images by Shannon Wright, source
Shannon Wright is an outspoken activist, storyteller, comics artist, and illustrator who is also currently a graduating senior at VCU in the Communication Arts Department. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Bitch Magazine, The Response, Hopes&Fears, and Today’s Christian Woman. Though she spends most of her time making viewers and readers cry and hug their loved ones with the emotional force of her work, she took a break to talk with me about her early influences,
Elly Call: So how do you bring black identity into your work?
Shannon Wright: I think in the most obvious ways I bring black influences into my art is by drawing black people. (Laughing) ‘Cause I’m not gonna lie—super early, I just drew white people because I was around white people all the time but I never drew black people. Or I just drew cartoon characters or anime characters, but they were never black! And then after a while I wondered, “Why am I not drawing black people?” and I guess it wasn’t until a few years ago that I was like “you know, I want to draw people I know! Like, people who look like me!” ‘Cause I think even when I drew white people I wasn’t very invested. They didn’t look like me, didn’t have my features. My shape. So, now I just draw black people. I really like it! I think back to my childhood, my relatives, my family members, and they look so different. I don’t know why I never… I guess because I was partly not comfortable with my blackness, just because of the environment I grew up in.
EC: And I know—the way this question was phrased seems to indicate black identity—but one thing anyone can learn from just talking to black people in general is there is “THE BLACK IDENTITY” though mainstream media sometimes seems to supply only one image in respect to black people.
SW: Yeah yeah yeah—I’ve noticed that too! They do that too with the Asian identity and the Hispanic identity… And it’s interesting ‘cause a person of color doesn’t get to exist as an individual, they have to exist within their culture and within their race and they’re always identified with every other person of color. But then if you read stories or even if you look at how a lot of different white people are illustrated or drawn, they’re always so different! With all these different shapes and backstories, they all get the chance to exist in different facets. People try to make every black person fit to this mold! Like “the only stuff they can like is this, and every black chick is a curvy woman with like an attitude and every black man either falls into the hip hop thuggish kind of black dude or the nerdy black dude, like the token black guy, and you’re like “uhh…”
EC: “ …there are more of us!”
SW: Yeah! It’s always the stereotypical Asian they want to draw, or the stereotypical Hispanic—People are different!
EC: And it sounds like you obviously care about that because of course you’re an individual with individual tastes so you probably comment on that in your work, it’s safe to say. So do you go out of way to show a wide variety of black people with different tastes rather than this cookie cutter ideal we’re kind of fed?
SW: “Right! ‘Cause I mean I have family members who are all different flavors”
—and I’m gonna say flavors to make my point—they are all different flavors and stuff. I had cousins that grew up in different environments so they acted differently, but then one cousin was really into operas and musicals, so she was a different flavor; and I have my brothers who are introverts and are very quiet—and that’s another flavor of black people, and it’s just… we all have different traits and different things we like, and we all have different personalities and come from different walks of life. And I make it my mission to make sure people know that.
“We exist on a spectrum. That’s something I’m still working on because I think since I saw the stereotypical black people in art and media, I instantly just went to the polar opposite and that was all I drew, but then I thought “wait a minute, that’s defeating the purpose of what I wanted to accomplish in the first place. If I go in the opposite direction, and only got the nerdy black people, then I’m missing everyone else in between.” It’s a process. It definitely helps just being around my friends and just being around different groups of people. “
EC: So, do you find yourself facing any challenges—I mean, I’m sure you do—as a black artist in the comics scene that you’ve experienced here? We hear a lot about different challenges that those who are already very established have faced—and you are established but you haven’t been in the industry as long, so…
SW: I guess a challenge I face is… as much as I love drawing black people and people of color, I’m fearful of falling into the category where you become a go to person to draw black people. ‘Cause then you get pigeonholed into just doing that, and that’s the whole thing that happens with [commissions during] black history month. Like, “Uhhhh” (Snapping) ”Get the black person! They can draw black people,” and then you’re stuck in that little sphere. I mean I would rather black people be the ones illustrating black experiences. They have the experiences, they’re the ones who have lived through it—but what tends to happen is you get seen as a one trick pony. You want others to know “I have the ability to tackle other subjects. I can draw other stuff. I like drawing robots, or plants, or mythology,” and they’re thinking “Yeahhh well, um, yeah we have like, uh, our white people to do that! You can still draw black people though….?” (Both Laugh)
EC: God that’s so frustrating!
