An Appreciation of Black Art & Artists

Groovin’ High- Faith Ringgold 1986

Black art and artists have inspired me throughout my life. Through picture book illustrations I wondered over as a child, to fictional stories I read for the first time as a teen, to works of art I’ve stood in front of in awe at museums. The Black experience is one often overlooked in the dominant American narrative, but it certainly hasn’t been a quiet or inactive one. Black thinkers, writers, musicians, inventors and artists have innovated, created, documented and made work as long as their white counterparts, they just haven’t always been celebrated for their talents or achievements. Luckily, with social media and the power of sharing and spotlighting individual voices, these tremendous works are being embraced and celebrated by larger institutions like museums and universities, providing more access and visibility to great works we can all appreciate. Below is a round-up of art and creative work and their makers who have influenced my life personally. I am humbled to share the work with anyone who might have not yet had the opportunity to be introduced.


I’ll start at the beginning with one of my favorite children’s book illustrators, Jerry Pinkney (1939-2021). In his 81 years, Jerry illustrated, authored (or both) over 100 children’s books. His detailed and realistic watercolors took my breath away as a child as they continue to do so today. His work was first introduced to me when I was in the first grade through the book, The Talking Eggs, which continues to be a favorite of mine. As a mom, I enjoy sharing his work with my daughter through reading his books and spending time looking over the pictures within.

R. Gregory Christie is an author and illustrator who’s painting style I personally love. His illustrations have a raw emotion and an efficiency of marks that makes the work and his figures especially so evocative. He often illustrates books highlighting the Black experience and Black heroes. One of my favorite books entitled, The Rock of Ages: A Tribute to the Black Church, is full of images of famous singers, thinkers and political figures, each painted in Christie’s recognizable style and each still identifiable as themselves… it’s a magic I am endlessly transfixed by.

Christian Robinson is a children’s book illustrator that seems like he’s changed the game. Much of his work uses a similar process as The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s Eric Carle, but his illustrations are more emotive and complex, tackling stories that cover social-emotional topics like inclusion, living with poverty etc. Collaging bold shapes of painted papers, his work is recognizable and graces covers of the bestselling kids books of today. He’s also local to the SF Bay Area and I’ve “fan girl’d” on him more than once. I get full-on little-kid-excited if I spy him out in the world. His site is called the Art of Fun and I think that speaks loudly to his approach to life and art making.

Faith Ringgold is probably not a new name to most folks, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include her as a transformative illustrator and artist. While her work covers many media her use of textiles, quilting and paint together in her picture book, Tar Beach, was unlike anything I’d seen as a child. At 93 years old, Ringgold is still making work that speaks to the Black experience.


I am Oakland born and Bay Area raised and spent many elementary school field trips going to the Oakland Museum. I also had a teacher, Ms. Pegus, who made an effort to teach and share the Black experience through literature and art in our classroom. One of our field trips was visiting the art studio of West Oakland born and based artist Arnold White. In my memory and experience of this visit, I recall a studio where sculptures made of found materials filled the space. Specifically I remember a Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus type image where Mary’s breasts were made of pot lids… I was amazed and curious by both this image and the materials used to create it. I have small and fleeting memories from this trip, but the experience of visiting Mr White’s studio was transformative for me. Seeing a working artist, surrounded by their paintings and works in progress was deeply impactful. For anyone interested in the local history of Oakland and Arnold White’s path in forging the art scene here, this interview is worth a watch.

photo by Lydia Gans

I love the work of Ellen Gallagher. It immediately took me in, made me curious and greedy for more. I love her use of pop culture iconography and the way she transforms it into a new set of imagery, a new narrative. The first piece of hers I saw, DeLuxe, uses 60s advertising and remakes them/alters them into captivatingly strange and surreal portraits. Admittedly, I am unfamiliar with the breadth and scope of her work other than pieces of a similar fashion. I loved watching this interview with her and learning more about her process and discovering how much her love of reading influences her art practice. I love too, that in this piece about her, one art collector said she “creates a new Black archive” (of imagery) with her work.

Photographer Carrie Mae Weems has had a long and prolific career, still working at 70. Her series, At the Kitchen Table is likely one of her better know series but it continues to be the grouping of images I stop and stare at anytime I come across one in a museum. I love work (art, music or writing) that holds domestic life, and specifically women’s domestic worlds at its center, which Weem’s work does beautifully.

Kara Walker stops me in my tracks with every piece I encounter… the first piece I saw, I think, was in Bilboa, Spain. I stepped into a half moon shaped room with projections and silhouettes that were instantly familiar and unfamiliar depicting images of archetypes and caricatures of enslaved people, of nude bodies, of little girls and demons, of romantic weeping trees I associate with the South, all interacting in surreal ways. Her work is certainly a spotlight on the horrors and violence of slavery as well as a re-telling/reframing of the story the US tells itself of the history of slavery. Her work has grown to encompass many media and some of her most powerful works are installations strategically placed in historical locations creating a new narrative, like the piece “A Subtlety” at the Domino Sugar Factory in NY. I so wished I had seen this piece in person, but the video will have to do!

75 covers of Toni Morrison’s Beloved from around the world – Lit Hub

This blog post could easily feature hundreds more artists… but it has to end somewhere, and it will end here with the literary artist who looms largest in my life, who continues to influence me even after her death, and who’s work I will read and re-read for the rest of my life… Toni Morrison.

Toni Morrison is the Pulitzer Prize winning, Nobel laureate, professor and author of 11 novels (along with many other published works of various kinds) and was an important figure in publishing in America as she championed Black voices, stories and experiences and brought them into the American literary landscape. She also conceived of and edited The Black Book which is akin to a massive zine/archive of ephemera, photos, pamphlets and more depicting Black life in America.

I was introduced to Toni Morrison’s books in college. I took a reading/writing class focused on her work in which we read 5 of her novels, each twice, over the course of a semester. I don’t know that I have the words to describe the impact her work had on me at that time… I was transfixed and held by her stories in a way I had never experienced. We read The Bluest Eye first, then Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved and Jazz. Each were moving, life affirming, lyrical, intimate, and devastating in their own ways. A few years later, in my Junior year when I was on study abroad, I found a small paperback of Paradise in English in a tiny French suburban airport. I missed the shuttle back into town TWICE as I sat absorbed reading this little book with a bird on it’s cover… the opening line of which is… “They shoot the white girl first.” 20 years later, I’ve read this book at least 5 times and it continues to be my favorite of hers.

Creativebug instuctor, book artist, designer and poet e bond also loves Toni Morrison in a way we connect over. One of her fabric designs from the collection Glyphs (named after Black female writers) is called Toni Morrison. (Check out her article on naming her fabric here) – e sent me this article about Toni Morrison’s archive at Princeton, where she taught. In it we get a peek into the mind and notes of Morrison as she researched and wrote one her most famous books, Beloved. The article also links to a wonderful interview with Morrison and Charlayne Hunter-Gault from 1987 in which Morrison talks about her inspiration for Beloved. One of the great pleasures of listening to Toni Morrison books on audio is she often reads them herself and her voice, cadence and delivery in unparalled. You get a taste of that in this video and I recommend watching it for the pleasure of hearing her read her own work and speak about its origins.

I have so much more to share as the work of Black artists is everywhere even in the work we don’t recognize as coming from a Black maker. I will leave you with a recommendation for George McCalman’s book, Illustrated Black History, which celebrates the work of known and little known Black artists, thinkers, musicians, scientists and more.

xo Courtney