art.: In Conversation with Rashaad Denzel’s Colouroids at Why Not Coffee, LES

beyond a hashtag

It’s before evening, in the hour of 3 p.m. and Rashaad Denzel walks into the Lower East Side coffee shop Why Not Coffee, like an artist. Like an artist as one would imagine, a bit austere, unencumbered, dressed in something black, at least one piece and with eyebrows that are ready to furrow and unfurrow as he speaks about art and all the profundities that come with making it.

This day we talk about it and everything else he wants to over a coffee table, two cappuccinos and a baked sweet loaf.

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Coffeetographer: It is of his choosing that we meet at Why Not Coffee on the Lower East Side  and I want to know why.

Rashaad Denzel.: When I first moved up here – he’s from North Carolina – I wanted to get out and do my work and get a job, the typical New York thing. A lot of cafes were too small and they weren’t energetic enough for me. When I first came here, James Blake was playing and I loved all of the tables, it felt like a good spot. I met a graphic designer and we had a conversation and I felt it was more of a community, its like every time I’m here, I’m having a small conversation about the weather or just something I’m working on. Not all cafes can be like that.

c.: This is true. How do you work?

r.d.: I’m different when I’m working. I like for things to be going on. When I do art, I’m either watching something or playing music in the background; there has to be something else going on, I can’t create in my own silence.

c.: Why?

r.d.: It makes me nervous.

c.: Really! Why?

r.d.: When I took art in grade school I remember always making stuff, being around students and enjoying making art and work with people. I couldn’t do that in my regular classes. I think it transformed into working in communal spaces with my artwork.

c.: What happened after school?

r.d.: I studied color theory in Italy in 2013 for six months.

c.: Thus Colouroids?

r.d.: Yes.

Colouroids is Denzel’s art – in colour only – where he draws and colors abstract images and people and a prime reason we meet over coffee today.

r.d.: When I was in Italy, my Italian lit teacher would take an espresso break everyday at 3 p.m. and I’d go get a sandwich. Then I started to have longer classes and tried a coffee during that 3 o’clock break and noticed my energy up, coffee gave me spunk. Before that I was drinking tea. My mom drinks a lot of tea; I grew up in North Carolina… that southern sweet tea.

c.: How does being in a coffee shop feel for you?

r.d.: I like being in a coffee shop, being and seeing everyone else work instills my own motivation, seeing others makes me want to focus and everyone has the same energy.

c.: How often are you in a coffee shop on a monthly basis?

r.d.: I come at least once a week, at least four times a month and I live in Harlem.

c.: Is there a space that you like to go?

r.d.: There’s Cafe Frederick Harlem Parlor I like it because the owner took the idea of the area being named FDR Blvd and she included him; his essays, literature, books, ideologies and philosophies all within the coffee shop – its like being brought into his world.

c.: That’s an experience, that’s culture and that’s when something really can work.

r.d.: That’s my thing, history and culture.

c.: Do you have a particular coffee order?

r.d.: We’re having it, cappuccino with soy. When I first came to New York, Happy Bones was the shop I went to all the time.

c.: From when we first met, upon you moving to New York until now, you’ve explored a few art forms, photography included. How much of your artistry now is about Colouroids, which has its own Instagram account and hinges between the abstract and color figure portraits?

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r.d.: Colouroids now, is me figuring out my own beat. Before, I was playing around with photography, I was forgetting my childhood and what I was really interested in. As a kid, I drew with crayons and oil pastels. My favorite thing to draw was storms.

c.: Storms? One doesn’t hear that everyday. Why storms?

r.d.: I remember Hurricane Fran and watching weather channels and weather documentaries, which would translate into my coloring houses, wind blowing and storms.

c.: Was it abstract or representational?

r.d.: It was representational, actual rain, and they were fluid. That and playing with Legos and hot wheels – all those things together were part of my background.

c.: Hot Wheels are very colorful.

r.d.: Yes. When I make art now, I’m trying to reflect the child in me – its more creative. I want to make it colorful and make someone smile. I don’t want to make anything to dark. When I did photography I wasn’t in control of what I got. That’s what I like in illustration and painting, I can change it up.

c.: Tell me about that, about what illustration allows you to do.

r.d.: I’ve found my beat, I understand that its color that I enjoy working with the most. All of my work in past, the thing I actually had a showcase for was color. Now, I know I love color. So, its like okay, whatever I’m going to make its going to be color.

c.: Who do you like?

r.d.: Jacob Lawrence is my favorite artist. He’s from Harlem. I use to read his books as a kid. He used a lot of red, black, green and yellow and brown and blue. Sometimes the subjects of his images reflected the time. There’s one of two black men in front of a judge and the colors he used was a happy message but the subject was happy.