SW: Yeah and something I have an issue with is since I’m a black woman I fall on the line of having to deal with not only race issues but gender issues too, so just like the black thing I fall into this pigeonhole where it’s like “she’d be great to draw, like, girly stuff.” And I’m like, “I draw other stuff. I draw other things too! I went to school so I could draw this, practice this stuff, I went to school so I could do everything.” Again, you get pigeonholed into this category where you’re supposed to draw—well for me I’m “supposed” to draw black feminine art. And I love drawing that, there’s not enough of it, but at the same time let me be a dimensional artist. If I do a story on another ethnicity, or another sexual orientation I do like asking them how they feel about it or I do research, because again it’s not my place to just go ahead and illustrate that, cause I don’t know. I have these stories I want to illustrate, either because the person doesn’t know how to illustrate it themselves, or they’re like “I want you to tell my story”. But there’s no opportunity. Or, they [employers] don’t give you that opportunity. So now I like to take initiative to just do it on my own.
EC: You get more freedom that way.
SW: But… I don’t know. It’s really frustrating to be at the bottom of the totem pole, for the most part. Because there are different levels. You got your white dudes a the top, then you have your white women, and then you have whatever “model minority” under white people
EC: Only because its’ determined by white people.
SW: Yeah! It’s all determined by who they deem would be worthy of the job. But they just have women of color at the bottom. And you’re drowning because you’re like “I have stories to tell too!” and they’re like “uh huh…yeah! Yeah, uh, we’ll get to you…”
EC: Yeah there’s this whole excuse I hear, “these stories don’t sell”. As if for some reason only the stories of white men “sell”.
SW: Yeah! And the problem with the stories of white men is THEY’RE THE SAME STORIES! We’ve heard them! Like, “Here’s the story of a white dude who’s sad and smokes” and I’m like…”I feel like I’ve heard this story before…. but the guy in the last issue was Carl and this guy is Tom…” and maybe there are some little tweaks. Everyone’s stories are legit, but you have stories that aren’t getting told and aren’t being heard and are being shoe-holed because they believe “it’s “not gonna sell” or “it’s not popular right now”
EC: And one problem then, amongst other things, seems to be that when these stories don’t get told we remain with these stereotypes as story substitutes. So white men get to have all these different stories, and then these stories of women of color- they don’t get told.
SW: And then you pitch a story of a woman in color and people are like “oh oh–No, we already know how that story goes…” Well, you don’t. It’s really bad that you think you do. Because you don’t. It’s frustrating. And another thing that’s frustrating is people trying to do everything their power to not seem racist instead of just not being racist. So they try to meet this quote and then they’re like “see we published this one black artist.” and I’m thinking, “ok, I’m not gonna give you a golden star for doing something you’re already supposed to be doing.”
EC: ‘you’re not gonna get a cookie for not being racist’.
SW: YEAH YOU DON’T GET A COOKIE FOR THAT! You’re already supposed to be doing that! And a lot of people can see it, but a lot can’t see it. And there are a lot of people who would rather be ignorant because they don’t wanna be confronted with that uncomfortable conversation. As soon as people start realizing that that [discomfort] exists, we can start working and moving past the idea that it’s all ok. Because it’s not. And it’s gotten better, but it’s not over. There’s still a lot of work to do.
EC: Would you say the fear of being called racist stops a lot of conversations that need to happen because people can’t separate themselves from the fact that they’re been socialized and they need to talk anyways and be comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations?
SW: I think… I think a lot of people are just afraid of being wrong. When you grow up in a household where you’re told that you’re right, and your opinion is what matters over everyone else’s opinion, and then you have someone who challenges that and you’re like, “Well, that’s not how things work,” people really get upset. Because this structure that was set up for them is going into question, “wait, that can’t be right. These people I cared about… these people I looked up to, maybe they passed some racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic stuff down to me.” It’s scary, but I mean, that’s the thing about growing. And admitting you’re wrong. Admitting that this traditional system is meant to be changed because when it was created it was meant to enslave people and oppress people. It’s a lot about how we need to change our thinking because our country is changing. And it has to do with people who were oppressed—who are still oppressed—getting a voice to say, “I’m tired of a system oppressing me.” So, there’s that (laughs).
EC: A big issue I hear over and over again is there aren’t enough people of color who are editors, who aren’t art directors. What do you think needs to happen for this to be changed; granted this is not your problem to implement, but in your opinion.
SW: I know people of color are putting themselves out there. But these “positions” are coming from people who don’t want to look. They’re content with how everything has been. You can’t straight up say “Oh there are people who are qualified…. But we can’t find them anywhere!!” that’s a straight up lie! Again, they’re being blissfully ignorant. It’s a matter of taking that extra time to find those people who possess those skills–and the thing is, a lot of these people are in environments or locations that these people don’t want to go to; don’t want to get familiar with.
EC: “Because it’s too scary”
SW: Yeah and going back… it makes them uncomfortable. As much as it means to have people in the positions illustrating and writing, it’s also important to have those people of color—and I’m not just going to exclude it to people of color. I’m gonna say the LGTBQ community, those who aren’t able bodied, people who have suffered from handicaps—aren’t getting positions either. We need to recognize they have stories to tell. And if we put them in those positions, the ones that include finding other people, I think that’s gonna make the art in those careers a lot richer. A chain reaction will occur where they will open up opportunities to others not a part of the dominant culture.
