Reading

Art AND: Precious Blake

Previous Story
Article Image

The Internet Is Exploding: 10 Must-Read Articles [...]

Next Story
Article Image

BmoreArt’s Picks: January 26 – February 1

Precious Blake is a visual journalist. In her drawings, which focus primarily on members of the Black artistic community of Baltimore, Blake uses illustration as a means to build an archive of voices that are often unheard elsewhere. Her drawings blend layers of vibrant markers with handwritten text, alternating between her own hand and her narrator’s language. It’s important for her to meet her subjects where they are most comfortable, visiting them at home and in cafés (when it’s not COVID times) because, as Blake explains, “I’m as much an environmental artist as a portrait artist because I believe that the things that we hold on to and the places we frequent tell just as much about who we are.”

As an Illustration major with a Printmaking minor at MICA, Blake decided to embark on a thesis project that involved going out into the Baltimore art world and interviewing people of color about their mixed experiences. The resulting book, Creatives of Color, chronicles Blake’s interviews with curator Michelle Gomez, MICA President Samuel Hoi, First Lady of Maryland Yumi Hogan, and author D. Watkins, among many others. The drawings were made in a few hours each and were left imperfect because Blake focuses on her connection with her sitter and tells herself, “I’m just going to trust my hand to do what it wants to do while I’m having this conversation and not have to go back with a fine-tooth comb to make it perfect.”

This thesis project led Blake to develop her current project, Celestial Beings, which focuses on telling the stories and sharing the creative spiritual practices of five Baltimore-based Black femme artists. Blake explains that she was drawn to create this work because she was struggling with her own spirituality and was wondering, “Are there any Black women who are also struggling with their spirituality or maybe have found answers that work for them? I want to be your friend,” she says. Because of this, Celestial Beings has become both a research project of sorts and a collaboration between herself and her narrators whom Blake secured funding to be able to pay for contributing their own artwork to the project’s resulting zine and community healing events. Blake believes that the pandemic actually created a silver lining for this project (which began in 2019) because now the project includes a website that has visuals as well as audio and recorded video clips that showcase the breadth of the practices of these five femmes, who are not all visual artists.

In addition to her creative work, Blake has a full-time desk job. She is the Program Director for Visual Arts in Education for the Maryland State Arts Council, a job she loves fiercely and feels excited by every day. She works primarily with Teaching Artists, growing the roster of artists who teach through the granting program she helps oversee and building arts communities throughout the state in schools, senior homes, and nonprofit spaces. Working through COVID, she is proud of the work the Teaching Artists have continued to do, adapting to the challenges of online learning to continue to serve their respective communities throughout Maryland. It’s meant more work for her in some ways, but Blake is happy to do it. “I don’t mind being a broken record if it means the person who needs it gets the information, especially since the overall stance that I’ve always had is we want to support you as a whole person, as an entrepreneur, as an artist,” Blake says. Maryland’s artists are lucky to have her.

Over Zoom, Blake and I talked about spirituality, how surprisingly large Maryland actually is, and how an art practice is chiefly an investigation into the personal questions we find daunting.

SUBJECT: Precious Blake, 26
WEARING: Yellow, green, and orange multi-striped dress, sandals, pink eyeglasses, yellow wooden earrings
PLACE: Zoom

Precious Blake, Espi Frazier spread from "Creatives of Color," 2016, Digital mixed media

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Precious Blake: I’m currently reading Dr. Bettina Love’s We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and The Pursuit of Educational Freedom. I just finished reading Black Imagination: Black Voices on Black Futures by Natasha Marin. At some point during quarantine I will catch up on the severe lack of Octavia Butler in my life, with Parable of the Sower

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

Worst: Keep your head down and conform to what is expected/demanded of you.

Best: From my amazing Black woman therapist for over 2.5 years (I miss her dearly but I am very happy with another Black woman therapist!): You are worthy. Know when to turn the chapter to a different part of your life’s story, because you do not have to stay somewhere that is negatively impacting your mental, emotional, or physical well being.

How would you describe your relationship with failure? Is there any advice you give to young people about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of any career?