The structure with which I approach the artwork and the vibrancy of the art and Africa attracts me. I told my girlfriend that I think growing up with a structured family is why. I’ve proven to myself I can pick a good color scheme but now I want to my message into it, I want more emotion in my art.

c.: What kind of message?

r.d.: I’m into politics and social issues. I can’t call CNN and give my opinion but I can convey it through art and by writing it.

c.: I feel what you’re conveying through art with Colouroids is a message now. There’s color obviously but there’s also a conversation happen between color and culture – especially the culture of those of color in America. For example Calamity, it struck me when I first saw it – vivid, wiry, powerful.

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r.d.: I named it Calamity because that’s what a lot of young black men experience. It affects a mom, dad, an entire community, kids friends and even parents of those kids’ friends. There are ripples and I thought about that – Trayvon Martin hit me close. That was me when I was younger – same style of things, same friends. This year I want to show people more of the impact.

c.: How do you decide how to be expressive?

r.d.: The lines create the balance for myself first. The red line behind my name in my logo is to represent me being confident in what I’m doing. It’s addling lines and adding structure. I had a traditional family life: mom dad, older sister and my mom took me to school, was in the PTA and we did family vacations. I knew what it was like to have structure. So when it comes into my artwork it helps me understand why I wanted to put a square as part of foundation. The color is the expressive part; I can play around with it and using reds it’s an interesting color, it means so many things.

c.: How do you actually create, what’s the process behind your work?

r.d.: I draw by pencil, and then I outline it in pen. Then I take a photo of it and upload it to illustrator and change it to sketch art. Once I scan it and put it into illustrator its done. Art has expanded as a term. I’m curious how people feel about computer art. When I do the images and I do them so fast I’m like people are probably like that’s not art. He laughs.

c.: Picasso said it took him fifty years to draw his lines like he did. Once can’t underestimate the value of something just because they’ve figured out a system to create it be it in seconds or months.

r.d.: I do like it because with the color and fonts I think it’s a whole field of art from the computer, the IPhone and you.

c.: They are all playing together.

r.d.: Every artist struggles with something. There are the gatekeepers and those who have studied art – sometimes that’s what distracts me. Now I finally know its what I want to do. When I first moved here it kept me back. When I heard Shantell Martin say she went to the galleries but they wouldn’t accept her work; I felt like I wouldn’t be able to be accepted either if I didn’t have that art background and I’ve been doing art since I was a kid.

c.: But you created Colouroids, which is out of your work in Italy and now it, has its own dedicated platform on Instagram, separate from your personal one. Why?

r.d.: I want people to know the things I like and the things I do. Those things are separate from Colouroids which allows me to create multiple things. Ultimately, I’d like to have home and office products. Being around Lizzy and Darlene – William Okpo – gave me a platform over the summer to paint to involve. I saw how my art could be used in these spaces. It let me know there’s a functionality – people want it in their space.

c.: How does Instagram play into its voice?

r.d.: I feel like we’re the early adopters of the Internet. I was using the Internet in 2003, that was when I got my first Kodak, camera, we took pictures and uploaded them to the internet. Then we made things and posted just because we want to put it out. I don’t have that seriousness that others have, it’s always been a place to showcase my life. Now its become a business; the Internet is already broken.

c.: How does an artist survive a broken platform?

r.d.: Once people are able to manipulate the platform it’s a broken thing. But us early adopters are in a weird area; I’d love to have to not worry about it, but we have to show people that we’re alive. Question everything, convey authentic messages and create an experience.

c.: There are some I know have left social media but you can still track them to a degree with a hashtag, its one way to be in the conversation but still control it. I think its pretty genius.

r.d.: If you’re not on a platform, you got to at least have a hashtag. I always wanted to be the person to plant the seeds for the next thing. Maybe I’m not at the podium talking but maybe I’m the reason why someone else is at the podium.

His beanie is above his eyebrows, he pulls on his beard and his eyes feel ignited with a brooding passion. An artist is awake and his voice is at the microphone. He’s ready to speak; he’s speaking – now.

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