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If you could escape to anywhere, where would you go?

Would you go to an exotic beach and listen to the crashing waves? Or maybe you wouldn’t travel far at all. If you’re masked up and vaxed up, you take a stroll to your favorite Black-owned coffee shop. Or you can have a staycation and peruse your backyard garden.

2021 is starting to look like 2020 in sheep’s clothing. I’m sure all of us could use a break from this right now. So, if you don’t have anywhere to escape to, join me as we travel to the Carolinas to chat with a few Black creatives who will sweep you away into another world with their artwork.

Don’t forget to forward this newsletter to your art friends so they can join in on the fun, too.

– Starr

‘Make your own adventure’

Lisa Frank ain’t got nothing self-taught illustrator Geneva Bowers. (Not only because Bowers is more talented, but it turns out Frank was wack anyway.)

Bowers, a 28-year-old self-taught artist who grew up near the western North Carolina mountains, will zap you to another universe with her otherworldly illustrations. Scrolling through her Instagram or Facebook is like entering into a colorful realm where Black and brown girls with cloudsoceans and galaxies in their hair go grocery shopping with ghostswalk on water and wield lightning bolts as their swords.

Bowers hopes her work, especially when it comes to her relaxing landscapes, gives viewers space to exhale after holding their breath for so long due to the tension of the year.

“’It’s going to be OK.’ This too will pass,’ is what I’ve been living by,” Bowsers said. “I like to draw the certain things I do because I know I’m not the only one dealing with a lot of stuff right now. These relaxing scenes can help out other people that also might be having anxiety.”

Her imagination has attracted clients like Disney, Netflix and DreamWorks animation and won her the Hugo Award for Best Fan Artists in 2018. But all the accolades don’t eclipse the impact of Bowers’ main mission: to fix the scarcity of Black and brown characters in the sci-fi and fantasy genre.

It’s a problem she first noticed while watching anime on Adult Swim. The issue eventually bled into her drawings. After taking an inventory of her earlier work, Bowers said she noticed that her characters were also lacking curves and melanin. And there wasn’t a model for her to work with to learn how to draw Black people, either. She can research how to sketch tiger and just follow along to the instructions. But Bowers had to teach herself how to draw Black people. She sat in front of a mirror, observed how the light reflected off her skin and started playing with different shades of brown until she got the skin tone down.

You can see in her work how her efforts paid off. She created a webcomic called HoverGirls, which features cousins who fight off sea-like monsters in the city of Los Aguaceros. She’s also illustrated about 10 children’s books, including her own called “Allie and Gator.”

“I just wanted kids to have an adventure with a Black lead. Just showing them that you can do anything. Do what you want. Make your own adventure,” Bowers said.

Bowers talks about her favorite illustrations and the inspiration behind them:

“Animal Party”: From fluttering birds and mythical creatures, animals are common in Bowers’ work. She said this timely-themed piece combined her favorite things: animals in party hats illustrated in a fun, simple color palette.

 “As you know, 2020 was ridiculous and this was drawn at the end of 2020,” she said. “So along with wanting to do all that fun stuff, it was also a celebration of the year almost being done.”

“Flower Fields”: Pulling from her mountainous surroundings and a re-watching of Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away,” Bowers wanted to create a serene, September-inspired fantasy world. Bowsers said the leaves don’t change until later in the fall. So bright yellow and orange flowers speckle the field instead.

“It’s really inspired by Appalachia in particular,” she said. “It gives off just a peaceful feeling like, you’re just out here and you can relax and rest at this field.”

“Voyage”: “They really gave a feeling of adventure. So I’m giving that feeling of adventure to the viewers as well,” she said. “The giant jellyfish in the background gives it that fantasy, sci-fi element, and the woman in the front is just in a feeling of wonder and exploration.”

Renaissance of Black Joy

Many moons before Ija Charles became one of the most sought-after artists in Columbia, S.C., she was a country girl who made paint from blackberries and muscadines while visiting her grandparents in Paxville, S.C.

The rural town became a playground of creative possibilities for young Ija. She dug under the trees for clay to make her own tea set, which she and her sister used for tea parties. Now 24, Charles memorialized those fun summer days in one of her paintings called “Paxville Girls.”

“It was made in honor of good memories,” Charles said. “A lot of people come up and talk to me, and they find out that I’m just a country girl.”

Charles’ talents have since flourished, catching the eyes of both locals and the NFL’s Artists Replay initiative, as she literally paints Columbia with joy. A banner hanging high on a local library shows

Charles has painted about 20 murals so far. She plans to paint four more by the end of the year.

It’s busy work, but it’s all part of Charles’ renaissance of Black joy. Art was always Charles’ therapy of choice. It gave her the power to turn pain into positivity while she was going through some tough times when she was younger. She is now doing the same thing for her hometown.

“The joy I put in my artwork is genuine and it showcases the black experience in a good, positive way,” Charles said. “I want to show people that we deserve to be treated just as good as anyone else, because we have joy just like everyone else.”

Charles isn’t just known for her paintings. She also makes art out of everyday items. She chronicles her artistic process on Instagram as she molds colorful faces out toilet papier-mâché or weaves golden brown skin tones with yarn. Charles talks about a few of her works and the materials she uses.

“‘Treasure Travels’ was created to inspire people to pray and wish good spirits on their journeys. I used resin for an abstract effect to showcase how sometimes we really never know what the road may have ahead of you.”

’Smile’ was created with beads. Things in your life may happen to you, but it’s really 10 percent of what happened and 90 percent your reaction to the situation. So each bead represents different parts of the young boy’s life that makes up the smile he has on his face.”

’Sunflowers Set’ was created with yarn and string just to really challenge my use of different mediums. I also wanted to create a beautiful story of how once you bloom into your season, a lot of things in your past will come to an end as you rise.”

Can’t get enough of Black creatives?

efore hopping off the phone with Bowers, she mentioned the need to shine more spotlight on Black creatives. So, she gave a shoutout to two of her favs and pointed out why you should give them a follow.

  • Kiyami Omotayo: I appreciate Kiyami’s bold character work. They do an amazing job showing the expressions and feelings of the characters in their work. The polished shading and lighting accentuate this while also really giving their pieces a wonderful sense of character
  • Awuradwoa Afful: I really enjoy Awuradwoa’s whimsical style. Their art gives me the impression of geometry that goes outside its normal constrains. The palette choices catch the eye and help to swing it around the spatial barriers that they manipulate so well.

Wanna learn more about Black artists from the South? You can check my Blacktober issue of Black Joy, which highlights artists who took white or non-Black cartoon, anime and video game characters and made them Black.

Consider spreading your Black Joy by sending your coins to Hurricane Ida relief efforts which we rounded up for you here.

See you next time!