Welcome to the Artists of Color Interview series! I read and listen to a lot of artist interviews to hear the stories of how my art heroes came up, but I noticed that artists of color make up for a very small percentage of my favorite art podcasts and blogs. With this series, I will spotlight some incredible artists from the illustration, fine art, concept art, and animation industries, and talk to them about their experiences as artists and as people of color. I hope you find their answers as inspiring as I do, and that you will share their gorgeous art with the world!
I am honored to introduce you to the first interviewee for this series- the lovely Brooklyn-based artist, Sheeba Maya. I've been following her gorgeously lush paintings for the past year and a half, and was very lucky to meet her in person at New York Comic Con last year!
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
I have a background in fine art and graphic design. I’ve combined these two disciplines and my focus for the past 5 years has been in digital painting. I would describe my work as AfroFantasy Realism. I like to create fantasy worlds that feel real and familiar...like a dream. My work presents women from the African Diaspora as Goddesses. I enjoy drawing/painting the Godliness I see in my culture and energy that connects the spirit to nature.
2). When did you first fall in love with art, and realize that you wanted to pursue it as a career? Did your parents approve or disapprove?
I fell in love with art at an early age. I remember wanting to learn how to draw at around age 5. My parents are both artists, and at the time they were drawing a lot. I wanted to draw just like them. I didn’t know then that I wanted it to be a career…I had no concept of that at that age. But I knew I wanted to be a great artist. I wanted to master the craft, and made a decision to do so back then. That desire never left me. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I thought about making a career of it. I realized that I needed to dedicate a lot of time to it, and figured I better make a living at it so I could spend all my time making art.
My parents were always very supportive of my artwork. In the beginning, I think my parents were a little scared for me when I told them that I wanted to make a career of it. They were worried that I might struggle because it is a difficult path to take. But they always gave me sound advice on the business end of things, offered emotional support when I needed it, and would always offer constructive criticism to help me improve my work. Now they are my biggest fans, and push me to keep going with my art career. I think they see all the hard work I’ve invested in my art, and are proud of the response my artwork has gotten.
Sheeba and her father. Photo by Jarvis Grant.
3). Are you self-taught, or did you go to art school? How important was this training to becoming a professional artist?
I guess you could say I am a little of both. I did go to school for a bit to study fine art and graphic design. This time was important to my development, as I learned things much faster than the time I spent trying to figure things out on my own. I got a lot of feedback I wasn’t getting in isolation. But the bulk of my training came from studying on my own. I mean the learning never really ends. Naturally, I’ve spent most of my life out of school rather than in school, and I spend so much of my time learning as I go along. I have also been fortunate enough to have a couple of mentors along the way. This helped me greatly. My work grew in leaps and bounds during this time. I also got the push and much needed advice on how to get started on my career...how to promote myself, how to deal with clients, and how to improve conceptually (not just technically).
4). I first discovered your work through your gorgeous zodiac portraits. What about the zodiac inspires you, and what is your thought process behind the creation of each piece?
My Dad actually suggested that I do a series of zodiac illustrations to submit to magazines for their horoscope section, because it was a big goal for me to get published in magazines. That suggestion was the catalyst for the series. As it developed though, it wasn’t as important to me to get it into mags. I just wanted to represent the beauty of the Black Woman in this format. I wanted to show that we were a part of the astrological community...that we are connected to the cosmos. I realized that this representation was not really out there for the masses. Black people were celebrating their signs, of course, but they were not being represented in the mainstream artwork. There was a huge response of gratitude...women and girls were saying, ”That’s me!” when they saw the paintings. That energy became the driving force behind the series.
5). What is a major obstacle that you have faced in pursuit of your art career? How did you overcome this, or is it something that you still struggle with?
I think the most complicated part for me to figure out was how to make enough money doing this. It’s really hard even if you're really good. It took me years to figure out how to make a full time living. I had to make a lot of sacrifices. I had to try a lot of things…I had to fail and get screwed over…I failed in front of people...I had to face a lot of anxiety. I mean, I really had to put myself out there and do things with no experience under my belt, which can be scary. I embraced my fears and took every experience (for better or worse) as learning opportunities. I let my passion for art drive me to face my fears (fear of performing, fear of failure, fear of success, all the natural fears that come with the territory). I also took some time to define what success looked like, and surrounded myself with people I considered successful. I built a community of people who could answer my questions, consider me for events, offer advice on artwork and business, and who understood the emotional side of the artist lifestyle. It was a building process. Over time I put a lot of irons in the fire, managed them simultaneously, and was willing to work day and night to make it all possible. Now I teach art part time, take on commissions, maintain an online shop, and participate in conventions and art shows.
6). Does representation matter in art?
YES! Representation matters big time in art. When I was growing up, I hardly ever saw girls/women that looked like me being celebrated as smart, beautiful, talented, or worthy of love and respect in mainstream media. This played on my psyche. This hurt my self esteem. But my mother would expose me to art that featured Black girls and women that looked like me and this brought me joy. I remember a book of drawings by Tom Feelings that she bought for me. I saw these beautiful images of women that looked like me and my friends and family...a sense of pride came over me when I saw those drawings.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
Be honest. Be sensitive. Be respectful. I guess that's 3 things..lol. But they go hand in hand. I know a few artists who draw mainly Black people who are not themselves Black. I love their work because I see the respect, honesty, and kindness in the work. I see a celebration of a people.
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
“Brotherman” by Dawud Anyabwile is probably the character I'm most excited about right now. The comic is so beautifully drawn and colored...it’s cinematic! This character is a fierce protector of his family and community. It just feels so relatable...like, I want this guy in my neighborhood! I hope it becomes an animated film in my lifetime.
Brotherman, by Dawud Anyabwile.
9). Who is the most underrated creator of color you wish everyone knew about?
Toni L. Taylor is an artist that I respect and admire. She paints really spirited and cosmic pieces of all kinds of Goddesses and animals. Her work is brilliant!
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
My advice is not to be afraid to create work that is a reflection of your experience. If you exclusively represent people of color in your work...that is OK. People might tell you that you need to “broaden your market” by including White people in your work but this is not necessary. There are other people of color STARVING to see themselves in artwork. There IS a market for your work.
11). Any current projects you can talk about? What is your ultimate dream project that you canʼt wait to work on, or be a part of someday?
I'm still working on the Zodiac series and hope to have it complete this year. I've been working on it for a long time...5 years so far, but I am determined to get it done. The next major project that I want to work on is a deck of tarot cards. I'm excited about learning to read tarot cards, and get to know them intimately before I start working on the deck. I also want to do another instructional DVD for digital painting. Either lessons for absolute beginners, or one that focuses on the portrait.
Thank you so much, Sheeba, for sharing your story and your gorgeous art! And thank you, readers, for joining us for this interview series. If Sheeba's answers resonated with you, please comment and share her interview far and wide! <3
Be sure to follow Sheeba, support her, and share her work through the links below: