I stumbled upon Shade’s paintings just as we find anything of interest nowadays – on social media. It was on Instagram that Shade transformed one of the most iconic photos of any 2017 award show into a live canvas portrait.
Even from a bird’s eye view, it’s clear that Shade takes her artform seriously. Her ability to portray the vivid details of her clients’ lives on canvas is awe-inspiring. Most importantly, she is inspiring her followers to pursue their own passions as outlets. You’ll find this to be true just by scrolling through her Instagram comments; even her very first painting posted on the platform generated well wishes from outsiders looking in. Messages like, “Girl you better not waste Gods gift to you!!” and “I kept thinking all night how beautiful that painting was! Wow! That’s crazy impressive!!” prove how Shade’s work is more than just a hobby or side hustle, but an important outlet that is impacting the lives of those who stumble across it.
Throughout my limited thirty-minute phone introduction with Shade, I was most surprised with her spiritual maturity and self-assurance. Our conversation revealed Shade’s deeper connection with the universe’s energy and how each decision she makes as an artist is driven by her inner destiny, whether intentional or not.
Let’s start with the light stuff: how it all started.
Thanks so much for taking time out of your day to talk with me! I was really interested in learning about the background of your art – it’s amazing!
Thank you I appreciate that.
How did you get started with your art in the first place?
After I graduated high school I moved to Washington, DC and then I moved back to Indianapolis. After that, I was very depressed and in a dark place in my life. I was honestly bored one day and remembered a couple of art classes that I took in high school so I decided to try paint. I painted one picture and showed it to a girl. She asked if I could make something for her. She was a medical student so I painted a pair of lungs and then she bought my first painting for $20.
From then on, it just grew.
You said you came back to art when you were depressed and at a low point. What made you choose paint at that point rather than any other art form you could’ve done?
In high school I liked drawing more than anything. I was working a lot and didn’t have much time to draw. Painting was faster and if I messed up it was easier to go back and fix it. So, instead of drawing I took up paint.
Do you ever think about how cool it is to have a release like that? A lot of people don’t have a way to release what they’re thinking or dreaming about.
I thank God and the universe for allowing me to find it in the short amount of time that I’ve been on the planet. A lot of people don’t even find it until their late 50s or when their life is already almost gone, so it’s one of those things that I appreciate more than anything else. There are a lot of people that are talented and don’t even know they’re talented because they just do things out of habit or based on what they studied. Just like me – one day I just realized like, “oh! I’m good!”
[Laughs.] Right, that’s crazy! Good enough that people want to even pay you to portray the things that they want to see!
Yeah. It’s something that I enjoy doing. So many people say, “someday you’re going to find a job where you love what you do and get paid for it.” But for me, it’s not even a job. I just love to do it. I feel like I found it.
Do you think you’ll want to keep painting professionally? Do you want this to be your main source of income or will it stay as your side hustle, something nice to do?
I want to make it to where I can work for myself and this is the main career but I also don’t want to do it so much to where I tire myself out. I don’t want painting to become more of a job than it is a dream. I want to expand the horizons and help people create for themselves rather than me creating for anybody. Does that make sense?
So like through teaching classes or mentoring? Things like that?
Yeah! Actually ever since I’ve started I’ve inspired a lot of my friends to take up stuff that they actually love to do. That makes me happy more than anything when someone comes to an art show and decides to try something that they’ve always wanted to do.
That’s cool that you can be an inspiration to other people. Growing up, I never pictured myself doing anything that was creative or particularly different from other people – I just thought I’d be like everyone else working an office job and going home. I didn’t realize until recently that you can really do whatever you want to.
Yeah, that gives me the happiest feeling. When I first started painting it was never about the money. Never about the money. It was more about being artistic and seeing how happy my friends or customers would be. Something that’s custom made for them that can’t be made anywhere else or remade. It makes my heart warm.
If you had to guess, how many paintings have you done for other people?
Wow. I would say at least 150.
Damn, that’s a lot!
It’s probably more than that. There’s stuff on my Instagram and then there’s stuff that I haven’t even posted. I did a portrait for my friend’s baby shower, but those moments don’t get posted because I think they’re personal.
Digging deeper: Shade’s drive to paint.
How do you decide what you want to paint? Is it based on commission or whatever you feel in the moment?
Most paintings that I do for myself is based on what I’m going through physically and emotionally. Whatever my mind is going through. Some of my paintings are based on dreams that I have – some of them are kind of weird.
Has there ever been a time where someone commissioned a painting and you didn’t feel comfortable portraying what they wanted you to?
When I first started a few years ago someone asked me to paint something and her description wasn’t my vision at all, it just wasn’t me. It didn’t make me uncomfortable but it just didn’t make sense in my head so I declined.
So you didn’t do it to just make the money?
I don’t want to give someone a piece of sh*t! [Laughs.] If it’s not meaningful to me, I don’t want to force it. Even if it’s a commission, I make sure I put my heart, sweat and tears into every painting. Even if I have to put on sad music and cry about it!
That’s so much easier said than done. But we all have to be like that, especially when we’re trying to share an art form.
