Get to Know: Art Educator and Muralist Ashley-Simone McKenzie
Our next Black Art Matters curator for the month of February is a true inspiration to us and other up-and-coming and unconventional career artists! Ashley-Simone has been a long time member of the Ello community, but it's not just our creative community she has contributed to, but also to her own community and other communities in need. When she's not creating bright, dynamic murals, she's bringing art to youth and teaching them how to express themselves creatively.
Ashley-Simone's work and creative reach is both wide and impactful—our very own TLNT Global VP of Community, Stephanie Rubin, has even spotted New York native Ashley-Simone's work in as far as Miami! Check out Stephanie's introduction to Ashley-Simone on Talenthouse Magazine.
We’re super excited to introduce you to Ashley-Simone and allow her to share her story with you. Check out Ashley-Simone's editorial and get yourself registered for her Livestream interview on Monday, February 15th at 7PM EST.
Let’s have a round of applause for Ashley-Simone!
At 21, after graduating with a Bachelors in Sports Management, I had a lingering feeling that I wanted to pursue art-making professionally, despite not having a background in the arts, a portfolio, or any connections to collectors, galleries or institutions. In high school, I elected to take art classes and I would draw for fun in my free time when I felt inspired to, but I never thought of art-making as a viable career. Ironically, I had a hard time finding a full-time job after graduating so I figured why not take a shot at something I enjoyed doing.
With no clear guide on where to start, I began by studying my favorite artists on Instagram and figuring out what materials they used. At that time in 2014, I was into black and white illustrations, so I bought a bunch of micron pigment pens, made four ink drawings, and tried selling these drawings in all the ways I thought could work: I made t-shirts and prints. I went online, I set up a table in Union Square, I also hosted live drawing parties to showcase my friends' work, as well as my own.
This strategy helped to introduce my art-making intentions to the public and my social circle. Outside of those pursuits, I took any freelance gig I could get my hands on, which usually meant working for free or taking gigs that paid just enough to cover materials. Regardless of the insufficient, and at times non-existent, income from art, I kept creating illustrations on anything I could get my hands—if I went to a bar, I brought my sketchpad; if someone was willing to let me paint their furniture, I did it; and if I traveled, I found the paint shops and painted on any wall that I could.
About 6 months after I started my quest, I went to the 4heads Artist Residency event held on Governors Island in New York City. Earlier that year, I applied to participate in their residency program and was rejected, but thought it would be a good lesson to go and see what I could do to better my art practice. After meeting Michael Krasowitz at the event—an artist who led a printmaking demo on site—we talked and he recommended that I show my art at the Quarterly Arts Soirée at the East Village Social, which was happening the following week. I reached out to the curator, and luckily they had just enough space for my four ink illustrations.
First four, ink illustrations by Ashley-Simone McKenzie, 2014
I didn’t sell anything at the soirée but I was happy enough to participate in my first, group art show. During that event a few of the show's artists sat and discussed what we do, our inspirations and aspirations. I shared my innate desire to make artwork and how I wanted to provide opportunities in the arts for kids in Hempstead, New York, my hometown. During that discussion Candy Heiland, an oil pastel artist, lit up. She then informed me about an arts foundation called Rush Philanthropic [Rush] and the work they do. Coincidentally, Rush was having their annual art education opening that same day and she asked me if I’d like to go. About an hour later, I hopped in her car and she gave me a ride to Corridor Gallery in Clinton Hill, one of the gallery spaces for the foundation. After meeting the Director of Education at the opening, I was invited to return which turned into my first job in the arts as a teaching artist for Rush Philanthropic
I never intended on teaching post undergrad, but working as a teacher changed my perspective on the education experience. As a teaching artist, I had leeway and freedom to teach the kids practices and techniques that I was applying to my art practice–without a doubt, it was an integral part of my growth as an artist. They helped build my confidence as an artist. And in return I strived to make them more comfortable with making their own creations using easily accessible resources. After a couple of years, my work with Rush Philanthropic led to a full-ride scholarship to receive my M.A. in Art & Design Education at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. An experience which allowed me to further build a strong foundation in my pursuits.
