Vanity Pop and the Power of the Portrait: An Interview with Vakseen

We were honored for the chance to interview to Vakseen learn more about his artistic journey, inspiration, processes, and general art (and life) tips. For those of you who missed the live interview with Vakseen and our Community Manager, Aisha, we have a transcribed copy below. Enjoy!

No Filter Me by Vakseen

Can you tell us about your artistic journey? What did the transition from visual art to music, and back again, look like?

I’ve always been a creative, artistic person but I got turned off from art in high school, and ironically at the same time I got bitten by the music bug so to speak. It started with writing poetry and eventually turned into writing music.

I was taking AP art my senior year, and my teacher tried to censor some work that I created. I had drawn a portrait of a man and a women — their figures were totally in charcoal, all black on a gray-toned paper, and I used white chalk for highlights. Just because of the context you would make the assumption that they were nude but there was nothing in the picture that was actually revealed. And, well, it caused a stir. It caused an issue with my art teacher, she wanted me to censor it and I basically refused. I ended up accepting a failed grade that year, in protest and just standing up for what I believe in.

That honestly turned me off from art. At the time, (I graduated high school in 97), making a living as a professional visual artist didn’t really seem that realistic. Not to say that I knew what I wanted to be period, but that never really felt like an option. Music seemed much more likely, but I didn’t even start taking it really seriously until when I was in college, or actually when I dropped out of college. It was then that I began to take my music much more seriously, I got hands on and learned how to produce, and truly started pursuing that heavily.

I spent most of my life in music. I would still work on art, sketching and doodling here and there whenever there was free time, but music was just filling my soul so much more. It was much more of a force in my day to day life.

I ultimately moved from Jacksonville, Florida where I grew up and moved to South Florida where I got the opportunity to work for a record label, I started interning there, and my career just really took off. Slowly overtime I had less time to invest in my own craft and my projects that I was working on personally because I was working for a very successful independent urban label, Slip-n-Slide Records, and all of the artists at the label were gold or platinum. I was literally catapulted into this opportunity where now I was doing what I wanted to do in the music industry, still having creative input, so I really focused on that. It was really exciting times and for years it was my sole purpose.

At no point during that time did I think, I want to be an artist or pursue visual arts. Visual art was always something that I felt like, yes I can do it, but it was just a hobby at that point. After about eight years in Miami, I felt like I reached my ceiling so to speak. I couldn’t get any higher in the company, because the President and VP had both been there for years and weren’t going anywhere.

Chang3d Man by Vakseen

I decided to bet on myself. I’ve always had a bigger vision in terms of the things that I wanted to accomplish. To be more specific, the label specialized in urban music, like rap and hip-hop, and while hip-hop is my foundation I’ve always thought so much bigger than this small box.

I visited LA in 2010 with my girlfriend at the time, and fell in love with the creative energy out there so in 2011 I made the move. And that’s where my journey really began…

Once I left the label, I realized on how much free time I now had. Within that first year, people were seeing my old art from high school and encouraging me to do something with it. After hearing it for what felt like a million times, I finally realized that this is something I should be pursuing.

I made the conscious decision that for the new year, starting January 1st 2012, visual art would be my goal. The very next month, I had my first gallery show. That was in February, during Black History Month, and it was in a legit gallery. Everything about my art journey after that just felt so organic and natural. I did put a lot of work in, but the way that everything just fell into place kind of makes me wonder if visual art is my true calling or if music was. As much as I’ve been in music, it’s just been such a different experience.

The first few years, from 2012 to 2015, were challenging years because the things that were happening for me on the music side of the business were incredible. In 2013 and 2014, my client and I had the number one record in the world — Pitbull’s Timber, which was literally a worldwide hit. This was going on at the time and as much as I loved painting, it was a fine line to walk on.

It felt like wow I had all of this going on, how am I going to find the time to paint. But my passion for painting just spoke for itself. I’m still involved with music and have done many amazing things since, but it’s not at the front of my stove. Right now my main focus is my art career, and I’m incredibly passionate about art. I feel like this is my purpose, that I’m supposed to be an artist, a visual artist. Thankfully my music journey prepared me for this.

