Black Visual Artist Chat – Will Focus

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This week’s interview is with Will Focus, a digital artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Will produces picturesque and intricate portraits of individuals within the diaspora. Get a closer view of Will’s personal journey as well as his artistic expression in our conversation.

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

Will: Artwork allows things to be open for interpretation, whether the message be direct or indirect. We live in a day and age where a lot of people can misconstrue things, but if you put things in visual form; I feel like the artwork allows people to actually absorb more of what’s going on in the image as opposed to words that are coming out of people’s mouths. I feel like art has a very strong place in activism, if not stronger than some of the speeches and or words that somebody can actually place out there in the forefront.

“We live in a day and age where a lot of people can misconstrue things, but if you put things in visual form, I feel like the artwork allows people to actually absorb more of what’s going on in the image as opposed to words that are coming out of people’s mouths.”

Me: That’s a great perspective that you offered! I definitely agree because sometimes words cause a disconnect between people so I think art definitely provides that bridge of creating a better connection amongst different groups of people. Could you dive deeper into any of your pieces that reflect the activism component?

Will: Well, if you look at the majority of the work that I produce, on the surface level of my work, people may not see a general activism portion. But, I focus about 85-90 percent of my work on Black women. The reason is because the level of oppression that the Black woman faces. To me, the Black woman is the most oppressed person on the face of this Earth. That’s mainly because she experiences oppression from just about every angle. Whether it’s sexuality, colorism, or ageism, everything hits the Black woman. So, in my work I like to show the Black woman as beautiful, royal, and as high as she can visually look so that there is a representation of all of the good of Black women that nobody can take away from it. That is my form of activism in my work.

“So, in my work I like to show the Black woman as beautiful, royal, and as high as she can visually look so that there is a representation of all of the good of Black women that nobody can take away from it.”

Me: That’s exceptional! Honestly, once I became more aware of how this world works and how we’re controlled by the dominant society as Black people, I began to realize why Black women are the most despised beings on the planet. Essentially, they are the progenitors of civilization.

Will: Exactly! I’m glad to see that we’re actually on the same page with that. A lot of people may not see it like that but that’s my viewpoint. I don’t take anyone else’s opinions away, but I choose in my work to make sure that’s one of the things I focus on.

Me: Absolutely. I wanted you to actually break-down one of your pieces that I saw on your IG. It’s a piece of a Black woman with six arms colored in red and orange hues.

Will: Oh yea. That piece was actually commissioned and somebody wanted something based off of chakras. That was based off of fire and the heart in terms of how I wanted to represent it. It’s supposed to absolutely represent a Black woman who is strong in one of the emotions she may be experiencing. So, I developed this one just showing this woman as a warrior. The whole point of her floating is to show mysticism. The colors are to show the heat, the passion, the fire and it’s based off of a center chakra and the chakra alignment.

Me: Wow. that’s a wonderful concept, you did your thing! Describe your upbringing, where you’re originally from, when you started painting, family background, and education?

Will: I’m originally from White Plains, New York. As far as the painting aspect, I began drawing when I was about five. My Mom actually was the first person to inspire me to draw. I had no clue about artwork, no concept of it until one day she took me and two of my cousins into her dining room and we sat down at the table. She pulled out a piece of line paper and she took a pencil out and she started to draw us. It completely blew my mind. I was a little kid so I didn’t really know what was going on and that fascinated me so much. That drove me to get into comic books and video games. That’s really what spurred me forward in terms of developing my art which originally was what I wanted to go to school for.

“My Mom actually was the first person to inspire me to draw.”

Will: I was trying to go for Computer Design. I ended up getting a full scholarship though for Mechanical Engineering, so I went to Drexel University in Philly. I did three years there and hated engineering and didn’t care that I had a scholarship, so I stopped. I then took Computer Science which I thought might be a mix. I would learn coding which was still kind of creative in its own right, and then at the same time I still don’t stray too far away from the engineering aspect. But what happened with that was, I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer screen looking at numbers and letters all day. I didn’t like that (laughing), which transferred me to Visual Communications (a fancy way of saying Graphic Design). Then, while in college, I ended up having children. So, my time got tied up and there was no way for me to do what I was trying to do. As my kids got a little bit older, I ended up going back to school and I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in Graphic Design.

Me: That’s awesome! How many kids do you have now?

Will: I have three. My first two are twins, a boy and a girl and I had them when I was 19. Then, my youngest is 12.

Me: Nice. Speaking of your art education, how has that influenced your art career now? You think it has helped you in any aspect?

