pumbaa the second time. So, I was about nine when I really started to fall in love with art and I haven’t looked back since.

“I started drawing when I was one on the walls. Instead of putting me on the floor with pieces of paper, my parents went and bought picture paper and lined the walls so I could continue to draw on the walls.”

Ryan: I went to Bowling Green State University, a liberal arts college which is right outside of Toledo, Ohio. I didn’t want to go there at first but they gave me a full scholarship. I majored in Art History and I minored in Entrepreneurship. Then, I went to graduate school at the University of Cincinnati to get a Masters in Art Education but I ended up leaving. I decided to teach myself, volunteering at different museums and community centers. Just being self-taught, I read a lot. I order about five to six books from Amazon every month. I’ll read a black studies book then I’ll read about art history and education just to stay abreast of what’s going on. Then I’ll just pick some random books. One of the books I’ve read recently was called the Biology of Belief which ties in spirituality and biology. It was really interesting because it was written by this molecular biologist who was basically saying how cells do two things – they grow or they die. When a cell is in a positive or healthy environment it’s going to grow and when a cell isn’t it’s going to die. The same thing goes with our thoughts and our spirituality. It was a really good book.

Me: Wow! Kuddos to you Ryan! I love the fact that your parents nurtured your creative spirit so early, it speaks volumes to the type of people that they are.

Ryan: I think both of my parents had a passion to get out of the situation that they were in as teenagers. Between the two of them they’ve been on every continent but Antarctica. My Dad being in the Air Force and my Mom being a computer engineer and working in different departments at the company she works for, they got to travel a lot. My Dad knows a little Vietnamese and my Mom speaks French. My brother knows sign language and I speak Spanish. So, again our household is all about love and learning.


Me: That’s incredible! Praises to your parents!

Ryan: Listen, God spoiled the mess out of me! Even if I didn’t have my talent as an artist just to have them as parents was enough. They are my biggest fans. It’s to the point now where I’ll text them asking if the face of one of my paintings looks proportioned or does the color look right? I have to tell you this one story where me and my Dad went to this art museum. We’re walking around and we get to the African wing which is really just a small room and he says, “Oh, they stole all this shit from us and we get only 12 square feet?” I was like, ‘ok, let’s go.’ Even when he was saying stuff like that, my Dad always made valid points. We were looking at a mask and he said, “this is wrong, that’s not where this mask comes from.” My favorite moment though was when I took him to the contemporary art section. There was this huge painting, about 20 feet by 40 feet. There were three grey lines – one on the far left side, one on the far right, and another one on the far right cutting at a diagonal. Then in the center was this red dot. It was called The Gateway. My Dad looked at me and then asked the gallery attendant, “how much is the painting going for?” “I believe 85,000,” the gallery attendant said. Then my Dad looked back at me and said, “go home and get some crayons we about to do this shit right now!” (laughing)

Me: (Laughing) Your Dad is off the chain! Going back to your education, did you get any flack from your parents about majoring in Art History?

Ryan: My parents were very upfront with me in making sure that I understood if I majored in this then I probably wouldn’t work in my field, so they encouraged me to have a backup plan. After I graduated, everything was going good. I worked for an art museum here in the city while attending graduate school. Then in 2008, that’s when I decided graduate school wasn’t for me and the museum I was working at had a position open up in the education department. The guy that was in charge of the education department shouldn’t have been over in the education department. He had an Associates in Poetry and I found out that he threw my application away from a co-worker. So, I went straight to HR and I gave her my resume. A week goes by and they wanted me to fill in another position which I didn’t want. Long story short, I ended up quitting that job. Then, I ended up working for a family-owned company which I stayed at for five years and I was miserable there but I stayed because I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to find another job. So, those were some rough times but I learned some good lessons.

Me: What were some of those lessons you learned during that time?

Ryan: First, I learned to not quit a job unless you already have a job lined up or at least the funds to pay your major bills with. Other lessons I learned is to fight for yourself and your worth, and your passions are going to bring you peace. I don’t think I could’ve survived 2008 through 2013 without being creative and teaching, that kept me at peace. I think it’s interesting now because I work for an insurance company and I work in the pharmacy department. I’m looking at the younger girls that are straight out of college in their 20s and they’re complaining about everything. I’m just making sure they get my check right. It’s so different looking back at my 20s and being in my 30s now especially in teaching because I had that ‘we’re going to save the world type of mentality’.

“Other lessons I learned is to fight for yourself and your worth, and your passions are going to bring you peace.”

