When we wanted to lift up the stories of Antonio Davis, Asiaha Butler, and Kemdah Stroud—three grassroots leaders working on the South Side of Chicago to make a difference—we turned to Chicago-based artist and photographer Tyesha Moores. In addition to capturing their hard work, Tye brought in artists Myra Rivera and Kingstone Lorenzo to create mixed media portraits bursting with joy and energy—just like the leaders they represent.
Hailing from the Austin neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, Tye writes her own narrative of what Black beauty is. Her work seeks to “introduce the black side of fine art” to her peers that she feels was missing when she was younger. See how the multi-talented 24-year-old created a beautiful series of portraits for the Obama Foundation.
Q: To start, maybe you can tell me how you first got started creating art?
A: Oh my God, where do I begin? I’ve always been an artist in some kind of capacity. In high school, I started taking senior portraits and that was my starting point with photography. I later realized that commercial work is very hard for me to be interested in [laughter].
I’ve always loved fine art. I have a bachelor’s in fine art and digital photography from the Illinois Institute of Art in downtown Chicago. I went to high school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which was a gift and a curse. I’m a city girl, and Wisconsin bores me to tears. However, their education system is something that I think that Chicago could learn a lot from, honestly. All of the opportunities I received from going to school in Kenosha set me on the path to become the artist that I am today.
In addition to art, I’m also a brand manager, educator, and I work on public relations, directing, even production work. I just released a web series earlier this year and published a coffee table book called BLACK, that’s based on slang used in the African American community. (Editor’s note: You can check it out here Opens in a new tab.) I think all of those accomplishments stemmed from me creating art from a very early age.
Q: What inspires you to create the artwork that you do?
A: A lot of the work that I do is to show the beauty in Black people that society deems as inappropriate or that everybody else appropriates. That’s always been super important to me. Being a proud Black woman is something that has always been at the forefront.
I’m also an educator. I am so passionate about education. I work at Chicago Academy. It’s a high school in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. Every day that I go to work, the kids—even if they’re getting on my nerves—inspire me to keep doing my work and showing them what’s possible. I believe that education is a right, not a privilege and that it should be available for everybody.
To me, art is also a right. Kids should get to do whatever they want, whether that’s art or engineering. In my neighborhood, a lot of people aren’t even sure what fine art looks like, right. But I’m doing it. Museums were something that seemed inaccessible, or they seemed White, because I didn’t see people who looked like me doing the work that I did. I’m constantly working to change that for future generations. Everything I do is about amplifying the Black voice in ways that a lot of people, including my peers and students, may not have seen before.
Q: Were there specific moments in your life when you realized that you could create art as a career? If so, what were those moments like?
A: I have three points in my life where I felt that way. First, when I was graduating high school. I was like, “There’s no point in going to school for art because like, what am I going to do with this?” And I remember my mother was like “Do you like it? Do you like photography?” And I was like “Yes, I do.” She told me to go to school for it! That little push made all the difference. Once I started going to school for art, I continued to do paid shoots and really creating work that felt good to me.
That was a pivotal moment, as well as when I graduated with my fine arts degree. This is true for a lot of artists, but you have to work. The starving artist is a very real thing, and I didn’t want to just say, “Okay, I got the degree. Now what?” So I applied for a lot of exhibitions. I’ve been in over ten exhibitions and featured in a couple of books that were featured in Vogue and the New York Times, because I kept making my art visible.
The final pivotal moment I can point to was when I helped my friends with a podcast. I think of myself as more of a background person, but they really wanted to do it, and it snowballed into people asking me to help them with their brands. I was getting asked to direct podcast shows and doing all the photography. That was when I was like, “Okay, I can do this and get paid. All of this is going to help me pay for my rent and stuff like that.”
As a neuroscience student in Chicago, Kemdah Stroud knows that joy can heal. Her organization, Thankful For Chicago, focuses on creating positive social experiences to decrease anxiety and depression. Drawing on scientific evidence, Kemdah provides resources and spaces to unite Chicagoans through joy and psychological healing. Recently, that’s involved handing out meals and essential items in the Garfield Park neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago when families needed access to food following the protests for racial justice.
Q: What allowed you to share your work so widely and take on new projects?
A: Well, I have a big personality. I had no problem with networking and talking to the people in the galleries, and those really led me to those opportunities. It was a “one foot in front of the other” kind of thing. I kept creating work that felt good to me, and I was vulnerable by putting myself and my work out there. It resonated with people.
So many of the opportunities that I’ve received have happened because I was working with someone else, and I literally just wanted to see them do great. Then that person would give me an opportunity, you know what I’m saying? Being a good person is so underrated these days.
Q: Where did you draw inspiration for the portraits you created for this project?
