“Art has always been important to me. As a child my brother and I entertained ourselves with nubs of crayon and printer paper. In the 8th grade I saved enough money to purchase my very first Wacom Tablet. Since then I have continued to draw for my leisure and personal development, but I always felt like I was alone. I didn’t necessarily feel out of the loop because I was a woman. I felt out of the loop because I was a woman of color. It later occurred to me that many of my artistic influences were white or Asian men. The culture of art I was so fascinated by did not produce characters in my image, and when it did, those characters were usually male.”
Olivia Stephens gives me hope. Stephens, from Auburn, Washington, currently attends Rhode Island School of Design. My first impression of the now 19-year-old’s work was the spectacular webcomic Alone which can be found on her Tapastic profile. She also released a series of social media icons for Black Girl Nerds and I hadn’t really put two and two together until later! I encourage readers to look into her work and check out the email-based Q & A below to learn more about her artistic influences and opinions on being an artist of color.
Q. What would you say is your biggest artistic influence? Is there a particular artist or comic that had a hand in developing your artistic aesthetic?
There’s a ton. I started off trying to draw like Tite Kubo, actually. Bleach was a huge tipping point that got me drawing. I’ve followed Emily Warren’s (from Teahouse) work for years now. I’ve read web comics since I was in middle school and those definitely inspired me, too. My favorite web comic of all time is The Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ & Amal by E.K. Weaver. That’s been one of my biggest inspirations artistically.
Q. When did you actually start drawing?
I started drawing regularly near the end of 6th grade, I think.
Q. What medium are you most comfortable with now?
I’m most comfortable in traditional media. I draw [Alone] with non-photo blue pencil and ink on Bristol.
Q. Have you always been more comfortable with this medium?
I’ve always preferred traditional, yes. I spent a long time being entirely clueless about how to use Photoshop or anything. That’s changed now, but I still enjoy the feeling of paper under my hand. I’m slowly acclimating myself to fully digital work for the future, though.
Q. Did you start your artistic career with formal training?
Nope. I had a few art classes in high school that were basically free periods, but now I’m getting formal training at RISD. It’s been great so far.
Q. How did you teach yourself before? Tutorials?
I started off copying off of a lot of anime that I’d watch (not recommended!). After about two years of that I actually went back to learn about anatomy and all of that. I had to unlearn a lot of bad habits. But the internet can be a great resource for teaching yourself to draw and create. That’s how I taught myself Photoshop.
Q. Women of color, with a specific focus on black women, have been involved in traditional art for a while. Why do you think there are less black women involved in digital art?
I think we’re harder to find! A while back I would’ve believed there were no black women digital artists around. But social media has changed that. Through that, you’re able to find people like Afua Richardson, Mildred Louis, C. Spike Trotman and all that. We’re definitely here, but people aren’t handing us the loudspeaker as much. But that’s the nature of illustration and comics online now. Everyone’s talking at the same time and trying to stand out, and only a few do. You gotta work at it to get noticed.
Q. You say that they gotta work but some might be too afraid to even try. How can “shy artist types” get comfortable enough to use that loudspeaker like the big guys? How have you gone about advertising your craft?
I would call myself one of those “shy artist types” and I think that being able to use social media like Twitter, Tumblr, etc. can help. Start with baby steps. Tweet about your comic updating and use hashtags that will get some like-minded folks to see you. I go to art school, so a lot of my ‘networking’ is essentially just my friends and I supporting each other and telling each other about new avenues and opportunities. I’ve only just begun advertising openly about my comics because I was very shy about them. I’d say to start with your friends and family on Facebook. Introduce your comic to those people first, and then you can gradually get comfortable enough to talk to people on Twitter/Tumblr, and then buy a bit of ad space on sites or comics that you enjoy. It’s all about the little things you do that add up. I’m still very, very small, so I’m learning every day.
Q. Your comic Alone focuses on an interracial relationship between Jack who is Latino and Sarah who is black. Considering the fact that the media routinely represents interracial pairings as a white person with any other person of color, what made you choose to design Jack and Sarah the way you did?
Their design came from my frustration at that mainstream Nicholas Sparks picture of romance. I’m utterly bored of watching the same white people find each other again and again. The choice also stems from what you mentioned: People need to realize that interracial relationships don’t require one of the partners to be white.
Q. Do you think there has been improvement when it comes to the representation of bodies of color in television, cinema, comics and other media?
There’s been improvement, for sure. But we have so much longer to go. It can be exhausting to wait for decent representation on movie or TV screens, and I think a lot of those tired folk have come into the web comics scene. Web comics have been so satisfying to me as a reader because all of these minority creators are bringing characters like themselves into existence. I’m hoping there’s a day that TV and movies, and mainstream comics like DC and Marvel, can catch up to the amazing and varied diversity I find online every day.
Q. Would you call yourself an artist or a person who makes art? Why or why not?
I’m an artist. Regularly calling myself an artist is a new thing for me. It’s stemmed out of me slowly entering a professional sphere with my work and allowing myself to take my art seriously. It can be hard for the “art kids” in high school to take what they do seriously and be proud of themselves. Taking on the mantle of “artist” is me acknowledging my work and my passion in a positive light.
***Featured image was a commissioned illustration by Stephens to accompany a Guardian Opinion piece entitled “Ferguson, goddamn: No indictment for Darren Wilson is no surprise. This is why we protest,” written by Syreeta McFadden.
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