Ryan: I used to teach in Chicago and I buried two students in less than six months one year. This is where I get into arguments with people all the time especially with folks that aren’t from or never lived in Chicago. I was at a Starbucks one day and I think I had something on my bag with Chicago’s logo on it and some white girls were saying, “oh, you’re from Chicago?” “No, I used to live there,” I said. Then they were like, “oh my God you made it out.” That was strike one. “What are they going to do about all the violence, why are those communities so violent?.” That was strike two. Then they said, “Well, I agree with Trump that there should be Martial Law in Chicago.” That was strike three. Violence isn’t the problem, violence is the effect of what happens when you have a cause of food desserts, no policies that have to give adequate education, and employment. Up until last year, the South Side of Chicago (which is predominantly black) did not have a trauma center. How does an entire region not have a trauma center? There are more juvenile private centers being built than adult private centers. There are full towns that exist because there are private maximum prisons there. Not to mention, prisoners are making Ikea furniture or something like that which goes into the schools. That is the prison to pipeline, students are writing on the desk that the system hopes they’re going to be building later. I couldn’t be president.

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Crowned Messiah chalk on paper

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Me: I’d vote for you (laughing)! As far as your art degree goes, did you find value in pursuing it?

Ryan: Absolutely! At my college, we had some incredible professors. Not only did we learn about the art, we learned about the politics and the movements that were going on at that time. So, if we looked at a piece of art, we already knew the context of the history of what was going on. That’s something I took away from them. My degree also taught me about my own biases. For example, I had an African art class which was taught by a white woman. On the first day of class I had my head cocked back to the side thinking ‘who’s this white women?’ I tell you though this woman was brilliant! So, it let me know that I had my own biases and I had to put those aside even though it was about my own ancestry. Even with certain paintings that I do, I’ll see my knowledge being applied. Like the most recent painting I did of the woman with the turban and the necklaces, because of the dramatic lighting I looked back at other artists’ pictures I learned about in college to see how I could use their technique to capture that. I don’t regret my Art History degree at all. It continues to develop my skills as an artist, but also as a person to appreciate and love the art. Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without art.

“I don’t regret my Art History degree at all. It continues to develop my skills as an artist, but also as a person to appreciate and love the art.”

Me: That’s what’s up! Describe how you approach your creative process, what’s your ideal environment to bring out your full range of creativity?

Ryan: The one thing I do before I start creating is meditate and pray. I literally have a meditation process where I’ll put my hand on a picture that I’m using as a reference and then I’ll say something like ‘thank you for this talent, thank you for this gift, I pray that I have not wasted it. I pray that this is nothing about me but it is everything in the entity of you and if you just allow me to be your vessel to breathe life into this as you breathe life into everything everyday.’ That’s my prayer right before I make any artwork even if it’s just a sketch or an underpainting.

Ryan: Then I’ll take some sage and I’ll smudge it to make sure the energy is clear and then I’ll get to work. Music definitely inspires me. When I first started doing portraits of Hip-Hop artists, I would only listen to their music as I worked on their piece. So when I drew Common, I only listened to Common. When I did Outkast or Erykah Badu I only listened to their music because I’m trying to literally absorb their creativity and their gift so I’m able to channel that through their portraits. Sometimes I’ll be on the easel in my studio, sometimes I’ll be on a floor pillow with a canvas propped up against my coffee table. Depending on what mood I’m in, some days I’ll listen to Solange’ A Seat at the Table album, some Armenian Duduk music, or some Native American pan flutes. Then some days it’s bonafide rachet, it might be some Rick Ross or I might take it to the old school and listen to some Hot Boys.

Me: Wow, that’s quite an eclectic taste in music you have! What made you start doing the meditation and prayer before you create?

Ryan: It started when I began doing live paintings at events and venues because there’s so much chaos going on. There’s a band setting up, people talking, there’s waiters and waitresses going back and forth – I needed something to tune out. I’ve always been a very high-strung and nervous person. I tend to over think so I had to literally calm myself down and be peaceful. Meditation allows me to hear my spirit and my inner voice. That started around 2008. Now it’s just habitual, there’s no question. My friends understand it so if they’re over my house, they’ll stop talking to me so I can do it.

“Meditation allows me to hear my spirit and my inner voice.”

Me: That’s excellent! Go ahead sister! When did you start live painting?

