Artist Spotlight: Justin Beatty
By Fungai Tichawangana
When Justin Beatty was three months old, his mother started taking him to powwows. During his childhood years, while he was still too young to understand the significance of that experience, his parents were also exposing him to other forms of cultural expression; music and art from Western and other cultures. The young Beatty was also introduced to African American forms of artistic expression and took it all in.
“They were dedicated to exposing me to as much as possible, whether it was music or art, visual art, theater, religion, and the sciences, they just wanted me to have an opportunity to experience as much as possible, and then figure it out for myself.”
It was only later in life, as he did that figuring out, he realized what his parents had done; they had given him a firm grounding in the idea that there is more than one aesthetic that informs art. There is more than one way of seeing the world. There is beauty and power beyond the standard that is presented as the norm.
But more importantly, they had taught him to be proud of both his African American and Native American heritages and to understand how these two sometimes invisible worlds were such a critical part of the more visible, popular American culture that dictated the shape of a much of the art, music, and news around them.
"...they just wanted me to have an opportunity to experience as much as possible, and then figure it out for myself."
Beatty came to understand that in order for the tension between the different influences in his life to be transformed into a positive force, some sort of glue was needed. For him, that glue was art.
Beatty grew up in Roosevelt, New York, fifteen minutes outside Queens. His parents separated when he was still really young. He remembers though, how they both influenced his love for the arts.
“My father was a musician. He played drums. I have a multitude of family members that play instruments.”
“My mom used to work for Doubleday Publishing, which was a major publishing house in the 1950s through the early 1990s. She wrote blurbs for the inside of book jackets and worked in the art department.”
Art came to him in grade school, first as doodles all over his homework, which Beatty believes drove his teachers mad. Then as music. He played percussion and joined the elementary school band. He says it was the influence from his father and other family members that aroused his interest here.
When he was about eight years old, there was a weeklong book fair at his school where one of the hallways was lined with tables piled with books. On one of the tables was a book titled, How to Draw 50 Monsters, and another, in the same series, titled How to Draw 50 Animals. Beatty went home and begged his mother for money to buy one of them. In the end, she conceded, and he got his wish.
He remembers; “I was in that book for hours on end, and I would draw. I was horrible. It was terrible. My drawing was not good. But I wouldn't stop.” Over time, he bought as many books in that series as he could.
"I was like, 'This is what I want to do. I'm gonna be a graffiti artist.'”
That was in the late 1970s. As the decade turned, hip-hop culture exploded and brought with it what was to be Beatty’s next mode of expression. “In the early 80s, you had breakdancing and hip-hop and rap music and graffiti. I just fell in love with graffiti. I was like, “This is what I want to do. I'm gonna be a graffiti artist.”
Graffiti became his passion, and he became part of a community of creatives who expressed themselves in bright colors, shapes, and words lit up with neon highlights.
When Beatty was 15, His family moved to Connecticut and he couldn’t find the same community or exuberance there for his new art form so he focused on channelling his skills toward commercial pursuits. He put graffiti and popular cartoon characters on clothes.
“People would pay me for it,” he recalls. “And for the first time I thought, well, wow, someday I might actually be able to make money as an artist.”
After high school, his artist’s journey continued in Western Massachusetts where his stepfather got a job, leading to the family’s relocation from Connecticut. In 1992 Beatty started his freshman year at UMass Amherst. He felt restricted by the arts program and did not enjoy it until he studied under Dorrance Hill, a professor who helped him develop his skills and approach his art with an open mind. “Hill’s class was first thing in the morning, and you came in and there was coffee on and jazz playing. It was just a chill environment, and he was helpful. He could see what you were trying to do before you could really fully grasp it. But Hill wouldn't say, ‘Oh, you're trying to do this.’ He would just find the ways to help you to get to where you were trying to go.”
After his son was born in 1998, Beatty decided to focus on making a living. But still, art followed him. He still sketched in notebooks and one day someone saw his work and asked him to design a tattoo for him. “I started designing for people, and other native folks I know would come and ask me to help them with the insignias or designs for their traditional clothes. That was an eye-opening and powerful thing for me, that people were trusting me with something culturally valuable, that they were trusting me to participate.”
Beatty now produces digital art, and this too was something that he did not seek out. It came to him. A friend asked him to sketch something and wanted a digital copy. When Beatty scanned it, he wasn’t happy with the result, so he started wondering what it would look like if he drew it on the computer, and the next chapter of his artistic journey began.
One of his most well-known series of digital works features Native Americans in traditional regalia standing on downtown streets while elaborate cityscapes dominate the background. This juxtaposition is the glue bringing two familiar parts of Beatty’s world together in a way that is jarring for those who are not used to seeing what he feels should be a very obvious framing.
Beatty said, “Art is a method of healing… of expunging things from your spirit…”
Healing and community are themes that repeatedly come up when Beatty speaks. One of his current focus areas is creating spaces for artists who have previously been marginalized. A recent example is the exhibition titled November Red, which Beatty helped to organize and was one of six featured artists. He is also active in the Native American community, is a member of a drumming group that performs at different events, and he also helps to organize powwows.
But most importantly, unlike the bright-faced, wide-eyed version of the child who stood at his mother’s side about four decades ago as he attended his first powwow, Beatty now understands the significance of those events and of keeping that culture alive.
“My grandmother was not allowed to be proud [of her culture],” he says. “She was beaten when she spoke her language. She was taken from her family and was told that it was a sin to be Indian. She didn't want to really participate or teach anything about the culture because she was raised to be ashamed of it.”
“My grandmother was not allowed to be proud of her culture. She was beaten when she spoke her language. She was taken from her family and was told that it was a sin to be Indian”
“My mom was very different, believing, ‘No, this is who we are. And we have every right to be proud, and you have every right to participate. And you have every right to know about your culture and your history.’”
Beatty stopped drawing monsters a long time ago. He draws hope now, in his community work and in his art. Possibilities. Images that remind us how much work we all still have to do, how long the journey still is, and work that points to the firm possibility of a favorable destination.
You can find out more about Justin Beatty’s work here.