Clarence Heyward, a renowned artist whose captivating portraits capture the essence of black experiences, has emerged as a prominent figure in the art world. With his distinct style and dedication to his craft, Heyward has been making waves in the art community, using his talent to document history and challenge societal norms. Born and raised in the vibrant city of Brooklyn, New York, Heyward grew up with a deep appreciation for art. As a city kid, he witnessed the struggles of everyday life and found solace in the power of artistic expression. Summers spent in the South and his family’s roots in South Carolina provided a unique perspective, shaping his understanding of culture and identity.
Substantial got the opportunity to catch up with Clarence in his studio to talk about his life, his work and what it means to be an artist.
SM: What has been the inspiration for your work?
CH: One of the biggest inspirations for me came back in 2008. Me and my wife went to an exhibition by Barkley Hendricks called “Birth of the Cool.” It was the first time I walked into a museum space and it was filled with portraits of black people. There were these massive life size portraits, everywhere. It’s like black people, black people. I’ll never forget, there was this one portrait that he did and it looked just like this picture I have of my pops. I never really knew my pops but I always had this picture. So when I walked in this space I saw myself. You know people say you can often see yourself in the art. I not only saw myself, I saw my family. From there I wanted to give people that feeling. I wanted the art to be super relatable and something they can connect with. So ever since then I just wanted to follow his work and studying him. So that’s probably my biggest inspiration for why I paint portraits and why I use portraits to tell my stories.
SM: So what do you want people to take from you?
CH: That’s a trick question. So I don’t necessarily want them to take anything. I want them to see it and decide for themselves what they see and what they take from my work. I want them to see me. I guess I want them to be able to connect to my work, even if they don’t share the same experience but to be able to at least understand what I’m saying or understand what the people in my portraits primarily my family are experiencing at the time. I want my work to serve as documentation. I’m not really making the work for people who will view it right now. I’m making it for people a 100 years from now can reflect on it. They can see what was going on during my period. So, in essence, right, this is just history, we just haven’t gotten to the point where it’s really history yet.
SM: What was that moment when you said “yeah I’ve made it.”
CH: Yeah, I still don’t feel like that. Because every level you reach, I assure you there’s another level you can get to. That’s kind of what keeps you going. I haven’t wake up and said, “I made it,” and if I ever do then something went wrong, because I should always keep striving to be better. I’m never going to feel like I made it. For one, there’s always people ahead of you and there’s always people behind you. There are a lot of young artists that motivate me and a lot of artists that I aspire to reach the level of. I’m looking at people who’ve been doing it longer than me and I’m saying that’s what I want. When you see you’re work in spaces and people relate to it or they talk to you about it, and they tell you how it affects them those are some defining moment don’t get me wrong. I can say I made it, I can say I’m able to live off my work don’t get me wrong, but there are still new levels I strive for.
SM: Have you experienced challenges as a Black artist?
CH: I mean, since I don’t really separate being a Black man from being a Black artists, yeah there are challenges. The world is filled with its share of challenges, but I mean, I don’t hold it against people. I hope people will look at my art not just because of who created it but look at it through their eyes and experiences and understand the story its trying to tell. Part of the reason I’m doing this is to expose people to the culture and let them understand what we deal with and what we go through and how it makes us feel. When you look at some of my work with the masks, the mask is almost how you make us feel that it’s not necessarily like because the people are in masks that they’re preparing to rob a bank. However some one may see it and immediately think that but is that because that’s what they’ve been exposed to. So all I can do is expose them to something else and hope the story that I’m telling helps them see things differently.
SM: Do you have a favorite piece?
CH: I tell people whatever I’m working on is my favorite piece. I say that because I get better with every piece. I learn things from each painting. There are somethings that I do now that I couldn’t have dreamed of doing when I first started. There are also somethings that I see other people do and I’m like, I’m dreaming of doing that. Of course, I have pieces that I’ll never sell or that are in my private collection but even still they’re not my favorite or anything like that. Some of those pieces are just firsts for me, like the first time I painted with gold or painted my wife and kids.
SM: What’s some advice you have for other artists?
CH: I’d say work every day, as much as possible. A lot of people think they can make one painting and that’s gonna be it. You’re just problem solving and just figuring things out. First time I painted a sneaker, it didn’t look like a sneaker I’d paint today, and I’ll learn something from it each time and build on it. You have to just keep going. Nothing’s too precious. I used to be like “oh man, this has to be perfect, I’m gonna live with this forever.” But now it’s just like, efficiency. Whatever I do it’s okay. This is where I am today. This is the best thing I can make today. I’ve given myself to this painting and put my talents into this painting. Tomorrow, I’ll strive to be better because I can build on what I learned. And I just keep going.