Black Visual Artist Chat – Waleed Johnson

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This week’s interview is with rising oil painter, Waleed Johnson. Get to know more about this phenomenal black artist and his creative endeavors in our conversation.

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

Waleed: I think art is great because you can express your feelings and opinions and really connect with other people’s emotions and cause them to think about different things. Because of that, art is such a great tool for activism and you don’t necessarily have to use your art as activism but I feel like that’s a perfect medium to do it.

“Art is such a great tool for activism and you don’t necessarily have to use your art as activism but I feel like that’s a perfect medium to do it.”

Me: Yea I completely agree. Would you like to dive deeper into any of your pieces that reflect this?

Waleed: One of my favorite pieces regarding activism is the one that depicts a guy with two eyes. It’s a black and white painting but the brown skin is dripping down. As an African-American I feel like people focus so much on the skin color that they sometimes forget that you’re an individual and ignore who you actually are. That’s kind of what I was thinking as I painted that. Then from that painting a whole series developed from that idea. I was really just doing it for myself, but then I realized that’s something that other people need to see as well.

Me: That’s an excellent concept. I like the caption you put too. Describe your upbringing, where you’re originally from – when you started painting, family background, and education.

Waleed: I was born in Long Beach, California but Detroit is all that I’ve known. My Mom moved back to Detroit when I was one after my father died. I grew up drawing and my Mom used to give me a stack of paper and pencils to shut me up (laughing). I never really branched out or did anything else for awhile other than draw until High School. Then, when it came time to think about college I wanted to go to an art school here in Detroit, but my Mom was having a talk with me about careers and I guess we kind of came to the decision that maybe I shouldn’t pursue art. So, I ended up going to the University of Notre Dame for engineering instead. It’s funny because my Mom was always trying to push me to do that the whole time and I was saying, ‘nah, I don’t want to do engineering.’ I think she was right though because when I was younger I did show some interest in things that were related to engineering.

Waleed: Once I got to Notre Dame, they had this dual degree program where in 5 years you could get a Bachelor of Science in engineering and then a Bachelor of Art in anything else. I did enter the program but I basically entered at the end of my Junior year so I had to cram in all of my art courses into about three semesters to get the dual degree. In retrospect I wish I would have started the program earlier, but while I was there I decided I wanted to start painting. I took my first painting class at the end of my Junior year and I ended up really liking it.

Me: Wow, that’s interesting that you started painting later in the game but you can’t tell from your portraits (laughing). Could you talk more about how that painting course and art program has influenced your development and growth as an artist?

Waleed: Thank you. I also had a really good teacher that I still keep in contact with till this day. I can attribute the portraits I do now directly to that class. I remember the last painting I did in that first painting class we had the freedom to paint whatever we wanted. I chose to paint something about Detroit. I had this complicated idea which I wouldn’t have been able to paint (laughing) and my teacher suggested that I just do a portrait of myself. She said that I could convey those same emotions that I wanted to convey in that portrait. I painted it and it ended up coming out okay. That was my first portrait and then I took a second class portrait II that was taught by the same teacher. Every picture I did within that class was a portrait so that class definitely affected my style. Also, I came to the realization that sometimes things that are simple can be powerful in art.

“Every picture I did within that class was a portrait so that class definitely affected my style. Also, I came to the realization that sometimes things that are simple can be powerful in art.”

Me: Excellent! Can you talk more about the series that evolved out of that first portrait with the brown skin dripping down the black and white face?

Waleed: What happened was basically there’s this museum in Saginaw, Michigan called the Saginaw Art Museum and they were looking to feature black artists from Detroit. I was trying to go to different art events after I graduated from college and someone suggested that I contact this guy. He knew about me and some of my work so he listed my name to the museum and they ended up emailing me asking if I wanted to submit a proposal for an exhibit. As I looked at the requirements, I saw that I had to submit between 10 and 20 pieces. Most of my stuff that I do is pretty big which is three feet by four feet. The one painting that I did with the eyes was just something I did on my own so I didn’t expect it to be a series. I figured my best chance for getting these 10 pieces is to create a series out of this because the time frame was relatively short. So, that series came directly from that opportunity and I’m glad that it worked out.

