Pictured, Erin Mitchell. Chicago-based art educator and visual artist. Photo by @michiojames

Have you ever to just enjoy your Black Life without always entertaining or debunking a political debate about what value it has or doesn’t have? I’d like you to meet Erin Mitchell, the amazing artist behind the new, captivating, and aptly titled visual art collection The Black Joy Series.

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She wants to help you do just that. This ongoing portraiture series is a breath of fresh air in a time when Black folks are inundated with images of Black death and Black tragedy. Mitchell responds to the myriad crises facing Black America both simply and radically. The Black Joy Series is an unwavering and blissfully defiant love letter to Black women everywhere. While her style is striking and abstract, Mitchell turns her gaze towards moments and gestures that feel uncannily familiar, allowing the pieces a rich sense of intimacy. The lifeblood of this series is Blackness, colorfully rendered and reflected back at us in unimaginably refreshing ways.

Mitchell isn’t only a visionary on the canvas, she is also a fashionista in her everyday life. She is just as bold with her hair color as she is with her paint pallets. In the interview below, we’ll also get a glimpse into her experience as one of Afro Punk’s most jaw-dropping attendees last year. I had the great fortune of sitting down with her over the weekend at her studio, where she was unwinding from a long week of teaching and preparing for installation to go up later that evening. See how this young woman gets it right.

Nate Olison: Hey Erin, really glad that we got a chance to sit down and have this talk. Can you tell us about the new series you’ve been producing for us?

Erin Mitchell: The current collection that I’m putting together is called the Black Joy Series, and it’s pretty much just a collection of images of predominantly women of color, and people of color sharing joy, love, happy images, positive images, things hopefully make you smile, colors that brighten your day. Kind of just the direction I’m in just focus on positivity and just unity in that manner.

Black Joy Series 2016, by Erin Mitchell

NO: When did you start making art?

EM: I’ve been making things since I was little, very little. It might not have been paintings for sure, but it was something. It was like, I decided I wanted to paint a
suitcase once. Because my dad was a carpenter (he didn’t go to school for it) but he pretty much redid our whole basement and stuff. So he’s good with building and teaching himself how to do things. I think I got that from him. So I was always tinkering around with different things from the basement where he did his thing. Since he was always making his stuff I was like, I wanna fiddle around with some stuff too! So I’d always be making random things. Somehow it transformed into visual arts and me working on canvases and making these prints. He draws well too, so I definitely think I just get all my creative juices and all this talent from him.

NO: Have you always known Black was beautiful?

EM: I grew up in a house where I always thought that I was beautiful. I mean, I had my insecurities, of course. But I felt loved and I felt like I could do anything I put my mind to. My mom was always very supportive. My parents were so supportive of anything I was doing or direction I was going in, and I went to a predominantly white elementary school. Episcopalian private school. Even in that setting I had a strong sense of myself, knowing how to go forward and do what you do. I mean, even though the situation that you’re in isn’t what you’re used to. Take what you have and don’t give them a reason to think that you’re part of some stereotype or something that they know of. I would say that the women in my family are really strong too. There’s never been a sense of doubt. Because these women are aggressive and it’s just like “kinda don’t fuck with us” type of women. We do our thing. So I’ve always had these women to look up to. My aunts, my grandmother, my mom. So I’m blessed in this sense, where I’ve never been questioned to think that I’m not something that’s worth gendering at. That I’m not a beauty in my sense and everything that I do.

NO: I love the candidness of the gestures in the work. I think it’s important for us to celebrate Black joy in this time, and I don’t know if a lot of people are doing that.

EM: It’s nothing to blame for, it’s just that everyone’s thinking it’s the end of the world is the first thing. Everyone’s wildin’ out right now. So we need to stick to that happiness though, so that’s the only thing that’s really gonna pull us through this.

NO: So, what do you hope that people will get out of your art?

EM: If they smile, that’s one thing for sure. I would like them to smile, and not that they need to know who these women are, but just to be like “I see part of myself in her” because all of their skin tones are different colors so you make of it what you want. Whether she’s light-skinned, dark-skinned, whatever. But I’m hoping that there’s something in there, just like I get a sense of her. There’s something of me I see in that. Whether it’s how her hair is, or maybe her pose or her facial expression, something that intrigues you makes you want to get to know these people, even though they’re nobody, but share in this moment that’s happening.

NO: Is every single piece based on an actual person?

EM: Some parts are yes, and others are based on these women that inspire me. Women mainly, some of them I don’t even know, but their style inspires me and I want to immortalize that in a sense. To keep it close.

Black Joy Series 2016, by Erin Mitchell

NO: I’m glad you mentioned style too, so last year you were kind of a big deal on the internet!