A: One thing that was really important to me to keep in mind when I worked on this project was that when people are doing nonprofit work or work that involves racial justice, it seems very serious. The photos are usually black and white, and people’s personalities don’t shine through.
For this project, I really wanted to showcase the personalities and the people behind all of that and honor their hard work. This work can be grueling. I worked for a nonprofit and it is exhausting and you don’t get enough thank yous.
But these people have lives. They have personalities. They’re nice. They’re fun. That’s something that I always want to implement in my work, especially with Black people. Bright colors on us look amazing, you know what I mean?
Asiaha Butler—better known as Mrs. Englewood—grew up in Englewood and stayed for a reason: If the neighborhood was going to change, it was going to take people who were part of it, who believed in it. Now, Mrs. Englewood is the founder of R.A.G.E., the Resident Association of Greater Englewood. It’s a grassroots organization that strategizes to address community problems and creates block-by-block solutions.
Q: Tell me about the other artists—Myra Rivera and Kingstone Lorenzo—you worked with to bring these pieces to life.
A: Well, whenever I get an opportunity like this, I always think about ways that I can lift up other artists’ fields. I knew that I wanted to be pumping out mixed media for these. I wanted to have illustrations, animations, things like that. And I’ll be real with you: I can’t draw to save my life [laughter]. But Myra can do that! I’ve known her since high school, and I’ve known Kingstone since college and he’s one of my close friends. They are some of the most talented people I know. I work with them all the time or I recommend them for logos and things like that for other clients all the time.
Q: What was your process like for transforming Antonio's, Asiaha’s, and Kemdah’s stories into beautiful mixed media portraits?
A: I am an extremely visual learner, and I am a very collaborative person. So a lot of what we did is a credit to Kingstone and Myra because they are so amazing with coming up with ideas and catching the small details to include.
The initial step was to get a summary of the people’s work. Once I did that and looked at photos of them, I could put together a kind of visual story of what I want. Pinterest is also one of my best friends because sometimes that can spark something for me, too. I also use music for inspiration. But the most important part of this was to talk to them after I met and photographed them. As an artist, it’s important to me to have an emotional connection with whoever I’m capturing.
For example, Antonio wasn’t used to having his photo taken and I remember him saying that he didn’t even like smiling. By talking to him about the work that he does and other simple questions, I was able to help him relax. I asked him what his favorite colors are, a few short words to describe himself, that kind of stuff. I shared highlights from my conversation with him with Kingstone and Myra, and then they helped me bring the work to life from there.
After his pastor spoke up for him, Antonio Davis dedicated his life to using his voice for others. Now, he’s one of the faces of change on Chicago’s South Side. Antonio’s organization, Paving The Way, serves Chicago’s South Side, providing a series of educational forums to build up neighborhoods. It functions as an outreach program for violence prevention and intervention, bridging public service personnel with the public they serve.
Q: Why did you choose the mixed media form? What does it communicate?
A: My approach is to always do something that I’ve never seen before, or do something outside the box. I feel like I rarely ever see animation used, and I feel like it’s a really underrated tool in the art world. Animation really brought these portraits to life, literally and figuratively.
Another reason I chose a mixed media approach was because I’m always thinking about attracting viewers. I always think about my work as a consumer and as an artist—I’m not going to create work that I wouldn’t like. I always tell my clients that “if I’m not feeling the pictures, I will not let you leave until I feel like these are where we want them to be.” This project was all about translating those images and showcasing them while attracting the viewer. This medium allows the viewer to get more information about these incredible leaders’ work. It was so important that these pieces be able to stand alone, and I think we accomplished that.
Q: I agree. One more question for you. Thinking about the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing racial justice protests, what does art mean to you in this moment?
A: Art has and always will be important to me. It’s been a lifeline for me lately, especially as a Black woman and dealing with how we are treated all the time. I think a lot of the ongoing unrest hasn’t reached its peak yet. I want attention to stay on what is happening in this country, because a lot of the time people don’t take these kinds of things seriously. Art is a way for me to do more to aid in the Black Lives Matter movement and showcase the work that a lot of people like Antonio, Asiaha, and Kemdah are doing.
In terms of the pandemic, when you’re stripped away of your job and important things like that, you really get to see what’s important and what you want out of life. I’ve spent a lot of this time focusing on myself and exploring how I show up in the world right now. I want to be better once all of this is over, and I want to be a part of the work to transform society to be a space that I don’t have to show up in trying to go against my being a young, queer, Black woman. I actually started a mini self portrait series that I would do every week, because it has been a very calming time for me as an artist. The world wouldn’t go ‘round without art.
You can learn more about Tye’s work and explore her portfolio here Opens in a new tab.