Omari Booker with Young Art Writers

Published April 7th 2023

On April 5th Omari Booker visited with McGavock High School art students in advance of his solo exhibit “Fifteen” at Elephant Gallery. Senior Alan George led the interview with other students asking questions as well. Three students; Alan George, Kyla Foster, and Blake Ahlstrom took Number Inc. up on sharing their overall impressions of getting to interview and talk with Omari Booker.

Omari introduced himself and then Alan and other students took over.

Omari: It's been a challenging couple of weeks to say the least for the students and teachers and I'm grateful to see the artwork that this next generation is making. The broad scope is that I didn't take any art until I was a senior in high school, so I had no idea that I wanted to really make art or be an artist. I didn't really know too many artists and in senior year ended up taking art class & loving it, and then only because I had to declare a major. I changed majors to art and graphic design and ended up staying in that degree path and then I left school. That was sort of when…when some of the, some of the trouble started showing up. Trouble in the sense of mental health issues, and then also some criminal issues. That kind of business led to incarceration that carried a 15-year sentence and that's what the exhibit that I'm making right now is about. It's about getting that sentence, the time that I was in for, time on parole and as of April of this year, which is coming up I guess next week, was fully complete. That's April 7th. The exhibit is kind of highlighting that span of time and my family and friends and all the support system (during that time). So that's the helicopter view, the elevator pitch, what's kind of going on, and why I'm here. I'd love to hear what questions you have. We'll dig into more as the day goes, but that's sort of the brief of how I got to into your seat (as an art student), and now I'm in my seat. That's kind of everything that happened. Pretty much high school up to now, which is 25 years or so.

Student Question: What was your first inspiration getting into art?

Omari: Music. Yeah, music was probably like, the first creative art form that I was interested in. I wasn't a musician, I didn't like playing instruments, but I just loved music. I was kind of inspired by 90s hip hop music was like the first thing that kind of made sense to me. Yeah, growing up in Nashville where like, there weren't a whole lot of things that I felt like, reflected who I was. So yeah, I mean, I think musicians influenced me and then as far as like, like once I got into it, I started to learn about painters and visual artists.

Student Question: What made you choose painting?

Omari: I felt like painting or drawing were partly practical. The materials for painting and drawing were something that I could get to easily where if I was a ceramicist or a sculptor, there were just certain tools I didn't have access to, but you can paint with paint from Home Depot, you know, leftover paint that parents have in the garage or whatever, like there's always sort of access, it was kind of easier to get to. Once I got into it, there also wasn't like a whole lot of storage where it's like if you paint 30 paintings that's only like a stack that high (makes a stack height with hands). But, if you’ve got 30 sculptures, you need a room like this space (motioning to the large classroom space) and so, you know, later on and making art I didn't really have that amount of space to create and store my artwork.

Student Question: You have a lot of variety in your paintings. What do you like to express? Emotions?

Omari: People, you know. I think people are the most interesting, I like landscapes and scenes and abstract works, but yeah, it's like every single person, and you all know this from knowing each other, like every person has just like infinite things inside. So, yes, people are the thing that I'm most drawn to. If you're seeing artists like Kehinde Wiley, who puts people from the neighborhoods where he existed in these museums and huge grand scale, and it can kind of shift the narrative of what people think is important. I can take a picture of someone who's likely to appear as if they are homelessness or something on the side of the street and I paint that about four feet and put it in a gallery or put in a museum and it can change what people think is important. There weren't a lot of paintings of black people until the 70s. Yeah, I mean, all the different kinds of people that were important, similar to music where someone raps about a neighborhood an artist can paint about Slauson & Nipsey. It's kind of a sacred place and that people seek out a neighborhood because it's been elevated through music and art.

Student Question: How was your journey to becoming an artist and what were the hardships in doing so?

