This month’s cover artist is Stacey Robinson, whose remarkable digital designs and collages bring fire to conversations of race, exploitation, and hope. Robinson offers his vision of the world not only through his art but through his teaching as an assistant professor of graphic design at the University of Illinois.
APEX MAGAZINE: In your artist’s statement, you explain that you use images of black trauma to “incite conversation to action and dismantle ideas of derogatory black relations, pacificity, and docility.” Has the conversation shifted in a particular direction over your time as an artist/creator? Does the conversation, or the energy of the crowd, change between the comic book world, the educational environment, and online?
STACEY ROBINSON: I’m not sure I can say the conversation has shifted. I can say that I’m smarter today than I was yesterday, and in that, I’m always looking for ways of expressing newfound concerns. Additionally, I’m looking at new ways of expressing those ideas while challenging myself aesthetically and artistically. The energy of the crowd seems the same, to me, between the comic book world, the design mediums, and my educational environment. However, I think that’s because I’m fortunate enough to be able to choose the projects that reflect my concerns and ideals.
Now, online is a different medium of interaction and is my least favorite type of engagement. I’m horrible at posting on social media; I prefer artist talks, exhibitions, and moderating panels. I love to talk to people and have honest, face-to-face conversations. I recently started DJing (a deferred dream older than my college students) and found that interacting with people while lining up your mix is something I didn’t expect, lol. DJing also helps me deal with my restless mind. In my imagination, I’m always mixing; I’ve been doing that for twenty-five years. I also do that with my artwork: I’m always collaging. The energy in the work transfers to my audience and I think they experience what I do when making the work. The element of music has always been present in my exhibitions. However, now I’m controlling the sonics of the space in particular ways. Because so much of it is new, I haven’t had the time to assess its successes and areas of improvement fully.
AM: Your cover piece for this month’s Apex Magazine is a marvelous collage, a fascinating balance of various objects with a common thread. Does a piece like this start with an initial idea or particular section, or does it build as you create it? How does a digital approach help when creating a piece like this, over traditional art like oil painting?
SR: Wow, thanks. I definitely build as I create it. If I knew what it’d look like when completed, I wouldn’t make it. It’d already exist in my imagination; therefore, it’d be complete. My work starts with a general idea, and sometimes an image that I was to collage with and/or draw over to re-imagine as something different. Digital is my favorite medium. I’m traditionally trained as a graphic designer who learned the trade post-computer design. I learned quickly to set myself up to be able to make changes for a client without disheartening myself via re-paintings. I used to love to draw, ink, watercolor, and color pencil. Basically, the cleaner mediums. I never took to oil as it was too long a creative process. Also, my mind is always racing. It’s difficult to stay set on one art project, I need to bounce between ideas, to rest and re-energize for a project. The digital medium allows for that. Ironically, I mimic traditional mediums, even collage, with my digital practice. Even though it’s all digital, I want it to look like it’s traditionally created because that’s my inspirational background.
AM: Many pieces of your art celebrate great cultural icons, like your Maya Angelou piece, while others, like “Prison Industrial,” explore trauma and exploitation. Do you find your message is received differently between celebratory and traumatic pieces? Are there pieces that created an unexpected level of discussion or impact?
SR: That’s a great question. I currently am exhibiting both bodies of work at Union College’s Schaffer Library in Schenectady, New York, and this may be the best audience response I’ve ever experienced. I’m assessing those different responses currently through the work I’ve had on display for about fifteen months so far. I believe the pieces with the portraits and quotes, and the more colorful, hopeful images, have a different impact. They also hang in the more accessible space on purpose, in the midst of the study spaces, while the more traumatically evident works rest in a less prominent space. All by curatorial design.
The diverse students had the opportunity to study in the space that’s housing the work, and the extension of the exhibition for an additional six months, the additional artist visit and lecture opportunity, and the closing of the exhibition, which ended in a dance party in the middle of the library, all testify that the students want to have the conversations. So many of them thanked me, added me to their social media outlets, even asked the curator for another extension of the exhibition. I think this reflects that they want hope at the end of the commentary. They want to know that we will survive this colonial experience. I like to believe the pieces give that type of hope.
AM: In a Forbes review of I Am Alfonso Jones, the reviewer mentioned that you and fellow artist John Jennings “make the scenes crackle with energy” throughout the graphic novel. How does that style influence how the story evolves over the course of the book? Are there challenges or advantages to using gray throughout the book instead of color?
SR: I imagine that the reviewer has an understanding of John and mine’s work as a collaborative duo. We call ourselves “Black Kirby” after the father of modern comics, Jack Kirby, who created characters such as the Black Panther, Iron Man, and Captain America. The “crackle” term refers to the Jack Kirby aesthetic he used as a cosmic energy signature that would later be referred to as the “Kirby Krackle.” John’s inks of the work definitely pull from that aesthetic throughout the book. Yes, I think it’s much harder to tell stories in black and white, without color. So many have reviewed the book wishing it were in color. Huhhhhhh, yeah, we do, too. John and I both love color. I’m sure our text designer and collaborator, Damian Duffy, does too. Alfonso’s world screams for color, especially the diversity of his classmates. I really wanted to show that. We had a strict deadline with no time for color. However, our next project with Lee and Low is supposed to be a color project. I look forward to that.
AM: As an assistant professor of graphic design and illustration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, you have a unique opportunity to watch young artists evolve. What challenges do you see the next generation of creators facing, and how does your own work, as either a creator or teacher, impact that?
SR: Dang you ask the heavy questions. Yeah, I think about that, and also understand your question is one of the reasons I was hired for the teaching position. Challenges I’ve seen in the students, so far, reflect what all graduating juniors and seniors feel: the ability to find work post-graduation. Most of my students are not looking to have a social impact, but a financial, self-gratifying, and artistically challenging one instead. The next generation of students is struggling to speculate their place in a technologically advancing world that we can’t prepare them for. New technologies will exist by the time they graduate, and the world is living on the edge of our own development. We’re creating new technologies and media outlets, ways of engaging and interacting with the world on a daily basis. There used to be years between technological developments, now it’s almost weekly.
Once we teach them the basics of graphic design, giving them a more critical lens, they then have to find a self-sustaining job in a field that may not be concerned with the things we, as faculty, are trying to instill in our students. My work as a creator and teacher is impacted by these concerns, but my commentary inside and out of the classroom is the same. Social improvement and equality are paramount. I have more control of this inside the gallery, museum, and library space than I do in the classroom. Inside the class, I’m teaching design in various ways. Outside the classroom, I work to create a temporary utopian space for relaxation, enjoyment, escape, reflection, conversation, loving, eating, and dancing. The responses are different, and the temporary spaces are different. I haven’t found a way to completely combine the two yet on a daily basis.
In all of this, the impact is hard to quantify. Regardless, I don’t lessen my voice in the classroom because of things like bad teacher evaluations, student complaints, or a lack of understanding of a critical scope. But I also started teaching younger classes to impact critical thinking early in their academic career. I’m all about infecting my students to challenge our world’s complacency with racism, classism, sexism, ageism, etc. We need to do better as a society, but I also need to prepare them for work. The artist/academic life is a difficult dream come true.
AM: Thank you to Stacey Robinson for an insightful look at the impact his art can have, and how he approaches both his work and teaching. More of his work can be found on his website at staceyrobinson.tumblr.com.