This week’s interview is with New Orleans based painter, Maurice Hicks. His pieces immediately captivate you with their brilliant color schemes. He provides extraordinary snapshots of the majestic moments of black culture from his depictions of a father doing his daughter’s hair to a Jazz band playing at a local club. Learn more about Maurice in our conversation.
Me: Can you speak on the significance of using art as a form of activism?
Maurice: Art is very important because it speaks to the culture of African-Americans and I think that’s a great way to express ourselves other than words.
Me: Could you dive deeper into some of your pieces that reflects this?
Maurice: There’s this one piece of a guy wearing a dashiki and he’s reading the Bible. With this piece, each book that’s around him symbolizes the different stages of life. I put him in the dashiki to speak to our African-American culture. Everyday, it’s lessons that we learn.
Me: Nice. Just going through your pieces on IG and seeing these pieces reflect the vibrancy of our culture, I think it’s important for us to portray our many different experiences.
Maurice: For me, I try to provide art that uplifts and enlightens us as a people. So much is focused on our negative situations such as going through hard times, depression to poverty and our positive moments are downplayed. That’s why I try to give light and use vibrant colors and movement within my work.
Me: That’s great that you do that, like you said we are often portrayed in a negative light with our struggles so it’s good to have the full spectrum of our culture with our joyful moments being expressed through the art as well.
Maurice: It also goes back to what you’re doing too, reaching out to artists. You’re putting them on the blog and encouraging them to continue creating. They’re being recognized and that’s very important. That’s why I use these colors and movements to draw attention to the light side of our lives. We always need to have something to motivate us on a daily basis.
“That’s why I use these colors and movements to draw attention to the light side of our lives.”
Me: Definitely! I also see an African queen piece, could you dive deeper into that one?
Maurice: Yes, that piece is to remind our women of their strength and beauty. With the images coming from women over here and even in Africa shown on TV, we usually see them being down or not having self-confidence. That’s why I also put the spear in the piece as well to show that she is not only beautiful but she can also protect herself.
Me: Much respect for that!
Maurice: Thank you my man!
Me: No problem! I see one of your most recent pics on IG is a piece that I really like too of a couple that’s kissing with the flames in the background. Can you talk more about that one?
Maurice: That one is called Heated and by them being so much in love it’s causing a flame to arise. If you take a good look at it, you’ll see that the guy’s hand is kind of melting into her. As his pants sag, they’re not sagging because of a dress trend, it was because of the heat causing his pants to melt away. The friction between them is causing the flames and their bodies are melting together as one. So, there’s more to it than what people think initially.
Me: As you explained it, I could see more now on the symbolism within it. Describe your upbringing, where you’re originally from – when you started painting, your family background, and education.
Maurice: I’m from the uptown part of New Orleans. I went to an all-boy Catholic School and I went to college at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. I also went to an art school in Spain at the University of Oviedo. I was the first African-American to earn a scholarship from Northwestern State University to go overseas to study art. I studied abroad in Leon, Madrid, and also the northern part of Spain. I also visited the city of Toledo, you know the saying, “holy Toledo” comes from that city which has over 113 churches. While there, I studied the works of artists such as – Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Goya. I’ve actually been painting for 25 years now. I’ve witnessed a lot of things from the ups and downs to the frustrations that made me not want to be an artist at times.
Me: Wow, that’s awesome! What was that study abroad experience like in Spain?
Maurice: Oh man, it gave me a different perspective on life. Originally when I went, I was kind of nervous about being an African-American over there but it gave me a chance to express myself. I got a chance to really understand the craft. It gave me inspiration to realize that I could do this myself without somebody else, it’s coming from me – it’s my craft, my creation. The experience over there allowed me to get a better understanding of people other than Americans.
“It gave me inspiration to realize that I could do this myself without somebody else, it’s coming from me – it’s my craft, my creation.”
Me: That’s phenomenal. I’m sure that experience over there broadened your view of the world. How would you characterize the art scene in New Orleans?
Maurice: When you come here to New Orleans it’s always captivating because it’s so diverse. It’s always something going on. You can always find festivities going on with movement and music. You can hear the music in the air man when you walk through places like the French Quarter. That’s what’s beautiful about the art here as well because it’s so much movement. That’s what keeps me here.
Me: That’s definitely reflected within your artwork, seeing the different types of music with the instruments, the festivities, and all of the bright colors.
Maurice: That’s what I try to capture because that’s my roots.
Me: Just growing up in New Orleans what was that experience like for you?
Maurice: Overall, happiness is the way to describe it. Of course there was its downsides, but happiness was always there. That’s why they call it the “Big Easy” because it’s a place to have a free mind and spirit. I like my paintings to reflect that, every now and then I’ll put on my paintings “painting free, feeling free.” That’s what it’s supposed to be when you use that brush, it’s supposed to feel free. You’re supposed to let the strokes flow from you and not make the lines so tight. One of my professors always told me that he liked that style because of the freedom I expressed with my brush strokes. It’s almost my getaway when I’m in the studio painting and listening to music. I have a studio within my home and my wife and my daughter will close me off. It takes me away from my stressful days.
