Celebrating Black Joy Through Art: Joshua Mays
MBK Rising! was a convening in Oakland, CA, that brought together young men of color and the organizations working hard to help them achieve their dreams. Together with the growing network of MBK Communities, the gathering was a celebration of this movement, five years after President Obama began the My Brother’s Keeper initiative at the White House.
As we planned the event, we turned to the Oakland-based firm 510 Media Opens in a new tab to help us bring MBK Rising! to life with a unique and local brand identity. They helped us commission a local artist who could not only create an art installation that exuded the joy, optimism, and beauty of the MBK movement, but do it with Oakland flair: Joshua Mays.
A trained artist and muralist, Joshua studied illustration in his native Denver, before traveling the world and eventually ending up in Oakland. We sat down with him to discuss his process and his vision for bringing black joy to life.
Q: To start, maybe you can tell me how you got started making art?
A: I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. When I was around three or four years old, I remember being dropped off with my babysitter at my cousin’s place. That particular cousin drew a lot, and when I looked at his drawings they didn’t look like lines scribbled on a little page, they looked like real faces looking back at me. I can remember vaguely that that set the bar a bit higher when it came to the way I look at my work today. I’ve always loved drawing, and it’s always helped me get through difficult times in my life. It’s never really felt like work at all, it was just something I knew I could do to keep myself calm, happy, and satisfied.
Q: And since you began with drawing, how did you end up in the digital art space?
A: I guess my relationship to digital art started when I graduated from high school. I knew I was going to be an artist for years, but I didn’t really know what that meant. At the time, graphic design was always being touted as where I could go off into the world and make a living. So, I explored options and learned what it takes to be a graphic designer. That involved getting to know Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, QuarkXpress, and other image making and page layout programs. So yeah, when it comes to digital art I was just looking for the latest way to draw and paint, and I still am. I’m still developing my relationship with digital art to be able to master new technologies and broadcast media.
Digital art has inspired my ideas, but for the most part I do love sitting with a pen and piece of paper and drawing. I love smearing and taking minute colors to the surface. It’s been insightful to see how digital and analog art have impacted my work.
Q: How would you describe your creative journey from childhood to where you are now?
A: The thing is, when you start off doing anything as a child you’re not comparing it to anything or anyone. You’re just in the moment of asking yourself if you’re enjoying this or not? It’s only when you start engaging with art as an adult that you see how much comparison comes into it, but I think it’s important to study the good and bad that comes with comparison. It’s great to have an understanding of mastery, that you can look at work and say “If I do this, it means I likely I’ll need to spend fifty hours on it. If I go ahead and spend a million hours on this, I can achieve a similar level of work.” So all this to say that I had pieces of work I would admire and would strive for, but it took a lot of time and growth to know how to stay in touch with the child inside me to not fall victim to constant comparison.
Q: When it comes to your growth and process, what exactly brought you to Oakland?
A: Well, before Oakland there was an eight-year stop in Philadelphia. I’m originally from Denver, but decided to go to Philly because I was looking for a more mature art market and a more mature conversation about maintaining an artistic career and what possibilities there are. Before I ended up leaving Philly for the same reasons I left Denver, I took another multi-year nomadic period in Portland, then Mexico City, Los Angeles, London, Cape Town, Johannesburg, San Juan, and eventually Oakland.
Q: That’s a lot of travel. Out of all of those places, which one left the biggest mark on you?
A: As an artist, going from place to place and sleeping on people’s couches is super important. Each place that you go you get to create a new art project. An art exhibit, a mural, you name it, you get to connect with the art community and connect with people who are creators and collectors. That being said, I think Oakland has definitely left the biggest mark on me and my work because it’s the place that absorbed me and welcomed me the most. The Bay Area really appealed to me because of its relationship to art movements, and the artists who were building careers here looked more like who I wanted to be.
Q: Narrowing in on the piece you created for the event, it seems like joy and optimism really exude from the installation and the rest of your portfolio. Can you speak to how you inject joy into everything you create?
A: When I was approached to work on this project, I felt a pull to speak on optimism within young black men and the larger black community. I was excited to hear different young dudes who I follow and am heavily inspired by speak optimistically about technological development and using it to broadcast narratives that are often shut out. The idea of creating imagery for this event and addressing the hope and progress we’ve made was exciting to me.
