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Interview: Ashley Smith Is All About Representation Through Painting And Platform, Young Black Artists

Indiana native, Ashley Smith is a painter and the founder of Young Black Artists, an online community that promotes Black art and uplifts Black artists.

Indiana born creative, Ashley Smith, is a painter and the founder of Young Black Artists, an online community that promotes Black art and uplifts Black artists. Ashley, an experienced artist, elaborates on the beginnings of her artistic journey, which started as a child. “I’ve always been creative, honestly. I will say that I’ve been creative as long as I can remember, as long as I was able to pick up a pencil of any sort.” Her creative spirit followed her to college, but the lack of representation caused a disconnect between her and her non-Black counterparts. She shares, “everything around me, everything that I saw, all of the exhibits I went to, all of the critiques, discussions, everything—I felt like I was the only Black person. I felt like there was no representation.”

Ashley’s experiences and struggle to feel connected led her to create her own platform, centered around all the things she sought: community, inclusivity, engagement and most of all, representation. “[Young Black Artists] has one goal, which is to bring exposure to Black artists. That is the main goal. Everything that I’ve done with YBA has gone back to this idea of how can we shed light on Black artists, no matter who they are, no matter how far in their journeys they are with their work.”

Share a little bit about your background!

I’m from Elkhart, Indiana. It’s a small town in northern Indiana and I grew up in a pretty small family. I have a younger brother and you know, it’s pretty much just small town living. I will say that coming up it was mainly me living with my mother and my grandparents. I’ve always been creative, honestly. I will say that I’ve been creative as long as I can remember, as long as I was able to pick up a pencil of any sort. I’ve been able to draw and look at pictures and copy the pictures. That was something that I was always doing coming up. I always took a lot of art classes and that was something my mom was very big on. I guess she had seen that I was pretty good at it, so she had pushed forward my creativity and put me into different art classes.

Creating was a normal part of my life. It was something that I did. I never really thought of it as, oh… this is something I could do as a job or something I could do with my life. It was just something I did in my spare time considering that with my mom I’m her only child, so kind of like being the only child it was a way that I used up my time.

That’s where I grew up and then I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to Indiana University. That’s where I started taking my art a little bit more seriously and not just something that I do for fun. I lived in Bloomington for about eight years and slowly, but surely, was creeping into that area of getting more and more creative.

I understand what you’re saying with art being a part of you. But, I know for me I was always the creative one, too, but it wasn’t until around 9th grade where I had a formal art class. I realized, hey I’m actually good at this. So for you, was it in college or was it earlier when you realized—I’m actually really good at what I do.

I think the point where I had that moment of like… huh. You know, like that huh moment didn’t come until actually after college when I had graduated. So, that last year of college—this was probably in 2013-14 is when I was creating for fun, but people’s reactions to it is what kind of made me take a step back. I felt like everyone was just like oh my gosh this is amazing. And I’m like…it is? It’s amazing? Are you sure? I thought they were just saying that. You know people always say people’s art’s amazing to make them feel good and I’m like, are you sure?

It wasn’t until I got invited to an event at my church and they had people in the church putting up their art. I did that because it was for fun and it was for the church, but that was my first real event ever. People were willing to pay for my work and that’s when I was like, oh! [leans back] Towards the end of 2014 was when I was like let me go buy some canvases and see what I can actually do and if I can sell some stuff.

What is your primary medium and what makes it special to you?

I work primarily with acrylic paint and I don’t have a super special reason why I use acrylic paint. I was actually tying to work in oil paint for a while and the reason I did go to acrylic instead of pushing forward with the oil is because of the particular style that I was trying to get out of it. What I had I my head I felt that it was either too hard to do it with the oil or it would take longer. I really like layering on and seeing colors through other colors and I felt like with the oil you have to wait for it to dry or you have to use turpentine to dilute it to get it to dry faster so you can go over it. So, it was kind of like a time thing. I felt like I could achieve what I wanted a lot faster with the acrylic, but also it came in so many more bright colors. It made a lot more sense to use the acrylic for what was in my head. That’s really the only reason I use them so much.