Omari: I wasn't planning to make art for a living really until it was already happening. Like I worked in restaurants for years. And so just in that, in between time, not really having money but not really wanting to ask my parents like, I felt like I was a little too old to ask for it. And so, it was kind of a weird in between space. Art showed up as a therapeutic thing before it showed up as a career, like I was finding myself in places that I needed to make something as an outlet for depression. And then in incarceration, where just like the act of drawing to make me feel free in a space where you’re definitely not free. Once I found that I can be liberated through drawing, I did it all the time. I just got my pencil and was always sketching. Art was the thing that actually made me feel okay even in that space. Yeah, that was it. Like that was the thing that was like, Yeah, this is this what works in my life. So, no matter what it does financially, art already kind of saved me.

Mr. Mitchell reading student question: It seems to be your favorite mode of expressing the human condition by drawing and painting other people.  How did you learn that process? How did you learn anatomy? How did you learn anatomy?

Omari: I think doing anything with consistency will teach you a lot. I think I learned that by painting a lot. Like I said, I have a whole lot of paintings and the paintings from before 2018 are less structurally sound, less realistic. And so yeah, I think that kind of the key to that is just practicing. I’ve got my sketchbook in here, which I pretty much always do, and I still do that if I have any spare time. I will repetitively just paint things. There's also like tools where it's like, the whole body is about eight heads and there are certain general principles, but most of it is just repetition. So, I probably got, I don't know how many of these [sketchbooks] maybe 10 to 20. Yeah, so that's a long answer, but repetition is the biggest key.

Student Question: As a kid, like, I know you maybe didn't always think about wanting to be an artist, but what kind of art were you seeing?

Omari: When I was a kid, things were fascinating. It's like artwork to me looked like magic. Like I couldn’t even fathom how someone who could make that drawing look like the actual person. So, I think realism was probably something that just seemed unbelievable, also just like cartoons, Ninja Turtles! As a younger kid, I felt like there was a really big gap between what I could make and what I saw people making. And then as you just make things consistently, you realize that gap gets smaller, and smaller, and you start to be able to make the things you want to look at. I mean, it's the same thing with sports where it's like, I'm 12 and watching pickup with my uncles and there’s just no way I could ever played with Them. But, then I'm like 15, and I can hang with the crew.

Student Question: Do you have a favorite environment to create in?

Omari: Yeah, probably music playing. And so, I mean, if I was giving advice, whatever your favorite music might be, that's definitely something that you can control so whatever space is sort of uninterrupted. Like it doesn't have a lot of constraints on it. It's like, yeah, kind of like doing something liberating in a place that isn't liberating. And so yeah, I think wherever that place is. Outside is great. You know, you can set up easily from just having a sketchbook or whatever, I'm gonna definitely make it work outside too!  But yeah, I would say like the act of making will usually make whatever the place is, sort of come alive. Just by getting to the act of making wherever you are. Also, having good ideas, the thing that no one can really give you is a good idea. For me, I think the mind of an artist is the thing that is the most valuable and everybody has that. Gradually, I just got more and more comfortable with the fact that I'm only as good of a painter as I am that day. So, I want to advance that process. A little bit more each day.

Student Question: Is art your main job? How does that work?

Omari: Yes. Part of it is commissions. So, you know, someone might say, draw this thing for me, this portrait of me and my mom. If I were any of you, I would get $150 up front and then when you deliver it to them, then you get another $150. Anywhere that you are you can change your creative ability and I always tell people from a business standpoint, as artists, we really must do the same. Artists have extreme power. Not that I wouldn't be represented by one of the power structures but just like in music with people on a record label and so just me personally, knowing that the most powerful people in our industry don't look like me, they don't really represent me, art is like music where there's definitely a power structure and the painting that I could sell for $4000 maybe with the right people, I could sell it for $20,000 but then I'm beholden to those people, and they'll fire me. So, I mean, that's sort of a longer conversation, but I think it's an important thing to consider whenever you're going into any workplace is you know, who are the people that I'm working with and working for and how are their values aligned with what my values are? You never want to make that trade of who you are for any amount of money!

Student Question: What’s your favorite time of day to create?

