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Tiffany Baker on "Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls"

Tiffany shares her recent forays into the world of children’s book illustration (plus the sketchbook she carries with her everywhere).

In Celebration of Black Contemporary Artists returns with a conversation between Duneska Michel and Tiffany Baker, a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based visual artist whose unique style of realist portraiture is marked by vibrant palettes and considered attention to her subject’s grooming. In her portraiture, Tiffany turns life experiences into emotive visual expressions that re-imagine trauma, embed messages of connection, and celebrate her identity as a black woman. Below, Tiffany discusses "Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls: 100 Real-Life Tales of Black Girl Magic" and Baker’s recent forays into the world of children’s book illustration.

Duneska Michel: Hi everyone! Welcome to In Celebration of Contemporary Black Artists. My name is Duneska Michel and I’m the School and Community Relations Specialist at Children’s Museum of the Arts. Today I’m welcoming Tiffany Baker. Hi, Tiffany!

Tiffany Baker: Hey!

DM: Tiffany Baker is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based visual artist who turns life experiences into emotive visual expressions that reimagine trauma, embedded messages of connection and celebrate her identity as a black woman. So thank you Tiffany, for all of your amazing work.

TB: Duneska, thank you for having me.

DM: Of course. I’m so excited. You and I have worked closely before so that makes this even that much more, I don’t know, just-

TB: Yeah, we worked on a mural in Bushwick together.

DM: Yeah. Actually, let’s start off with that. I would love to just hear more about your experiences working on painting different community libraries all throughout Bed-Stuy and Brooklyn as a whole, during the pandemic.

TB: Awesome. It happened as a lot of things in my life happen, which is organically. I go to a coffee shop in my neighborhood, and during the pandemic we were doing a lot of community outreach, trying to help families who were in need. There was a big push to organize and gather community refrigerators in the neighborhood, and in order to attract attention and liven up these refrigerators, my local coffee shop tapped me and asked me to do artwork on them. I think I’ve done around six or seven refrigerators. Another aspect of this was community libraries and “take one, leave one” libraries, and Duneska was in charge of this Bushwick library that I ended up painting. That’s how we got to know each other. I love the concept. It was a concept that I hadn’t incorporated in my personal work before, but it was a cultural and historical one. Duneska, I don’t want to get it wrong, your nationality is Dominican, correct?

DM: You’re correct, yes.

TB: I know a lot of Caribbean people, and people from The Islands as well, have fruits that we don’t have here, so I didn’t grow up eating … what was it?

DM: Guanábana.

TB: Yeah!

DM: It was so beautiful to see your work all throughout the neighborhood. I remember walking around and recognizing it immediately anytime that I saw a community fridge. Just thinking about the fact that you also painted free libraries, free take-one-leave-one libraries, is such a beautiful segue into this conversation and the importance of literature and literacy in children’s development and what kinds of books we expose them to.

TB: Absolutely.

DM: I’m curious what children’s book you selected today?

TB: I have three. Was I only supposed to get one?

DM: Let’s hear all of it. We want all of it!

TB: I’ll start with one of the books that inspired me. Over the year, I’ve done a lot of children’s book research because I began illustrating art for children’s books myself. In that practice, I’ve gone out and gotten books that inspire me. One of the books in my library is called "The Day You Begin" by Jacqueline Woodson. It’s about a young child beginning her first day at school. She may not look like the other students in her class. She may not talk like the other students in her class. It’s a book to ease those anxieties that you may have, going into a setting where you’re new and your family life may be different from the family life of the majority or some of the kids in your classroom. I don’t know who the illustrator is on that book, but it’s gorgeous, beautiful. It has a bunch of different colors and characters, and the curls and the hair is popping. Everything looks great.

DM: In love with it.