“The one painting that I did with the eyes was just something I did on my own so I didn’t expect it to be a series.”

Me: Congrats on the opportunity!

Waleed: Thank you, I appreciate it!

Me: What was your experience like growing up in Detroit?

Waleed: I love talking with people about the city and what’s happening because I always get different opinions. But, to be completely transparent, I feel like I understand both sides of what’s going on and I feel torn sometimes. Obviously, I’m sure you know about all of the problems going on here. I definitely grew up not having a lot of money with a single mother on the East Side of Detroit which is the worst side. I’ve seen our house get robbed, gunshots, the decaying buildings and stuff like that.

Waleed: So, I understand the struggle but recently in the past five or six years, there’s been a major investment within the city largely by one billionaire named Dan Gilbert who owns Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers. I don’t think people realize the scale of the abandonment that happened. On the one hand I’m happy but on the other hand I do understand the social implications of the city’s revitalization. It’s a majority black city and much of the stores opening up downtown are pretty pricey and they feature majority white owners. So, I definitely see that as well. Some of the companies have these new incentives where employees can live downtown and they’ll get a discount on housing there. I definitely understand the aspect that these people are not from the city and companies are basically paying for these people to live in this area, but what about the people like my Mom who are from the poorer areas of town who have lived there and paid their taxes?

“I definitely understand the aspect that these people are not from the city and companies are basically paying for these people to live in this area, but what about the people like my Mom who are from the poorer areas of town who have lived there and paid their taxes?”

Waleed: They don’t get many improvements or benefits. I feel like it’s such a complex situation. I really wish they would invest in these neighborhoods but I don’t think it’s going to happen because it’s all about the bottom line. These wealthy investors are trying to make money so they’re investing in places where they can actually make money. I know for a fact that the neighborhood where I grew up at you’re not going to make money at all. As I have seen before, people try to build new houses and they have to stop building them because they get strapped for cash. I feel that it’s definitely a touchy subject especially with people who have already been living here for years.

Me: I feel you, it’s definitely many factors at play with that. Like you said on a positive note you have a revival of downtown with all these new spots but then you also have the negative effects of gentrification as well especially within the historically black communities.

Waleed: Exactly. Some of this stuff like urban gardens has been good investments in neighborhoods but for the most part the renaissance doesn’t directly benefit the average Detroiter like those who are from where I grew up. Most of them are just trying to go to work and make a living and not get shot.

Me: I definitely understand where you’re coming from. Describe how you approach your creative process, what’s your ideal environment to bring out your full range of creativity?

Waleed: I don’t know if it’s just because I’m the only child (laughing) but honestly I feel like my ideal environment would be to create by myself in my room or in a studio. I definitely value the opinions and feedback of others but I really like to get the ideas started on my own. Depending on how hard I’m trying to concentrate, I may play some music too.

“I definitely value the opinions and feedback of others but I really like to get the ideas started on my own.”

Me: Cool and what types of music do you like to listen to?

Waleed: It depends on how I’m feeling at the time. I love gospel music because I was raised in the church and I was in the gospel choir at school. I love Kirk Franklin. I also love Lindsey Stirling she’s a violinist and she plays to Hip-Hop kind of beats. There’s some uptempo stuff that she does to get me excited. I also love listening to Lecrae.

Me: Nice. Also, are the references that you use for your portraits taken by you?

Waleed: For me I want to be involved in all aspects of the creation of these pieces. I don’t think I ever used a photo that someone else has took. I even make the frames I use. The bigger pieces are on panels so I go cut the wood and glue it all together. I actually enjoy making them. As far as the photography goes I always liked it. Once I graduated high school, I would go around Detroit and take pictures. Then when I got to college I actually took a photography class and learned more. I’m still not as strong as I would like to be with it though.

“As far as the photography goes I always liked it. Once I graduated high school, I would go around Detroit and take pictures.”