It’s an evolving dance. I have doubt, concerns, and worry just like anyone else. And nothing is linear. My advice would be to get a wonderful therapist who can guide you through your personal and professional healing journey. Or if therapy isn’t your jam, having a connection to a spiritual or faith-based practice. In this living realm I’d also seek out friends who you trust to give you praise, hold space for you to just feel, and will challenge you when you need it.

Why is nonprofit work essential? What do you think is the most important or impactful part of the work you are doing? What are you the proudest of?

No work, as we currently define and experience it, is essential. Healing, rest (shout out to The Nap Ministry), radical imagination, and dreaming is necessary. The book The Revolution Will Not be Funded was a really illuminating text on how the nonprofit industry needs to unpack (and undo) how our biases and systemic oppression influences policy, the distribution of wealth, and can undermine grassroots movements. Once we acknowledge we must listen, include, and pay the artists, organizers, and communities we say we want to be in service to, we are then held accountable to them to be better. That’s what I love to do the most. Trying, changing, testing, getting feedback, listening, tinkering, asking questions, holding space, and trying again. All towards a world where we don’t have to work so hard (or at all) to ensure everyone receives what they need or desire, that we all have enough, and there’s abundant time and space to dream and rest.

Precious Blake, Illustration and words featuring CoCo Alexa from "Celestial Beings," 2020, Digital mixed media

What material do you use so much you should buy stock in it? 

Probably Nature Valley Trail Mix Chewy Bars. It’s my go-to breakfast meal. 

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for? 

I would like to be remembered as someone who gives really great hugs (when we can do that again!)

What’s a favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

I have seasonal favorites, so recently it’s been Kong Pocha. Their kongbination box with bulgogi, spicy pork, signature fried chicken, and a fried egg on top is *chefs kiss*

You’re from New York but have set up a life here in Baltimore after graduating from MICA. How did you decide to move to Baltimore and attend MICA? 

I’ve always wanted to be an illustrator. It was one of the reasons why I chose MICA. My mother, she’s an HBCU proponent. She went to Tuskegee University. She wanted me to go to an HBCU. I told her, “I would love to go to HBCU, but do any have competitive illustration programs?” The answer was, unfortunately, no. It broke her heart, but she understood. I am originally from Westchester, New York, and I also wanted to be in a predominantly Black city to get my BFA, so I was looking at SCAD, SAIC, and I was even thinking about RISD at one point. The community I’m in was and is really important to me. So I chose MICA specifically. 

In my junior year, I was in a lot of student-led positions talking about how we can make our lives as students better. [Working] in the Career Development office, I was really focused on what are the ways in which we can empower student artists to say, “Look, just because you have a painting degree doesn’t mean that it’s not transferable to a myriad of other areas.” I was a peer career advisor (PCA) to many students that needed a resume review and interview support and help. I was the only person of color [in my first year] who was a peer career advisor. A lot of times there were Asian students as PCAs as well, but I also worked in the office as a work-study, so a lot of times, I was the first face people saw—this Black woman with locs. MICA does not have many people of color, and there are even fewer Black people as students, staff,  and administrators.

In the Career Development office, I wanted to be that person to say, “I’m someone who hopefully you can connect with.” I figured the point of me getting my degree is to make sure that I am prepped and ready for a career. So that this debt that I’m putting myself into, the scholarships, the stress—it’s worth it. I wanted to make sure that other folks know that it could still be worth it. Even through some of the trials and tribulations, there are a lot of things I learned at MICA I couldn’t have learned anywhere else.

 

Precious Blake, Illustration and words featuring Mama Kay from "Celestial Beings," 2020, Digital mixed media

Do you have what might be described as an unusual hobby? What do you do just for fun? How did you get into that?

Settling into a home that I want longevity in has made me very conscious of my living space. I always lived in an apartment growing up with limited space and I now enjoy being able to spread out in a house. So I’m either constantly buying furniture, organizer tools, wall hangings, or just furniture “window” shopping.

