I am a visual artist from Saginaw, Michigan, primarily working in figurative work with an emphasis in Black and African American portraiture. Currently, I identify as an African American figurative painter. I received my Bachelor of Fine Art degree with a minor in African American Studies from Eastern Michigan University in 2018. I’ve been drawing since I was a child. I’ve been painting really within the last year.
I guess I’m a third-generation artist. My family has worked figuratively as well. I went to SASA (Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy), so I’ve done art since grade school, which led me to Eastern to do art within my degree. I took painting in college, so that got me interested in the material because other than that, I was into drawing and used to pencils and material you can use on paper.
I like painting because it allows me to use my concepts a little faster because paint dries quicker and I can get the same colors and result a little bit faster. But as far as me being an artist and really cultivating that kind of gift, I really think that figurative work is my niche. I can pretty much do it with my eyes closed. So, it wasn’t a foreign concept to me. I didn’t go to Eastern—I believe—to become an artist. I think I already was one. I just had to recognize that that is what I wanted to do.
People inspire my art. Everyday relationships inspire my art. It can be someone I meet on the street or someone that I’ve known for a long time. I follow a lot of different artists on my social media to give me inspiration for different clothing and different patterns and colors. My work is very colorful, so I’m often looking at colors and patterns, things that catch my eye or are different and unique to me. I think because I’m also interested in fashion as its relative to a person’s appearance, that kind of attracts me as well. So, a lot of my work deals with personal relationships, but those relationships are formed by meeting people day to day.
From my art, I want people to take away a sense of visibility. I think that you may not be the exact muse I’m using for my painting, but you may know someone who looks similar to the muse that I’m painting, or maybe you see particular clothing or colors that you’ve seen before that you can identify with. I want my work to be able to speak to someone because I think that there’s a deeper connection that can be formed than just a surface level of something just being a painting. I want to be able to connect and be relevant to everyone. As I’m working, I’m thinking about how Black people can be visible and present, how relationships can form and connect the audience with the muse that I’m using. That sense of being visible is the key take away I hope people gain.
As a Black artist in undergrad, it was kind of difficult because my work was primarily African American based, and I didn’t have professors who could identify in the same way. So, it became challenging critiquing my work or seeing my work and thinking how I can critique this when I don’t identify in the same way? So, to me, it felt like maybe I was doing something wrong or maybe I’m not learning the concepts well. But I think when you find people that you can identify with, that makes it easier and you realize that you are in your own lane, everyone isn’t your target audience, and the people that you reach will understand and get what you’re trying to say. I also had a similar experience in grade school. My peers would always comment that I would always draw Black people. When I do work that features different races, some of the features will stand out as Black features. I think that I came to realize that I’m drawing and painting things that I identify with and that speaks to who I am. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. When you realize that, you can see that it really isn’t a barrier. You have your own styles; you have your own presence in what you’re trying to say. You have to own and recognize that. What you do is what you do. Everyone may not realize that or identify with that, but it’s still relevant.
People should be intentional about supporting local Black artists because when you do, you’re putting money into their pockets and you’re putting food on their table. You’re investing into their dreams and you’re showing them that you believe in them and what they do. I think locally, it’s very important to give back in that area because a lot of the mainstream and bigger artists who have made it started off locally from their hometowns. So, they had to be supported in that way to even recognize them. It’s about giving back and being intentional in that way because you never know who you’re investing into who might later, down the line, thank you for that support and cultivating their dream.
Black artists and Black art should be celebrated every month of the year, not just in February because art is created beyond that one month. When you realize that there is liberation in being Black, there’s stories and history behind our art beyond brush strokes. They’re messages about our culture and about what the artist is going through. As an artist, you’re putting your effort and your all into something that isn’t just happening to you in a particular month. It’s happening all the time. Black artists have a voice. I believe that there should be space for Black artists to present their voices and their bodies with others.
It’s important for any type of artist to be able to find people they can relate to and speak to. The things that you’re facing or going through, you’re not alone. When you find people that can relate to your work and what you’re doing, it brings positivity. Find influences and things that shape who you are.
Bria Erby, Drawer & Painter
IG: @ artbybriaerby
The Black Artists Series highlights local Black artists and their journeys. Due to COVID-19, we’ve turned our original video series into a blog-style series. The blog is fully in the artist’s own words.