Joel Shackleford is a visual artist from Buffalo NY. In this series visual artist Gracen Hansen sits down (over zoom) to interview Joel about making art during Covid-19 and the role of the artist today:
Gracen: Let’s just jump right in. So first off, where did your artistic career begin?
Joel: I think it started when I was a kid. I was always kind of just doodling, and drawing cartoons. And when I was in third grade I had a teacher, an art teacher, who chose my work to put on display at an art gallery called “The Albright-Knox” in Buffalo. They were doing this exhibition of students from the Buffalo public schools and they had the art teachers choose students to display their work. So that was kind of like the first introduction into the world of art, I guess.
I just continued for a little bit in just what I was doing. But as time progressed, I kind of lost the passion for it. A few years later, a teacher of mine, met my dad at the parent-teacher conference and she said that I should be ashamed to be acting the way I was. I was kind of like a class clown. Never disruptive, but I would make witty comments and that really stood out and left a bad taste in my mouth for education and teachers. It wasn’t until I was 19 when I woke up and I was like, “Oh man, I’ve just wasted a lot of time trying to prove somebody that’s wrong in the wrong way.” So I started to doodle again and some of my friends were taking notice and were like, “Oh, you should really continue this.” And, I was like, “Aw, there’s nothing here for … there’s no way I can make a living at doing art.” And, now I stuck with it and am making a living with my art. I guess it’s been a long time, but it’s been a long journey trying to figure out the right steps and all that.
Gracen: Awesome journey! Could you tell me more about your inspirations for the Blah shirts?
Joel: Yeah. That’s also been a long time project that is only recently coming to light. I first came up with this idea called Bang, B-A-N-G, and it was an acronym for Black African Negro Gambling because I was gambling on that my clothing had a place in the world. And I thought it was kind of not the right time for that. It was like 6 years ago. I was like, “Is this a little too aggressive?” Bang, will people start thinking that it’s like some violent thing? And so I kinda just put it, again, on the back burner. And, at the beginning of this year, my goal was to, when I wasn’t on the road touring, to plant myself in the local art scene where I grew up and I lived. And so, when COVID finally shut everything down, I was without a job and I was like, “Well, I need to make an income this year now that I’m not going to have a job.” And, so I sat down and I just started writing the word blah, because that’s kind of how I was feeling. And, I think everyone was feeling that and still is feeling just kind of like blah. But I really like stories and layers to things so I was like, “Well, cool. Like yeah, people can maybe relate to it if they’re feeling this but there has to be more to it.” So, I was like, “Okay well, blah, blah, blah. Like that’s when you’re just chatting and just talking and it’s just nonsense sometimes.” And I was like, “Okay, well I like acronyms.” And, I was like, “Okay, let me break down the B-L-A-H. Let me find something there.”
I have this record label that’s for Indie artists, It’s called TRASH Records. And, it stands for The Reason Anyone’s Still Here. So Blah then became Black Latino African Hispanic, which is a label that other people put upon me because I am a black person. I am from a Latin country. I am from African descent and I am Hispanic. So it kind of just came all together, in the name, and it’s slowly been having good recognition from people and people seem to like it and are supporting it which is something that I … I mean I expected it but also, the pessimist in me was like, “Aw, there’s no way that anybody’s going to buy this t-shirt at this price.” But, I don’t know if it’s the guilt that people are feeling or the desire to support the arts which has kind of not been the case for a while. People kind of have gotten selfish in the throw away culture and kind of just support the people they like, support the people that someone else tells them that they need to, the small local, the small businesses. Except for the last five years, I’ve kind of been forgotten because of huge companies like Whole Foods and Target and all that stuff.
Gracen: Of course. I really like the shirts. I was looking at them just this morning. And, then what artists inspire you most right now?
