Different Strokes w/ Ayana Mack

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"It has been my personal experience that as I allow the painting to speak I become lost, it is delicious and at the same time frightening. The best ones, to me, have a life of their own." - Luther E. Vann, Elemental: The Power of Illuminated Love

Artistry has always been a form of expression that brings out the feelings one has composed in their soul. In any case, it is a bridge between allowing life to flourish and creating something that will spark ingenuity and forwardness. I had the pleasure of crossing paths with Bostonian native painter and graphic designer, Ayana Mack, during the Black Star Film Festival in early August in Philadelphia.

Mack's journey began during her early teens after being accepted to Boston Arts Academy as a Visual Arts major. She would next attend The New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University where she received a BFA in Graphic Design in 2011. Being a freelancer and company owner of her brand, Ayana Mack Design, she's navigated throughout the years working as a Senior Graphic Designer, managing a designer, and marketing for six divisions at a Real Estate company in Downtown Boston. Being an artist has its wins and drawbacks, but with resilience, it can get you far. Ayana took the time to speak with me about her hurdles as a Black female artist working in Boston, Massachusetts. 

How are you doing today?

I’m good, doing good.

I was curious after we crossed paths, one of the first questions I had to ask you--your name, Ayana, descends from where and do you think it’s a reflection of who you are today?

Ayana is East African and it means “beautiful flower” from what I was told. I mean, yeah, I can be a beautiful flower (laughs). I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it like that. My name is my name. Something of a great name. That’s kind of good. Now, I have to think more about that (chuckles).

(laughs) It’s alright, I have an East African name, too! Now, being an artist, of course is always a struggle, so what is it like being a woman of color working in Boston, Massachusetts?

It’s interesting. I think with any other similar fields it’s kind of a struggle for Black artists in Boston, in particular. I think that you have to do a lot of researching since there are tons of opportunities. The city has funding, grants, fellowships, and programs, but a lot of the times, you have to go out and look for it. It doesn’t really fall on your doorstep, especially in communities of color. Some of our community folks know about what’s going on. Again, you just have to go look for it. You have to take that extra step. For example, Cambridge, they have an art counsel. Jamaica, Queens has an art counsel. They have those resources that are here for you whereas Mattapan, where I’m from, is just starting to develop a stronger art community. You have to do a lot of looking.

As a Black woman and freelance designer, I work in a corporate state and that can be a little bit challenging, especially because I work with all types of clients. Over the years, I’ve worked with non-profits, small businesses, and I’ve had moments of people questioning my knowledge and what I do for a living instead of trusting me. That’s what one of the things I deal with being a younger Black woman in the space where I’m at.

I can understand that so well. Especially, because you never know where you can find work and where you do as a freelancer whether it’s corporate or independent work. It can always vary.

Ayana agrees.

That actually makes me wonder. Who are your inspirations behind your artistic design and style?

I think certain things inspire me. There aren’t really set people. I don’t have laundry list of people. I see artists and different styles in things they do and that gets me excited. Some of the work that I do, in terms of painters, I really enjoy. I might butcher his name, Kehinde Wiley, his work, I’ve looked at and other illustrators, especially women of color. A lot of the times I look to other artists or designers that are doing something that I want to do. I really like brand development and graphic design. If I see another artist or Black women or Black Star Film Festival, I love that work. Finding out who’s behind it, that’s where my inspiration comes from through specific things and works, but not a specific person, if that makes sense.

That made perfect sense. I asked that because there’s a Zen, calm, and soulful to your designs I’ve seen. Does that reflect inner desires or does it come from a place that you’ve never felt before? Does it stem from anything?

Yeah! My work is a combination of my visual arts background and design. After a while I noticed, I still paint and draw and illustrate, but I started to incorporate more of my design work into my visual arts. It started to mesh together. You have the mixtures of colors, you have depth, but then there’s also illustration, vector images, self-link head wraps for afros, but then you can go across water colors.

I’m kind of mixing both of those two styles together. It comes from personal experiences and each of the pieces I have means something to me and they were made at a time I needed to make them. To explain, some people can just paint this water bottle or this pineapple and they’ll just do that whereas painting for me is a relief. It’s important for me to make work when I feel like making it, not necessarily when I have to do it. I can’t just paint right now. I have to be really inspired and excited about something before moving forward.

The pieces you saw at the film festival, The Yellow Canvas, I think I had that for over a year, maybe two or three, and I finally started to work on it in February (this year). Sometimes, I’ll have a canvas for a few years and then I’ll finally paint on it. It’s not intentional or want to keep my supplies, but at some point later on, it speaks to me.

I definitely understand. I think that’s what many artists do when you’re trying to find that creative spark. You can’t work on it immediately; you got to let it build over time. I liked how you talked about that in regards to women’s opportunities with The Boston Voyager. Besides having that go-getter mentality, what traits do you think are important for the female artist to get ahead?

I think being resilient and knowing what you’re doing it for. When you’re working for other people or creating for other folks, you don’t necessarily have a purpose and it’s much easier to quit. When you’re very passionate, you may not know why, but when you have some sort of foundation into what you’re doing. That’s very helpful.

You have to like what you’re doing. Not just being resilient and all that, but you have to like it. I’m sure people hear it all the time. Can you do this at 2 in the morning? Can you do this with no sleep? Not that I would recommend it.

If you like it that much, you would sacrifice your energy, your time, and hanging out with friends to do this thing because it’s not going to always be convenient or fun or exciting and meeting new people. There are challenges that are going to come up on so many different levels.

Yes, indeed. One more question, if you had any artist to choose from to work with, who and why them in particular?

To work with? I don’t even know (chuckles).

I actually would like to paint with my mentor, Rob Gibbs. He’s been an artist, creator and co-founded the organization, Artists for Humanity. It’s a nonprofit in South Boston that’s been around forever. They basically provide creative jobs and opportunities for high school students and youth. It’s a really cool program.

The reason I chose him is because he was my mentor back when I was a teenager and we started to communicate a little bit more. I think it’d be interesting to paint with him now versus then after being through so many experiences, being an adult in this space and having my own experiences, selling artwork and creating artwork, I think I’d take it in a little bit differently. I’d be excited to learn in a different space.

Thanks so much for your time, Ayana!

You can find Ayana’s works and contact here:

Website: www.ayanamack.co

Email: ayanamackdesign@gmail.com

Instagram: @ayanamack.co

Facebook: www.facebook.com/amackdesign

Twitter: @A_MackDesign

Other: www.paintandplant.art

Artist for Humanity website: http://afhboston.org/

Kehinde Wiley's websitehttps://kehindewiley.com/

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