I also think there’s an unfortunate tendency within certain parts of communities that I come from where people are looking for all the reasons in the world to feel discouraged, all the reasons in the world to feel outraged, and all the reasons to share on social media how messed up the world is. From my point of view, I see the opposite. I see that we are in the best time to be alive, ever. No matter your racial standing or opinion, if you go back one hundred years ago, life was harder. If you go back and think about your grandfather’s or grandmother’s life—your grandmother’s life especially—it was way harder than your life is today.
When I see the technological breakthroughs that are happening now and I see how young people are harnessing it and disconnecting themselves from the stigmas people of my generation and older are comfortable with and creating something that challenges those stigmas, I’m deeply inspired. I think artists wholeheartedly diving into entrepreneurialism and creating sustainable movements for themselves, connecting with other people, traveling around the world, and doing incredible things from their smartphone is incredible.
Q: What would you say is the Oakland influence in these designs?
A: The Oakland influence in this piece is actually similar to the way it influences all of my work as I’m creating from this space. So, just walking and talking and experiencing Oakland lifestyle feeds into the colors and textures and narratives of what I’m producing. As I created this work for My Brother’s Keeper and the Foundation, I got a feel for the color palette and noticed that the palette drew a lot of influence from being right near Lake Merritt in that section of the community. That aspect of Oakland and the Bay Area played into my work.
Q: How did you incorporate the voices of boys and young men of color into the installation for MBK Rising!?
A: I can say with this project that my process was really about listening to music created by black men. I’m particularly inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s single “Black Boy Fly.” He’s speaking about the narrative of growing up in an inner city, the perspective of living in comparison to those who are coming up and creating movements themselves, and ultimately moving beyond barriers that are presented to young black men in urban communities. I love the story that that song tells of pushing through and recognizing that as you get older you develop more perspective and more information to stand stronger in your perspective with more backbone and understanding of what you want out of your own movements. I also think that when we talk about being black, we automatically go to the barriers and challenges we face. Not the successes and the beauty of the black experience.
Go behind the scenes on how Joshua brought the murals to life:
Q: Can you tell me what advice you shared with the young people you spoke with at the event?
A: Yeah, I got to do a talk during the lunch break about my journey as an artist, and it was cool. I let them know that if they decide their artwork is good enough for them to become a professional, then they should consider themselves an entrepreneur, not a “starving artist.” They should consider themselves along the same lines as somebody who discovered an oil well in their backyard. The art industry is all about identifying how to communicate the value of your work and figuring out how to make your work a sustainable moment.
I also shared that knowing the value of your work can get complicated because you can only bring money exchange into the picture once you’ve learned how to make work you love. And to do that you have to put in your ten thousand hours of developing your technique and then the next ten thousand hours developing your style. The worst thing you can do is get to a point where you are diving into a style that you don’t like, but it’s paying your way. You’re just going to ground yourself to that. I think that was the most important advice I shared.
The final piece of advice I shared was about diversity and knowing what you have to offer. I tried to stress the importance of whenever you see a lack of diversity, it means you are now the invitation, the initiator of diversity. If you speak up and let people know there’s something of value coming with your presence, the world is yours. That’s really what I tried to communicate to young people at the event and beyond.
Q: Is there an interaction you had during lunch that was especially meaningful?
A: Yeah. There was a young man—who was actually younger than me—talking about his five-year-old and three-year-old sons. He mentioned that he got the sense that they’re interested in art and asked me what he should do to keep nurturing their interest. The exchange made me think a lot about how kids are natural artists and scientists, they just need to keep exploring the world around them and create new things. I told him all he needed to do was get out of their way and keep feeding their fire of creativity. Ultimately, art requires that you allow your inner child to play a part in the process, and it was meaningful to get to talk to a father about something as great as that.
Q: To close, what do you think programs like My Brother’s Keeper are teaching boys and young men of color?
A: There’s something super meaningful and futuristic about working with an organization that is so inspired by connecting to young people, connecting to people of color, and really broadcasting a message of possibility and potential. I think programs like My Brother’s Keeper are really teaching young people that there is greatness to be achieved if you walk down the right path and take initial steps that greatness always demands.
As I mentioned before, during my own childhood, I got affirmations from my aunt and cousins who I stayed with when I was a little kid. Hearing them say, “You could be an artist, you’re a little artist,” and getting positive affirmations from my family along with supplies to create more and more really changed my life. Kids are natural artists. Kids are always trying to reconfigure their reality for the more inspired possibility. And I think programs like My Brother’s Keeper really help young people find and take action on their potential.