Joel: Right now? Good question. I would say a lot of them actually. I probably can’t even name them all. Artists that I’m inspired by… I love music and I have been seeking out women who don’t necessarily have a big voice and trying to amplify them because I know it feels to be kind of silenced and forgotten. And so I’ve really been trying to support female artists. And so, some names, there some girls, CJ Harvey that she’s an amazing photographer, Sarah Eiseman, amazing photographer. In the music front, I am really in love with the music that Phoebe Bridgers brings to life.
A friend of mine, she has this band called “Gothic Tropic.” I think that she’s just like a brilliant mind and is out here trying to change the world. I guess some men that I’m inspired by … there this guy who goes under the moniker don’t watch TV. He’s like a street artist from my hometown that kind of started painting again around the same time I did, like six or seven-years ago. I’ve watched his career grow and I’m so proud of where he’s going. This artist named Gianni Lee, out of Philadelphia. He’s a graffiti type artist who’s one of my inspirations for having faith … putting out my art. And, then obviously like the old cats like Basquiat plays a huge factor in some of my style. Wassily Kandinsky, from the early 1900’s. Yeah, I don’t know, I think I’m inspired by a lot of things. And, yeah, I draw a lot of the things that I try to put into my stuff from other people. Just tweaking it and making it mine. But if you do look at the stuff that I make you could probably find the way that I’m coming from. Like the police car, the reason I started drawing that was because of Keith Haring’s simplicity of just stick figures. And, I was like, “I want a simple message that holds like a powerful thought behind it.” And, yeah, so I guess that might answer the question.
Gracen: Yeah, absolutely. Where’s your hometown?
Joel: So I live in Buffalo, New York. I was born in the Dominican Republic, but I have an older sister and when she was getting ready to start school, she was like 4, so my family was like, “We should move to the States,” so that we could get educated in the States. And, my dad went to college in Buffalo and he kind of made a home and friends here so he decided to raise us here. And yeah, it’s continued to be home for the last 20, about 30 years. And, I have the opportunity to travel the world with my job and I get to see everything, but something about this place just keeps me here. I don’t really know what it is, but it might be the affordability of rent, but it just has this … I don’t know. I think that the world doesn’t understand the secret that is in Buffalo. I think that there’s a lot of really creative and powerful people that grew up here and kind of get stuck here and kind of forget that they have a lot to offer the world. And so, I think that’s what really keeps me here is the desire to inspire other people and push other people that I think can change the world to actually change the world. I think in a lot of other huge cities you can kind of get lost in it. At least here it’s small enough. There’s less than a million people. Almost everyone knows someone who knows somebody else. So the real connectivity and the possibility to make real change is so powerful here. So I think that’s really why I have so much to stick around.
Gracen: Cool, Your Instagram handle is “Don’t look outside.” Is there any specific meaning behind it.
Joel: Yeah, I am a bit crazy and I change my name often and it used to be Joelsfakeaccount, it used to be Whatever You Like. Just, I don’t know, I always try to keep myself away from what social media … I mean I’m obviously involved, but I kind of don’t want it just to be, “Oh, it’s Joel’s Instagram page.” I kind of want it to be open and kind of not like it’s a mask but it has a little more freedom I think to it if it doesn’t have my name attached to it. And so, at the beginning of the pandemic, I changed it from Joel’s Bank Account to Don’t Look Outside because yeah, the world outside was kind of scary. And it still is scary. And, it has always been scary. But, I think sometimes when you’re told not to do something, you end up doing it. So that’s really the point of it is to trick people into actually looking outside and seeing what’s actually happening in the world and kind of stop just looking in the mirror. I don’t know if that is happening or if anyone thinks of it that way. But, that’s my free agent of control over it or artistic vision, if you will.
Gracen: Yeah, I mean, you’re right. What’s been an unexpected challenge of being an artist?