Omari: Yeah, yeah. I'm not an early morning person. I always I still think we should start later. My whole life. What are we doing? People are growing. I used to be a late-night creator, but now I like 9am to about 11 or 12 or 1pm. So that's kind of my favorite time. It's still relatively quiet. I don't really have to turn my phone on or anything too much. I think also like once art became a career; I sort of had to have a little bit more of a traditional schedule.

Student Question by Adlai that ended the interview just before the 2:05 dismissal bell and created a chance for students to individually connect with Omari: Can you sign my artist trading card of you?

Omari with a huge smile and look of disbelief: Yes, I can!

Kyla Foster - Junior at McGavock

Main Take Aways from Omari Booker Interview
  • Art can be a main job.
  • Even if it’s not, you can still claim the title of an artist.
  • On that same note, you can be more than one thing. You could be an artist and scientist and maybe something else. There is no limit. (This part has really stuck with me since the interview and broadened my scope of what I could be)
  • If you work at something consistently, eventually you are going to get better at it.
  • There is not a time limit on progress.
  • The environment you create in can greatly influence your art AND your community.
  • Artist are allowed to be influenced by more than their communities and their experiences.
  • Music and even other artists are points of inspiration.
  • You don’t necessarily have deep meanings behind you’re art. If you feel it, you feel it.
  • “Not that I wouldn't be represented by one of the power structures but just like the music if we were on a record label and so just me personally, knowing that the most powerful people in our industry don't look like me. They don't really represent me.”
  • This opened my mind to how vast and ever changing the art industry is from a business angle and how the inclusivity (or lack thereof) is so different from the art community itself.

Alan George - Senior McGavock High School

My main takeaway from my interview with Omari Booker was that it is never too late to pursue art, even when you are going through difficult situations. Omari Booker only started to have an interest in art in his senior year of high school. In college, even though it was not his original major, which was in math, he changed to an art major. Throughout all the things that he went through, he used art as a therapeutic tool for himself. Booker shared with the class that he went through mental health issues and that he even went to prison. He used any material near him to make art, so he mainly did drawings and paintings. I feel I have a similar situation to Booker’s in a way since I’m just now, as a senior in high school, starting to get into art consistently. I felt that I was starting late and questioned if I could be an artist due to how late I am starting. After the interview I felt like I had a better hope when it came to art because Omari Booker helped me realize that throughout our experiences and difficult situations as people, we can always try and pursue our goal despite that. He helped me realize that if I am consistent with it, really want to go and do art and be an artist then I can be. It is never too late for anyone to want start doing art in any point in their life.

Sarah Anwan - Junior Art Student at McGavock High School

Omari Booker told us that he really didn’t get into art until he was older. I thought that was interesting because when people talk about their come up they talk about how they have been doing it since they were young. When people like me hear that, we think there is no chance for me to make it because I haven't been doing it for very long. It's very inspiring to see Omari doing his thing even if he did start later in life.

One important thing he told us was consistency and repetition is important to learning anatomy in art. What he said can be used in all aspects of life not just are, whatever you do keep doing it and get better at it.

Blake Ahlstrom - Freshman at McGavock High School

My experience with Omari booker was great. It was really nice to be able to talk to someone who made it in the art industry that was still so down to earth and real. He never seemed cocky or snobby like a lot of other famous artists he was just genuinely happy to be able to talk to younger artists who are in some of the same places he was in his art years ago. It was inspiring to see the similarities in our process and gave me hope that I could really improve my art like he did. All in all, it was a great experience and I would love to do something similar again.

Mike Mitchell aka mikewindy is an artist, arts educator, and the editor of Number Inc. Young Art Writers Project (Y.A.W.P.)

Amy Nystrand is the Program Coordinator of the Educators’ Cooperative. EDCO is a partner with Number Inc. and Y.A.W.P. Amy was on site with Omari to take notes for the students to be able to refer to and write their reflections.

Melissa Lindsey teaches art and ceramics at McGavock and is the co-creator and co-director of MOCA MAC. Several of her students participated in the interview and reflections including Kayla and Blake.