Art Talk with Debra Cartwright

By Rebecca Gross
Watercolor of beautiful black woman

Watercolor by Debra Cartwright. Image courtesy of the artist

At one point or another, most little girls dream of becoming a princess when she grows up. But what if the princesses in books and movies don’t have hair like you do? What if the models you admire as a self-conscious adolescent don’t have the faces or bodies you see when you look in the mirror?

These were the questions Debra Cartwright was struggling with while working as a graphic designer for a fashion and celebrity magazine. Nearly all of the beautiful women she saw in fashion illustrations and photos were white, a tacit definition of beauty that left little room for women of color such as herself. So Cartwright began a daily practice of sketching and painting her own version of beautiful—lithe, ethereal, elegant women who happen to have Afros. Her work has touched a nerve, and as her following has grown, so too has her artistic exploration of social issues, from police brutality to reproductive rights. We recently talked with Cartwright about black art history, her hair, and how she’s changing the conversation about what it means to be a black woman.

NEA: You’ve been drawing since you were a little girl. When did you transition into using your art to address larger social issues?

DEBRA CARTWRIGHT: It was only about a year-and-a-half ago. I was transitioning my hair to be natural. I always took inspiration from somewhere. When I was young, it was Disney characters. When I was in college, I was really into Kandinsky. [Now], I'm in graphic design as my day job and it overlapped a lot with illustration. I started looking at fashion illustration and the big fashion illustrators. Their stuff is so beautiful, but they’re they're never depicting women of color. That's when I was like, let me make that connection for myself to start inspiring myself to wear my hair in its natural state. I'll have these beautiful illustrations to inspire me every day. So it was really just for me, and I started sharing it with my friends to hopefully inspire them. It really upset me that I was conditioned to want my hair always straight, and I put that in my work. Anything that affects me socially now, I put into my work. 

Watercolor of woman lying on bed

Watercolor by Debra Cartwright. Image courtesy of the artist

NEA: I love that relationship between your hair and your work. How have they continued to grow together? [Ed note: Pun intended.]

CARTWRIGHT: I have definitely become more comfortable with myself and this journey. Not only with my hair, but with my history. The more upset I got about things, the more upset I got about my conditioning, the more I looked into art that I wanted to portray, and art that inspired me, as well as very personal social issues—[all this] has helped me grow more comfortable with myself, more comfortable with my history, and in turn, more comfortable with my art. I feel like I have a voice now, and people are paying attention to it. I've always been a rant-er. My friends will tell you I love to argue. But no, I love having discussions to get to a higher point. To have my art kind of start these discussions is awesome.

NEA: How do you think your work is changing the discussion about what it means to be a black woman?

CARTWRIGHT: I feel like we've been depicted in the media for a couple hundred years now as either being hard, super strong—this magical power of strength—that we don't hurt, we can take anything thrown at us. Then there's another side of sexualization. Everything has led to the propaganda of black women not being seen as the epitome of femininity and beauty and class. The fashion illustrations were feminine, they were beautiful, they were classy—and they hardly depicted women of color. I wanted to merge women of color into those spaces, and talk about how we’re not seen as feminine and vulnerable. I wanted us to feel beautiful in my illustrations.  

NEA: It seems like your own journey as an artist has really mirrored your own journey as a woman.

CARTWRIGHT: For sure. We've been so conditioned, because we see natural hair as a radical movement; it's 'militant' when you wear your afro. And no, it’s not. It's an expression of our beauty. I think femininity is awesome. I'm so happy to be a woman and I like to celebrate that. I can be super girly and I like that. So I wanted to have my natural hair and still feel that way.

Watercolor portrait of black woman

Watercolor by Debra Cartwright. Image courtesy of the artist

NEA: I know as your day job, you work at a major celebrity website. How does that world influence your work as an artist?

CARTWRIGHT: Every day I'm creating graphics that are talking about: ‘What's the new hair color?’ ‘What’s the new hair cut?’ ‘What’s the greatest makeup?’ But, I always tell this one story of how when I first started here. They wanted me to do a silhouette of a woman and then slap ‘Most Beautiful’ on top of it, and I did a silhouette of Lupita [Nyong’o]. They said, “Just do someone with long, flowing hair." The subliminal messages in that were very bothersome to me. Not only are young girls going to see this, but men as well. The images that we take in every single day mold our perception of what's beautiful and our perception of ourselves. That's why last year, I was very dedicated to creating something every day. I’ve had women tell me, “I've shown my little girls your pictures every day so they can see that there are little black princesses running around." That means a lot to me.

NEA: Speaking of the influence that these images in mass culture—but also in museums, in textbooks—could have on a little black girl, what advice would you give a young aspiring artist of color?

CARTWRIGHT: I studied art history pretty heavily in college, and I'm just now getting into learning about Jacob Lawrence, learning about [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. My favorite is Wangechi Mutu. I think you just need to be exposed to it, and it’s so hard. Our parents were taught the same traditional art history.

You have seek out those spaces and the easiest way to do that is through social media. Tumblr has this Black Contemporary Art Tumblr. Amazing. I learn something new from that every day. I don't think [learning] ever ends, especially since we have to dig so deep to find inspiration for art. I think I’m just starting my education in black art, because it wasn't introduced to me. But it's out there.

Watercolor of two women back-to-back

Watercolor by Debra Cartwright. Image courtesy of the artist

NEA: I know you’re very active on social media. Can you talk a little more about your relationship between your art and social media?

CARTWRIGHT: I feel like social media has done everything for me in terms of me being able to enter new spaces, and meet new people that have helped me advance my career. I'm able to have this conversation with people around the world, and see that it's not just me that felt certain ways, see that it's not just me who was uncomfortable with my hair in its natural state, who is upset they're not being represented in the media, who takes in all of these images every day [that mess] with my self-confidence. To see other women going through the same thing, and we can all get together and talk about it, has been so crucial to my art and my development.

When the Eric Garner verdict came out, I was sitting in my apartment in Harlem, there was a protest going on in the street, and I just started tearing up. I could not stop crying. I painted this illustration where the mother's holding her son and it says “Don't shoot.” It was pure emotion when I made that. I put it up, and I got so much feedback from people. To have that immediate feedback for your work—I just feel so fortunate to have that. It makes it a very collaborative experience rather than just me in my own thoughts. I can talk it out with a bunch of very educated, beautiful women that I've met over the Internet.

NEA: Fill in the blank: Art matters because _________.

CARTWRIGHT: Art is important because it is proof of our humanity.