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Expressing Resilience Through Art: An interview with Wande Kotun

Expressing Resilience Through Art: An interview with Wande Kotun

Wande Kotun is an artist and visionary you want to keep on your radar. The 28-year-old Macon, Ga., native has been exploring the beauty of black women through her drawings, paintings and sketches and is making a name for herself in the art world. She’s not only an artist though. As a healthcare professional, she designs programs for people suffering with substance abuse and is committed to making changes to the care people from vulnerable populations receive in their community. Through the discovery of her relationships, friendships and patients, she’s able to fully capture the essence and resilience in black bodies through her art.

We got a chance to talk to her about her work, how creatives balance their art and personal lives, and the space she envisions creating for black women who are visual artists.  

Casey Bruce-White: When was the Resolute Rose founded and when did you launch your online store? How did you come up with the name for your business?

Wande Kotun: Resolute Rose was founded in 2015 just before I moved to Baltimore from Atlanta. I had recently rediscovered my love for self-expression through (visual) arts after a tumultuous phase in my love life coupled with an unexpected commission request. Simply stated, the toxicity of my previous relationship along with the constant challenges to my character drove me do a good bit of self-examination. I didn’t want anyone to ever have the audacity to work so hard to break me down ever again. I wanted to be a resolute woman. Sure of myself, strong but vulnerable, and authentic. At the same time, I recognized that I am fragile, like a flower and that it would take constant work, or “watering,” to ensure that I stayed the course in commitment to myself. To quote my website, “I, like a rose, am ever fighting, growing, and blooming into the intentional, purpose-driven woman I hope to become.”

CBW: How do you make something like art, that is often seen as highbrow, relatable in your work?

WK: I work really, really hard to listen to myself. My art is often some translation of how I’m feeling or have felt navigating life as a black woman. At the same time, I think about the women around me and how they experience the world around them. I’m literally just trying to tell our stories through art—we’ve experienced the telling of our stories through almost every perspective but our own. I think that’s what makes my art relatable—it’s not fake or forced. It’s just us.

CBW: I love your coloring book–the images, quotes, and affirmations. What was your process like while creating it? What do you hope women of color gain when they use it?

WK: The process of creating my coloring book was an interesting one, actually. My forte as an artist is painting—I can draw, but I honestly don’t enjoy it as much. So, my coloring book was a mixture of my love for black women coupled with my own desire to do a personal project to hone my drawing skills. As I began to collect images and interpret what they made me feel, my boyfriend actually brought up the idea of a coloring book. The two of us got to work researching the current space for coloring books, particularly adult coloring books focused on women of color or empowerment. Of course, the pickings were slim. This gave me even more drive to get it done. As I completed sketch after sketch, I floated the idea by my best friend. She deserves credit for the quote idea, though I sought the actual quotes and affirmations myself. My tribe is so awesome!

Regarding what I would want for women of color to get out of it—so many things. First, a moment to catch their breath and do something for themselves. Coloring has shown to be meditative, and has been used in mindfulness practice. Though I love us and our strength, we all need a moment to just sit with something, and exhale. That’s what “For Colored Girls…” is about. Second, finishing the title, it’s “For Colored Girls Who Never Considered Self-Love When Female Fortitude is Enuf.” Every single illustration and quote in the book is a celebration of femininity, strength, resolution, individuality, and all the other sugar and spice that comes with being a woman of color. “For Colored Girls…” is a celebration. It’s a mood. It’s a movement. There’s literally something for everyone. So, I hope that women of color, after working through the coloring book, gain an internal sense of pride and joy for simply existing. We’re lit. Always have been and always will be.

CBW: In your artwork, you capture the trueness and beauty of black women’s bodies. What do you hope your artwork will evoke for people when they see it? How do you hope they’ll view black bodies?

WK: I hope that my artwork evokes a sense of pride for black women and respectful adoration from everybody else. In my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a black body. Our bodies are resilient—we have been through any and every brutality that one can think of, yet the culmination of our melanin, no matter how scarred, always translates to a level of divinity. I truly believe that. We carry stories in our melanin. My hope is to elevate these stories and to give them the platform that they deserve. I would love to change the narrative about our blackness and our bodies for generations to come.

CBW: How does your work as a healthcare professional influence your artwork?  

WK: If I’m being totally honest, balancing my art with my work in healthcare administration has been difficult. Often times, the two seem to be on opposite ends of my world. But every now and then, I’m reminded of the areas of overlap. The bulk of my day-to-day at work involves programming and care redesign for vulnerable populations. My ‘specialty’ has been working with individuals with substance abuse disorder (drug and/or alcohol addiction). From my employees, who are in long-term recovery themselves, to the patients we serve, there’s a certain soul connection that I’m able to make through allowing them to unabashedly share their stories that energizes my experience not only as a woman, but as a human. A similar soul connection happens when I’m inspired, creating a new work of art. When I talk about self-discovery and self-expression, it always comes full-circle after a conversation with someone who has literally picked himself or herself up from the proverbial depths of hell. They don’t lie, they’re unashamed and unafraid of the world…it’s like they’re no longer running from what the rest of us are afraid to face. They are all the most authentic people that I know, and they inspire both my art and how I try to move through the world on a daily basis. Clearly, they’re my favorite part of what I do…I could easily do without the operational firefighting that comes with the territory.

CBW: What piece of artwork have you created that you are most proud of? What artwork from another artist had the most impact on you?

