Keni, tell us about yourself, we’d love to hear more about your upbringing and surprise musical background!
I was born in Philly to a family that was a very religious and very musical. My grandfather was a gospel organist and we used to tour as a family from church to church and perform in different places along the East Coast, I was a singer but I always carried pieces of paper and pencils so I could sketch and draw. It was a way of entertaining myself for long rides.
How did you get started in your creative field and why did you pursue it?
After high school since I wasn’t able to get a scholarship to go to college, and my mom said she was not going to pay for it, I went into the Navy. It was a way to make a living and to get away from home. While I was in the Navy I started drawing with a friend of mine (who is an artist) and we would do all kinds of different things creatively. He left the military first and went to art school, and when I left the military I was headed to school for communications, but there was a clerical error and the school lost all my financial information. I was feeling down that I wasn’t going to be able to go to college and then in the mail I received information about the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
When I went in initially to talk to the recruiter and showed my “portfolio” he said that maybe I should go in for animation, but the idea of drawing the same thing constantly to animate didn’t sound fun to me. Then he suggested graphic design and I took it. I enrolled in October and became a graphic designer.
So, what is your creative process like?
My creative process is extremely visual, I tend to look at images and see more than one thing in them. I also can imagine things creatively in my head. I can look at an image and see human bodies mangled with machines and all kinds of other crazy things like that, to create a third image from my mind. Sometimes my end result will have a very deep meaning, and other times it's just for fun.
What are some obstacles you've had to overcome in the course of your creative career?
When I was in school I had people question why I didn't reflect my culture much more in my work. Also, since I have dreads, I’ve been told that maybe I should cut my hair to get hired. When I first got out of school my portfolio got me lots of interviews, even raved about over the phone, but once I came in for the interview it would be short and I’d never get a callback. A few jobs I felt I was suddenly laid off for no real reason.
Can you speak to the pressure of being a black creative?
A lot of people think that because you’re black you speak for the whole race like it's a monolith, like whatever you say or do is how all black people would react. Now everybody knows that each person is different so that’s one of the issues. Another is they believe that you are a cliché; That you’re every trope in every cliché that’s in black, mainstream, culture. People will talk to you in slang to try to relate to you. That’s one of the difficult things in the working world, meeting people's expectations when they have a stereotype in mind.
Any advice you would give to up-and-coming creatives?
Always create for yourself not just for clients. If you find a reason to make something do it! Follow your instincts if you see an image in your mind that is chiefly your style, do it, regardless of whether people want it or not. Don’t just work on demand, work to your own inner compass.
How are you sharpening your skills while in lockdown?
Lock down for me is like giving a crackhead crack. I am an introvert by nature so I like to be kind of alone and creating, so for me this has been great. It's also inspired tons of imagery; COVID related and especially stuff politically. There's been tons of fuel for me to draw from with Trump. Also, I’ve always been big into using science “geekery” to create things.
How has the last year impacted you personally and/or creatively?
In a strange way the last year might have been my most creative year. I’ve been able to do a lot of different things based on just being able to sit in one place. Prior to COVID there were a lot of obligations, a lot of running around, things that had to be done that don’t need to be done now. So I have a lot more time to actually sit with my thoughts and create. Before I’d wake up super early in the morning to start working on or coming up with my ideas. Now they can be accomplished within the day instead of being up at four in the morning. so it’s actually been really freeing. The extra time has allowed me to establish my own studio.
So what are you currently working on?
I’m trying to get myself off the ground as an artist, an independent artist who is also an Illustrator for hire, after my last layoff a couple years ago. Now I work for myself which has led to doing a lot of things that are very, very, interesting. It’s a great feeling to have people see my work and reach out to me because they want to work with me, and want what I will bring to the project. I’m currently illustrating a package design. I just finished illustrsting the first issue of a comic book and that series will be continuing soon. I’m gonna be working on a smaller comic for an anthology. I'm always working on something. It's the constant juggle of projects.