EC: One thing I’m curious about too though, what are some of your additional influences?
SW: A lot of influences come from my childhood. I’m gonna straight up say it because I used to be ashamed to say it, (Laughing) but a lot of my influences come from cartoons and anime and the character development. I think I’ve become a better illustrator and a better story teller just by watching cartoons and anime because they did a really good job with making you fall in love with characters and becoming interested in them. And I’m gonna go into anime and manga—I loved how they had story arcs for their characters. And everyone was so dimensional. People have backstories—that’s another thing I got from my cartoons and anime, the backstories really helped you get connected and understand where characters were coming from. These stories were deep. Everything wasn’t peachy and bright and stuff. You had people dealing with real things, family issues—things that I felt were more natural than the baby shows and the very censored shows that were on TV. I liked them for the aesthetic, but at the same time I was like “alright, there was nothing being challenged. I guess some of my other influences include the church. My grandpa was a pastor and my grandma was the first lady. My mom was from a preacher kid family. It was one of those things where I went to church every Sunday and other days of the week—stories and the visual tellings of the bible fascinated me. My grandpa’s preaching of compassion and loving others was an influence. So that was one influence. I mean I think my faith influenced my career and how I view things.
EC: So you never left the church? You still identify as Christian.
SW: Yeah I still consider myself Christian. There are definitely things that happened- when my grandpa passed away—that definitely dictated how much we went to church, and we went to another church, and for a while that church was ok, but it kinda…it didn’t break our faith but it broke our commitment to going to church. And even now we don’t have a church home, but I’m still …I still have my faith. A strange thing I noticed coming to college- and I think this broke my faith a bit- I felt like as soon as you became an artist you also had to drop your religion and faith. I remember being in one of my classes and suddenly everyone just talked about how they didn’t believe in God. It was a majority of the class. And I was like “is this the conversion to become an artist…?” (Laughing) So I’d be like “I’m not gonna speak up or they won’t think I’m a real artist which was silly to think at the time. So I just- I don’t even know if people know I’m Christian in the art sphere. It’s kinda taboo for some reason. I don’t think I’ve ever brought up being a Christian to my art friends because they’ve sometimes made it a point to say “I don’t believe in that.” It gets to the point where I don’t bring it up because I don’t want to seem like I’m preaching. But that’s a part of my identity, part of me growing up.
EC: And which ways do you find that particular influence manifesting–do you find yourself gravitating to certain principles?
SW: In terms of principles, I would say…. the sense of community is vital. Community was present in the churches I went to—Baptist, Pentecostal—it was very rhythmic, very loud… there was definitely a connection. And I guess indirectly I keep that in mind when I make a piece. I think about the gospel songs, the different moods they conveyed, stuff like that. There’s always a sense of togetherness, and community. Even if it’s just one person. I relate it back to my childhood, being back in that place. What other influences do I have… The colors of the church were very vibrant, too, always very vibrant. You’ve got women wearing a green suit, a green hat, green shoes, and green purses. It was like going into a grocery store, you had people in red suits, purple suits, green suits, colors I’d never even seen before, I think that’s what I liked most about church. Everyone was so dressed up. The hats were fancy, the shoes were fancy, you had all the art on the wall, the robes that pastor wore that were all bright and colorful, and all this stuff in gold. It’s crazy! It’s crazy. And not only that but you have these booming voices and people on the drums, the tambourine…it was crazy. Lasted forever. But it was over-stimulating for a little kid. Especially when you had other churches come. And recently I’ve started making my pieces very colorful.
EC: So do you have any advice to young artists?
SW: Oh yeah I got some advice for young artists—draw hands! A lot of hands. Draw the figure a lot. I could definitely do that more. I’m gonna take those words and eat ‘em. Get messy. I still gotta get messy. Your sketchbook is a personal thing, you don’t need to show anybody. People need to respect that sketchbooks are like your diary. Some other advice to young artists—go out and make yourself a part of the conversation. You don’t have to wait for people to invite you to talk. Pull yourself up. You don’t have to wait to do a project. I think a lot of artists wait to get picked up, or wait to get discovered, and sometimes its’ just a matter of making the work. This is something Sterling Hundley taught me—if you have something you’re trying to get into, like a certain career, take those prompts from your favorite magazines or publications, find their dimensions, the themes, what look they go for, try your best to find out how long those jobs normally have cushion time wise, uh pretty much become your own art director with these jobs. Discipline yourself, do mock up illustrations to test it out and see if you can push yourself. I think a lot of being an artist is self-discipline. And I’m gonna say something else after this- keep making, but remember there are times when you won’t be able to make stuff. And that’s ok because self-care is really important. And that’s something I’m still working on. You should never feel guilty for taking a day off. Because being an artist is a career too. Start at nine, then say you get off at five then give yourself a day, just don’t do anything art related.