Welcome back to the Artists of Color Interview Series! I am now back from GenCon, and am very excited to return to you with this conversation. I first discovered the work of Baltimore-based illustrator and game-creator Jabari Weathers on facebook, following a solo gallery exhibition of their work at Tectonic Space. I was floored by the story-telling and dark, dream-like quality in their work, and was honored to meet them in person at GenCon! I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did, and I want to thank you for your patience with me this past month in releasing new content for the series!
1). Tell us about yourself! What is your background, and how would you describe your work?
I’m an artist born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. Growing up here, I definitely was in an often privileged position due to the efforts of my parents growing up, but the environments on a social and cultural level were increasingly stifling (Catholic elementary and middle school, all boys Catholic high school) until attending MICA in 2010. My work pulls equally from Golden Age illustrators, manga and anime, video games, tons of cinema and many other disparate places, but I focus on making work that’s fantastic and surreal.
What’s of most interest to me is tension. Growing up (and even now) I’ve always found myself in these weird social in-betweens. There’s this whole thing about being black and in predominantly white academic (and later, professional) spaces. and not fitting into the templates that everyone has prescribed for you. By being interested in things that someone black and male-bodied isn’t expected to be engaged in, I was always pegged as highly unusual in my perspective and interests; by friends, by family, by strangers, pretty much everyone.
I was subversive by existing, apparently, though I know the truth of it is I’m really not an anomaly, but that experience is really isolating to have that constant interrogation on every side of you. How many black kids grew up being over the moon about the Frouds’ artwork? In reality, that answer is assuredly ‘many’, but there’s no way that most people in your average school believe that. Even weirder were the discussions around gender and sex that I was digesting. I was aware for a while that I wasn’t a particularly ‘masculine’ person in ways that people once again expected of me, and it took getting to college to really lean into that and feel more ready to even start finding myself.
With how that relates to my art, I often want to take that tension that I feel, that ambiguity that was assigned to me by my environment, and I try to bake that uncanniness into the work. I like making things that are interrogative, because I’ve had to interrogate my interests and views so aggressively, and had them done two-fold by others near constantly. Now, I’m constantly making work that I hope provokes questions in just how strange the feeling is. It’s not always a comfortable place that I’m landing, but I’d like to think it’s an honest approach that’s visible in my work.
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?
Oh, it had to be early on! I’ve been drawing almost as long as I can remember, but at some point in first or second grade, it became that thing I could take pride in and was really trying to develop as a skill. I’ve always liked telling and sharing stories, and visual art was the most immediate pathway I was able to forge for it in my creative life. My Mother was always really supportive of the notion of me becoming an artist, even if my creative decisions were frequently up to debate (as so happens with many parents and offspring), but her support has been and continues to be invaluable. She also comes from an artistic background, so I don’t think that was too difficult for her to see the merit in illustration. My Father has tried intermittently to be supportive, but I’m pretty sure what I do is lost on him, and I’ve always gotten the sense (without being able to speak for him), that what I do is fundamentally impractical, and that SFF tends to just kind of not be his thing.
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 I don’t see the training as clearly binary. I’ve had lots of technical instruction from mentors through the years that was regulated through mainly High School and Art School, but then I spent hours upon hours upon hours of time trying to refine those lessons and find my voice outside of the comparably short amount of time I had with the instructors. A lot of what was valuable for me at MICA was that it was such an intense shift in community that I could have that focus at all to really work hard. It was a far more understanding space and I generally felt a lot less alien, and could actually focus more on making my work. It did wonders for my self esteem because I was in a place where my thought patterns didn’t seem uselessly (or threateningly) foreign. I could start being myself, and so that was quite the privilege in itself.
Still, there are tons of artists who don’t have such opportunities working today and through history that still manage amazing things, or are capable of incredible work. I think there’s this dangerous perception that art school is just going to make you. Most of who I can think of that attended art school and are actively getting work and recognition in the professional art world are doing so because of their own passion, first and foremost. Art school just gave a concentrated (if not safe, the financial pressure is too much for me to ever call it that) place to give that passion some extra focus and refinement through the tools and community it offered. For me it felt necessary, but that was more to work through my worth and my feelings on the world and how I should engage with it, rather than setting up what level of practice to be at. It is motivating to be surrounded by tons of people going through the same as you and pushing themselves, but I try to maintain that environment through actively engaging with the illustration world. Life can be anyone’s effective art school, and it has been for me before I attended a specific institution.