Can you tell us about your favorite project you ever worked on and your most difficult project?
My favorite project; that’s really difficult to say because I have different projects that I like for different reasons. I would say my favorite project is a personal project, the artwork I created for the Bawdy show, an art show. It actually was 100% me and 100% my thought process. The artwork pushed together the idea of tribalism and space. Two different, really beautiful things being pushed together. When you look at the pieces they actually feel like they're linked, like they needed each other, like they were meant to be together. That one was a project of love.
The most difficult project, not because of anything bad; I had the opportunity to work on an animated music video and illustrating all of the artwork for it. Making it was difficult because that’s just it it’s not my line of work really, earlier I stated how when I was in going to school the concept of drawing the same thing over and over again wasn’t something I was really into and here I was drawing the same thing over and over again and it had a tight timeline, but at the end of the day I was extremely happy with how it turned out.
What does celebration with intention mean to you?
To do what you do with joy. To create work that’s not coming from a place of anger, fear, frustration or or even anxiety. Instead, coming from a place of pure happiness, joy. I’m celebrating my craft, celebrating my skills, and celebrating the people that came before me.
Who or what is inspiring you right now, or has inspired you in the past?
I get inspired by a lot of different creative people. I am always inspired by Banksy. The weight and witticism of his work just really hits me hard, I love it. I’m a huge fan of Shepard Fairey because of his political focus and how clean his work is. There’s a painter named Nosego, a Philadelphia artist, his work is the kind of synthesis I love. He smashes a lot of different items together to make something new and they’re always colorful and beautiful. It can be nature and buildings and cars and all kinds of stuff smashed together to make something. It’s really, really beautiful and I am a big fan of his work. There’s another person I follow on Instagram, named Therst. His work is very emotional. It’s done in a simple street art style but it holds a lot of emotional weight.
What are you listening to right now and are you watching anything that’s activating your creative eye?
I’m always listening to music. I love Gaslamp Killer, I love Flying Lotus, I love Black Pumas. Then of course I’m still listening to things like D'angelo and Lauryn Hill, but my favorite band is Radiohead. I’m always being pulled back to their work. As for watching, I’m loving the Mandalorian and WandaVision. I’m loving a lot of different anime titles right now; Saiki K is one, Gintama is another one that I was watching over pandemic. they’re hilarious. Yeah I am a geek, I watch a lot of geeky stuff.
So how does your physical space influence your work? Tell us about your new studio?
I am one of the resident artists at a place called Cherry Street Pier. It’s an old pier on the Delaware River that’s been turned into art studio spaces here in Philadelphia, it’s beautiful. It reminds me alot of being on the ship when I was in the Navy. It’s just a really good environment. My studio space is like being in a bright white Styrofoam square. There’s tons of light and it’s easy to work in. I have a bunch of other artists as my neighbors. It's also my gallery space but I really haven’t had a lot of traffic or anything yet because of the pandemic but I’m so looking forward to the moment that I can bring people in to see my world.I
Where do you see yourself in 5/10/15/20 years?
Creating art that other people are inspired by. I want to be a constant, I want people to always see me as somebody that’s generating something that’s worth watching.
What is something that gives you hope for the future?
Kids! Before the pandemic I taught kids art at an afterschool program. Kids today are all bright, they’re all smart, they all understand the world better than we did. They pick up on everything quickly, they know where they’re headed and they know what they want. I really do believe that we have to look to them to be more decisive about our direction. They are all very woke, we are the ones still asleep.
In what ways can we, the larger industry and creative community support you and your work?
The best way to support me in my work is to follow and consume it. I’m not really a big fan of consumerism but if you have artists and creative‘s out there you're a fan of, support them by buying their work if you can. If you can’t afford their work , you can still support them by sharing their work. Share it to other people, you may not be able to consume it necessarily but you can at least give it to a bigger network so that more people can see it. You can double back and maybe be able to support their work in a monetary way later on. But just a share or a follow or just a word-of-mouth, this is a great way to promote an artist’s work.
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