Nikkolas Smith, illustrator of The 1619 Project: Born on the Water (by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson) and I Am Ruby Bridges (with Ruby Bridges), continues his dedication to serving social justice causes through art in his new picture book. The Artivist centers on a Black child’s decision to combine their artistry with activism to advocate for social change that’s capable of influencing the world. Smith spoke with PW about his path to “artivism,” the genesis of the book from his online art series known as “Sunday Sketch,” and what he hopes aspiring artivists will take away from reading this story.
Why is it important that art specifically be paired with activism in pursuit of change?
For me, artivism is the most impactful way that I know how to put activism into the world. It’s combining the things I’m most passionate about with activism. I realized this through my “Sunday Sketch” series, which is 10 years old. It started as artist therapy and it just became this thing where so many people were telling me that my art was therapy to them. So many issues were happening in the world and art was attention-grabbing for a while. It would help them grieve, laugh, get their emotions out. But then it can also point them in a direction, like, “How can I join the fight? How can I help?” Sign this petition, contact your district attorney, and all that. I just realized that art was such a powerful way to get the point across. Ten years ago, I created the MLK in a hoodie piece. Trayvon Martin’s killer had been found not guilty and there was a hoodie movement. That was the weekend that Black Lives Matter began. I posted the piece and it went viral. I ended up going on CNN to talk about it. I realized that one art piece has the power to really shift the conversation. With social media it can go all over the world instantly. It can get people thinking in a different way, inspiring people to want to make some positive change.
I really do feel like everybody is creative; everybody has the opportunity to create art and be an artivist in some way. It’s not just painting. You can write poetry, you can dance, you can sing, or make a film. In the book, I’m inviting everyone. “What change will you create?”
What led you to choose a Black child to be the face of The Artivist? How necessary do you believe it is for young people to participate in “artivism”?
As a Black author-illustrator, I just feel like it’s almost mandatory for me to center what I call the “chocolate babies” on the faces of books. There aren’t nearly enough Black characters in kid literature. For me, that’s just key. Also, I feel like a young Black child, a child who maybe comes from a marginalized community, a child who has seen more injustice than some other kid, that’s the perfect subject to tackle all these issues. Kids have this power to come up with limitless possibilities and solutions. I think about my three-year-old son and in a way, the main character is a combination of me and him. One day he’s going to ask me, “Why is this broken? Why isn’t this working right? Who’s been running this country for the last 50, the last 100 years? What is going on?” I think of all the kids out there who have all these questions and they need an outlet. I just want this book to be something they can look toward to learn how they can effect change.
How did you approach creating the distinctive visual style of The Artivist?
This book is a continuation of my “Sunday Sketch” series. Speed painting is what I do, pretty much. I can’t spend long amounts of time on pieces. I have to get the idea and the energy out quickly. They’re all very painterly, they have a lot of movement in that way. But then, there are also so many “Sunday Sketch” [drawings] that I went back and used as tentpoles, and kind of built off of [in] different pieces.
Every week, I was trying a new style. I was always influenced by Norman Rockwell—that Ruby Bridges piece was always hanging in my house. Which makes it pretty ironic and amazing that I ended up doing the book I Am Ruby Bridges. I always want my visual art to be like that oil painting. I want it to have a lot of movement, the feeling of oil on canvas. A lot of people who don’t know will think it is oil painting.
I wanted the kid to be part of this very urban setting, kind of like a New York-ish city setting, with all these skyscrapers and lots of space for him to paint street art. That idea of a young Basquiat, early Basquiat. In these big cities, you’re going to have all these issues, so this kid definitely grew up seeing these injustices all piled on top of each other. I also wanted to show my various art styles: in the ways that the main character is drawing, he’s scribbling; he’s sketching out all these broken bones before he adds the yellow hearts. He’s capturing all the brokenness and trying to heal it all with art. It’s a metaphor .
It shows all the young people that there are so many different forms of visual art. You can take a crayon and scribble. It’s artist therapy, first and foremost. Get your ideas, get your feelings out on the canvas in any way that you can. It can turn into really beautiful, earth-changing, earth-shifting art.
Of the activist themes explored in the book, which strikes you as the most vital takeaway for budding artivists?
One of the biggest things I love about this is the concept that says, “I will love today” and just breaking down what that means. Not just kids—I want everybody to grasp that love is a verb. It is giving, it is protesting, it is protecting, it is donating, helping, acting, listening. All those things. I love that I can visualize that idea in this book.
My career as an artivist would not be what it is without social media and all of the thousands and thousands of people I listen to. They tell me what they want to see. As you consistently make art, people will tell you the issues you need to know about. “You have to make art about this. Have you heard about this?” It became this conversation, this back and forth. People will help you if you listen. [They will] help guide the way. That speaks to the whole [idea of] being a mirror to reflect the world, who we are, and what’s happening. We have to take all of this stuff and reflect it back so that we can see what’s happening.
The Artivist by Nikkolas Smith. Kokila, $18.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-593-61965-0