4). You have such a surreal, dream-like quality to your work. Is this intentional? What inspires you to create this imagery?
That surreal quality is definitely something I am chasing and is overall a deliberate part of my voice, but a lot of the particulars of how it’s developed so far in my work are through mistakes and accidents. I primarily work with gouache, which is a very temperamental medium that you kind of have to compromise with for a while. Starting out, it’s daunting getting used to how the pigments and hues dry lighter and darker, but it taught me to be less precious about what I have in my head and more present about what’s on the paper. I often feel like my natural hand isn’t an easy fit for the industries and genres that I care most to participate in, and that just makes me push myself more to try to be more apt at whatever approach I am charting and prove that I can make compelling work for the kinds of media I want to contribute my art to.
Those two mindsets, compromising with the medium and learning from it as much as from hours of work, and pushing for an honest approach lead me to really push for this surreal feeling. The place where I’ll most frequently get naturalistic and very rendered is in my sketchbooks and when I’m practicing for my own improvement, but when I’m working on a piece, I’m most immersed by dreamlike spaces, and ambiguous situations. It’s reflected in the music that I listen to as well. I often talk about how I want my illustrations to ‘sound’ like a My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive album when people look at them, and it’s because there’s beauty in those artifacts amidst all this abrasive tension and texture. It’s a weird analogy, but a very specific and deliberate thing that I come back to when I think of how I want people to feel. I learned a lot from immersive worlds through tabletop RPGs and video games and really artfully crafted fantasy and sci-fi films that visually envelop their audiences. They don’t feel real, but they feel convincing, a lot like dreams can be, so I think that’s why I’m so adamant about trying to chase that note myself. One of my favorite creators ever, Satoshi Kon, was really a master at this. He took really dreamlike visuals and direction in his films, articulated them through animation, and found these inventive ways to land his audience in these very vivid and emotionally real places. I hope I can have the same effect in most of my work.
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?
Haha, I feel like there’s going to be a recurring theme in this interview. Self actualization as a concept, or authenticity is what I struggle with, now less so than before. Even so, this struggle to make things that feel right or, more accurately, natural to my hand and my perspective is always threatening to trip me up. As much as I’m assessing myself to an end that I think has helped me be creative, it also can be really self defeating. I have these constant thoughts where I’m thinking about if I’d be more lucrative or stable if I just imitated another style more, but then I wouldn’t be happy and wouldn’t be making work as honestly, and I think the things I enjoy about the pieces I’m happiest with would vanish, so I think to myself that I’d rather go through the time and effort to try to make my work more convincing a fit for what I wanna do.
Some of it just connects to things that I grew up questioning because of where my interests kept naturally falling, versus where other people thought I should be landing, like if the work that I’m making is ‘black’ enough. It’s so hard to unwire that toxic kind of self-doubt, but I keep realizing more and more that I’m in this position to partially show that fantasy art doesn’t have to look the same (and hasn’t been homogeneous since way before me), and that black and brown people are way, way more diverse in our experiences and viewpoints than what the world wants us to allow. That feels so important to commit to with how crazy the world is, so it’s one of those things that comes up a lot, but that I also am able to battle through.
Then, there’s always the practicalities of time and resources versus how ambitious I want to be, and I end up figuring out ways to pull most of my short term ambitions together, but it’s usually not the most healthy way on a personal level because of that feeling of needing to fall into a grind. Some of what I need to internalize is just slowing down more, and that’s been starting to sink in a bit more this year, and some of it is trusting myself and what I want to do more.
6). Does representation matter in art?
I feel like this question has a simple answer with a very detailed and intense explanation that could endlessly be laid on top of it. We societally humanize who we see in our media (and more specifically, calibrate how we humanize people based on who we are shown), and have this feedback loop as a result of expectations we apply to people who are more than our invented examples. Unfortunately, the pool of examples we have at the most popular level are also rather limited, even if they are improving. At the same time, so much of our media has done the work of dividing the society we live in, and yet making it more survivable and thriveable. I want it to be easier for people to share and exchange and feel comfortable for themselves, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to do that with a blueprint, and places for everyone to be able to sympathize with and be included in through the art that we make and put out.
7). If you could communicate one thing to artists about representing a background or experience that isn’t their own, what would it be?