TB: Another book in my library is called "Me & Mama." You can tell that this book was created totally by paint. They converted it into a digital book and so you can even see the brush strokes in the objects on the book. It’s a celebration of a young girl and her relationship with her mom. The young girl is probably four or five years old. And it’s cute because it shows like, this is Mama’s toothbrush and this is my toothbrush. It’s a book showing everyday objects written and illustrated beautifully. Very poetic. I love that one a lot. Last but not least we have "Rebel Girls: 100 Real-Life Stories of Black Girl Magic." I actually have two illustrations in this book.

DM: So beautiful.

TB: Thank you. These are over 100 tales of Black femmes and Black women who are amazing and have done pioneering things for our culture, our community, some present day and some past. I think it’s really important for not just women, but kids of all ages to understand who paved the way for them and why they’re important, and why we need to celebrate them. The two illustrations that I have in this book is artist and sculptor Sasha Huber. She’s Swiss-Haitian. Another is Yetnebersh Nigussie. She’s an Ethiopian civil rights lawyer. She is a blind woman and works for the advancement of disabled people and people with disabilities.

DM: Wow. That’s amazing. What was that process like? Honoring such strong and impactful women in this book and having to illustrate them …

TB: It was really cool. On one hand, it was jarring because I didn’t know who I was going to get paired with. On the other hand, it was super rewarding because Sasha and I are actually Instagram friends now. We DM each other and it just opened up another world of Black women supporting each other. For them to be celebrated and for them to actually appreciate what I’ve depicted in the book and how I brought their likeness to life is actually … that’s another point that I would like to bring up. It’s nerve wracking painting someone who’s still living because they may not like your artwork.

DM: I can also imagine that it’s a great opportunity for collaboration too. Did you have conversations prior to the illustration, where you were able to to feel out how they would want to be depicted?

TB: In this instance, I was conversing with the editors and the authors, but not the actual subjects themselves.

DM: Oh, that’s interesting. Why is that? Is that just part of the process?

TB: A lot of times it can be. If I were to create my own book, I would reach out to people and say, “Hey, I would like to depict your likeness in this book.” In this case, the editors did a lot of that legal leg work and saying, “Hey, we want to do this. We want to tell your story.” The editors were the liaison between the artists and the subjects themselves.

DM: That’s really good to know. Also, for any folks watching that may be interested in children’s books illustration or exploring that field, this is a big part of it — understanding the process.

TB: Yeah. Who are you going to write about? How are you going to find them? What are you going to say? Are they going to like it? Do they approve? Those are the basic things.

DM: How did you get into illustrating books and writing books?

TB: It got into me. I was just minding my own business. It was never really on my radar but so many people would ask me, “Oh, have you ever considered children’s book illustration?” I’m just like, “No, never.” Then, one day I had something in my inbox and they were like, “We have this book we want you to illustrate.” And one meeting turned into me thinking, “Okay, I think I can do this.” That just snowballed into this whole process. There is a lot to learn about children’s book illustrations. There is a lot to learn about the book industry in general. Now, having been on the other side of this project, it’s totally necessary. Even though it might be hard, I think it’s still necessary. I’m going to continue on in this fight because it’s extremely rewarding too, to see people holding your book and connecting with the characters. That’s really important too.

DM: Totally. When you’re illustrating children’s books, what kinds of role do children, or the concept of children and how they process information, play in your work?

TB: Children are super visual. They’re also more abstract and conceptual than we give them a credit for. I like working with children, mainly because they don’t have any barriers or limitations in how they connect with their abstract imagination. You can put things on the page that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, but a child will see that, because in their world, it makes total sense. In our regular day-to-day busy lives as adults, we just put things in buckets like, “Oh, that doesn’t go with that. That’s organized over here.” Whereas a child has more synergy with things, which is why I really love being around children because they come up with the best things. They have the best one-liners. They’re awesome.

DM: That’s beautifully said. We are so occupied as adults with our lives. We want things to be easy and quick to consume. Kids are so much patient than we actually realize. They’re so much more open than we realize. We don’t have to be so literal and figured it all the times with kids. Do you remember your experiences making art as a child and what that was like for you?