What’s Goin On by Vakseen

How has your experience in the music world manifested itself in your art and your perspective as an artist in general?

Well my music journey started as being a writer: I was writing raps and songs, and later started producing out of necessity. It was then that I realized that producing was something that I really really loved. So I was doing everything for my group. Everything I learned in my music journey has been self taught. It’s been 100% from the ground up. Even when I got the opportunity to work for a label, it was an internship. It was an internship where I was given the title A & R, which is a creative business executive. So I was able to still be creative but learn the business as well. One of the first projects I ever worked on at the label was with Rick Ross — and it was one of his first songs, Hustlin’, which is the song that made him who he is and how people know his name.

Long story short, I played a role in breaking a lot of different acts and I’ve been able to contribute from a business angle as well as a creative angle. I was thrust into a marketing position at the label, not because I wanted to, but because when you are working for an indie label you are going to wear a million hats. When I first came into the music business I was not into sales at all — In fact I told myself that I never wanted to work a sales job. I didn’t want to convince anyone to do anything that they didn’t want to do. And I still feel like that to this day.

What the music business taught me was how to make a living being a creator, and that you don’t necessarily have to “sell” but you have to be on. You have to understand how business works, you can’t just walk around blindly, like a lot of creators do.

What I was able to do was take my successes in music, and coming into the art world in 2012, I felt ignorant to art. I didn’t grow up going to galleries or museums. But I know entertainment, I know how to break acts, I know how to think outside the box. So coming into art, all I’ve really done was apply my knowledge to the entertainment business to my career as a visual arts artist. Anybody who follows me will know that I have all kinds of merchandise. The beginning of the life of my design is the painting itself, and from there it becomes digital, prints, and all types of possible merch.

Basically I look at the things that a music artist would do. If you show up to a concert, there is all types of merchandise options.

The biggest takeaway for anyone listening is that in order to survive as an artist you need to have multiple streams of revenue.

That was a great understanding that I left the music business with and that is a major thing that helps me maintain success and grow within the art world.

There’s Love Beneath It All by Vakseen

We have a question that has come from community member, Miki:

When did your career in the visual arts start to blow up? Was it one piece of artwork that was a hit and opened doors to collaborations with companies like Adidas, or was it more of a steady process of building connections and actively showing until you got that recognition?

Everything is always a steady process. I would not want one play to catapult me into success because you are setting yourself up for failure. For me everything I do is about longevity, it’s a slow grind. Steadily building away and etching away at this career.

I can’t say one single piece or one single opportunity did this because I feel like every single play that happens and every single success is just another step up. It’s a staircase.

Sure, some plays may be 10 steps in one, but they are all just steps. There’s not going to be just one play that happens where you are all of a sudden at the top of the staircase. You always have to be working and building.

What I can say is that there are specific pieces that opened a lot of doors for me. There are always going to be pieces that people gravitate more towards. Your “masterpieces” if you will. Hopefully you have more than one. But I always try to make sure that I do my best to raise the bar. The biggest takeaway is consistency.

Consistency and Quality — those two things are everything, for me personally, but also for attaining success and longevity.

You’ve become very well known for your signature style “Vanity Pop” — can you explain to us what it is and how it came to be?

Absolutely. Painted portraits have always symbolized power. I believe that women are God’s greatest creations and that my paintings in this style celebrate that. They also celebrate diversity, the acute imperfections which really are endless perfections that each woman possesses. Vanity Pop is a celebration of beauty, fashion, personal identity, excess, luxury, insecurities, and vulnerabilities. All of the things we go through as humans. So in turn, it becomes a visual dialogue on the male gaze, it’s impact on pop culture and consumerism, and ultimately how it impacts beauty standards as well as people. As emotional, flawed beings we wear multiple layers in pursuit of acceptance, so I create my portraits in that same fashion. I am methodically stitching these “perfect” features together to basically bring my ideas to life. I mimic collage and mixed media with my portraits, but everything is fully hand painted. There are no attachments whatsoever, it’s 100% a painting that is painted to look like a collage. The funny thing is if you see them in person, each section has a slight depth to it, so you are even more convinced that it’s a collage from mixed mediums. It’s an experience. The irony is that most people love the beautiful aesthetic of my portraits, but it’s kind of rare that we dive into what’s actually going on in the inside — the actual substance of the portrait, or people. What it boils down to is a dissection of the unrealistic standards that we have in this world.