Yeah. There’s a lot of people that think, “Oh, you could do so much more!” But that’s not the vision that I have, you know? I’ve been asked multiple times to do a photoshoot but there’s something within me that tells me not to trust certain people or not to go about things a certain way.
I want to present myself and my body to the world in the most gracious way and in the most Shade way.
Wow, the Shade way. That seems like something that everyone should reach for, but that thinking doesn’t resonate with everyone.
Yeah, a lot of people think with money stuck in their heads. They’re like, “did you get paid for it… blah blah blah.” It’s not about that. It’s about the art.
Some people think they can’t make their dreams come true without money but I do things for free because I get to collaborate with awesome, talented people.
What’s your process like? When someone says, “Shade I want you to paint Migos and Gucci Mane at the BET Awards!” How do you process that and get ready to paint it?
There’s not really a ritual. I was actually looking at the picture from the BET Awards and it was just hilarious to me so I saved it in my phone. Then a few days later, this girl Snapchats me and says, “Hey, could you paint this?” She thought it’d be really dope in somebody’s living room. It was crazy because I was just looking at it! It wasn’t really a commission because she hadn’t paid me for it, but I did it for someone else and for myself at the same time.
If someone sends me an idea and I fall in love with it I’ll just go off of that. [With the Migos painting], I sketched it out and then painted half of it. Then went to Canada, came back and painted the rest.
Canada was pretty fun I was pretty happy with that trip.
Where’d you go? Toronto?
That trip opened my eyes so much. It really made me want to learn more about where I come from.
What do you mean where you come from?
In Canada people of color actually identify with a home country. So, say you walk up to someone and ask, “What’s your background?” We’d answer that question with “African American” which if you think about it doesn’t even make sense. This says America is our home country but Africa is our ancestry – which is a huge continent with many different cultures. People in Canada would say “Dominican” or “Haitian” or “Nigerian.” They’re not African American in Canada and that kind of blows my mind. They actually have a motherland. That is mind blowing! I think I want to do research on my ancestors and see where we came from.
I recognize that struggle! Even in cities like New York you have Dominicans and Jamaicans and they know their heritage and get to celebrate it!
I did this genetic test where I had to spit into this tube and mail it back. It gave me a percentage breakdown of where my ancestors likely came from. It seems really weird, but it was very informative. It said I was a certain percentage from the Congo and from the UK/Ireland. At first I thought it was made up and they were just sending me random countries but my older sister did it and it matched our DNA. Same with a distant cousin! It even identified people that I don’t know that I’m related to somehow from other countries!
Wow, I want to do that. Was that Ancestry?
Ancestry does it but I used 23 and Me.
I’ll have to remember that. I definitely want to try something like that.
It was just difficult not knowing how to answer that question, “what’s your background?”
It’d be cool to incorporate what you learn into your artwork. Once you know what native cultures you’re a part of.
Yeah, I’ve done it in one of my paintings. It’s the one with the ballerina that’s hanging from the tree. She’s dancing and hanging from the tree – she’s very much alive, it’s not self-inflicted. But, it’s very different from the normal lynching.
Why the ballerina?
It was inspired by a dream I had back in September. I was trying to prepare for an art show and I had one painting done and needed a few more. After I had the dream I started painting this picture. It kind of creeped me out because it was all in black and white – it was like a live action movie that I was watching. I thought if I put this on a canvas people would think I was creepy! [Laughs.]
In October this movie came out called Birth of a Nation with Nate Parker. I went to see that by myself and there’s a scene in the movie, after the rebellion, where they just start killing slaves for no reason. Throughout the panic of the scene, there’s a family hanging from a tree and the Strange Fruits song starts playing in the background. I went home and went to sleep. I know it shouldn’t have bothered me, but that night I had the same exact dream except this time it was in color.
I don’t know who I was at this point in my life, like whether I was a little kid or grown. But, I’m watching this beautiful woman who’s up in a tree. She’s beautiful, she has on this blood red tutu and from a far distance you can see master’s house – the big, all white house. There’s a tree in the front, and you know what the tree is used for. Then, about halfway through the dream, the song starts blasting in my ear.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
This is screaming in my ear! It’s like three in the morning and I’m like, “Okay, we’re not going back to sleep Shade.”
That’s so eerie, but the painting is amazing!
Oh, it gets even worse when you do your research! I did research on where the song came from and it just tied back to my personal life – so much so that I went rogue for about three days. I thought I was crazy. I didn’t talk to anybody – I just turned my phone off and came home and went to sleep because I couldn’t deal with the stuff that I was finding out about myself and my paintings. I just didn’t understand.
How’d you come out of that dark place?
I just accepted what I saw and all of the facts that I had – I still don’t understand why I had them or why they were meant for me.
So, I live in Indiana and the song was actually a poem written by a white guy in New York because he saw a lynching on a postcard that happened in Marion, Indiana. [For more information on the infamous Marion lynching, read this article. Warning: sensitive content.] That was so weird – it’s one of the most famous lynchings in the world. Two of them happened in Indiana. I mean, we learn about these things in school, but you never sit back and think that these things happened right where you live.
That’s crazy, I had no idea!
Yeah! Back in September, I had one painting for the art show done already and it was of this woman named Victoria. I thought she was so beautiful so I asked to paint her – I just thought her face was telling me a story. Fast forward, I did some research on Billie Holiday who originally sang the song. Looking at Billie Holiday, who I’d never seen before until October, I felt like I’d met her before… then looking at the painting of Victoria and it looked exactly like Billie Holiday.
Wow, that’s on a subconscious level. You have such a strong connection to this dream.
Yeah! It’s as if I was really meant to receive this message. Stuff like that will mess with you.
I was telling somebody at my job the story about painting Victoria and about the lynching that happened in Marion years ago on August 7th and she laughed and said, “Shade, you know August 7th is Victoria’s birthday, right?” At first I thought she was joking but I went on Victoria’s Instagram, and it was true!
The universe works in mysterious ways and I don’t believe anything happens by accident.
I’m still trying to figure out what the message is. In the lynching, there was a third person who was supposed to be lynched but someone in the crowd yelled out that he didn’t do it. So he was the one to live to tell the story. [The lone survivor of the Marion, Indiana lynching was James Cameron. You can purchase his published book, “A Time of Terror,” here.] Just like he was the one to watch the lynching, I watched the lady being lynched in my dream. Maybe it’s a message reflecting some sort of guilty conscience.
I’m always trying to explain my dream through my life experiences. I don’t even know what I’m watching, but I should be helping someone, according to my dream. Now that I’m “awake.” People love to throw the “woke” word around but I’m really awake, as in I’m aware and conscious of what’s going on and it blows my mind.
I’m inspired to help the next person instead of letting the same thing that I’m watching happen over and over again.
So you definitely feel a sense of responsibility to your community. Whether that was the message or not, you have it now and there’s no turning back.
Yes. The universe, God, or whoever or whatever energy, is driving me to spread positive energy. Whatever I’m seeing is obviously a big sign that something has to be done. I’m just not sure how. The question is always, “how can you change the world with your art?” I know I have some power to change at least one mind.
And you never know, that one mind can be the one person to change something else. It’s a domino effect.
Yeah, it goes on and on.
So do you still have the ballerina painting?
Yeah, actually as we’re speaking I’m putting Mod Podge on it to make the colors more vibrant. It has so much meaning to it so it’s my most expensive painting – priced at $200.
Do you think you’ll ever sell it or do you want to keep it as a reminder of the message?
I’m not sure. This is one of those paintings where once you see it you won’t really forget it. I definitely wouldn’t give it to the wrong person.
I also have a journal where I write down all of the details and key points of my life so I won’t forget them. This’ll be with me forever.
You’re very self-aware and in touch with your feelings and dreams. That’s not something you see too often with people our age. Have you always been like that or did time just shape you into this person?
It comes with time and the people I surround myself with. When I spent time around my grandmother she’d remind me constantly to live my life how I want because I only get one. She’s not like other grandmas or big mamas – she can’t cook. That’s the most inspiring thing about her – she’s not average. She does what she wants because she’s been through the struggle.
I’ve never heard of a grandma that can’t cook! [Laughs.]
Yeah! She’s pretty laid back. A super dope person. It’s hard to explain, she’s just legit real. She’s very conscious and aware and in touch with herself. She encourages us to believe in ourselves and believe in a higher level of power. That’s what makes me more open-minded and self aware.
I’m actually headed to visit her in September. That’s another reason why I’m probably so culturally aware – she lives in Washington, DC. We plan to have a date and visit the Smithsonian Museum of African American History.
Super cool! I’m so glad you have that influence.
Living out her destiny: What’s next for Shade.
What’s up with your newest project? You’ve been giving hints and glimpses on social media but I can’t completely tell what it is.
I’m doing a collaboration with a visionary that I met. We met a couple of months ago – her name is Tara and she’s a chakra expert. She’s a divine person. I can’t tell you much about the details of chakras because I have to do more research myself, but she knows how to get into the divine parts of life.
She has this vision where she meets a chakra who’s an actual being in her vision and dreams. She represents all of the different chakras in her vision and they were looking for a girl that fit the part. She actually drew them a sketch and after she drew the sketch is when I came into the picture.
At the same time, I actually looked like the girl in her dream so it’s like I helped something come to life. We did a photoshoot for this project – I can’t give too much away but I am the model for this vision.
That’s super cool that you actually looked like the person in her dream.
Yeah! It’s life-changing because as I’m doing the modeling, I’m learning about the chakras and what each of the different chakras stood for. These are things that are actually happening in my life. There’s a chakra about being aware of your reality and “waking up.” You can’t be afraid to move onto the next step – one of the weaknesses of that chakra is fear and anger.
I won’t let anybody influence me to stop doing what I’m doing or to do things the way they’d do them.
That’s actually where I am in my life right now.
Lessons to be learned.
If there’s anything you take away from this piece – besides the call to support such a talented young artist – it should be the bare necessity to listen to the universe’s message for you. While it may not be as crystal clear as a blaring song in a night dream, we each have a calling to make things better for the next generation of beings.
Shade was driven to do so through a painted picture.