I have an interior design Pinterest board dedicated to it all. I’m hoping to buy my own home sometime soon, so it gets me motivated and excited for that journey. Because I have my own space, I do enjoy hosting small, intimate gatherings with my inner circle of friends. I had my second friend gathering during these pandemic times [recently]. We were outside in my backyard, just four of us, with masks and sanitizer abundant. It was a fall/autumn-themed gathering with a fully vegan menu (I am not vegan but a friend of mine is) with butternut squash mac n’ cheese, warm spiced apple cider, bruschetta on roasted sweet potatoes, and some amazing desserts my friends made. I also made applesauce and pumpkin ice cream. Fall is my favorite season. 

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

I have to wear glasses to see, but I do have a few pairs that are in my rotation. Usually I have a pair of earrings on too. I’ve relaxed a little bit with wearing jewelry while working from home, but when I want to feel more radiant I’ll put some earrings on. My mom makes earrings all the time or will buy some at local shops/craft shows that she thinks would be cute on me. I’m also notorious for losing earrings within the year I get them so I have to switch up!

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make or the work you would collaborate on with others.

A self-sufficient space (House? Village? City? Country? All three?) in the center of urban cities where Black women artists and their families live off the land, share responsibilities, and care for each other. We share stories and practices, tools and laughter. You could decide to be there for a week, a month, or several years. Fully funded, no strings attached, and no reporting or requirements of any final product or project. 

What are the last three emojis you used?

😂 🤔 💁🏾‍♀️

 

Precious Blake, Penn Station, 2015, digital mixed-media collage
That’s what I love to do the most. Trying, changing, testing, getting feedback, listening, tinkering, asking questions, holding space, and trying again. All towards a world where we don’t have to work so hard (or at all) to ensure everyone receives what they need or desire, that we all have enough, and there’s abundant time and space to dream and rest.
Precious Blake

What advice do you have for someone who wants to serve the Baltimore arts community but doesn’t know how to get started?

Conversations. Most of us in the arts community are more than willing to have a conversation with someone who wants to learn. It’s as simple as an email or attending a few events and striking up a conversation with the featured artist or the organizer of the event. You won’t know where to start until you know who is here already doing so many amazing things. It was one of the reasons I interviewed so many artists in my 2017 project Creatives of Color.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

Yes, it sure does! Cancer sun, Virgo rising, and Aquarius moon. I feel very deeply, I’m somewhat of a crabby hermit (the reason I love being at home), super organized and obsessed with small details, and will often find rational responses when I just need to feel and be in the moment. I’m a multitude of oceans.

Who are your career heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

Faith Ringgold is my art godmother in my head and I would love to just have a picnic with her. I fell in love with her and her artwork very young. Her work was the first time I saw a Black woman make art that could be beautifully dark and overflowing with joy.

What would your teenage self think of you today?

That I’m a pretty cool awkward Black girl.

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

When I was 13. It was for this youth service organization that did summer programming for “at risk” kids. You could then advance to be a para-facilitator and facilitator which were paid positions. Their philosophies around teamwork and communication had good intentions but lacked impact. As a very artsy/introverted Black girl, I wanted a space to feel accepted and not feel like the weirdest person in the group, but thankfully I’ve learned to (sorta) accept all those parts of myself.

******

View the evolving project Celestial Beings; on the site, there are drawings, posters, videos, and audio clips. Blake is planning on releasing a printed zine that features some of the narrators’ contributions soon. 

Blake is a collaborator on the new wellbeing collective Black Womxn Flourish, which is currently creating a collective manifesto centered around dreaming flourishing futures for Black women.

 

Related Stories
The best weekly art openings, events, and calls for entry happening in Baltimore and surrounding areas.

Stay home, stay healthy, stay engaged in the arts.

Building an archive of everyday Black life and culture

A conversation with conceptual artist and photographer Larry Cook and gallery owner/director Myrtis Bedolla

The 2020 Sondheim winner talks about balancing family and studio time, portraiture as power, and symbol systems

Hobbs is the rare sort of person who sets intentions and actually accomplishes them, who revels in being busy and can forgive herself when she falls short of her own extremely high standards.

Milad’s cryptic and deeply personal archive of gathered fragments invites viewers to exist in a state of suspended misunderstanding

Through a rich accumulation of visual, textual, and symbolic content, Milad invites us to struggle with the act of making meaning as well as our desire to know, understand, translate, and thus take ownership of her pieces.