Gold Lives Inside You by Vakseen

Speaking of portraits with powerful messages, a few of your latest works, Rasberry Jenèe and the George Floyd portrait, that you were talking about on BBC News were inspired by the global outcry against police brutality and inequality; and Empty Promises was inspired by the Covid quarantine.

So with that being said, how has the current state of the world affected you and your art?

We are seeing everything. I already overthink things, and sometimes live inside my head. There’s a lot going on in the world and we literally can’t leave our homes. We are glued to phones, glued to our televisions. Thankfully for me I’m able to unplug, and I work great under pressure and stress. I am able to dive into work and let that consume me, so I’m not thinking about real life so to speak. But, it’s definitely had its toll. It’s taken the same toll on me that it has anyone else.

During the first few months of quarantine, I just tried to stay working and productive. By May, June I finally hit a space where I was just not fully inspired, and I realized, that the rest of the world is on pause and that it is sometimes okay to sit around and do nothing. I have to talk to myself like that because I am really driven, I feel really bad if I’m not doing something so I’m always looking for ways to create.

It’s definitely taken its tolls. To be frank, I was dealing with depression just from life things that have happened recently. I had to take time to take care of myself. I’ve been working so hard during this break that I’ve finally taken some time to chill and unplug and not stress about work or uncertainty. Really just enjoying these rare moments. At the same time it’s making me reflect on my work period. The things that I’m creating, the things that I’m leaving behind with my artwork. It made me put a microscope on my art practice: What am I really talking about and is it as important as I think it is?

Ultimately that is what inspired me to do the new pieces that I’ve done. I’ve always been a person of substance and that’s always been present in my work, but I’ve never really been political. The current climate inspired me in a different way. What we go through as Blacks, period, is something that resonates. I’m a Black man, so I feel every bit of pain and every story that you hear it’s more than likely that I’ve dealt with that. Now is a heavy time and I wanted to create something that speaks to the times, and also find a way that makes it powerful and inspirational, not just echoing the current energy of the moment.

Remember Me: George Floyd by Vakseen

What role does art and artists play in times like these? Can art act as vehicle of change and inspire equality?

Art inspires. Art is extremely powerful. For example, the basis of my George Floyd piece — I did it because I was inspired. I was tired. I was disgusted. I felt all these different was after seeing what happened and I wanted to create something powerful that celebrated his life. Something vibrant. I always create for myself and share with the world. To see how many people have been inspired by that piece, that’s the power of art itself. I mean I was on BBC this week, I was featured in a lot of great spaces, and it boils down to the power of art, the inspiration behind it and how art can take people away from reality or inspire a new reality.

A question from Community member Iamshivanshsr; How do you overcome art block or creative blocks?

I rarely get creative blocks, if I’m honest. Thankfully. But I firmly believe that creativity comes in waves, and you’ve got to ride every single thing that comes your way.

If you are inspired, make sure you capitalize. If you are not inspired, make sure you capitalize. Life is all about balance.

I don’t believe in forcing creativity, so if you are not inspired the body will speak to you, the mind will speak to you. Listen to it. Take that time to do something different. Take that time to do something different.

Try to get out and seek some inspiration. I’m very in tune with what I need in that aspect, in my creative aspect. When I do hit pockets of feeling uninspired, and like I said I’ve kind of experienced that recently, I think to myself: Okay let me fall back and this is what this time is about. I need to use this time to seek inspiration elsewhere. Catch up on some reading. Do things that fill me in other ways because art isn’t the only thing that fills me in that way, yet each they all come back around and influence my art.

Everything we do and go through contributes to art.

Starstruck (A Moment of Madness on Rodeo) by Vakseen

Another community member, Tang, would like to know: Do you believe it is necessary to be a full-time artist to achieve success? Or can someone achieve success with art as a hobby while they do another job?