EM: When I tell you, I had no idea. [My friend] Lauren was like Erin you have to come to this! There’s so many beautiful people, you have to be there. So I was like, okay. I’m going next year. Went there. What?! It was AMAAAAAAAZING! My goal was to be on one of those top style blogs. Because I’d seen them, and I just wanna see if I can get on one of them… little did I know. I’m still just like, what? That happened? That was really cool!

NO: What inspired that particular outfit?

EM: A lot of my outfits just seem to come together, really. I collect pieces of clothing that I’m drawn to as far as color of course, color and pattern. I like to mix and match patterns. There might be something I see and I have no idea what is gonna come of this, but this is just too good to leave here, this is now a part of me. And I know I will be able to rock this in some type of sense. I like thrifting a lot too, because I feel like thrifting you’re gonna find something that wouldn’t be on the rack anywhere else. I’m all for originality. I guess I didn’t even need to say that, right? I had been thinking Afro Punk… I gotta come correct, right? I gotta come out and show out. I had some decisions to make that morning, because I had something else in mind. I was like you know what? I just wanna be this ray of sunshine. Because I had already turned my hair yellow, I was so feeling the yellow, so I was just like I’m gonna be this beam of light.

NO: Is there a correlation to between your sense of style and your artistic aesthetic?

EM: Well I guess as far as my style, I’m definitely out of the box, so when it comes to my work I don’t use regular skin tones for the people that I depict. They are green, purple, pink whatever. But they’re people of color. So that’s what it is. You don’t need—it’s an unconventional type thing. It’s out of the box, it’s out of the ordinary but you understand it and you feel it, and you feel like you can relate to it. So it doesn’t matter exactly, it’s just thinking that there’s more than one type of beauty. So how I dress, clearly I don’t dress as a regular, down the street type of look. But it’s still something I want to be seen as something beautiful that’s a work in itself, that I put work into. I enjoy people coming up to me and telling me “you look awesome” “your style is so dope!” “What do you do?” “Who are you?” It makes me feel good because I know at one point, I didn’t look like this. And I didn’t wear my hair like this or anything like that but I still had these ideas inside me. And there’s things that have evolved into what I present myself as and what I create. And I’ve become very proud of it. And I’m happy that this is coming out more because again, in Alabama you can’t walk around with blue hair! People aren’t even accepting of the fact that you have an afro.

NO: Woww, really?!

EM: I have a friend who worked at a bank and of course she was just getting the ugliest looks because she had a fro. But it’s the mentality. It’s not as accepting as in other parts of the country. So being able to come here to a bigger city with a more open mentality and being able to express myself exactly how I’ve been wanting to is good. I still like going back home and showing my blue hair.I get compliments though, they might look at me really crazy though. These old school white folks they look at me like “eh…” but you still looking and you looking because you know that this is something you don’t always see, but it’s something that you should see.

Black Joy Series 2016, by Erin Mitchell

NO: Yeah, sure.

EM: I know before I graduated one of my teachers pulled me aside and asked me about my hair. She did. She was like so your hair, I don’t want that to deter you from getting jobs because you wear your hair in different colors. I don’t want that to affect you getting work. And I was like, “it won’t.” I don’t even know why we’re sitting here having this conversation.
We’re artists. And we’re art teachers. I think the kids should see different things. Not everyone is just—a white teacher. Because that’s all they really see in school because it’s not many Black, of color people in the school system. So they need to see something different. They need to see me. I’m in a predominantly Black school and they still never seen anyone with their hair like this, or how I dress, or how I talk. But we out here! And you need to know that there’s more than your radius. A lot of my students don’t really leave their neighborhood. Or they stay within their block for whatever reason. But to bring someone in that don’t look like what they’re used to, and teach them different things. But still, you can relate to me because I look like you even though I have blue hair.

NO: Especially because there’s a lot of doubt in art anyway, right?

EM: It’s already not the most stable thing you can do. It’s already been defunded and all types of stuff. And “nobody cares” about art as far as it seems. But little did you know this is what you need. This is what’s worth living for.

NO: Thanks so much Erin, so where can people go to buy your prints? Where can we access these beautiful pieces of artwork?

Black Joy Series 2016, by Erin Mitchell

EM: My work can be accessed at Erinleannworks.com. You can see images there, and also if you’re interested in purchasing any prints, you can send me a quick cute message and I’ll happily reply.

NO: Awesome, so what’s next on the horizon after Black Joy?

EM: Well I don’t see it ending, I just see it evolving. I can’t wait for the day when I have this whole collection from start to—at least a year from today. That’s what I’m excited for.

You can check out more of Erin’s work here. Let us know what you think in the comments. 
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Nate Olison is a writer, educator, and performer living in Chicago Illinois. In addition to freelance writing, he also works as a youth development specialist and interfaith poetry instructor. He utilizes storytelling in every role to generate creative empathy, which shapes both his pedagogy and his worldview. Find more from him at nateolison.com

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