Who do you admire for their work more than anyone? If you’re an architecture buff, maybe it’s Frank Gehry. If you love a good fiction novel, maybe it’s J.K. Rowling. For me, it’s an artist, of course – Kehinde Wiley. A hefty book of his elaborate and exquisite portrait paintings always sits close at hand in my studio to remind me what swinging for the fences looks like.
So, you can imagine how ridiculously excited I was to meet him recently at Ginny’s Super Club in Harlem. I asked my date to hover near me at the bar, camera ready to go, as I approached Kehinde to say hello, give him due praise, and ask for a photo. I realized this must be what it’s like to have a celebrity crush when I had to remind myself not to act like a giddy teenager meeting Justin Timberlake.
For several hours, I had the honor of sitting in the artist’s presence while enjoying a multi-digit course meal created by the culinary mastermind, and friend of Kehinde’s, Chef Marcus Samuelsson. There was a brief Q and A session where Kehinde elegantly answered some tough questions from his dining companions. My favorite was about his process of asking complete strangers on the street if they would model for his paintings. The question went something like, “What was your most uncomfortable moment of inspiration?” His answer:
“I was thrown in jail in the Congo for asking young Congolese people to form a line and assume certain poses from art historical sources. We didn’t know that it was the national election. We didn’t know that there were suspicions surrounding Westerners in the country. I didn’t know also that there’s no way of explaining that you’re in Sub-Saharan Africa to explain a new way of looking at Sub-Saharan Africa. You show the books, you try your best to explain in what broken French you have. But in the end, it was decidedly uncomfortable to spend the better part of a week in prison, especially given that you were slated and scheduled to paint the president of that nation.”
I left the event feeling both inspired and frustrated. The latter plagued me because I was reminded of what’s possible and how far I am from accomplishing it. But a good challenge never hurt anyone.
And so the year of checking things off my bucket list continues…