Ryan: One of my very good friends who’s another artist, his friend who’s a promoter would do these events at a sushi spot. That’s where I started doing the live painting and it was fun because there was a band, and a DJ. That’s when I realized I could do it because I could tune everything out. The world could be coming to an end but if I had something to draw on or paint on, I’m at complete peace. That was also my first time meeting a different clientele. It was wonderful. After that, I became known around the city. He had this event once a month and people would come down and ask if I was still painting. This was a black-owned sushi spot too and he would call the events Mo’ Better Wednesdays. I did that for two years. I still have the majority of those pieces.

Me: That’s too dope! If you could collaborate with any artist on an upcoming piece who would it be and why?

Ryan: Jamel Shabazz, he’s a photographer. He did these dope photographs in the 70s and 80s that would eventually become like a Hip-Hop photography style. He has a book called Back in the Day where he has everything from the adidas outfits to the chains. He was up and personal with the people. It was also at a time where Hip-Hop came onto the scene. It was when black youth was like “F this we gonna do us.” I would love to see what a mixed-media of his photography and my painting would look like. So, bringing the texture out of the fur coats or just being beyond decadent and elaborate with the rope chains, he’s just a dope photographer.

“I would love to see what a mixed-media of his photography and my painting would look like.”

Me: Yea that would be a crazy collaboration! When did you start selling your work?

Ryan: I sold my first piece at 15. It was a landscape and I sold it to my dentist. I always drew but I didn’t start painting until I was 13. I literally started by watching Bob Ross. My parents would come home everyday to another damn sunset mountain painting or it was a lake with ‘happy’ little trees. My first portrait was of Erykah Badu and it was horrible. I still have it too. My senior year I decided to challenge myself and for my senior review I painted a portrait, but it wasn’t of one that I wanted to do. In 2001, in Cincinnati we had riots because within the last five years 15 unarmed black men have been killed by white police officers. The riots happened from April 4th to April 11th. I wanted to do a portrait shrine to each victim and my teacher wouldn’t let me do it. She said it was based on the rules of the competition, I had to have photographs of each person. I went to a working lower class predominantly white Leave It to Beaver high school. After her saying I couldn’t paint that, I said to myself that I would never paint another white person again, all of my paintings would be of us and it literally has been.

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Committed to Committed. Oil on canvas

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Me: I love it! In your opinion, what do you think young black visual artists can do to create more opportunities for themselves?

Ryan: I think whatever opportunities you try to create for yourself, research them first so you know all of the potential outcomes. For example, when I started doing live art I just wanted to do it. When it came to a point where something sold, the owner of the business was like “well I get a percentage.” We didn’t talk about that and I think had I known how everything worked beforehand, I would have been more prepared to handle those types of situations. If you’re looking for exposure, contact small local businesses to see if they need artwork. There are so many coffee houses and mom and pop restaurants that may want to do something to make the ambiance nicer. It’s a win win, they’ll put your artwork on their walls and you’ll get exposure.

“If you’re looking for exposure, contact small local businesses to see if they need artwork. There are so many coffee houses and mom and pop restaurants that may want to do something to make the ambiance nicer.”

Ryan: Don’t just limit yourself to what you create. Yes people know me as a portrait artist, but I will paint some fraternity shirts for some coins. I have painted Kappa canes, and Alpha Phi Alpha shirts. Also, don’t limit yourself to what you think your art is. I’m a visual artist but I can also do lectures about art. With you writing a blog, you can teach a class on how to write about art for potential bloggers. I teach art but the other thing I do is help people collect art. It’s kind of like when an artist buys their favorite media, they tend to stick to that. Ask schools to speak at their career day and being able to share your artwork. Who knows, the staff might be interested in buying your art as well. Sometimes, you have to create a demand. There’s more opportunities out there than you may consider as opportunities. I spoke at the University of Cincinnati a few years ago. I had a lecture on the evolution of the black image in western culture. The person that was listening to the lecture came up to me and asked if I was an artist and I gave him my card. He called me the next day asking to buy one of my pieces. Had I not did the lecture, I wouldn’t have gotten that direct customer. Learn how to curate. As an artist I definitely recommend other artists to study others and visit museums because you’ll grow that way as well. Most importantly, don’t be arrogant but do be confident as an artist. I think that’s what’s gotten me really far as well. Don’t limit yourself to the title of Artist.

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India.Aire oil on canvas 2008

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Me: Drop the Mic! That’s some phenomenal advice!