TB: Oh my God, absolutely. I hated talking. I knew how to make art before I knew how to form a sentence or even write my name correctly. I remember my visual life taking up so much space and then interacting with adults and other kids. It was very interesting. I would go over family members’ houses, and I figured out that aluminum foil would hold its shape if you crunched it up enough. I would ask for aluminum foil and make all these animal shapes and animal figures. I would just make things with my hands all the time. My grandmother, she got hip to it. She was like, “Okay, this girl’s going to use up all my aluminum foil.”

DM: She was like, “We need to stock up.” That’s so sweet.

TB: I think I started using toilet paper instead.

DM: It was like, “Let me try to pick a cheaper medium.”

TB: Right.

DM: I love that. So, that was one of your first artmaking experiences.

TB: I think that paper was always easily accessible. I would ask for a pencil and just start drawing. I wanted to draw the world around me, maybe a bird or a tree. I remember drawing trees a lot and I was obsessed with animals. I loved drawing animals, lions, zebras, cats, dogs, ducks, everything. So it really just started with what I saw around and what my imagination came up with too. I was huge into cartoons. I love watching cartoons. I would pause the cartoon then draw the animation that was on screen in the paused version.

DM: Wow. What was your favorite cartoon?

TB: Oh, man. Okay. I love The Lion King.

DM: A classic.

TB: Anything having to do with animals, right?

DM: Absolutely. It’s interesting hearing you say this also because I feel like your work is still very much like that. You still make work that reflects the world around you and it becomes like a time capsule You’re taking these moments in time and cherishing them and honoring them.

TB: Oh, Duneska, thank you.

DM: Of course. Give credit when it’s due, right?

TB: Yeah.

DM: Especially going back to what we were talking about earlier, you painting the community fridges, it was so beautiful to see this object that is for the community, be reflective of the community that it’s in. Having the fridges that you created reflect the areas that they were located in.

TB: That’s really important to me. As Black and brown people, we should see ourselves in the art, in the neighborhood that we occupy. A lot of us are living in neighborhoods that are slowly or rapidly getting gentrified. We don’t see as many of us around any longer. To see yourself celebrated on a mural or a community fridge, on your normal walk path to the coffee shop or to wherever you’re going, that’s huge. To learn also too, that it’s painted by a Black person or a person of color, or Caribbean descent, is another key factor in that. We should celebrate ourselves on a daily basis in any way we can.

DM: Absolutely, and understand that representation is important, and then actionable steps within that representation is also important.

TB: Yes.

DM: That’s why it’s so beautiful, because it was this object of representation, but it is also an actionable thing. It’s a fridge made for people to be able to have more access to food that sustains them. It’s so beautiful as a concept. I get really emotional every time I think about it.

TB: Thank you. Another thing is too, if you are required or if your family needs to make ends meet by utilizing a community fridge, you don’t want anything that’s drab or dreary. You want to be excited when you go to the fridge. On some level, I’d like to believe that it lifts a stigma of shaming folks who need things, because it’s unfortunate that we live in a place and a time where there’s such a big gap between those who have and those who don’t have. If I can alleviate that in any way possible, I’m happy to do it.

DM: Make it a joyous experience, absolutely. I’m thinking about your process of making and how you consider children and families in your process, and how they’re going to perceive your illustrations. What kinds of processes do you consider when you’re trying to make art accessible to families and kids, and why is that important to you?

TB: I was once that kid. I was once a little kid wondering, “Okay, what’s the bridge between me drawing and making these little doodles and when I’m this big scary concept of adult, what does that mean?” Maybe we don’t have a clear idea of how to sustain a living as a working artist. Being on this side of it, oh gosh, there’s so many ways! You just need someone to talk to, the loved ones around you, or have a little bit of confidence in yourself about that. When people see me actually doing the murals or making art, families or people with their young kids, I think it’s rewarding for them to see someone who looks like them working and learning that it’s possible to make a living from this. Then there’s also the subject matter that I paint. It’s cool to see people represented, as I said before, in the art that I make. There was a big gap, I remember, in my understanding, of the tools that I use, which were accessible, cheap tools like a pencil and paper versus different types of paint. This whole new world of paint or artmaking materials …. just learning about different materials, and maybe even one day I can share my knowledge with somebody about different artmaking materials with people. Because you may have someone in your family that watercolors and they’re really good at it but you hate watercolor. I’m not really good at watercolor, but you don’t know about other kinds of paint that you could excel in. It’s just awareness and knowledge being shared.