It definitely works with your style—the layering that you do and of course it dries quick so you don’t have to worry about that part. Do you currently experiment with other mediums or are you solely an acrylic painter?

I recently started playing around with more watercolors and gouache. I really love how watercolors look, and with gouache you can layer it a little bit but it just has a different look and feel. That’s actually something I want to take more time with and learn. I just don’t know that medium as well because I haven’t been doing it as long. I started maybe like a year and a half ago and stopped using it for a long time. So, that is another medium that I am looking into.

Before I even started getting into paint I was actually a digital illustrator, so I did a lot of that in the beginning. I was a graphic designer, digital illustrator—I was trying to actually go in that direction in my life and then somehow just got steered away from it and ended up painting. Digital illustration I always say is sort of like my first love. I would love to get back to that one day and just see what I can do with it. I feel like I can achieve the same style on a digital painting that I can on acrylic. I just haven’t gone back to it just yet.

It would be great to revisit what initially sparked your interest. Even if it’s—

Just for fun! I feel like the thing about being creative—it’s so easy to think of it as a business and you want to sell and get what’s hot out there, but I feel with other mediums of art is sort of where I feel like I can have fun. With the digital art, with the watercolor…those things are so separate from what my brand already is that I can use that art as a hobby rather than something I’m doing for a living or for money.

That’s a really interesting way to look at it. Your work includes an abstract form of portraiture that’s vibrant in color and with varying brush strokes. This is what I feel makes your style super unique. How did you get to figuring out what your style is?

Thank you for just noticing my style. It makes me really happy that you can see and notice that. I’ve actually given this a lot of thought because when I first began painting, I didn’t feel like I really had a style. It was just kind of hard for me to distinguish my art. One thing that I’ve done that I think has really helped me distinguish and do my style is like—anytime I did something and it felt good to do it, it made me happy to do it, then I just used that. I did a whole lot more of that and made it a little more dramatic.

So, you know, things that I kind of stumbled upon is what I was like, cool I really love outlining this person’s face so I’m going to keep outlining things. I’m going to go to town with the outlining actually, or I love adding this little bit of color because it made me so happy when I did that so I’m doing to keep doing that, or even layering and using different brush strokes. That was just me playing one day and I was like, I really like this and it makes me feel good.

I kind of followed what made me feel good and that’s why it feels so unique to me. Honestly, I guess it’s just noticing patterns, and then replicating those patterns and trusting it. There have been times when—I was feeling like this last week—I was looking at my art and I’m like, I don’t even like this style. I’m going to just, you know, ditch it and do something else. I try not to get into that headspace and just trust that the direction I’m going in works. But the fact that people can look and say this is Ashley’s style, I’m like…that’s a major compliment.

I like how you said that these are things that you stumbled upon and tried. Oh, I love the way this feels. I love the way this looks. You went through this phase of really just…curiosity and trying to figure out what you like and what you don’t like. And then the things that you liked, they stuck and you just keep going back to it.

Just roll with it! Even if it doesn’t seem like all that great on the next painting, there’s something in that direction. I feel that there’s something that made me feel good about that so let me keep going and let me see if I can exploit that even further. Let me do bigger stokes, let me do bigger outlines, let me add more colors and see where it goes. You really can’t do wrong, that’s how I think about it. If it looks like crap I’m going to cover it, you know [laughing].

I feel like a lot of artists, especially those they are just getting started are still in that phase of well, what is my style? How can I contribute? How do I stand apart from people whose work that I admire or even having this feeling of intimidation when looking at someone else’s work. I know, me as an artist, I’ve had to unplug and really tap into myself and say this is how I draw, this is why I create, and I don’t have to have these high expectations based on other people’s work, styles, or how realistic it is or isn’t. Have you felt that or dealt with that?

Yes, I deal with that like everyday [laughing]. All the time. I feel like at every point of my journey as a painter, I’ll say…I’ve been painting for six or seven years now and every time I feel like I’ve hit a breakthrough with my art—I made this amazing painting. I made this amazing thing that I love. Then I get thrusted back into that mindset of what is my style? Who am I? What am I really doing? What does this really mean to me? I’m going through that right now.