Ryan: (Laughing) That’s why I stopped using that Artist title. I’ll say I’m a creator because I do more than just paint pictures. I cultivate ideas, I stimulate thought, and empower pride. So, I can’t just be an artist. There was this one event, a young women’s luncheon at an elementary school here in Cincinnati. It was put together by a black police officer and he asked me to showcase my art. Then, he asked me would I be willing to interview someone. He said she was a freedom rider in the Civil Rights movement. Now I’m sitting here dumbfounded because I was about to interview one of the last freedom riders of the Civil Rights movement who lives right here in this city while also showcasing my art along with speaking to young women about following their passion. I sold two paintings that day. It was a good day.

“I’ll say I’m a creator because I do more than just paint pictures. I cultivate ideas, I stimulate thought, and empower pride.”

Me: Wow, that’s powerful! What’s your favorite piece you created?

Ryan: My favorite piece is From Dusk Till Dawn which is a portrait of a black man and a black woman in an intimate position. She’s on top of him and it was the first painting I did in 2012. I was looking at this French artist named Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres who did this painting called L’Odalisque and it was just vibrant and sensual. I wondered if I could create a piece like that and I did. It’s my quintessential black love piece and it’s one that I refuse to sell. I had a guy offer me $8,000 for it and I said, ‘nope.’ It’s huge it’s like 56 feet by 38 feet. All of my pieces are huge.

Me: Wow! How long did it take you to paint that one?

Ryan: This one took some time, I was really hell-bent on getting this one just right. I was proud of the way I portrayed that frozen moment and I think the blinds are the best. In order to get the blinds to look like an actual shadow, I had to literally repaint where the shadows hit so I could blend in the oil paint.

Me: Yea that sounds intense! (laughing) Is oil your favorite medium to use?

Ryan: I go back and forth between oil and chalk. But, the other thing I do is mix chalk and acrylic which was with my very first portrait where I felt really accomplished was of Mos Def. Because I wasn’t comfortable as a painter yet, I would go over it in chalk to make it look better. I did a few pieces like that. My very first painting with no chalk was of Andre 3000 with The Love Below album cover.


Me: Go head Ryan! Are there any other artists in your family?

Ryan: I have an uncle that’s a professional artist. He started doing very Afro-centric wood carvings. So, they remind you of the masks that you would see in people’s homes but he would incorporate glass and wires. He’s does maintenance too so he has all of these tools and wires. I tried to get him to go on IG but was like “I’m good.” He paints too, he has a very textured approach to his work. He’s a self-taught artist as well.

Me: That’s cool that you have a resource where you can get advice, encouragement and bounce ideas off of each other.

Ryan: Yea, if it’s a big black event in Cincinnati he’s usually there painting too.

Me: What was the most challenging piece you’ve done?

Ryan: Majeed was my most challenging piece because of the fabric. Creating texture in that fabric took my patience to a whole other level. There’s another piece I did called Libations that was similar in colors and it was of a moor but my Mom took it and told one of my good friends who wanted it that he couldn’t have it (laughing). She actually wanted Majeed but I already sold that one to a good friend of mine who’s also an art collector. She wasn’t too happy about that. Now, I have to send her all of my pieces before I post them so she can see which pieces she wants (laughing). These are a year apart.

Me: Wow, you put in that work Ryan! (laughing)

Ryan: (Laughing) By the way I actually posted a painting of Kendrick Lamar that one of my students did. He’s only 12! I don’t know what I’m going to do with him! He asked me could he draw Kendrick and I said ‘absolutely!’ “I never painted a portrait before,” he said. ‘Well, let’s see what you can do,’ I said. Then he popped this out. I’m a proud Mom, and that ain’t even my child! I teach at a Hip-Hop arts community center.

Me: Word? What’s that experience like?

Ryan: It’s amazing! There’s dance, video editing, DJing, graffiti, visual arts, poetry, film editing, and studio beat-making. It’s pretty much all of the elements of Hip-Hop. My students are hilarious to me. I have all boys and they are so sweet and respectful. Our first class was a couple of weeks ago and last week one boy brought artwork from home and asked me if I could help him fix it. So, it’s always great to know that you’re appreciated.

Me: That’s an awesome opportunity right there! It must help fuel your creativity as well.

Ryan: Again, the opportunity came from me moving beyond being an artist. My friend is a professor at the University of Cincinnati. He teaches a Hip-Hop class and he wants to write a book on Hip-Hop. I’m writing a chapter on women in Hip-Hop for his book too. I gave a lecture on it and he told me that the community center that I work at now needed an art teacher. I said, ‘okay.’ So, I went down there and I got the job. For our next project I’m having them design sneakers. They’re going to create a logo as their brand and then for the actually design of the shoe, they have to pick their favorite Hip-Hop song and create an image based off the lyrics. We’re going to do a finished piece where they’re going to design both sides of the shoe and then the sole of it. They they’re going to buffer and deco a pair of their old shoes based off of their own designs. It’ll literally be three pieces – the sketch design, the final design, and then the display of the sneaker. I’ve been taking photographs of all their work too and making press kits. It’s an opportunity for me to teach them about potential art careers as well.