Will: I tell people this all the time, you do not have to get a degree in order to be successful in art. But, you can get as much out of your degree as you want to get out of it. A lot of the times I think that college is mostly based on networking and getting to know people and utilizing those connections later on. I have to admit that there were things I did learn in college but, my college experience specifically taught me how to build a dependency on myself to make my own money. I essentially went in with the concept of never working for somebody.

Me: That’s phenomenal and it’s great that you came to that realization so early on within your educational experience that you weren’t going to work for anyone. I think that’s very significant especially with us in the African diaspora. An overwhelming majority of our families frown upon us working for ourselves especially within the creative space. They want you to get a degree that’s standard to be a “successful” member of this society.

Will: Absolutely. That’s because they were fed the 9 to 5 dream. Go to school, graduate, you get a 9 to 5 and then you’ll be able to make it. They don’t realize that the world doesn’t operate on that same principle that it did where you could afford to go to college, work a part-time job, pay for your schooling, pay for an apartment, have a car, and still have money left over. That doesn’t work anymore (laughing). The security in what they know worked for them as opposed to what can work in this new day and age.

Me: Exactly, you’re spot on with that. Describe your creative process; what’s your idea environment to bring out your full range of creativity?

Will: In terms of me approaching the process, it depends on what I’m creating but nine times out of ten, I’ll go in with zero understanding of what I’m going to create. I know I want to create something that’s focused usually on the face and I start with the eyes. Whatever emotion is conveyed through the eyes is what I build the piece around. That literally is what inspires me. The eyes have always been a major appealing point within my pieces. That’s why a lot of my pieces are just looking at you straight on and I utilize the eyes to build the frame of the face. My ideal environment is I notice what works best for me is anytime after 1:30 in the morning. I don’t know why that works, but I can literally pump out work like crazy.

“The eyes have always been a major appealing point within my pieces.”

Me: Yea it makes sense. I really think that’s how it is for a lot of creatives (laughing). How did you actually develop your style and was there always an Afro-futuristic element within your work?

Will: Here’s what happened. Like I said, I was a comic person and still am. Things I used to create used to be like fan art pieces of some comic book character like Afro Samurai or Scorpion from Mortal Kombat. I don’t remember why I created this piece but I created this piece called Gnosis and I used to only work in vector. Vector artwork takes a super-long time. So, I was zoned in on this piece, I used to be able to sit for 14 hours straight and not get up or eat anything and just pump the work out until it was finished.

Will: I was in this artist collective and I was creating this piece and it was a Black woman basically based off of Nefertiti. The amount of time I spent making sure she was presentable and not to be critiqued by this collective I was in at the time. It was mixed in terms of the community so you had white people and some black people, but there were very few of us. I didn’t want them critiquing something that had black skin so I took a very long time making sure it was on point for the level of artistry I was doing back then. I became kind of obsessed with how it turned out. When Instagram came about I started doing quick sketches. What I realized in doing my quick sketches, I started to create faces. In the beginning there were fan art faces and then I was like I didn’t like creating replicates of other people’s work so I just started creating my own work. As I did it, it progressed to more refined line work and then people started telling me I need to color my work. Then, eventually my style was born out of that.

“In the beginning there were fan art faces and then I was like I didn’t like creating replicants of other people’s work so I just started creating my own work.”

Me: That’s dope! Could you give me a more simplified definition of vector design?

Will: When you’re doing digital design there are two types – there’s bitmap and then there’s vector. Bitmap is the easiest to explain. Most design programs are bitmap like Photoshop. What they do is use pixels which are little squares and each one has a color code which corresponds to a specific color. So, when you’re painting on a digital canvas, you’re painting a bunch of little squares and they come together to make the image that you create. If you try to blow up a picture and it becomes too pixelated, that’s essentially bitmap. With vector, it’s similar in terms of how you can draw in it, but vector uses geometry. No matter how big you make it, it’ll always have the same clarity and the same quality. So, it doesn’t pixelate like bitmap does. The only problem is, you can’t get gradients in vector as well as you can in a bitmap program. So, essentially bitmap is gradient based and vector is geometry based. One can scale to any size without any quality lost (vector) and one can’t (bitmap).

“So, essentially Bitmap is gradient based and vector is geometry based. One can scale to any size without any quality (vector) and one can’t (bitmap).”

Me: Gotcha. Ok, thank you for that explanation (laughing)! What’s cranking on your playlist when you’re creating?

