Welcome back to the Artists of Color Interview Series! This week, I am speaking with Boston-based artist and writer, Eli Minaya. I first discovered Eli's work through the Angelarium concepts and stories that he created for Peter Mohrbacher in 2015, and was blown away by his powerfully expressive form language, and dynamic figure-work. I am honored to have him, and hope you enjoy reading about his story and his journey.
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
Hi, I’m Eli Minaya. I am Dominican Taino. I’m an Artist and Writer working out of Boston and I illustrate abstract concepts, mythology and animals.
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 was 9 years old when it happened. My uncle was a graffiti artist in New York and my cousins and I were visiting with him, and I spent the entire time poring over his copy of Subway Art. After that, I would beg my mom to take me to his apartment so I could see all the art again. It was like a museum in a book for me and not long after that, I was copying the drawings out of it and looking for graffiti on all the walls of New York City. Shortly after, I moved to Rhode Island, and there I became a graffiti artist. My mom disapproved for about a week when I was 16, but mostly she was there for me and helped put me through art school. A few years ago, my uncle sent me that book, all tattered and torn, and I knew I was responsible for a lot of that wear and tear.
3). Are you self-taught, or did you go to art school? How important was this training to becoming a professional artist?
I went to art school, but to be honest, I don’t make a distinction between being self-taught and going to art school. Every student, inside or out of the institution, has to bring their own curiosity and drive to the process of learning art. Having the support of peers and teachers has never been exclusive to the institution either. We all have peers and people we look up to and learn from. Art school isn’t there to make Artists, it is a step (one of many) toward becoming one. It is also not requisite. I’m passionate about this topic and I rant about it to my students all the time.
4). I love your sense of shape design, and how you morph abstractions into creatures in your ‘Imaginary Things’ series. Can you tell us more about your thoughts behind this series?
Thank you! Imaginary Things began as a deeply personal comic strip series I made called “Quiet Dog”. It was a way of dealing with my divorce. I was confused, and looking for order. So in the story, the Dog runs and searches for it, but ends up running forever. Once I brought that narrative (and period of my life) to a close, I wanted to recapture the primal and instinctive drawings I made for it, without all the emotional baggage. Imaginary Things were the result of that. Quiet Dog and the Imaginary Things remain a big part of everything I make. They’re kind of like the building blocks for all my creative decisions.
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?
Strathmore 500 5ply Plate Bristol was discontinued. Just kidding! (I mean it was, but that’s not really what you mean, right?) In all seriousness, I have none. It hasn’t been easy, but I don’t view difficulty as an obstacle, just time consuming. So it becomes a question of whether or not I want to spend time on it. In general, I don’t view anything as an obstacle. Everything serves to further, even if only incrementally.
6). Does representation matter in art?
Definitely. I am 37 years old and while I am not African-American (I’m Dominican Taino), it wasn’t until this year that I knew what someone that looked even a little like me would look like as a superhero, saving people who looked and lived like me. Intellectually, I knew that part of me was missing, but I didn’t really feel its absence until the hole was filled. *Wakandan salute*
I struggled for a long time with the fact that every time I read a book, I imagined a white protagonist, automatically. I don’t want that for my kids. The project I’m working on right now is my way of ensuring they won’t have to. My protagonists are a Taino mother and son, possessed by their culture's mythology.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
If your research consists only of watching movies, reading books and looking at art made by and for people of color, you’re on the wrong track. Go out and make friends with us. Learn from us. If you’re copying what others have done, you will find nothing but diminishing returns. You know that old adage, “a copy of a copy…” Also, if you have ever said, “I’ll just write it as I experienced it, because it’s a very human experience and not affected by race,” unless that experience is sitting alone in a locked room with no windows and the lights off, you’re not going to be successful.
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
Captain Benjamin Sisko. A phenomenally positive and heroic character made from nothing but hard choices and circumstances. And also the only Captain that had to earn his pips on screen.
Captain Benjamin Lafayette Sisko from Star Trek.
9). Who is the most underrated creator of color you wish everyone knew about?
I don’t know if he’s underrated or not, but I adore Juni Ba’s work. Seriously, go check it out.
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
I’m worried this is going to sound phony, but, paint with color. Learn to paint all the shades of our skin. Learn to do it in color, in black and white, in collage, in macaroni art, in whatever. I’m still learning so much about my own skin, so late in my career (and life), I’m embarrassed. Draw from life, and make sure it’s colorful.
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 working on a graphic novel, Tornjak and the Myrahn Primer (working title). As I mentioned earlier, it’s a story about a mother and son whose mythology becomes their whole world in a very literal way. I’ve begun publishing segments on Patreon while I shop for publishers. I am also making an oracle deck based on the mythology in that story. It’s called “Oracle of the Tall Temple” and you can follow the progress on my Instagram @Bad_King.
As for dream projects, I would love to do spot illustrations for Tor (Books and .Com) and the New York Times. Thanks for having me!
Thank you so much, Eli, for sharing your story and your stunning art! And thank you, readers, for joining us for this interview series. If Eli's answers resonated with you, please comment and share his interview far and wide!
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