Black artists bringing #Blackjoy to Utah

Story by NINA TITA

Utah Black Artists Collective is a nonprofit of professional Black artists from across Utah who are building a community of acceptance and love for their art. The Collective includes graphic designers, poets and classical ballerinas.

Jayrod Garrett, co-founder of UBLAC, said the mission is to create Black space, a place where Black people are the majority.

“Things I learned as we went about putting this together, I found out that I was not alone in that idea that I felt isolated as a child. Many of the Black people I’ve spoken to who live here in Utah felt isolated because the state’s 2% black,” Garrett said in a Zoom interview.

Working as a teacher full-time, poet and storyteller, Garrett’s passion is about sharing stories of the lived human experience. His written collection of poems titled, “Being Black in White Space,” captures the essence of what Black artists have gone through. Garrett is aware of the difficulty his audience has relating to the Black experience.

“You can go up in front of an audience and share like one of these really vulnerable poems that talks about what it feels like to be Black in that space and then afterwards you get superficial clapping because they’re like ‘we don’t really know what you just said but this what we’re supposed to do right?’” Garrett said.

Garrett founded UBLAC in July 2020 at the start of the pandemic when organizations were forced to move to virtual platforms. Black artists are using the opportunity to share their work and collaborate on social media, such as Instagram. The current project Garrett is directing is titled #BLACKJOY, a means of breaking barriers.

UBLAC artists gather in front of art that inspires them to continue to showcase their talents and bring #BLACKJOY to the community. Photo courtesy of Jayrod Garrett.

“We started talking about the idea of what Black joy sounds like and what does that look like. Is that praise community the only place you see Black people in joy? And it’s not, but like that’s the only way people seem to think about Black people having joy, is in that faith-based community,” Garrett said.

Changing stereotypes has been a challenge other Black artists are passionate about. Daney Lin, an acrylic painter, recalls being the only Black American in his class growing up in Ogden, Utah.

“Being a Black American in Utah, I feel like we are bound to a certain stigma, let’s break down those barriers, let’s knock them down. Let’s be everything, let’s be bank owners, let’s be grocery owners,” Lin said in a Zoom interview.

As a teenager, Lin found art to be his comfort while he was trying to pursue an athletic career in basketball and track and field. He struggled with his mental health and said he was diagnosed with bipolar, ADHD and depression.

“[Art] helped me relieve my stress, it helped me relieve my depression and kind of just showed it in different ways I couldn’t speak it,” Lin said.

He also struggled with the fear of getting better and losing his artistic ability, he said. Utilizing therapy and medication, Lin discovered his talents were not dependent upon his mental health, but provided him relief from stress.

After submitting his artwork on a whim to UBLAC, Garrett immediately saw all of Lin’s potential. Inspired by colors, peace and love in Japanese and Chinese cultures, Lin’s paintings capture emotion.

“I find myself feeling colors,” Lin said.

One of Lin’s paintings in currently on display at the Hogle Zoo’s World of the Wild Art Show. He cried when he saw it in the gallery. “Growing up I didn’t know any Black artists,” Lin said. Now he is honored to have his art out for all to see and be inspired by.

“I want other Black artists to not be afraid and not feel like they have to live up to a certain stigma. You don’t have to be an athlete, you don’t have to be a rapper, you don’t have to be a singer,” Lin said. “If that’s what you do, hey hats off to you, do it, please do it, strive to be better.”

Schkyra Morning, known as Wynter the Poet, co-founder and executive manager of UBLAC, echoes Lin’s sentiments, acknowledging how racial stereotypes can be detrimental to artistry.  “Being an artist can already be challenging at times because you are asking someone to essentially love who you are and what you are creating. So that can already be a lot. You’re a Black woman and an artist and it kind of makes things a little harder,” Morning said in a Zoom interview. “It makes the road a little harder for you, and that’s OK, I’m not afraid of hard work.”

Morning said that many of the UBLAC artists are fueled in their work by racial injustice that is being seen across the country. Her recent poems are about her personal experience of having police guns drawn on her.

It fuels me. The things that I go through fuel me to write about them to share my experiences with other people who are probably going through, who may not even know how to even express it,” Morning said.

UBLAC artists have started to collaborate on projects regarding racial injustice and rewriting what #BLACKJOY looks like. Lin, Garrett, Morning and other artists created their first YouTube video dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, which will be posted to their YouTube Channel soon.  

Looking forward, UBLAC is expanding its community impact with youth mentorship programs. The goal is to provide Black youth of all ages with Black role models in the artistic industry to help cultivate talent.

“It’s being able to be in Black space on a regular basis,” Garrett said.

The UBLAC community is excited for the future of the organization. There are plans for in-person galleries, more social media artist collaborations and #BLACKJOY art pieces coming.