America’s art scene famously thrives on its east and west coasts. But what about the incredible artists living and working in the 4000km in-between? Here, director and curator Curtis Taylor, Jr. shares with us a group of Black creatives living and working in the Midwest, and speaks to them about why and how their home impacts their artistic output.
Being raised in St. Louis and across the Midwest, I know first hand that Black creatives by design have been an unexpected story, but have made a powerful impact on this part of the United States. For long enough, the middle of the country has been seen by many as this vast oasis to fly over, yet never explore. But we Midwesterners are a rich people, layered with nuances and bursting at the seams with fresh perspectives and ideas to bring to the world.
When I was growing up, creativity was always something spoken about as a luxury rather than a profession. Talking about wanting to be a creative might as well have been the equivalent of saying you wanted to attend Hogwarts, it simply didn’t exist. Although my parents were extremely supportive of my imaginative nature, there was certainly still this anxiety around anything that didn’t seem practical or have a direct pipeline to six figures and a 401K.
Navigating life through the Midwest meant you were frequently met with blue-collar jobs ready for you to get your hands dirty. If you’ve never been to the Midwest, here’s the best analogy I can give you, the Midwest is like owning a Toyota. It’s one of the most dependable cars you will ever have in your life, but it never desires to be anything more than that. It simply just works.
I remember in high school, picking up a camera for the first time, and feeling at home. At that moment, I knew there was no turning back, and I wanted to make this feeling last forever. Fast forward 10 years and I’m in Los Angeles as a director working with legacy brands and bidding with the likes of my fellow contemporaries for the next “big thing.” Sometimes I have to remind myself of just how incredible the journey has been up until this point and how much it means for the kids back in St. Louis. Having lived both now, I understand the beauty in the steady and slow heartbeat of the Midwest. It may not be the shiny thing but it has heart.
Artists hailing from the Midwest don’t often get as much attention as those creating work in, say, New York or LA. But that doesn’t mean our creative output is any less valid or dynamic. With this in mind, it is my honor to introduce you to seven artists whom I’m sure you’ll quickly come to love. This is a new conversation centered on illuminating the works of those voices that have yet to take center stage. Each of these contemporaries inspires my practice as an image-maker by way of their own truth. They remind me that our work is fine art every day, whether the world turns inward or not. Therefore, no matter how far I go, I’ll always send for them.
Danielle and Kevin McCoy are a St. Louis multidisciplinary design duo known as WORK/PLAY. “We are a conceptual design/art studio that examines racial inequality and erasure through a series of publications, installations, mixed media works, and billboards,” they say. “We have developed our own personal archive of declassified files, imagery, research notes, and news clippings to closely examine and challenge master narratives.” Their approach to design and story at the intersection of space feels otherworldly, yet swells with an unapologetically Black center. Their belief that each artwork, no matter the medium, should be a 1/1 means each person who buys something they have made then owns a unique piece of art.
One of the most compelling aspects of WORK/PLAY’s creative process is how language is always deeply embedded in each visual narrative they create. From designing a billboard, to printing a zine, to creating vinyl for an outdoor installation, or printing on curtains, there isn’t a surface that this dynamic duo wouldn’t want to become familiar with. “Being from what many have labeled a ‘fly-over’ city has taught us to hustle. It has taught many of us to fully dedicate ourselves to our craft and to simply let the work speak for itself,” they say. “ we may not have as many lanes or resources as they do on the coasts, but we are not fearful of forging new paths to create other viable opportunities. That particular school of thought is inspiring and rewarding in itself.”
“I always say I’m proud to be from the Midwest, I can’t quite put my finger on the direct effects on practice, but the many perspectives you get, as well the work ethic, definitely play a part,” says Mike Carson, a Chicagoland native and visual artist and director. “The blue collar/no handouts mentality has definitely influenced my approach thus far in my career. People take pride in the process and storytelling just as much as the end product.” Early on in his career, Mike was simply a neophyte figuring it out with a camera in hand and the GOOD Music record label as his playground. Since those days, Mike has gone on to become a name all his own. His ability to bend light and design stages that erect fantastical worlds is a remarkable feat.
As well as being something of a luminary in the world of lighting and stage design, Mike is also a director. Whether it’s designing a stage for Big Sean at Coachella or reimagining basketball camps for the Jordan brand, Mike’s got this amazing ability to cultivate spaces for his viewers to get completely lost in. “The concept of being able to learn constantly and progress is exciting,” he says, “but I would say the concept of audience interaction is the most exciting. Whether it’s a live show or a piece of merchandise, knowing that what you are creating can positively affect someone keeps me going.”
The work is undoubtedly mesmerizing and pulses with vibrancy akin to the Northern lights. Mike is clearly an artist you can’t ask what’s next because he truly doesn’t know. He gives me hope that if the machine was built by design, then by design we can undo it. Mike innately creates spaces that allow Blackness to feel invincible.
I came across Minnesota-based artist Shaina McCoy on Instagram through a friend, and I instantly connected to her oil paintings. “Many of were created based on photographs my maternal grandpa took over the years,” she says. “I find that sharing the many narratives that my family holds bridges me to other humans. They too, share commonalities and can envision themselves within these pieces.”