Joel: I guess when I decided to make art my actual full-time job last year, and the touring thing to just be what can financially keep me alive, I didn’t expect it to actually work, is probably the unexpectedness. As I said, I know that there are other people that are a lot more talented than me, but they’re not me and they don’t have my heart or the vision that I have that my art can hopefully have. I hope that everything that I make, leaves people in silence for a little bit, and then their thoughts can then evoke a conversation. Whether it’s with themselves, or someone else. And, I want people to just think more.
So yeah, I don’t know, I get a lot of my pieces that says, I write person, prison and I underline son. Because a person’s son is in prison and I want to, I don’t know, I just want people to think and just humanize things and kind of, I don’t know, let you escape for a little bit in my world and think about, “Oh, why did he choose these colors? Why did he choose this image? Why did he choose this word? What was he trying to say here?” I’d never want any of my stuff to look finished because I don’t think we’re ever finished until it’s over. And, so a lot of my stuff is kind of like, “Wait is it done? Um, was he finished?” Because I want the last piece that I’m working on before I die to be the same as the first piece that I ever made. Like, was it … it’s like a continued train of thought. At least for now, that’s my plan. I don’t know, maybe in 20 years, I’ll decide I want to be a painter that paints realism and then that whole thought goes out of the bag. But, for now that’s my intention, to never be complete because again, we’re not finished.
Gracen: So in your artistic process, how do you get to that point, where you’re like, “You know what? This is incomplete how I want it to be incomplete”?
Joel: It kind of depends on the piece. Sometimes I can sit down and in an hour it’s finished to where I think it is. And then, sometimes it just sits there for months, weeks. I have this painting on my wall right now that I was working on and it was like kind of… I didn’t know where I was going to go. And one of my friends just asked if she could come and photograph me with my art and get some footage of me. And, she was like, “I would like to take some photos of you working.” And, I was like, “Okay, I guess. Usually I’ve never actually had that happen before, so I’m a bit nervous.” And, I just forced myself out of my comfort zone, and I just started working on that piece that was hanging on my wall for two, three weeks. And it evolved into something that I wouldn’t have been able to think of three prior. It was just in that moment. So, sometimes it’s other people’s thoughts. Sometimes it’s somebody saying, “Aw that’s really cool.” And then like, “Okay, well then it’s done.” Because if you think it’s cool, it’s over.
Gracen: Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?
Joel: Yeah, I have a lot of projects that I’m working on because that’s how I kind of work best and worst by just having a lot of different ideas. But one that I’m really stoked on and it should be wrapped up soon is there’s two artists from Buffalo who I have liked and wanted to work with for some time now. This guy, Ian de Beer, who happened to be friends with my sister in like, kindergarten and grew up. And, I was never friends with him or really knew who he was. I just knew of him. And, the guy grew up and became this graffiti artist and kind of got into some trouble with it. Got arrested, went to jail, was on probation for a long time and like 10 years ago, I found out that [inaudible 00:28:19] he had started to become. And I was like, “I want to work with him some time so bad. This is somebody that is from my past and he’s doing stuff in the future.” So, I’ve been trying to hunt him down for literally 10 years.
Gracen: Oh wow.
Joel: This March, one of my friends reached out and he was like, “Hey, I was talking to Ian de Beer about you.” And, I was like, “Okay, wait, hold up. What were you talking about and why?” He was like, “Yeah, Ian’s been watching what you are doing on Instagram and he’s like you’re one of the only painters in Buffalo actually doing what he likes. Yeah, he’s like, “Ian wants you to come by the studio and like come and check it out, just to chat.” I was like, “Okay, well yes. Give him my number right now.” But it was like COVID was happening. It’s still happening. So I was very skeptical, like I didn’t want to, for a few weeks, I just didn’t want to interact with anyone just because I was like ‘I can always wait.’ And then this girl Kara Hartsoll which is like a friend of mine’s older sister, who does very realistic paintings and then also really cool, kind of like comic super hero stuff, but it’s not super heroes. It’s usually just like a woman but it’s like this cartoonish comic thing… Whatever, I freaking think it’s dope. And, I bought a piece of her’s last year. And so I want to collab with somebody. So at the beginning of this modern civil unrest, for equality for humans across the board, me and Kara were talking about doing some painting at some protests because I had been going to protests and being involved and I went out one day and I was just painting and it was very therapeutic. And it was cool because it was bringing something else to the protest. Yeah, there’s a place to yell and scream but there are other ways to protest. So, we started talking, and we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to get some pieces of wood. We’re going to paint in the park and just be a part of the protest. And, make it evolve while the people are there. Maybe evoke some thought on people.”