Me: Wow, so much respect for that – you’re fully immersed within your own art from taking pictures of your subjects to making your own panels and canvases! Would you say that your engineering background has also affected your creative approach as well?

Waleed: I think it actually kind of goes the opposite way. I actually do computer engineering like programming. I found that a lot of people can write code and make it work, but it looks horrible. Having an eye for proportion and color and stuff like that helps me with my current job. I don’t really use the engineering for art though unless it’s subconsciously (laughing). I think the art benefits my engineering more in that regard.

“Having an eye for proportion and color and stuff like that helps me with my current job.”

Me: Cool and what do you actually do within your full-time job now?

Waleed: I actually develop mobile apps for Ford Motor Company. 

Me: That’s awesome man! Is there anything in particular that you do to warm yourself up or get your mindset into that creative mode?

Waleed: Yea. I actually pray before I start creating because everything goes back to me being a Christian and seeing God as a great creator. That’s really about it and I just go for it.

Me: Nice. If you could collaborate with any artist on an upcoming piece who would it be and why?

Waleed: There’s this artist right here in Detroit, her name is Sydney G. James. I’d love to collaborate with her mainly because I just want to learn from her, her work is so good! (laughing) She does a lot of portraiture and her stuff is so expressive. She does a lot of large scale outdoor murals as well. We have this one area called the Eastern Market which is this huge open air market and there’s a lot of warehouses there. They have artists come out there and paint these huge murals. I’d love to do something like that with her.

“We have this one area called the Eastern Market which is this huge open air market and there’s a lot of warehouses there. They have artists come out there and paint these huge murals.”

Me: That’s incredible! From our discussion, it seems like the art scene in Detroit is vibrant.

Waleed: Yea, definitely! I don’t remember what it looked like when I was younger, but because of how the real estate market went here, like I said some people are buying up places but it’s still the lowest barrier to entry compared to other major cities. People are also taking advantage of that and buying up spaces and transforming them into art galleries. I met a group from the University of Michigan who after graduating, started an artist collective and they got a space in the Eastern Market area. There’s just a lot of small galleries popping up and even some of the bigger galleries are relocating here from other major cities. There’s this one gallery in Brooklyn called Galapagos that actually moved here because of the high-costs in New York City. There’s a lot of street art like with the Eastern Market I was talking about earlier they’ve had over 100 murals there. They also had big-time artists come from outside of Detroit. I just hope that it’s not just a phase like a tool being used for gentrification. I just love public art displays, that’s one of my goals one day is to do some art outside. The more art the better.

“There’s just a lot of small galleries popping up and even some of the bigger galleries are relocating here from other major cities.”

Me: Art definitely makes the world go round. When did you come into the mindset where you could actually profit off of your artistry and when did you first sell your paintings?

Waleed: Well, it kind of happened after I graduated college. I found out about this store here in Detroit called Detroit Fiber Works where this lady does art with different fibers. She sells clothes, purses, and things like that. She also does a rotating artist showcase featuring local artists and an artist talk followed by a reception. I found out about the store and she had some artwork featured that I wanted to see so I stopped in and we had a conversation. I tried to pretend that I had it together right quick (laughing) and mentioned that I also do art. I showed her some pictures of my work and she offered to feature me in the next showcase. That was really my first show that opened last year in January 2016. That’s actually where I sold my first piece too. That gave me more confidence to pursue other opportunities. I got into contact with a black-owned gallery in Chicago called Gallery Guichard and they wanted some of my pieces. Then, it snowballed from there and I started thinking, ‘I am an artist.’

Me: That’s phenomenal man that you did take that initiative and started exploring different spaces within your own community first.

Waleed: I’m glad that one lady was willing to feature some of my work in her store first. She’s been a great mentor to me since then in alerting me about different opportunities as well.

Me: Excellent and this is the perfect tie-in to the next question: In your opinion, what do you think young black visual artists can do to create more opportunities for themselves?

Waleed: I definitely think getting to know other black artists in the area and going out to support their events is a start. One thing that comes to mind is maybe start an artist collective, I think it’ll be helpful. Some galleries may be less inclined to feature young black artists work especially those that deal with activism may not always fit in with some of the themes and pieces around. There’s galleries that wouldn’t mind those types of pieces, but if you had a collective then you wouldn’t have to always seek out opportunities, we can create our own.

Waleed: That also helps in terms of selling your work because most galleries take 50 percent which is a lot but if these artists come together then maybe they could work out pricing to be more favorable to them. I feel like it’s a whole range of benefits coming together and doing your own thing. You also have a range of older black artists with experience who can give lessons and career advice as well.

“That also helps in terms of selling your work because most galleries take 50 percent which is a lot but if these artists come together then maybe they could work out pricing to be more favorable to them.”

Me: That’s excellent advice, it’s definitely a common theme being able to work together to achieve a higher purpose and thrive as young black artists. What’s your favorite piece you’ve created so far?

Waleed: It changes (laughing), I feel like I have one thing and then I’ll make something else that’s better. I have a few favorites right now though. One piece called Confidence that features a picture of a guy with a suit on with a red background. I also like a piece called Resurget Cineribus which is a latin motto for the city of Detroit. It has a burnt wood frame and features a sunrise over this destroyed area of the city. I really like the whole process with that, I went and got some burnt wood from some burnt down houses on the East Side of Detroit and tried to incorporate it into the painting. Another piece I really like is a picture of a girl where half of her face is actually a mirror and you can see yourself in it. I know I kind of cheated (laughing)!

At the opening today in Chicago!

A post shared by Waleed Johnson 🇸🇩 (@waleed_the_artist) on

Me: Nah, that’s fine (laughing)! Those are incredible pieces! Are there any other artists in your family?

Waleed: My Mom said that we had a cousin who could draw but I don’t know him. It’s really just me and my Mom for the most part.

Me: Gotcha, and what was the most challenging piece you’ve done so far?

Waleed: There’s this picture of a girl in a green hoodie with a white background. That was definitely the most challenging because it was first time doing a portrait of a woman. I had some of pieces featured at this organization for my job and one of my co-workers mentioned that I should do a piece of a woman and she would pose as a reference for it. I wasn’t sure how serious she was about but I was like ‘okay.’ But, then she kept following up about it so I decided to do it. When I was first doing it, that picture wasn’t coming out well at all, it was like the biggest struggle ever. I hated it and multiple times I wanted to just quit but in the end it eventually worked out.

Me: I’m glad it worked out, I definitely understand the struggle! How long does it usually take you to finish a piece?

Waleed: For the really big pieces it usually takes me about three to four weeks. For the smaller ones, it takes about a week.

Me: Cool, and are there any other types of mediums that you use besides the oil painting?

Waleed: I can always do pencil, but I mostly stick to oil painting. However, I’m looking to experiment with others such as acrylic and spray paint. These last few paintings though I’ve been trying to incorporate mixed media by adding reflective paper and stuff like that.

Me: Nice! I heard oil is the most difficult medium to use.

Waleed: Yea, that’s what I’ve heard too but because of learning it in college that’s what I’m used to so when people talk about acrylic and drying in a few minutes, I’m like how am I supposed to work with this if it doesn’t stay wet the whole time! (laughing)

Me: (Laughing) Just going back to those art classes in college, what has been the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Waleed: In regards to trying to create realistic images, my teacher used to say that the most important things are value and attention to light and dark shading. She also mentioned to pay attention to the quality of the edges in paintings. For example, she would explain that you may need to soften the edges for faces to look more real.

“She also mentioned to pay attention to the quality of the edges in paintings.”

Me: Good advice! I’m also an artist myself, I do colored pencil drawings of portraits. It’s nothing like yours though (laughing)!

Waleed: I feel like I got so much more development to do as well. I look at some of these other artists and it’s amazing! I wonder how they come up with these ideas!

Me: I know right, it’s crazy! Describe a time when you experienced a creative block, and how did you overcome it?