Will: Music is a big thing in terms of my artwork. I don’t have any specific one person that I listen to. But, in terms of genres, I love listening to Hip-Hop. I’m a Baltimore club person, I also listen to House music, Dubstep, and Trance music on occasion. If you were to go to my SoundCloud, it’s some of the most random things! (laughing)

Me: (Laughing) Cool and who’s some of your favorite rappers?

Will: Ok, so I’m not a fan of mumble rap but I appreciate the music only for the turn-up party aspect of it. The actual content makes absolutely no sense. In terms of artistry, I was always a Nas fan, and when I was younger I used to listen to Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, and Snoop Dogg. Now, I like hearing Indie artists. There’s a young girl named Kelela that I listen to. I actually like Azealia Banks, I know she’s touch and go with mad people (laughing) but it’s something about the music itself. I like the instrumentals and the effects she has in terms of her overall production value. I also listen to artists at open mic events. There’s this young dude named Young Toussaint. He raps positively and his flow mixed with the quality of what he’s saying is crazy. So, I’m more so into the less commercialized aspect of music now so I’ll do a search and find somebody who isn’t out in the mainstream. It seems like that music is more from the heart and it actually has a message.

Me: Yea I feel you. If you could collaborate with any artists on an upcoming piece, who would it be and why?

Will: I was talking to my business partner/girlfriend and I was like ‘hey, you got to check this dude’s work out, he’s really dope.’ So, one day she was in the hair salon getting her hair done and she was showing her hair dresser the dude’s artwork I was telling her about. My girlfriend’s hair dresser ended up being the sister of the artist – Mshindo Kuumba and his artwork is dope. Then, in 2014 I did an event called the Urban Action Showcase in Times Square. It’s basically like a Martial Arts and Black cinema celebration. I’ve talked to him on several occasions. Because we found out the circle was so small, we’ve always been super tight. I would love if one day we actually did something.

Me: That’s awesome! I’m looking at your profile and I see a name “Satabu/Mwenaa” can you explain that?

Will: You actually asked one of the most key questions that most people don’t ask. So, my name has nothing to do with my heritage. But, what it does have to do with is my concept of being a proud Black individual. I look at these genres of art and in Western culture comics are typically built by White men, and in Eastern culture they have Manga and Anime. So, I created these two terms which is a combination of two Swahili words. The first term Satabu means “art” and “book.” I wanted it to be African-centered which is why I made the words in Swahili and I made them unique to define a specific genre. Mwenaa is basically “art motion” so it stands for animation. So, it’s Black artwork/Black animation and that’s why I put that up there.

“The first term Satabu means “art” and “book.” I wanted it to be African-centered which is why I made the words in Swahili and I made them unique to define a specific genre. Mwenaa is basically “art motion” so it stands for animation.”

Me: Mannn, dropping knowledge! That’s fantastic! When did you actually come into your own enlightenment?

Will: I’ve always been very inquisitive, I need to know certain things. That’s mainly because my Mom brought me up to never just accept something that somebody tells you. I remember when the World Trade Center fell and it was my first day at work when I was in college doing the co-op education program. I was listening to the admins watching it happen, and I was in Philly and my family was back in New York so I was freaking out. Maybe a few years later, this documentary called Loose Change came out. If you’ve ever seen the documentary it goes through first-responders, and witnesses who were there saying they didn’t see planes; they just heard explosions. They start going through all of these things that just didn’t make sense. I started to get into conspiracy theory, so I started questioning everything.

Will: Fast forward to 2008 when Barack Obama gets elected. I remember staring at the screen watching the election took place and I was just excited that a Black man was in office. I went on Facebook one day and my girl and I were in the comments section on a friend’s post and we were defending Obama. There were these two guys who were arguing with us and their comments led me to researching more into the Government. I started paying attention to things that happened in the news and to me at work at how people treated me as a Black male and then I started to pay attention to how they treated my girlfriend and other Black people. I started wondering why we as Black people always got the short end of the stick in terms of who we are. Then, I started to look historically back into things that were happening within our communities such as Black Wall Street and the MOVE community in Philly. Then my eyes started to open and the last awakening was me looking at religious-based things. From there, combining all of this knowledge brought me to the point where I was just hyper-aware of everything that was going on around me.

“I started paying attention to things that happened in the news and to me at work at how people treated me as a Black male and then I started to pay attention to how they treated my girlfriend and other Black people.”

Me: Wow, and were there any books that you’ve read at that time to help foster that growth of your awareness?

Will: No, and that’s one of the strangest things. Most of the knowledge I did find came from me doing independent research and not necessarily looking into books. My girlfriend wanted to learn more about the Yoruba people, the Ifá system and the Orishas. We were looking into that at one point and we’re all about getting our knowledge from Black people. Well, this book unbeknownst at the time to her was written by a white man and I had to tell her that and the perspective she was kind of pushing was written from a white perspective. The reason why I didn’t look into specific books is because sometimes for books that are very African-based it is difficult to find a Black author. However, I can say that my girlfriend reads tons of biographies like Assata Shakur, Malcolm X, and Dick Gregory, then she’ll give me knowledge. From there, I’ll do further research and we use that information to build our collective knowledge.

“Most of the knowledge I did find came from me doing independent research and not necessarily looking into books.”

Me: That’s phenomenal! Also, how did you actually deal with knowing what you know as you come across all of this information and wrestle with that internal conflict with how you perceived things to be now versus how you perceived things before your awakening?

Will: My first thought was desperation that there’s no way we can do anything about this. But, then I realized two things. Number one that’s the narrative they wanted us to have because they wanted us to feel helpless. In my head, I’ve decided to believe that we can change things. So, with me believing that, I’ve been able to focus on my people. When you focus on your people and you have a certain mindset, you realize that you attract those things into your life. I’ve met nothing but people who believe and feel the same way as me and have this same determination as I do. As a result, we push forward without the belief that anything is going to restrict us and push us back.

“When you focus on your people and you have a certain mindset, you realize that you attract those things into your life.”

Will: I can see all of this white hatred and stuff that they’re throwing at us and there’s no way that they’re expending this amount of energy unless they’re threatened by something. So, there has to be a reason and that reason alone let’s me know that we have something that can break free of this. If we were not meant to be here, then we would’ve been gone a long time ago. We’ve survived for this long worse than any other people on the face of this Earth and we’re still here. So, I have no fear and this is why I’m able to deal with this society and not worry about anything when I go outside.

Me: Wow! Right on Brother! That’s amazing how you articulated that, got to let that marinate! (laughing) Going back to being an creative entrepreneur, what has been some of the challenges you’ve faced?

Will: In the beginning, I faced two challenges. One, knowing my worth, and two, learning the power of the word no. A lot of people assume, that you need this work and they will approach with a “I’m doing you a favor” tip. When you learn when to tell somebody no gives you power, it’ll switch so many things around then you’ll know how to prioritize certain things. That will in turn teach you the value of your craft, then you’ll price things properly.

“When you learn when to tell somebody no gives you power, it’ll switch so many things around then you’ll know how to prioritize certain things.”

Me: You and these answers Will (laughing), keep dropping the wisdom Brother! In your opinion, what do you think young Black visual artists can do to create more opportunities for themselves?

Will: They need to create everyday and they need to put their work out there. We make a mistake of hiding our work, and I did that for the longest. Then, I realized there’s an audience for everybody. As long as you put that work out there, somebody will see it and you’ll gain an audience. They will support you and they will understand your message. Also, never let anybody tell you that you can not create or do anything that you love. There are people out there who just don’t believe in you or don’t want to see you succeed. That’ll make them the happiest to see you stop doing what you love to be like them.

“There are people out there who just don’t believe in you or don’t want to see you succeed. That’ll make them the happiest to see you stop doing what you love to be like them.”

Me: That’s a major gem right there! What’s your favorite piece you created?

Will: I have a favorite series and a kind of favorite piece. My favorite series of mine is the Afro Mecha series which I created as a combination of the Black woman and technology. I did 12 pieces in that series.

Will: There’s that series and I like the piece I did for my girlfriend of a tribute for Prince shortly after he died because she’s a huge Prince fan. It was called Eternally Prince. It was basically Prince in a pharaoh’s crown. When I did that, it was me seeing the reaction to creating something for her because I was doing something that affected her during the time of his passing. That meant a lot to me.

At the request of everyone, I made this into a COLOR PRINT, SHIRT, and am including the black and white version in my COLORING BOOK. You can get prints here: www.TheOneWillFocus.com/store/artwork/eternallyprints You can get shirts here: www.TheOneWillFocus.com/store/apparel/eternallyprince You can get "The Little Black Book" coloring book with Eternally Prince black and white here: www.TheOneWillFocus.com/store/specialcontent/the-little-black-book Feel free to share and if you want to get the black and white tatted (since people asked… I don't mind as long as you post a pic and credit me or deep free to donate any amount to my PayPal TheOne@TheOneWillFocus.com) Thanks for all the love and hundreds of shares for the original piece. I love you guys. Sleep in peace Prince. #prince #sketch #artlife #afropunk #illustration #drawings #art #artist #king #blackkings #blackartist #blackart #black #afrofuturism #naturalhair #afro #fro #drawingskills #instagood #instaart #instaartist #new #characterdesign #conceptart #natural #ink #anime #manga #artwork #comicart

A post shared by Will Focus (@theonewillfocus) on

Me: That’s fantastic Brother, many praises! Are there any artists in your family besides your Mom you mentioned earlier?