Gracen: And, documenting history.
Joel: And she kind of was like, “What if we got Ian involved?” And, I was like, “Well, obviously, I wanted this, so thank you, universe.” And so, we sat down and kind of came up with this idea to collaborate our three styles into one. There are some guys in the past who had a collaboration and they ended up being huge. I’m not going to say their names, because when people see the work, they’ll probably already know it. But, yeah, I want to kind of make something similar to what they did 30 years ago. And, make it modern and for now.
And so, I kind of laid down the foundation on the painting with my style of work, and then we kind of chose where each of their styles were going to go. And so, Ian wrote Clorox to kind of reference Trump’s stupidity on, “Well, you should just inject Clorox bleach to kill the disease.” And then he wrote Ben & Jerry’s because Ben & Jerry’s got arrested and they were kind of the first ones in the PR blitz of Black Lives Matter. And so, they were kind of like this hero figure and so their name is bright and bold where the Clorox is faded into white and kind of washed out because it’s old. That’s not how we think anymore. And then Kara is painting this police officer on the other side … I kind of asked her to kind of leave the face on … you don’t know what race, what color this police officer is. I don’t want to choose a specific person. I just want it to show that the police system isn’t finished. We’re not done fixing it, dismantling it, changing it. And so the piece is just really supposed to represent 2020 hopefully for the future to kind of look back on. We hit this time where change had to happen. We were boiling over and this pot had to spill over. And, it’s unfortunate that it took someone’s death to kind of spark it up again, but that’s how it is a lot of times. Things don’t change until it’s bad or maybe not bad but overwhelming, maybe. So the intention of the painting is we wanted to donate the money to something. And, I really like all these organizations collecting money and doing theoretically good things. But, there are a lot of these organizations that have a lot of money right now and are just sitting on it. And it kind of just looks like capitalism in a different way. And so, no offense to Black Lives Matter, but what are you doing with all this money that has been donated to you is my question. How are these funds being used because it doesn’t look like they’re getting used? Yeah, there’s some that are doing it but those are usually the smaller organizations that are really making the changes. And so, I was like, “Okay, I want to use this painting as a form of actual change.” And so, we’re going to auction it off and accept donations when it’s done. And, we’re going to use all of our platforms to kind of sell it to people and try to get people interested with the intention of using whatever funds to go back into the arts. So my goal is to raise a million dollars off this painting which seems crazy and I don’t care.
Gracen: That’s called being an artist. Be crazy and don’t care.
Joel: Right. And, so I want to raise a million dollars not just to have a million dollars. I want to take that money and build an art space where the community can come in for free and use our tools to create art. And then we’ll kind of grow with these artists and we’ll notice the people who are actually passionate about it, that actually care. And then there’s going to be private studios in this building that we give to those artists that are actually excelling and standing out and who are actually artists. I’m going to give them a space that probably couldn’t afford otherwise. And, give them a platform. And, once they transition into the private studio, they kind of have to start buying their own materials and kind of becoming self-sustained. And then once we notice, “Oh, you’re selling paintings? Well, now you should start paying back.” So, now you rent out space. So that million dollars should last forever if that blueprint works.
Gracen: That’s awesome. Joel, you are so inspiring. Thank you so much for talking with me today.
Joel: Thank you. I appreciate you spending your time listening to me.