Erykah Townsend’s Life Inside and Outside the Dirty Bubble

Artist Erykah Townsend in a self-portrait inspired by a Lizzie Himmel photo of Jean-Michel Basquiat that appeared on the cover of New York Times Magazine in 1985.

Erykah Townsend (E.T.) is the multimedia painter, sculptor, photographer, conceptual artist your mother warned you about. She’s shown work at the Reinberger Gallery and Newsense Gallery in Cleveland. A recent graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, she was the first Cleveland student to be awarded CIA’s annual full scholarship. Her works are delightful: powerful in the depth of their whimsy, belying pointed, sharp commentary and critique of The Machine. We sat down to talk about the scholarship, Black misery, and Mr. Rogers.

jimi: E. T.! Where are you from?

Erykah: I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, but we moved a lot around Cleveland. So I would say Garfield Heights.

jimi: When did you discover … What was the first time you saw some work of art that just made your heart flutter?

Erykah: In preschool. It was an assignment where we had to copy an illustration of a book and I did Dr. Seuss. And then that’s when I found out how I’m a go-getter because I remember we only had to do one illustration, but I did a whole bunch, I don’t know. I was obsessed with Dr. Seuss books when I was little. And that’s when I first started getting into art or liking illustrations.

jimi: How did your family react when you started first to express a passion for drawing?

Erykah: Well, I was kind of like a prodigy because I feel like I was in a generation where computers were more accessible for middle and lower class. When I was eight and seven, I was making animations on the computer. Like, the thing they teach the first class of animation, The Bouncing Ball—I learned how to do that when I was seven on Microsoft Paint using Microsoft Movie Maker. So, that’s when my mother took me to Cleveland School of the Arts auditions and I got in.

jimi: Not for nothing, you got a full ride to CIA.

Erykah: Yeah. In high school at the Cleveland School of the Arts, I did a “Twenty-Seven Club” remake where I got my peers and dressed them up as different people that died when they were 27, like Kurt Cobain and jimi Hendricks and stuff? So, I had a lot of good photography. And then I heard that the [Cleveland Institute of Art] was picking a Cleveland student to get the full ride. So, I just had to apply.

Jimi: Okay. What’d your dad say when you told him?

Erykah: He was happy too. And they were like … it was like second page on the newspaper. So, they bought the newspaper and everything. But I don’t … I just always felt like it was, I mean, I liked the support but I still feel like it was fake to me.

jimi: What year in college did you start investigating multimedia?

Erykah: Probably my freshman year. We have a design class, we have a charrette class, it’s multiple things going on and that’s when you can learn what you want to go into. I came in there wanting to do photography, but then I met Petra Soesemann and Christian Wulffen.

Soesemann teaches design and Wulffen teaches drawing. And they were, like, the teachers that made me, because even in the art world, there are traditions, and there were the teachers that was like, “you can do-whatever you want”type of teachers. I wasn’t that great at drawing figures. But when I got into Wulffen’s class, he celebrated my drawings over others because they [other students] were so into making this perfect still-life. That’s when I started believing in myself and things. And then that’s when I wanted to go into painting instead of photography.

jimi: What is your approach to painting versus photography?

Erykah: Well, my paintings, I don’t even consider them… I mean they’re still paintings, but since we were in a contemporary era, my work is more like, it has sculptural elements too. But when it comes to photography, I’m more like thinking of creating a world kind of inspired by stuff like Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And I don’t know, I just think photography is completely different because it’s reality, but also not. With the power of Photoshop, you can bring it into the world of visual arts. But once you photograph it, it’s complete, that probably sounds crazy.

jimi: And are you exploring personal themes through these pop culture avatars?

Erykah: Yeah, I choose it because it can be something that can be conceptual where if somebody else approaches, they can have a completely different idea because of how accessible pop culture is and different relationships people have with it. And then I also use it as an allegory, even though it can be subliminal from my own story.

So like with Mr. Rogers, yeah—he was just somebody … it was like, a morning routine of this show coming on and it was so relaxing, even though it was kind of boring. It was still, I don’t know, it just still made you feel good. So I also wanted, since it’s a point-of-living piece, I just wanted it to represent how he’s still here, like, far away. It’s the representation of him being here, but when you get closer to the piece, he’s disappearing.

Erykah Townsend, Token, 5 X 5 feet, 2018.