“That’s what it’s supposed to be when you use that brush, it’s supposed to feel free. You’re supposed to let the strokes flow from you and not make the lines so tight.”
Me: I know that’s a great feeling.
Maurice: Man, I love it. That’s all I do, it’s my job now, there’s no other place where I have to clock-in. During the daytime, I’ll drop my daughter off to school and I’ll come home and paint until she gets off from school. If I have a project that’s not done by that time, then I’ll go back to it once I get home later after everybody’s settled down. Sometimes, I can’t sleep man and then I get back in the studio and paint at two or three o’clock in the morning. An idea may hit my brain and I don’t want to let it go so I got to put it down.
Me: I feel you. I know when you work on a piece one day and you come back to it the next day, you usually feel different towards it. Even the piece looks different.
Maurice: You’re right man because you don’t have that same drive that you had at that initial time. Plus, you look at it from a different point of view. When I start a painting I try to cover the canvas before I quit. That way, I can visually see where I need to go once the canvas is covered. By doing this, I don’t lose that vision I initially had in my head.
“When I start a painting I try to cover the canvas before I quit. That way, I can visually see where I need to go once the canvas is covered.”
Me: It’s like you’re setting up a foundation for yourself and then the next day you’re building on it. When did you first start doing art?
Maurice: I started when I was a kid. I remember, I won a drawing contest in third grade and I got a prize which was a set of 200 markers. My elementary school went up to the sixth grade so I beat all of the kids. That was the first moment that I knew it was something I was good at. From that point on, I dabbled in and out of it. I also played football through high school and I took art classes then but I didn’t look at it as a career. Once I got to college, my major originally was Business Administration. I took a few art classes, then I met a professor who asked me why I was running away from what I was good at. I said, ‘I just didn’t think there was a way to make art a career.’ He took me under his wing, and I changed my major that following fall to Advertising and Marketing with a minor in Art Education. He explained that I should major in Advertising and Marketing because you always have to market yourself and minor in Art Education because that’ll teach you about the different artists and techniques that are out there.
Me: Wow, I actually majored in Business with a concentration in Marketing (laughing). It’s interesting that you also mentioned that you thought you couldn’t go sustain yourself with art because I had that same mindset going into college too because I didn’t see anybody around me actually having a full-time career with art.
Maurice: Exactly! I just thought art would be something that people get paid to do after they get their degree but I didn’t know you could do both and still get the education that you need. But, I learned that you could. Till this day I always do painting with the kids in local schools. I always see things in perspective with educating our kids with art. With art, you have to see what’s going on with how things are done in life so I used that as my leverage to keep up with information. I do a lot of reading and watch documentaries as well.
“Till this day I always do painting with the kids in local schools. I always see things in perspective with educating our kids with art.”
Me: Cool. That’s a great way to stay current too. Describe how you approach your creative process and what’s your ideal environment to bring out your full range of creativity?
Maurice: I always have to clean up everything within the studio before I start a new piece. I clean my desk, my easels, my brushes, my water. That’s my thing, everything has to be refreshed. My motivation on a daily basis is to just give somebody a special piece that they know was created by me and make them think, “this guy’s not only a great artist but he’s an awesome person as well.”
Me: That’s excellent and what music do you like to listen to that gets you into that creative groove?
Maurice: I always revert back to Jazz. I like Mark Whitfield and some Coltrane. I’ll also listen to some R&B with Erykah Badu. I think she has that thing about her that carries over well with being an artist. She puts you into that creative mindset.
Me: I absolutely feel you on that one brother! In terms of your painting process, how long do you usually spend on creating a piece?
Maurice: On a straight shift, I can typically do a piece within two and a half hours.
Me: You paint pretty fast, you get it in! (laughing)
Maurice: (Laughing) Yea, it’s no distractions once I’m in the zone. If I’m into it, I’m into it. That’s something my wife and my daughter knows too.
Me: I feel you. Do you play any musical instruments?
Maurice: Believe it or not man, I dabble in the Saxophone. I started playing that in about sixth or seventh grade. Right now, I’m thinking about trying to teach myself how to play the guitar too.
Me: I kind of figured you did play one judging from your paintings. I played the violin too.
Maurice: My daughter actually plays the violin. If you couldn’t tell, I’m actually a culture fanatic man!
Me: It’s no surprise! I think alot of creative people infuse their creativity into different areas. When did you sell your first piece?