“For our next project I’m having them design sneakers. They’re going to create a logo as their brand and then for the actually design of the shoe, they have to pick their favorite Hip-Hop song and create an image based off the lyrics.”

Me: You mix in the creativity, marketing, and entrepreneurship – you hitting them with all different things. Kudos to you! Describe a time when you experienced a creative block and how did you overcome it?

Ryan: Whenever I have an artist block, I Netflix. I will literally find me a series to watch until I get bored enough then go back into the art. Before Netflix, I would work on another art form. I might do poetry and I used to write a blog called Single in Cinci. It would be simple topics that I would write from an intellectual standpoint mixed with a little ratchet every now and then. Also, I’ll go to an art museum to see if that’ll re-inspire me or I’ll just start a brand new piece. Because more than likely I’ll get frustrated on a piece not necessarily from being creative. I’ll put it away for a bit then I’ll come back to it and then I’ll be perfectly fine at it. As a creative, I think it’s okay to be reflective, it’s okay to take some time off to recharge. Sometimes I talk to my art like it’s a living person like, ‘I ain’t fooling with you, you doing the most right now!’

Me: (Laughing) How has your artwork shaped you as a person?

Ryan: Art taught me how to love myself more and unapologetically. It helped me recognize that I’m as beautiful as the pieces I create. Growing up I did not have the highest self-esteem even coming from the family I came from because I am a full-figured girl. Living in Cincinnati which is very group-think, there was an aesthetic of what beauty looked like and what beauty got praised. I never looked at myself as physically beautiful so I literally just invested everything into my work. Then, one Summer I was at a coffee house drawing Phyllis Hyman outside. This one guy who was jogging stopped by and he said, “that looks dope, I can’t wait to see it when I get back, hope you’re still there.” Well, I happened to still be there finishing it up and he just looked at it. He looked back at me and said, “you know how beautiful of a person you have to be to create that kind of beauty?” He made me realize how beautiful I am because I never saw my art as a reflection of me until that moment. Just like my art, I’m unapologetically black.

“Art taught me how to love myself more and unapologetically. It helped me recognize that I’m as beautiful as the pieces I create.”

Me: Wow, that’s phenomenal that you came to that self-realization. I think he’s right though, you definitely have to have a beautiful spirit in order to create that type of work. When I look at your work I feel a sense of hope and appreciation for us even with everything that we go through as black people.

Ryan: Thank you! Yea, and I think once I got older I learned to appreciate myself more too. The art has definitely helped me recognize my dopeness.

Me: Excellent! What is your most proud achievement so far as an artist?

Ryan: Not giving up on my dream as a creative and still using my creativity to push others is my most proud achievement. I’ve watched people give up on their dreams or push them to the side and never return to them. I create something every single day, even with me drawing with the kids. I work alongside them so not only do they get to practice, but they get to see me working too.

“Not giving up on my dream as a creative and still using my creativity to push others is my most proud achievement.”

Me: Amen to that! Would you like to share any upcoming projects/exhibitions?

Ryan: I just got booked for an art show in June. There’s this place called the 85th in Cincinnati that’s a non profit. It’s literally a creative space in a coffee house. They have a recording studio upstairs. There’s another event at the end of March called the Ph. D Experience which features all women artists – they’ll have a woman DJ, women poets, visual artists, and dancers. Those are the two big things.

Me: That’s wonderful, congrats!

Ryan: Thank you!

Me: What’s your vision for the future for your art?

Ryan: I want to get to the point where I can do it full-time, and not just make art but also teaching at centers and museums. I also want to work with upcoming artists to help them build their portfolio and improve their skills. In the immediate future I will continue the Melanated Gold series and the B.E.A.R.D.S. series. I feel like it’s time to do another black love series too. Photo-realism is definitely a technique I’m trying to build as well. I’m extremely passionate about what I do and I just want to continue with it.

Me: I can definitely see the passion within your art. Well Ryan, it was a pleasure speaking with you!

Ryan: It was a pleasure for me as well! I had a ball!

To purchase and inquire about Ryan’s artwork please contact her via her website: or IG @ryannicholestudios


One thought on “Black Visual Artist Chat – Ryan Leary

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