You mentioned people who are just starting off are kind of in that headspace, maybe because they don’t know what to expect and they have really high expectations. They’re looking at Kehinde Wiley and then like, how am I going to make it to that level one day? One thing I always tell people—because I do get hit up by people every once in a while—I’m just like man…just flow with it. There’s no right, there’s no wrong answer. There’s no time period for how fast you need to get better. You really just have to take your time and go through the process.

Those feelings of insecurity or feeling like you’re not where you want to be—that’s because when you’re creating, creating is literally like you taking your heart and the things that are inside of you and being vulnerable. You’re putting a piece of yourself into it and it’s exhausting. That takes a lot to really put yourself into something and to expect that you’re going to be comfortable doing that all the time, that’s just not realistic. Creativity is a very personal journey.

You said something really powerful—creativity is personal. If you look at it that way, even in other genres like music artists—it’s very personal. You’re putting yourself into it and it can be super exhausting, but I loved your message of just continuing. Take a break if you need to, stay creative and whatever you’re trying to reach, you’ll get there…it’s possible.

I love the fact that you mentioned the music industry. I’m such an advocate for people who make music because I just feel like the amount of pressure that people put on musicians to crank out music. You’re putting your business in this music and you’re being vulnerable…people need to chill. We don’t push painters—some painters—the way that we push musicians. It’s still a piece of art and it still takes time to learn and know what they’re going to talk about next.

I never actually looked at it that way in terms of fine art and music. They’re both art forms and you have to give a part of yourself. But we do expect so much more from them [musicians].

Everyone has a different form of creativity, but on the back-end, we’re all wired up the same way. We’re thinking the same way. A lot of creatives are sensitive people, we’re really deep-thinking people, a lot of us are introverts. A lot of us are kind of going through the same process, it’s just the output is different.

Do you ever experiment with other subjects, or do you only focus on the human form?

Up until now I’ve only focused on the human form. I did for a short time try to play around with abstract. I will say that abstract takes a whole different mindset [laughing]. It takes a whole other way of thinking. I just haven’t taken the time to learn another art form, but I will say portraiture has always been something that was interesting to me. It’s the thing that gives me a lot of joy when I create it and I started doing portraiture when I was a kid, drawing what I saw in books, magazines and stuff like that.

I’m not sure what attracted me to that, but I just kept rolling with it. For whatever reason, nothing else has seemed interesting for me to create, except recently—for one painting I painted leaves. I realized that I really enjoyed painting flowers and leaves, so I haven’t gone down the path yet, but it’s in the back of my mind that I really want to create some art that’s leaves and flowers and see if I can put my style into that.

I get how to do my style on a face, but I’m like how can I do this on some flowers and leaves? I’m working on a painting now actually, where I’m going to put flowers in her hair and I’m going to do that part last because I don’t really know how I’m going to do it yet.

That would be a really good challenge for you to push your style into different subjects. I noticed that the subjects in your paintings are Black individuals. I was wanting to know is that intentional?

Yeah, it is intentional. What first inspired me to even start painting those types of subjects when I was a kid, so middle school and high school—I used to be really into magazines and modeling. So, a lot of the people I paint are actually models and for whatever reason I was really into modeling. I thought I could be a model. I wanted to be on America’s Next Top Model. Eva is 5′ 6″, I’m 5′ 6″… I felt like I could do it!

I noticed whoever I would have these magazines like Seventeen, Vogue, Elle Magazine—I’m like there are no Black girls in here. Where are the Black girls? I was constantly drawing all of the faces in those magazines and I noticed there was never any Black girls. When I revisited creating—at that time I was only drawing. I didn’t start painting until after college. I was like, you know what…I’m going to find some Black girls!

I feel like that’s what started it off, but also at the same time I think it’s just a reflection of me. One thing that I’ve noticed whenever I paint a model, people always say “is this you?” even if it doesn’t look nothing like me. I feel like somewhere in my subconscious I’m trying to put myself onto the canvas. When I find a Black woman that I can relate to—it has to be an image that I feel a spark with, you know. I feel like that’s again, doing what makes me feel good. There was a time when I painted Black men in the past and I’ve also been thinking of getting into painting Black men more.

