Artist Shawn Theodore Shares Insight, Advice
April 24, 2017
On Wednesday, April 12, the Department of African American Studies hosted Philadelphia-based multidisciplinary artist Shawn Theodore. Theodore’s visit and talk were part of the department’s spring lecture series, titled “The Black Artist in Perspective.” In between meeting with students and giving a talk at the Depot, Theodore sat down with African American Studies instructor Chioke I’Anson, PhD to discuss his career, his thoughts on what it means to be a black artist, and his advice to students and prospective artists.
Theodore’s work includes street photography and vibrant portraits of African American subjects. According to his website, his work focuses on the “vanishing landscape of Black neighborhoods” and the “fragmentation and manipulation of African American and African Diaspora identities and otherness.” In his interview with I’Anson, Theodore discusses being one of few black students in his college art classes and the challenges he's faced in marketing his art, particularly to corporate clients who are wary of investing in work that they perceive as political. But Theodore, who has experience working with the corporate sector, feels it’s important for businesses to see the value in reaching African American customers with their advertising and marketing materials.
Theodore originally studied fine arts painting before trying his hand at photography. Over time, he realized that his photographs resonated with viewers. He credits photographer Jamel Shabazz as a mentor and inspiration. When Theodore had an opportunity to introduce himself to Shabazz, Shabazz surprised him by agreeing to meet with him and offering him a “crash course” in street photography. “He didn’t show me anything about a camera,” Theodore says. “He showed me about people. And that was when the lightbulb came on.”
This chance mentorship is a good example of Theodore’s courage to take advantage of opportunities to grow as an artist. Theodore's view is, “If you sit still, everything just falls apart.” Theodore joined Instagram soon after it was released because he recognized its value as a burgeoning platform for photographers, and he credits it for getting his work into the public eye. However, he warns students to be cautious when posting their artwork online, advising them to be aware of the potential for theft. He also talks about the delicate balance of self-marketing—he built an audience by sharing his work frequently, but was careful to avoid overexposure. He warns that viewers can grow bored. His corporate background and knowledge served him well when the time came to branch out and sell his work. He stresses the importance understanding contract law and knowing what your work is worth. He is a strong believer that artists should be confident negotiating for fair compensation.
For Theodore, his hard work and willingness to take chances is paying off. He was recently featured in his first solo museum show at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Listen to the entire interview with Shawn Theodore here.