DM: Definitely, an exploration. We may understand using watercolor in one context but you may explore watercolor in a complete new way that’s innovative that other folks just haven’t even thought of.

TB: Exactly.

DM: Let’s segue into a very important question as well.

TB: Okay. I’m ready!

DM: What advice would you give young people that are interested in the arts or trying to delve into the arts as a career or just a practice?

TB: I’m glad you broke up the end part of that question, separating art as a career and art as a practice, because I think that we can still do art later on in life, even if we don’t have any dreams of making money from it. That’s what a lot of people get caught up with and why they stop doing art. I meet so many people, and they say to me that they used to draw, but they don’t anymore. And I’m like, “Well, you could still draw. You can pick up a pencil and draw.” Don’t let making money from something be the reason why you stop doing something that you love. Identifying what you like about art, and doing more of that. If you like drawing people, draw 100 people. You don’t have to stop at three. They’re more ideas and versions of things than you can ever imagine.

Look in nature, there’s more species of birds than you can ever imagine. Whatever you like to draw, nerd out on that and do it. Or whatever kind of art you like, nerd out on that and do it. Use your hands. A lot of times I feel that we’re disconnected from making things with our hands because we always have an electronic device in it. So, use your hands. It’s not only art — make a cake, do something tactile. That’s another reason why I love kids because they get in there, they do things with their hands all the time. We forget how to get in there and get our hands dirty. So, I would say use your hands.

I would also say, pay attention to how art shows up in everyday life. You see art everywhere, on subway ads, on pillows, cushions from Target, water bottles, brochures, t-shirts, even floral arrangements. If you see flowers that you really love and you’re like, “Wow, how did they come up with that?” Now imagine that somebody sat down and created that in their mind — that’s art. Look and see the end result where it shows up and then just work your way back and figure out like, “Okay, somebody did that.” It all starts from a small sketch or a small piece of inspiration from something, and you too can gain inspiration from that. I’d also say do activities that are adjacent to artmaking like reading books or listening to music. If you can, go see a dance performance somewhere because all of those things will continue to inspire you.

DM: Wow. I’m awestruck. There was so many valuable tidbits in each response. I feel like the summary is to remain curious. I immediately think about when I work with kids, and you’ll give them clay and you’ll ask them to make a cat out of clay, kids will spend 30 minutes pounding the clay, stretching the clay, really exploring what it means to use clay. That’s incredibly necessary and we lose that because we’re so focused on the final thing, forgetting about the process along the way. You’re so inspirational.

TB: Thank you, right back at you. I appreciate that, so much. Thank you.

DM: Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining me today. What a joy.

TB: Earlier, I mentioned working out of a sketchbook and I just wanted to show mine. This is my sketchbook that I carry with me. There’s a piece of my artwork on there, just a little sticker, but I’ll try to draw and sketch every day. Just some doodles.

DM: Wow, these are beautiful.

TB: Thank you. So yeah, remain curious and keep your hands busy.

DM: Beautiful. You carry that sketchbook around everywhere?

TB: Oh yeah, I do.

DM: Another gem of advice — everywhere you go.

TB: Yeah. It doesn’t have to be a huge art class sketchbook. It could be a tiny pocket size one.

DM: It’s just for you. Thank you so much, Tiffany. It’s been an honor.

TB: You’re welcome.

DM: See you later!

TB: Yes, I look forward to seeing you soon. Bye!

“Pay attention to how art shows up in everyday life.”