Success is subjective. It’s hard to answer that question because what success looks like to you may not look like success to me. Success is different for every single person.

In anything you want to do, you get what you put into it. If you give half an effort, that’s what you are going to get in return. I give my ALL in every single situation, in everything I do.

It also comes down to energy, you may be putting all your energy into someone else’s business or dream.. That’s cool if that’s what you want to do, but half of your efforts, half of your rewards are going to come from that space. You have to be fully in if you are going to master your craft and master yourself.

It just boils down to what you want to do. Do you want to be an artist for the rest of your life, or do you want to be an employee? There’s nothing wrong with either answer. It’s just about what you want and who you want to be. You have to dedicate yourself to whichever of those things.

I firmly believe in the 10,000 hour rule. You need to put in way more than 10,000 hours to really master something, and that’s the only way you will really be truly successful.

Rasberry Jenèe by Vakseen

Here’s another, more logistical question we have, from community member George Boya: He wants to know how you price a piece? Is it based on the hours that you put into it or the complexity and the idea of a piece?

Price is realistically whatever you want to price it. The question is, can your name demand that price though? Can you get that price, being realistic. We are all consumers, so you have to ask yourself, when you buy stuff are you willing to spend an arm and a leg on something you love, but you’ve never even heard of this person?

There are a lot of things that go into pricing — thankfully I’ve had mentors in my life that were able to guide me in my journey. It’s a process. You aren’t going to start off the gate selling paintings for thousands. My first painting I sold was like two or three hundred dollars. Now I don’t sell anything for that, even a small painting will sell for thousands.

You have to crawl before you walk. You have to be realistic with your pricing. The best thing is go to galleries and compare other work. And be realistic in your comparisons, see what other work is selling for. Everything with the pricing has to do with the current market value, but the big question is can you get that for your work?

Be strategic, move smart, and do some research on what the price range is for artists in your area with similar levels of experience and notoriety. My pricing is all based on size, which makes it very easy.

Have you ever gotten super attached to a piece and as a result want to raise the price on it?

I love everything I do, I’m not attached to anything. Not enough to not sell it. If I ever have felt that in the past, I will put a price on it that I’m absolutely fine with. It may be a little higher than the others, but that was earlier in my career. I’m very consistent with my pricing now. You are making it easier on yourself by making sure it is consistent.

That Thing by Vakseen

This is a combined community question from Forlenza and Bartman, who both want to know about your digital art specifically:

What do you do in terms digital art, and how has digital/crypto art helped you leverage your work and contribute to your success today?

Digital art is new for me. I’ve been working in the digital space for not even a year at this point. Funny enough, I purchased my Ipad a year ago and downloaded Procreate with the full intention of learning it, but I was going through a divorce at the same time. So life was just everywhere.

I didn’t start really messing around with procreate until this year. I wanted to find a way to increase productivity and experiment more.

Increasing my productivity was absolutely the biggest thing for me because I have a son, a two year old, and the biggest thing for me in the two years since he’s been born has been finding a balance. I have been able to maintain productivity and creativity but to say that I haven’t impacted by having a son who gladly takes half of my time, I’d be lying. So it’s been about trying to figure out a balance.

Ironically it wasn’t until we got quarantined until I really felt like, okay I have the balance down. In that same breath, I need to maintain this balance and still have additional streams of revenue. So I wanted to increase productivity and create more portraits without having to go out and buy paint, canvases, etc.

I still paint, in fact I prefer to paint, but being quarantined gave me the opportunity to fully dive in and experiment with creating digital portraits.

Where do you see the digital art world evolving to? And where do you see yourself fitting within this evolution?

Oh my god, there are so many possibilities! Just what MakersPlace does alone, is provide multiple streams for artists. And that’s really one of my biggest points throughout this entire conversation is multiple streams are so important. The digital art space provides that.

Selling art through blockchain — the concept really blew my mind when the guys reached out to me about joining in the early stages, when everything went live. Even from the earliest explanations I felt like, wow this is the future, this is the wave.

Digital art creates a nice additional source of income and it’s a totally different experience. I truly feel like it’s the future of the industry and that’s becoming more apparent now more than ever in this current state of the world.

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