Make room for the actual experience you are trying to represent, to influence your final product. Talk to people you think might be troubled by a certain course you are taking. If you’re pulling from an existing culture, find someone actually tethered to it and ask for their consultation, and make effort to compensate them for your time; sharing experiences can be highly rewarding, but also really hard and emotional work if it means unpacking your misconceptions. Find places to collaborate and lift up the voices that you wish to represent so that they actually have some shared ownership in the final product that you are attempting to show their experience in. If we can’t do these (and there isn’t always the possibility to), we can always research exhaustively, and we can always listen to feedback and criticism as it comes, and do better by it. Sometimes making room for an experience that isn’t your own is conceding how you got something wrong publicly, and letting the better or more authentic alternatives get a spotlight. Too often this kind of critique gets shut down, and then the resulting voices we act through become exploited rather than respected. No matter what you do, make room for the actual experiences you pull from in the creation of your work.
8). Do you have a favorite character of color (from film, television, literature, comics, or any piece of art)?
Immediate thought that comes to mind is absolutely Tracey, the protagonist in the amazing Chewing Gum. She’s played wonderfully by the series creator, Michaela Coel, and it’s just breaking my heart that a third series isn’t gonna be for a ways off because the first two are some amazingly deft, devastating comedy, punctuated with some really real feelings from a point of view of someone really trying hard to figure out their way. The show is influenced by a lot of Michaela’s own experiences growing up, and it’s so absurd in many places in a way that life frequently is, and fiction frequently tries to be, that I can’t help but fully appreciate it. It’s excellent stuff.
On a side note, Michaela Coel’s cameo in The Last Jedi made me almost obnoxiously excited the first time I saw it. She seems like a total class act.
Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum (left), and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (right).
9). Who is the most underrated creator of color you wish everyone knew about?
As far as illustrators go, Goñi Montes is definitely an artist I wish got more props and visibility. He makes such striking and bold work, and is really adventurous in his approach, and on a personal level is really generous in sharing that same mentality, with a healthy dose of constructive critique with those who ask him for it. He’s definitely one of the people in the industry right now that I want to be like in mentality and conduct, not to mention in achieving a similar quality of work.
Susumu Hirasawa. If you watch anime, or pay attention to the 80s-2000s art rock scene in Japan, that name is probably familiar, but outside of that I think he’s such an under-recognized musician and composer. Nobody gets the intimacy of sweepingly epic music quite as consistently (or as accurately) as Susumu Hirasawa, and his music is very much made by someone who is creatively trusting themselves in totality. It’s really moving stuff, and I often find myself trying to score my life with his tunes in my head. Watching him perform is also mystifying and fascinatingly impenetrable.
There’s also the incredible proto-shoegaze/dream-pop duo AR Kane whose work helped and defined so many trends in those two genres. Despite that, it’s seen as such a specifically white sub-genre of music when it’s talked about at all. Here’s a favorite track from them.
Susumu Hirasawa, (left), A.R. Kane (right).
10). What piece of advice would you give to young aspiring artists of color?
Don’t follow the script that’s given to you by your environment. That isn’t to say ignore your environment or background or surroundings, but to really not be afraid to ask your own questions and trust whatever answers you can muster. I have personally found my most authentic work when I look inward. Though it’s impossible to separate me or any other individual from our context, it is very possible, and so needed to identify what is true to you versus what the world wants to be true about you. More people of color, specifically in America are embracing themselves and critiquing and rejecting the cultural scripts that family, friends, and everyone else (purposefully or not) impose on us, and it’s resulting in such empowering, beautiful and specific 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’ve started trying to be more public about my game design work and aspirations, and I have my first game on the way some time next year. It’s called A Dire Situation, and it’s an epistolary tabletop RPG that’s meant to analyze how conflicting egos and breakdown in communication stir together into a ruinous narrative. It’s shaping up to be quite the dark piece of work, and I’m hoping I can get it to land some time next year. I talk about it at length here.
I’m also working on some poster illustrations for various movies and media that I love. Not sure where I’m going to go with that beyond the new work, but I’ll definitely be showing them off as they come!
Thanks for having me included in this series, Mia! It’s been a pleasure and honor to talk through this, and I hope that my answers are enlightening in their verbosity.
Thank you so much, Jabari, for sharing your story and your gorgeous art with us! And thank you, readers, for joining us for this interview series. If Jabari's answers resonated with you, please comment and share their interview far and wide.
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