Maurice: I sold my first piece in June of ’95 for $1500. This was to a doctor who attended an art show thrown by one of my mentors. That very first piece was about four feet by two feet. It was held at a dentist office down here in New Orleans. I brought seven pieces there that day and I sold six of them. A year later, I went to another show at the Baltimore Civic Center and sold some pieces there. Then, I fell back for a while and went on to work for the Veterans Administration and back-slided on my artwork for years. A couple years ago, after so many people were asking for my pieces, I started going back into the art again. I also started doing sip and paints within this last year. I try to stay busy man, and make my art speak for itself.
“I sold my first piece in June of ’95 for $1500. This was to a doctor who attended an art show thrown by one of my mentors.”
Me: I see that man! That’s phenomenal to be able to have that type of success early on! What have you learned from pursuing art full-time?
Maurice: You got to make yourself relevant by being visible. Having people praising you motivates you to do the next piece. When I post pieces on Facebook or Instagram, most of the time it’s just to get people’s thoughts. Their thoughts let me know what I have to do in order to make myself better. That’s something that motivates me, you know? I might do seven pieces in a week man. I just try to work and crank them out every time. Then, I’ll switch it up and get some shirts or bags processed.
Me: That’s great and what different types of mediums can you use?
Maurice: There’s not one that I don’t use (laughing)! I originally started with oils then I left them alone because of the fumes at the time were giving me headaches. So, I switched to watercolors for a little while then I went to acrylics. I have also used charcoal, chalk, and colored pencils. Now, I mainly use acrylics.
Me: If you could collaborate with any artist on an upcoming piece, who would it be and why?
Maurice: If I had a choice I would probably collaborate with a friend of mine who is Ahmed Salam (Artist Ahmed Salam on Facebook). Me and him have the same types of colors and movement within our pieces. I would also like to collaborate with Ernie Barnes that was a life-long dream of mine.
Me: Yea he’s an icon! In your opinion, what do you think young black visual artists can do to create more opportunities for themselves?
Maurice: They must find ways to give back man that’s key to use their work to make themselves relevant in today’s society. They have to look at things from different viewpoints. They should embrace each other more and create more happiness. We need to build an empire with each other.
“They have to look at things from different viewpoints.”
Me: Yea, I definitely agree. It boils down to that black unity and building our own community of artists. What’s your favorite piece you created?
Maurice: Lately my favorite piece has been the Books of Life I talked about earlier. Another one I did a couple of months ago called Refreshing was a favorite of mine too. The rain is cleansing her from everything she’s been through.
Me: Both of them are amazing!
Maurice: Thank you!
Me: Are there any other artists in your family?
Maurice: Nah, just me man!
Me: What was the most challenging piece that you’ve done so far?
Maurice: I did a piece with two wine glasses where the wines are splashing up. It’s a really big piece 24 by 48 inches and at one time it was a damaged canvas. I kept working on it to try to make it become something and I added so many layers to it so that’s what made it challenging. It’s actually one of the most iconic pieces I’ve done. It came out better than I ever thought it would.
Me: That piece is incredible! Describe a time when you experienced a creative block and how did you overcome it?
Maurice: I had some medical things I went through and I had a surgery. It took me almost two months to heal. By the time I got better, it took me about three months to pick up the brush again. I was almost scared to even try to paint again because I felt like I had lost my talent. I started doing a small piece with my daughter and she said, “Dad you got to get back to it”. I said, ‘you know what, I will.’ So, I slowly moved up to an 8 by 10 to a 16 by 20 then I started getting back into the groove. Helping my daughter paint helped me to get back to painting again. I had to find a moment to inspire myself again.
“Helping my daughter paint helped me to get back to painting again.”
Me: Wow, I’m glad you mentioned that because we tend to underestimate how much of an impact kids can have on us as adults. How has your artwork shaped you as a person?
Maurice: It’s definitely made me look at things from a different point of view. Everything I see around me is art from the movement of people to the way they sit and talk. I can always take an image of these things and translate them back to the canvas. It’s given me a chance to look at life with a different set of eyes – it makes me more observant.
“Everything I see around me is art from the movement of people to the way they sit and talk.”
Me: Being observant is definitely a great trait to have as an artist. What’s your most proud achievement so far as an artist?
Maurice: Getting that scholarship to go to Spain will always be my most proud achievement.
Me: That’s such a great opportunity to have that experience! Would you like to share any upcoming projects/exhibitions?
Maurice: I have a sixth grade graduation coming up May 3rd where I’ll be doing a paint and play with them. We’ll be painting 8 by 10 pictures.
Me: Nice! I love that man, using your talents to teach the youth. Art is definitely important to their development. I think Kudos to you!
Maurice: Thank you man!
Me: No problem! What’s your vision for the future in terms of your artistry?
Maurice: I’m definitely looking to open up a storefront and gallery where I can have classes on Saturday for upcoming artists. I actually just went through the small business bureau and got my certification. That’s my blueprint right there.
Me: I wish you much success with that man! Thank you and I appreciate your time Maurice. It was a pleasure.