Waleed: I don’t know if I’ve necessarily had a creative block. Sometimes, I just don’t come up with ideas as fast as I would like to. I usually just keep pushing at it though. If it doesn’t work out one day, I’ll push it to the side and come back to it the next day. I’ll usually just say a prayer and come back to it and keep going at it. Eventually I come up with something. I’ll also look at all of the pictures I took and browse for the ones that I haven’t used to look for inspiration.

Me: That’s good. How has your artwork shaped you as a person?

Waleed: It gave me a greater appreciation for diversity as a whole. As you noticed a lot of my portraits are mostly of black people but recently, I’ve started experimenting more and painting more people from other ethnicities as well. Also, it’s helped me to grow spiritually like I said before I see God as the creator and that’s always in the back of my mind when I’m painting. Painting has become more a part of who I am.

“It gave me a greater appreciate for diversity as a whole.”

Me: I definitely feel you on that, I can feel the passion that you have looking at your paintings. Kudos to you!

Waleed: Thank you!  

Me: No problem! Being an artist as well, what has been some things you’ve learned from selling your work?

Waleed: I learned how to market my work and myself better. I got in contact with this gallery in Chicago and they had my stuff there. Once the show was over, they kept the pieces and featured them in a traveling art exhibit and they went to DC. There’s this young black family in DC that’s into art collecting as well and they had me come out to their home and talk about one of my pieces. Immediately not too long after that someone bought that piece.

“There’s this young black family in DC that’s into art collecting as well and they had me come out to their home and talk about one of my pieces.”

Waleed: I feel like if you can present the work well and people can hear the story behind it, that definitely makes people more inclined to buying your art. Your work can speak for itself, but I feel that it’s enhanced when you’re actually there to provide your inspiration behind creating it. That’ll make people connect with it even more and lead to additional opportunities. I’m still learning to keep track of my expenses as well. I learned that there’s nothing wrong with having a business-oriented mindset to your art. I love doing it and I would still do it even if I wasn’t selling it, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking initiative to promote yourself and present your work in the best way.

“I feel like if you can present the work well and people can hear the story behind it, that definitely makes people more inclined to buying your art.” 

Me: Yea, definitely! That’s what I’ve been learning too from interviewing you guys that you do need to have that business mentality within the art world. What is your most proud achievement so far as an artist?

Waleed: It would be that show at the Saginaw Art Museum because it was a great feeling for me to be able to have an opportunity to feature my work at an accredited art venue even though I was just starting out. Not only that, but being able to put together a cohesive series in such a short period of time makes this my proudest achievement so far.

Piece 2/3 that I have in the show!

A post shared by Waleed Johnson 🇸🇩 (@waleed_the_artist) on

Me: Praises to you, much respect! I know it’s a challenge as well just explaining your art and getting people to understand what your vision was behind the work.

Waleed: Thank you! Right, yea that’s always a challenge. (Laughing) Sometimes it’s funny to hear what people have to say and what they think about my pieces.

Me: Yea, I’m sure (laughing)! I think that’s the great element of art though that one piece can spark so many different perspectives. Would you like to share any upcoming projects/exhibitions?

Waleed: The only thing I really have coming up is a show at a local cafe called Cafe 1923. It’s in a city called Hamtramck which is a separate city surrounded by Detroit. It’s weird, Detroit has two independent cities within it. The pieces that I’m making feature reflective gold material with a mirror behind them. They represent that we are all made in God’s image and also I want people to be able to literally see themselves within the images through the mirrors.

Me: That’s a brilliant concept! What’s your vision in terms of your artistry?

Waleed: I definitely want to be able to expand my repertoire and be able to paint with more different types of mediums. I want to do outdoor murals and spray painting. I think overall my goal would be to produce more work and be able to travel with my art to different countries throughout the world.

Me: Nice! Waleed it was definitely a great conversation, I enjoyed it!

Waleed: Thank you for the opportunity! I enjoyed the conversation as well!

To purchase and inquire about Waleed’s artwork please contact him via email: waleedj313@gmail.com and his IG @waleed_the_artist.

 

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