Peering into the soft interior of a Shaina McCoy painting feels like sitting with your elders while being gifted stories of their yesteryears. When I look at her work, I can't help but wonder if these faceless sitters are gazing at us or if we gaze at them. I personally believe both are true. The work is very much alive in this sense: becoming a living, breathing organism that talks, ages, and sometimes even cracks under pressure.
“I feel that being born in Minneapolis, Minnesota really pushes me to set a bar. There are so many talented hidden gems here and we don't have a large fine art scene like New York or LA,” she says. “Living here and not moving, rather taking time to travel, has really pushed my perspective on what success means in this specific location. It is special to me. It has proved to me that I do not need to move to either coast to be seen, heard, or felt. I can make a mark on my own in this city. The community in Minnesota is one that I have not experienced anywhere else.” Her oil work is a pure examination of the interior of self as well as the sitters that we see living within each canvas. Beneath these florals, printed couches, and cashmere sweaters are the softest undertone to normalize Black life - for the world to see Black people actually living and resting.
Justin Mikhail Solomon is a St. Louis based image-maker whose pantheon of characters demands his viewer to engage in active thought. His work invites the viewer to investigate everything, including themselves. Most recently, amongst a class of next-gen photographers from across the nation, Justin was tapped to be in Antwaun Sargent’s curated exhibition, Just Pictures.
I feel like Justin has always functioned well on the perimeter, quietly observing and studying people who later show up in his work. “I want us to observe ourselves differently,” he says. “When someone sees images, I want them to think about and to question what makes this an image...I want to expand people’s library of images of Black men.”
The discourse his work houses, concerning the Black male body and form, has ignited contemporaries far and wide. We often talk about the need to eradicate systems, yet the curatorial world, like a flood, has a way of sweeping you up in its current, continually working to fight against it. It isn’t that we haven’t always made this work; it’s that a lot of people have only just started watching. Justin Solomon’s voice and work are so much more than just images.
“I think the Midwest has helped me maintain a more steady paced journey as an artist,” Justin says. “I think places like New York and LA demand a certain momentum from you that I don’t desire to match. Making art in my little apartment in the middle of the country provides me with the space that I like to have when I’m engaging with a thought.”
The first time I heard Rikki speak was when I was in college and I was totally enamored with her words. She is currently reimagining how the Black body has been contextualized throughout history from a fashion lens in her Ph.D. program at Northwestern University. "I'm interested in how fashion becomes the intersection or the lens by which we read that thing and how it becomes something new,” she explains. “How does fashion actually become that tool in which we use to discover the things that have been there in the archives?"
As one of the co-founders of Black Fashion Archives, a repository of Black images and narratives within fashion, Rikki is committed to ensuring important Black figures in fashion aren't erased in history. After finishing her Master's at Parsons, Rikki then went to invest in tomorrow's minds as a faculty member at Washington University teaching on the intersections of fashion and race.
“Being from St. Louis specifically, I've found myself at different moments in my life in this internal battle of being from a place considered a fly-over city – that place that people who are not from the city have a difficult time identifying on a map, or a difficult time defining culturally or socially,” Rikki explains. “So, I think what's inspired me most is how that battle has impacted the way that I approach my work.”
For Rikki, “community” has always been an action word, one that she holds close to her person. Her exploration surrounding the death of Black bodies and our reaction through mourning by way of textile is a pure act of love. I think of the Black intellectuals that came before us and can't help but wonder just how proud they are of her, how her mere presence gives them peace. May we trust her with our future. May we impart her with our stories.
Even though Collin is my younger cousin, he’s still one of my biggest inspirations. He is a St. Louis-based image-maker whose benevolent spirit is ever-present in his practice. With “home” as a constant through-line in his work, he seeks to extend a sense of belonging to every subject who sits before his lens.
His most recent work In Memory expands his study of the concept of home as a bridge of the physical and the metaphysical. Having lost his father when he was young, Collin has used photography as something to help him in the healing process. “There was a new silence at home that I wasn’t used to,” Collin recalls. “What do you do with that kind of space? Home feels different without that presence there. But being able to make a photograph allowed me to communicate things I couldn’t communicate verbally.”
Inheriting his father’s love for technology, Collin is guided by his desire to build a more accessible and equitable future within the digital space for healing. His work reminds me that art and life don’t function in separate parallels but are synonymous. He taught me that our practice is just as important as our performance. “My upbringing in the Midwest has inspired me to bring “small town” stories to global conversations through what I’m available to capture,” he says.
"Whether it's looking at something and knowing I tore that piece of paper or hand-writing someone's name in a piece,” says Noel Spiva, a St. Louis-based multi-dimensional mixed media artist whose work celebrates her love for layering. “I like to keep that human factor about my art.”
For her, collage-making isn't just a medium but a visual language that represents the community. "It allows the viewer to look deeper into the piece than what they would usually do. It's honestly how I fell in love with mixed media." Spiva’s layering approach communicates within her work this deeper context around the dimensions we hold as people. It’s clear her work is a reflection of her combined nuances and experiences encapsulated in a digital file.
When I think about her work, I see it nested at the intersection of Blackness and fiction. It feels approachable, yet celestial. Outside of her traditional graphic design work or collaging, Noel is also a budding DJ. She is committed to elevating Black women designers' voices and being an example of what is possible. “The Midwest inspired me to find my artist voice within a city that's deserving of more recognition and resources for creatives of all ages,” Noel says. “It allowed me to focus also on growing from the roots up, then branching out.”