Student work on illustration and mural prompts in Queens and Coney Island.
As I continued to work with kids, I kept pushing to better my art practice for myself and my students. I started painting, animating, and taught myself to create digitally. I wanted to be commissioned by others to fulfill their artistic visions, so expanding my arsenal of technical abilities was the best way to achieve that.
However, although I had leveled up from when I intentionally pursued art, there still weren’t many professional creative opportunities available to me. I was rejected from 98% of the art jobs, grants or residencies I applied for. I even used to walk door to door to ask store owners if they wanted free work, but unfortunately those efforts did not bring on any commercial clients. If they wanted my art, I came across predatory deals and contracts that required me to sign away my rights to my work. Thankfully, I had the foresight to never do that.
When I realized I wasn’t getting the opportunities or work that I desired. I knew I needed to take action on my own. I had images in my head that I wanted–no–needed to see in public. Subsequently, in the summer of 2016 after my first semester of grad school, I booked an apartment in Montreal, Canada for two months, in hopes of painting a mural out there.
Montreal is very receptive of the arts, especially mural arts. I figured this would be the place I would be able to make a mural or land freelance work. Once again, I came across the same problems I experienced back home in New York, but I was determined to make a mural while I was up there. And I’d be damned if I went back home without adding my first street art piece to my portfolio.
After walking around the Villeray neighborhood, I came across a wall that was perfect to me–it was the back of a garage wall located in a residential back-alley. Without permission from the owner, I got to work and spent about two weeks on it, painting a scene of my signature characters, ‘The Nuggets’. Funny enough I got caught by the owner of the garage but when he looked at the work he laughed, told me he liked it and allowed me to finish.
Villeray Mural–Montreal, Quebec City, 2016. Left photograph by Glen Eupota
When I went back to New York after the Montreal trip, the momentum was different. I was tapped for paid opportunities, and started getting referrals for jobs that fit into my vision of what I wanted my art career to look like. I think my social circle and network saw that I was serious about what I wanted to do with my art which further solidified their support for me.
Fast forward to today, I continue to create and collaborate with institutions and businesses in NYC through my design studio, ALBOE. My art practice has grown into a commission-based business where I’ve created custom murals and signage for restaurants, night clubs, education centers and public spaces; curated artists’ shows at NYU; facilitated hands-on workshops for kids and adults to paint murals; and created designs and animations for Ilana Glazer’s Horny 4 tha Polls comedy tour + campaign.
Signage commission in progress at Parklife in Gowanus, Brooklyn, 2017
In hindsight this journey seems like a clear, linear track. Like every instance has been one serendipitous act leading to another. However, it didn’t feel this way. My pursuit required excessive resilience and faith. Over the years, there have been many lulls in work where I didn’t know where I would make my next paycheck. I’ve been broke and in debt to the point of not being able to buy the proper resources I needed for gigs. And I’ve been rejected, disrespected, and burned by some individuals, institutions and companies that I thought would help lead me to the next step in turning my art practice into a career. I’ve also messed up and wasn’t able to deliver some projects due to lack of experience and overstretching myself. These experiences were defeating to say the least.
There have been many moments when I felt that this dream was a long shot. Starting from scratch—with no mentor or established portfolio—felt like I was going nowhere fast, and my future as a professional artist might end up being a glorified hobby. And worse, a waste of time. Consequently, these moments brought on anger, hopelessness and a number of depressive episodes. But on the bright side, somehow, I was able to reset when I hit a setback and try again because deep down I believed in what I was doing, and that was enough to go on.
My art path has been a practice of trial and error supplemented with a series of managed and reckless risks. I can't deny that this journey has been anything less than wild and stressful, but most importantly fun. There have been ups and downs but through relentless persistence and sacrifices, I’ve been able to transcend what started off as a personal hobby into a creative business and education practice–my goal from the start.
I continue to grow everyday and I still make mistakes, but I challenge myself through each project I take on, and I’m grateful for the experiences and opportunities that have brought me to where I am today.