Jimi: I’ve had a lot of friends go to CIA and they find themselves, they find the Black aesthetic kind of gets washed away or they find themselves struggling to come to some kind of place with the Black aesthetic, within this “White Institution,” because it’s fairly multicultural. But did you have those kinds of struggles? Oh, you’re laughing.

Erykah: Yeah, I was a rebel.

Jimi: What do you mean?

Erykah: I was basically considered like the crazy Black girl there in the painting department. And I was doing things where, I was a person where if I seen something, I would get mad and say it instead of like talking to my peers afterwards.

Jimi: Give me an example.

Erykah: One time my teacher, we had this, like a crit. I was a junior, but I was in a senior class. We was critiquing with the sophomores and they had a choice if they didn’t want to come into our crit or not. And they were all sitting at the table. And when it was my turn to critique, my teacher only went to the Black student and asked him to come. And I knew he only went to him because he was Black and not because of him just being someone that he would think I would want at my crit. And then I called it out and he was like, Oh, you don’t think I picked him because he was Black, blah, blah, blah.

jimi: So was he pandering or was that accommodation? I mean, do you feel pandered to or do you feel like he was just trying to accommodate you? Because, I mean, a lot of times White people don’t know what to do with the Black aesthetic. So maybe he was trying to give you somebody that he thought, devil’s advocate by the way, that he thought…

Erykah: I have this figured, I understand it, but also, I find it weird that they think we’re like, all Black students are the same though. Because why are you just bringing him? Because he’s Black. He can have different ideas than me. He can be, our world can be completely different.

jimi: Mm-hmm.

Erykah: So that’s what frustrated me.

jimi: What kinds of things did you explore at CIA, and how was that received?

Erykah: So when I first started out, I was making cool caricatures of myself. And it’s like my caricatures were just fun illustrations for myself. And yeah, I exaggerated the features because that’s what caricatures do. And then when I was making them, [teachers] were relating them to Black Sambo. And I find that crazy, because I’m like, why?

Because when you’re in art school and you’re listening to your professor, you’re like, Oh, okay, Black Sambo, I get it. So that’s when I started making real Black Sambo illustrations and things. And that’s when I went down the route of making work that I didn’t really want to make. I was making really dark humor, oppressed work.

Erykah Townsend, A.R.F.I.D., 5 X 5 Feet, 2018.

jimi: So why did you feel compelled to do that?

Erykah: I made a piece called, It’s the Dirty Bubble—it was just a villain from the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon, but subliminally it represents… I call it the “Black Artist Bubble” where they try to put all the Black students at my college into a bubble and make us make the same type of work. They treated us all the same. Literally, in a crit, they would only recommend us Black artists, not saying that’s bad, but it’s like, “why?”

jimi: They would only give you as reference points, other Black people, as opposed to try to encourage you to explore?

Erykah: You can paint something that looked like a Vincent Van Gogh painting.

jimi: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erykah: And then it would still be like, “Oh, look at this black artist.” (laughs)

jimi: (art teacher voice) “Yeah, you know what you should see? You should look at Basquiat.” (laughs)

Erykah: I made a painting of Pennywise the clown. Do you know the clown?

jimi: Pennywise.

Erykah: Yeah, the newer version?

jimi: (perturbed) I’m not 102 years old.

Erykah: Some people don’t know the newer version…

jimi: I got cable, man! (laughs)

Erykah: I had a crit and then the teacher was literally forcing me to talk about the Black experience. So what is the comparison of this to the Black experience? I’m like, this is just a clown—what are you talking about? They only want you to talk about negative things within the Black community. And that’s what also pissed me off.

jimi: I have cut off my relationships with like a lot of media entities, because they only want you to come on and talk about Black misery. And White people only—it seems to me sometimes, even in our arts, in our lives … it’s like, only our absolute misery registers with White people.

Erykah: Yeah, I made a painting about that also. It’s called Token and it’s my caricature getting forced by Chuckie Cheese, him forcing a token into my mouth.

jimi: What’s next for you now that you graduated?

Erykah: I just want to relax a little bit now and just be a studio artist. And then most art grad school wants you to take like a year or two off because they feel like when you straight out of undergrad, you don’t know your own style yet. And that’s why it sucks when some people go straight to grad school because like they didn’t have this break to actually think. So, yeah, I’m just taking a little break.