Durham-Native, aka ‘Bull City’, Anthony Patterson, a second-generation artist, has been drawn to the arts from young. As a young boy with bright, white eyes, he watched his father create art which has inspired him to pursue a career as an artist. His love for his neighborhood, hip-hop and Black people have all influenced his lifestyle and artwork which led to a powerful shift in his career in 2016 nearing the end of his Undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro where he graduated with a B.F.A in Painting the following year.
Patterson began his artistry through painting, drawing and graffiti. Throughout his teenage years up to his early college years, he drew images of affluent Black people, painted on sneakers and created images of graffiti on street walls. Supported by his neighborhood friends and family members, Patterson continued to push and thrive as a ‘Bull City’ native. His work has appeared in multiple exhibitions, and he has been the artist – in – residence at the Power Plant Gallery – Duke University where he has engaged communities through his dynamic creations that force viewers to sit back and think about the current climate of America.
Let’s Keep Building sat down with Anthony Patterson to get the different colors of his palette as a creative/entrepreneur.
What was it like growing up in Durham, NC, and more specifically, your neighborhood?
Growing up in Durham is like what J.Cole describes in his song ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ where in one frame of your mind, you are thinking about how historic, how important it is to live in this community because you are aware of the essence of the land, but at the same time the negative exists.
My neighborhood is a vibrant community, full of richness and traditions, a lot of family ties, a mixture of warm colors and a lil’ neutral colors giving it a certain duality to it. The fire and sparks of the neighborhood is mixed right in with the calmness and soothing tones of the neighborhood.
You get this rich vibe because there’s a lot of old people who can kick you some wisdom and knowledge, but at the same time, some of these older people are also causing havoc within the neighborhood, so that adds this eerie green color to it. Something like a muted green, or a dollar green, because this is what drives people to do these harsh things. There will be people out hustling just trying to make a quick dollar while there are some people who are trying to go to college to get out this environment to make money in more legitimate ways, so it is kind of flashing back and forth between this green and vibrant earth tones, and you just trying to find your way. It is like right and wrong gets blurred in the middle, but at the end of the day, it is still love.
Why do you create?
I create because I wouldn’t be myself any other way. Creativity and self-expression go together. I’ve never been the type of person who is content with just one side of the coin. If there is a path to follow, I like to switch things up along the way. My father is an artist. His passion for art is displayed through my siblings. One of my sisters is an interior designer. Another is blessed with cooking and drawing skills. I paint.
What inspires your work and how do you approach your topics?
My observations of the world inform my work the most. When something grabs my attention, I ask myself ‘Why did this happen?’, ‘When?’ and ‘How?’. Those questions fuel me to research that topic resulting in an investigative approach to my artwork in which I find something to connect the broader topic to. For instance, for my “The Elephant in the Room’ series, part of the process was not just to create something on police brutality, but what can I connect it to that would make sense. I looked up the dictionary definition of a lynching then tied it together. Basically, I like to find things that might not go together, and then find a common point and then kind of research them to help make it make sense then I begin to create based off my research. Some of the topics I address in my work are history, social justice, identity, and race.
Why do you choose to explore these specific topics?
I got tired of painting pretty pictures. A lot of the time, people look at your work in a gallery setting, or in a sketchbook, and they be like ‘oh my god, that’s nice’ and keep flipping through it without allowing the work to fully sit with them. I was also affected by the things that was going on in the world around me, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and create work that is aesthetically pleasing, but also meaningful. Some people like to use art as an escape method, but I like to use art just to reflect on what I am feeling at the time.
What event(s) occurred in your life that you would say sparked your shift in the work you create?
The summer of 2016 when Philandro Castillo and Alston Sterling were killed within weeks of each other. From that, I became very sick of it and decided to march and protest around downtown Durham. What I gained was I liked being an active part of protesting, but I wanted to translate it through my work, and from there I went on a mission to make white people uncomfortable, so I started placing little hints through my work until I hit something that really stuck. The second event was when Keith Lamont Scott was killed in Charlotte, NC. That hit a little too close to home for me, so I wanted to make a point.
What role do you believe you play in society as a creative?
My role in society is to pose questions that push the needle forward. I’m not an expert on the issues I address, but I am affected by them. Art is a great medium to tackle tough issues because we appreciate the aesthetics first, concepts after. Many of my artistic decisions are also symbols of something greater. I enjoy watching viewers decode my messages and then discuss the real questions. I will continue to produce work that challenges many perspectives.
What major project(s) are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working on a body of work called PIGEONHOLED. This work aims to visually convey stories and experiences of black men with felonies. The process involves audio and video interviews, as well as portrait painting. Pigeonholed means to tightly label something like putting a strong sticker on something and you can never remove that sticker.
Pigeonholed builds off some work that I did for a project called ‘Any Black Man’, a series of portraits surrounding how America criminalizes Black men. That specific series was inspired by a friend who was wrongfully convicted of a crime and then got out and got his Master’s in Art, and his thesis was centered around the criminal justice system. In ‘Any Black Man’, I was addressing the problem, innocence and identity crisis, so I was wondering ‘how can I go on the other side of things?’ Let’s say you are convicted of a crime, and/or you come home from prison, how does that feel?
Through my conversations with cousins and friends who have been in prison, I began to realize, man, it is already hard enough being Black, but when you add a felony to it, and now you’re out trying to get your life together, that felony is like a scarlet letter.
J.Cole’s song ‘Caged Bird’ where he was rapping from the perspective of someone who was locked up in prison inspired this project. The chorus really hit me when he says, ‘And can you find peace when you released/Still filled up wit’ rage/Back on the streets just to peep that you still in the cage?’ I was like oh, that’s some real poetry right there. Also, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, and Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th play roles in helping me create for this project. I’ve learned a lot.
What has this project done for you as an artist?
It has opened a little bit more of a director’s point of view. Like how I can go in and tell some of these stories of everyday people and not just address the problem, but really address how people feel about their situation.
Who is your target audience?
I target people who appreciate a great conversation. People who can peel back many layers within my work while also appreciating the surface.
What are your big wins, and how do you celebrate those big wins?
Whenever I finish a project and present it to the public, that’s a big win for me. That could be an opening reception for an exhibition, or an artist talk where I am able to speak in depth about my work with the public. I celebrate those wins by spreading love and having fun. That normally involves loud music, lots of champagne and food.
What word of advice would you like to give other creatives/entrepreneurs?
It is very important to have a strong support system because there is no set structure unlike in the corporate world where you can just enter an entry level salary and keep climbing the corporate ladder. You must have people in your corner that are not quick to judge, but people who are able to help you get to where you need to go whether it be buying product, or even just spreading the word for you. Words of encouragement to keep you going and keep you focus because it can be a mess. With a lot of my artist friends I always ask, ‘how are you doing?’ because at the end of the day we are still people and if you get into a space of just creating and not taking care of yourself, you won’t be able to appreciate the little blessings that you do have. To have people that can reel you back to reality when you go out too far, is very important.