That’s really what led me to portraiture. I think after so many years, it’s probably just a comfort zone at this point.

Representation matters in life and even through art. So, for you to be drawing the faces in those magazines and realize there are no Black girls—first off, it’s sad that there is no representation, right? So, we’re having to create our own versions of ourselves and our communities through whatever platform or medium that is. So yeah, representation definitely matters in art.

I’m not sure if any of those magazines have gotten more representation since then, but I think about that a lot too. That’s really what also led me to creating Young Black Artists. It seemed very hard to exist in these art communities or art spaces that seemed like they didn’t have enough Black people.

I was actually an art minor in college and I was very big in that community. Even in that, everything around me, everything that I saw, all of the exhibits I went to, all of the critiques, discussions, everything—I felt like I was the only Black person. I felt like there was no representation. Of course, it just changed people’s perspective of my art, you know. I made a charcoal drawing that had different Black people on it—I can’t remember exactly what I was achieving or what it was about, but I remember most of the feedback I got was not positive. I’m not expecting everybody to like my art, but just the fact that I felt like it was because something they didn’t understand or couldn’t connect with.

I was a Graphic Design major and in the art community, but when you said you felt like you were the only Black student, I can count on hand how many other Black students that I saw at my university in the same field. I know when I was creating my art, I felt like they didn’t know how to critique something that was unfamiliar. It kind of made me feel like, damn. I don’t want to come off as the Black girl that creates everything Black, but I also want to be true to what I feel and what I want to see. I feel like my peers, bless their hearts, but I feel like they didn’t really know how to critique or perceive something that didn’t look like them.

Exactly! That was my exact—I remember I had a class with one other Black dude. We were just like homie, what’s up? What are you doing? What are you working on? It just felt so good to be able to be somewhere with somebody who can advocate for my art.

I don’t even know if I ever got an A in any of my art classes. Like, real talk. I felt like I always just got like a B. Like a B? I stayed up all night making this! [laughing] I acknowledged it then and when I was finally like, I’m going to take my art serious I went to Instagram and was like let me see what Instagram account I can post my art to and who I can send it to. Scrolled for a couple of seconds and was like… nope. This isn’t going to work. We need our own space so we can encourage each other.

Before we get to Young Black Artists, let’s speak on making money off your art. What has that process been like for you in terms of making a career out of your art and making profit?

It has been up and down. In the beginning I was just starting off, so I would make money with close friends and family. It was kind of like as people were willing to give it to me. There was a point where I was like I’m really about to try to make money. I’m going to make some prints, sell the prints, put them online, sell them at events. I was trying to sell my work.

There was also a period where I was getting commissions, one after the other. After a while when I was focused on making money it made the art a little bit less enjoyable for me, honestly. When I really felt like I needed the money to pay bills or use it as a side hustle to find ways to make money, over time I got a better job and was in a better financial situation and I realized…I don’t really think I care to make money off of this particularly.

I definitely want my creativity to be an avenue for me to have some type of financial increase in a way, but for some reason the money for me took the enjoyment out of creating. I felt like I was focused on, what can I paint that people would buy instead of being like, what can I paint that I actually care about painting? I felt like I was trying to follow a trend—what is everyone painting? I’m going to paint that, too. What’s popular? I’m going to paint that, too. Or what celebrity’s birthday is coming up? Let me paint that, too. That was taking so much of my time and I think I went a couple of years where I didn’t paint anything I cared about.

I stopped taking commissions for a while and stopped selling prints. I wanted to focus on making art that I actually cared about, that’s where I’m at now. I’ve been doing that now for about a year and a half where I just haven’t sold anything because I haven’t put myself in that mindset anymore to sell my art. I needed to get my footing again. This is the art I want to make and this is the art I want to sell.

One thing I noticed is people purchase the art I made for myself that really matter to me a lot less than the art I know was a trend or was commissioned by people. If I do start selling the art that really matters to me I wonder if people will buy it.

I think everything that you explained ties back to the whole, creativity is personal and how as an artist or musician we feel overwhelmed or overworked, like people are demanding too much from us. I feel that’s an important thing because you can lose yourself in the process and it’s very important to step back and stop everything so you can hone in on what matters to you. Like you said, it didn’t have a meaning to you, so like why am I creating it?