WK: This is actually really hard…I think it honestly depends on the day. Since I have to choose, today I’ll say it’s “Reticence.” I saw the image that inspired Reticence probably in 2014…I saved it because for some reason, it spoke to me. I have a terrible habit of ruminating on painting ideas for extended periods of time—this time, for years! But I feel like I painted her at just the right time. I was able to connect with her because she allowed me to speak from my scars, not my open wounds. On top of that, I had to step out of my comfort zone and use a completely different painting technique than usual. If you look closely, “Reticence” is majority made from a series of dots, not my typical brush stroke. She’s simple yet complex and I feel like she represents me.

Regarding other artists, I’ll always be obsessed with Georgia O’keeffe’s flowers and even more obsessed with Ernie Barnes’ work, like “The Sugar Shack.” The way that you can literally feel his work as if you’ve been transported to that moment in time is other worldly. If we’re talking about modern-day artists, I absolutely love the thoughtfulness and intention of Brian Kirhagis. His attention to detail forces you to stare at his work for at least five minutes at a time, noticing something that you didn’t see before every 10-15 seconds. He covers everything from love to activism in the most complex but simple ways—it’s wild. 

CBW: What’s the scariest part about entrepreneurship?

WK: The scariest part about entrepreneurship for a creative, in my opinion, is the fact that a lot of our work, when it’s real, is emotional. Sometimes you’re up and other times you’re down, but when your creativity is your bread and butter, you have to question whether to push through it or sacrifice financially. On top of that, the thought of losing my integrity as an artist is scary. I never want to do the trendy, fad art just to make a buck. My art is very personal to me—I think it’s a plus that people happen to enjoy it as much as I do.

CBW: What is something about working in the art world and being a black female entrepreneur that you didn’t expect?

WK: There aren’t—or at least I haven’t been able to find many spaces that cater to just us. I know of @Tilastudios in Atlanta, and I absolutely adore what she’s doing to build a sense of community among black female artists, providing resources, space, open (constructive) feedback sessions from other female artists and the whole shebang…I wish that was a ‘thing’ everywhere. Maybe I’ll bring it to the DMV. It’s important.

CBW: Who inspires you and why? How important is it to have a mentor in this business?

WK: I would say Issa Rae—because she’s relatable first and foremost, but also because she created her own lane. Closer to me, I would say my friend Kristian, who recently founded Blk+Grn, an e-commerce platform consisting of products made by black (and I think all woman) artisans that are also eco-friendly. Not only did she create a lane after recognizing the need, but she also uses her platform to create space for black (woman) artisans who, in many cases, won’t receive the mainstream exposure of their white counterparts. I love it when we defy the stereotypes and collaborate to make greatness and I think both Issa and Kristian have done just that.

I think having a mentor in any business is important simply because experience is valuable. If there is someone that can provide insight and prevent me from making the same mistake they did, that’s awesome. Then again, experience is such an outstanding teacher and I think life as a creative is a bit sporadic and difficult to navigate at times. This means everyone’s journey is different. So it’s always helpful to have insights, but we kind of have to take some advice with a grain of salt. 

CBW: What do your mornings look like?

WK: My mornings are always under construction. Currently, I wake up at 5 a.m., pray, meditate, and write my morning pages. By this time, it’s about 5:30 or 5:40 a.m., and I try to do something directly related to Resolute Rose like sketch. Around 6:30 a.m., I get in a 30-minute HIIT workout, then get dressed, make a smoothie and head to work no later than 8 a.m. I figure if I get my mind right before I get in, I have much less anxiety during and at the end of the day.

CBW: What advice would you give to black women and women of color about being an entrepreneur?

WK: I would say first and foremost, focus on your ‘why’. Not having clarity can make you fall into bad habits, like comparison and sacrificing your integrity. When you understand your why, you have a level of tunnel vision that allows you to keep moving forward without feeling the need to look left and right. Second, focus on the finish from the start. I’m not saying not to enjoy the beauty of the journey; what I am saying is focus on finishing something, anything, more than simply starting. Of course, I’ll add in to get uncomfortable. We learn the biggest lessons from failure, so don’t be afraid to think big and shoot your shot. Finally I would say, find your community—and if you can’t find one, build one. It’s beautiful when we make it individually, but it feels even more meaningful when we can pull someone else up with us.

CBW: What are your thoughts on failure or taking risks?

WK: Failure is inevitable, but it is the truest teacher. It keeps us human and humble, and though it sucks, we come out stronger and wiser. The same goes for taking risks. We limit ourselves with our own thinking, so half of the risks that we take are more of a psychological feat. We have to get out of our own heads, unless we’re planting bigger, wilder flowers rather than weeds.

CBW: What is your greatest entrepreneurial achievement to date? What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

WK: I would say my coloring book. I really feel like it was and will continue to be a moment. I like that it was a personal project gone public that represents everything that is me and Resolute Rose. I self-published and now have a book on Amazon. Call me simple, but I think it’s pretty dope. As far as hopes for the future, I would love to create a space like the one I described earlier for black women creatives. I’m also getting much more involved with community art, working to provide art classes to the youth around Baltimore City—this is where I think I’ll thrive. I have plans for a solo venture later, but am enjoying my current experiences until I flesh those ideas out. Finally, I would love to have the option to support myself solely from my creativity and art. Not saying I would quit life as I know it and become a full-time artist, but I’m not saying I wouldn’t either. Regardless, I just want to continue to capture stories and meaningful memories through art.

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