Will: There’s some of my cousins and sister who say “yea I draw” but I’ve never seen it (laughing)! But, my daughter and my two sons all draw. My daughter plans on pursuing a career in either Fashion or Graphic Design. My older son is looking to get involved in the Video Game industry. So, they’re going along the route that I kind of went along which I’m happy with because they’re stuff is so dope.

Me: That art gene runs deep! It’s great that you’re actually encouraging their creative flow. What was the most challenging piece you’ve done?

Will: It’ll probably be the Genysis piece. It’s more so because I’m developing a new technique with my art and I have to be very careful when doing it. It brings to mind something that my teacher told me a long time ago, “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” So, I have to approach it very painstakingly to make sure I’m doing it the right way and learn what I’m doing so I can repeat the process in the future. I’m also starting to create my own comic which is called Tension and it’ll be coming out soon but there’s no ETA yet. All of this is in preparation for me to develop that project. It’s going to be like a graphic novel.

Me: Cool, I can definitely see your work being a comic or graphic novel too! Do you mind explaining the vision behind the name Tension?

Will: The reason why it’s called Tension is because in the actual comic itself each character who is the main focal point in these stories is going to come to a point. That point is going to be considered a point of tension where they’re going to have to make a decision and these decisions are going to be crucial to what route the rest of their life takes.

“The reason why it’s called Tension is because in the actual comic itself each character who is the main focal point in these stories is going to come to a point.”

Me: Wow, that sounds exciting! Describe a time when you experienced a creative block, and how did you overcome it?

Will: That comes randomly so I can’t think of one specific time, but usually music helps me when I’m overwhelmed. If I put headphones on and I zone out, that helps me through. That and/or dance or the gym, anything along those lines gets me to break that block because I get to dish out energy in a different way.

Me: Nice, and how has your artwork shaped you as a person?

Will: It’s helped me keep a focus on the things I value most because through my artwork, I’m trying to create a certain level of quality that could also be an example for my children. I have to make sure my art is presentable because as much as they’re a representation of me, I’m a representation of them. So, that is how my artwork pushes me in certain directions and it helps me mature just like my kids do. They’re my driving force and actually the graphic novel that I’m building is inspired by them.

Me: That’s quite a legacy that you’re going to leave for them. Much respect!

Will: Thank you!

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

Will: My most proud achievement is something that culminates all that I’ve experienced and all that I’m learning. It’s allowing me to currently build and put into action something that not only benefits me and my children, but other creatives as well. I’m currently building a Black artist collective called BlkAlchemy. It is by invitation only and we’re keeping within a certain quality and caliber so that way we can show quality creative work to current and younger generations. We also plan on creating a built-in school. Within that school we can create knowledge and impart that knowledge onto people who want to take these classes and learn techniques, so we can build a Black artistic community that is self-sufficient and recognized without the need of any other hand within its pot.

“My most proud achievement is something that culminates all that I’ve experienced and all that I’m learning. It’s allowed me to currently build and put into action something that not only benefits me and my children, but other creatives as well.”

Me: Wow that sounds like it’s going to be such a monumental project! That definitely raises the standard of how we as Black people perceive artistic expression and how we use our artistry to impact our community as well. Kudos for taking that initiative!

Will: Thank you!

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

Will: The only thing now is for everyone to keep their eye out on BlkAlchemy. I’ll be exhibiting at MECCacon in Detroit and at BSAM which is the Black Speculative Art Movement. My girlfriend is also doing some ridiculously fantastic work as well with her magazine – Taji Mag (Taji means “crown” in Swahili).

Me: Wow! That’s so dope! What’s your vision for the future in terms of your artistry?

Will: My vision is to develop my artistry to the point where I can pass it on. I want to be able to pass on the knowledge I have to the younger generation in our community. I just want to be able to give back from what I’ve gained with my craft.

Me: That’s extraordinary! It was great talking and building with you Will, thank you, I enjoyed the conversation!

Will: Me too. Thank you, anytime!

To purchase and inquire about Will’s artwork please visit his website: https://theonewillfocus.com. You can also contact him via email: theone@onewillfocus.com and IG – @theonewillfocus

 

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