That’s how I felt after a while. I definitely put my all into it, you know. I feel like I’m an empath. I’m able to put as much as I can into it that based off of what the person has told me and what they want, but it’s still just like after a while I’m like…what about what I care about? What about what I want to paint?

What do you want people to think, feel or say whenever they are experiencing your work?

I feel like everything. I don’t necessarily want them to feel one particular thing, but I will say that I think the things that I feel when I’m painting is insecurity. I sometimes feel negative feelings: I don’t think I’m that good. I don’t think this is going to matter. I feel those feelings, but then on the other side of it I’m going to paint this anyway. I’m going to have some type of joy in this process.

One thing that I always feel when I finish a painting…I feel a lot of peace. My thing is, I want people to look at that and feel that process—this is helping me see or feel that insecurity, but I can push forward anyway. I can feel peace or joy.

For me it’s a really emotional thing. I always felt like it didn’t matter what I painted. It didn’t matter what face it was or who it was or why. I felt like it always came down to it being an emotional process that I was going through.

I don’t care as much about people being like oh, is that so and so or that looks exactly like so and so, or your proportions are perfect, you did a great job. I don’t care as much about that as how you feel when you look at it.

So, we’ve spoken on like creativity, finding your path and we touched on representation in the art world. That leads into your platform, Young Black Artists. Shine the light on your platform!

Young Black Artists is a platform I started on New Year’s of 2015. It has one goal: bringing exposure to Black artists. That is the main goal. Everything that I’ve done with YBA has gone back to this idea of how can we shed light on Black artists, no matter who they are, no matter how far in their journeys they are with their work.

I started that because of me also being a young Black artist and wanting to get my work out there. I told you I first started taking my work seriously late 2014 and so I remember like, it was around Christmas and me being like, alright I’m going to start posting my art. I was like how can I get exposure, how can I get my art out there, and of course I’m thinking social media.

It was a good hour search of what are some communities that I could put my work out there and I couldn’t find them. I was like, where are the Black art communities. If I did find some they weren’t very active or nothing had been done yet. The ones that were very active were the ones who didn’t have Black artists on there. I was like, they’re never going to repost me.

So, me being the person that I am—I am a problem solver. For my day job I am a product designer, which is me solving problems, but at the time I was like, I’m just going to make it. I’m going to do it myself. I’m going to see if I can build this community and it literally started as me making the account, hitting up some artists like hey, can I repost your art and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing ever since. Reposting art that people have tagged YBA in, DM’d YBA, the hashtag, however people send it. If I see it I’ll scroll through and post it. That’s how it’s been for five and a half years. It’s grown a whole lot!

The fact that it’s grown without me even like forcing it to grow just shows that it’s something that people really needed and really appreciated. People mentioned that they like the vibe of the brand or the environment. People are very communicative on there and have a lot of conversations in the comments, so I see that it’s also a community. It’s not just a place where you can look at art, but it’s also a place where you can feel understood. I really want it to be this community of artists beyond just exposure.

I love that, making it into a community. Like you said, it doesn’t matter how big your following is, just feeling like you belong and that you’re represented. I was supporting your platform at the beginning, I remember that you gave me a platform because there weren’t any. No platforms that were really active. A lot of the different Black communities or Facebook groups for artists—it was always a popularity contest. And it’s like, I’m not here for a popularity contest. I really want to network and be apart of a community. I didn’t get that, so you know…here we are, creating our own platforms.

It is a huge thing in the art community. And also a lot of other platforms may only post a certain type of art or people who are really popular or famous artists and stuff like that. I feel like things like that make it hard for those starting off to feel connected or encouraged. Like, I’ll never get posted to this community, so why even bother. That’s how I felt when looking at some communities in the beginning and I don’t want that with YBA. Again, art is art and we’re all going through the same process, so why not just be a community of people who are pushing forward for the same goal of being creative and getting your work out there.

How can we stay connected with you?

My instagram account. It is my main place where I post all of my art. And of course, Young Black Artists is an alternative instagram account that you can connect with me on. I also have my YouTube. I’m very active on that. I just started that channel.

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