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How Austin-based artist Adrian Armstrong is helping lead the local ‘Black Renaissance’

Adrian Armstrong's current work focuses on community. (Narcissus Arts/Instagram)

Black stories have always been important to Austin-based artist Adrian Armstrong but they haven’t always been accessible to him, or anyone else for that matter. When he moved to Austin, Armstrong (literally) drew the Black stories in.

In a world where Black art has been “wildly underrepresented, historically,” Armstrong recalled never seeing anyone that looked like him when he visited the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, as a child.

Armstrong had been interested in art for as long as he can remember—he grew up doodling Dragon Ball Z in the back of the class and people would tell him he had a gift for illustration. After realizing that becoming an artist was a viable career path in high school, Armstrong eventually went on to earn his Bachelor's of Fine Arts studying printmaking and painting from the University of Nebraska.

“Up to that point, I really thought art was just old paintings from the Italian Renaissance,” Armstrong told Austonia.

Armstrong moved to Austin in 2016 to get out of his hometown after college—he’d heard of its artsy, weird community living here and quickly found a home through fellow artists Rex Hamilton, Mike Melinoe, Chris Omenihu.

Community influence on Armstrong’s art

This new community was unlike anything Armstrong had experienced in Omaha—the newfound friends “opened up Austin” for him. While Armstrong had never met a prominent Black artist from Omaha, he had already met several “very supportive” peers in Austin who were eager to help him succeed.

One of those peers was Melinoe, who Armstrong gave a temporary place to live when Melinoe was homeless and helped him get his footing in the art community. The pair mutually lift each other up and frequently collaborate, which Melinoe delights in, given that Armstrong is one of his favorite artists.

“He’s one of my favorite artists I've ever met in my life, I'm blessed to even know him, I'm honored to know him,” Melinoe said. “Adrian Armstrong is the guy that, if I were to ever win a Grammy, he would be in my Grammy speech. He's really just a pure soul.”

Though Armstrong had previously been inspired by the “everyman” symbol, using his own image to represent everyday struggles through portraits, his current work reflects the moments he missed while in quarantine.

“I'm working on a body of work that's dealing with community and connection, tenderness, love, whether it be platonic or romantic or a mother and child or friends or whatever,” Armstrong said. “I feel like I, as well as most people, missed that connection. I'd spent a lot of time thinking about things that are important to me and people that are important to me and why those things are important.”

Armstrong’s influence on the community

Austin’s fine art scene still has a long way to go in terms of highlighting Black art, history, culture and oppression, Armstrong says. But he’s doing his best to be the catalyst of that change by continuing to paint Black figures and create space for artists of color.

“I feel like the art world is still a very white male-dominated space, and Black people and black stories have been wildly underrepresented, historically,” Armstrong said. “I think it's important that I push these stories out to these people and I want to push that out as much as I can. I want people to see themselves in not only my work but in museums and galleries.”

In order to bridge the gap, Armstrong created Brown State of Mind, an organization designed to help Black and brown creatives find opportunities to showcase their work. The organization ran from 2017 to 2020 before taking a pause due to the pandemic.

Through BSOM, Armstrong was able to connect with dozens of artists, musicians and designers of color, providing free classes and giving them a platform to launch their careers from. Armstrong said BSOM is the project he’s most proud of.

“The main problem that I was finding was that they just weren't getting opportunities and they felt like they were being overlooked or overshadowed by white artists in the city,” Armstrong said. “They felt like there weren't spaces for them to play music; they felt like there was a lack of representation in the city. I really feel like we made a big impact in the community.”

Armstrong is hopeful to re-launch BSOM sometime soon but he continues to try to connect people and support his peers in the meantime as he rises to prominence in the local scene.

“I feel like the city has tried and whether it's been genuine or just because of the pressure being put on, I can't really say, but I feel like there's been at least a little push for representation in the last couple of years,” Armstrong said. “There's like a Black Renaissance going on in the art world right now and I feel like Austin is trying to get involved with that.”

In the meantime, Armstrong has a lot of projects he’s working on for 2022 including a showcase in partnership with Mike Melinoe, creating an organization for mental health and some solo shows. Austinites will be able to see Armstrong’s work at a solo exhibition at Big Medium in June this year.


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