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Elicia McKenzie, 41, is an artist who mainly specialises in water-mixable oils to create a representational or abstract art piece for an individual, organisation or event. Elicia's recent work, the 'Movement' series and 'Portraits of Black Icons', even though very different in style and medium, are interlinked due to the thread of light or highlights demonstrated in her use of white paint or chalk.
Elicia opens up to Bolanle Tajudeen, founder of educational arts platform Black Blossoms, to discuss her journey of challenges and triumphs and how she explores this in her artistic practice.
Watch: Black art, Black stories, Black voices
Bolanle Tajudeen: Were you creative as a child?
Elicia McKenzie: Yes, my mum identified my artistic skills when I was three when I drew a character from a nursery rhyme. From then, my mum supported my creative endeavours. I think my mum being a creative soul herself, allowed her to nurture and instil the values of an artist within me.
Bolanle: Did you study art formally?
Elicia: I studied GCSE and A-level Art and I went to art school very briefly, but I consider myself a self-taught artist.
In 1998, I got into one of the top art schools in the country - Chelsea College of Art. You had Saint Martins, then you had Chelsea – so it was a pretty big deal for me as it felt as if my artistic skills were being accepted outside of my mother and family. I was in my element! I was living off fairy cakes and bottled water because all my money was going towards art materials, but I was flying high because it was right where I wanted to be at that moment. Unfortunately, after a few months, there was a personal situation, and I decided to leave my studies and go into full-time work. I became a retail assistant in Marks & Spencer to help support the finances. I did intend to go back, but once I started earning money, it wasn’t easy for me to go back into studying.
Bolanle: I'm so sorry that the university didn't support you to stay.
Elicia: To be honest, I didn’t ask the university or anyone. However, the situation taught me that I should speak up and ask for help. Not long after I left Chelsea, someone I love and appreciate said that if I had told them what was going on, they could have helped me financially to continue my studies. So there was a period where I've looked back and thought if I had stayed in Chelsea College of Art, if I'd known that offer of help was available, I could have been in a different position.
Bolanle: I feel emotional. I know how hard it is now for Black women to be accepted into art school, let alone in the 90s!
Elicia: I have never shared that part of my journey publicly. I remember visiting different art schools before I accepted my place at Chelsea, and I walked into Saint Martins, and I did not see myself at all. I saw girls dropped off by their chauffeurs. After leaving art school, I completely stopped making art for around ten years, but when God gives you a talent and calling, it finds you again.
Bolanle: How did you get back into art?
Elicia: I needed money! I made a list of ways I could make money. I was on the brink, and my NHS wages were not covering my bills. I was reading a book by Susan Jeffers –- Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway. There was a section that spoke to me, that read something along the lines of, ‘people either go towards criminal activities to make money, or they will find a way to use their talent to make money’.
I was sitting at my desk, and then in walks an opportunity for me to get paid. A colleague wanted something painted, and before seeing the brief, I asked if it was paid. They said ‘Yes’, and that is how I got my first commission! No-one in the office knew I had a background in art, and I honestly knew it was God that intervened in my situation. I was living on lentils and rice – I turned vegetarian because I couldn't afford meat, that's how much I needed some money – even chicken was a luxury. When I got the money from that commission, I remember skipping to the supermarket to buy meat, as I couldn't afford it before.
Bolanle: Imagine leaving art school because of the lack of money and then getting back into art because you needed money, kind of full circle.
Elicia It was. My colleague then came back and commissioned me to do another painting, and I was like sure. Give me £250, and I'll do it. I didn't care what size it was, £250 is fine. I think, in the end, I must have painted like eight paintings for them. After a while, it went beyond money. I started to connect with making art and seeing what I could do because I almost forgot how talented I was. Creating the art, seeing the response and having my needs covered made me realise why God had given me this talent, and from there, I just kept on going and going.
Bolanle: I love that for you. After taking a 10-year pause from creating art, you fell back in love with the process of doing commissions. When did you start doing work that resonated with you?
Elicia: In between doing commissions, I was doing the odd original, but in 2020 during the pandemic, there was so much information that we were all bombarded with coupled with being cooped up indoors, and there was no escape from home; it became our workspace, family space and personal space. It was difficult; I needed to slow my thoughts down and escape Boris Johnson's briefings and the pandemic.
I started to paint cars. I love cars a lot. I can't drive myself, but I love classic and supercars, and I took many photos of vehicles at a car festival that I went to in 2019.
I started to paint the Ford Mustang. It was a representational piece, the full image of the car. My cousin came around for something and saw the painting, and there was no response. There was no engagement with it. When someone doesn’t respond positively with your art it kind of hurts. I painted over it and covered it in black, and I thought, let me focus on what I found beautiful about the car.
I concentrated on the colours, the reds, the reflection, the headlights, the grill, the cobra. What came from that process was an abstract piece; all my work before was representational, portraits or figurative, and then suddenly, this abstract piece came out of me. This led to the 'Movement series', which includes Red Movement and Blue Movement.
Bolanle: How did you find the process of going from figurative work to abstract?
Elicia: Creating abstract art is a way of me escaping and losing control. I am a very controlled person. My day job is very controlled, I'm very organised, and I use Post-it notes for everything. Abstract art is a release; I don't think about what the results will look like or what others will think of it. There have been some responses to the abstract series, such as it’s very different from what you usually do or where's the car? I can't see the car, and I'm like, you don't need to see it. Also, some people are searching for their reflection in all my work, but it can't be in everything I do.
Bolanle: I agree with you; you have to do work that speaks to your soul at that exact time. Can you tell me a bit more about the Black Icon series?
Elicia: For the Black Icon series, I used charcoal which I came to find out was the first tool used by artists to create art. Each of the subjects I have drawn is because I have felt a deep connection with their journey.
The first person I drew was Chadwick Boseman after he passed away. I never met the man, but I watched Black Panther and his other movies, and it felt like a loss to the family and learning more about his life I believed the sense of purpose was the message that spoke to me.
I also drew Dr Maya Angelou, a poet and activist; I chose her and that specific image because of her smile. Behind her massive smile, there was a lot of pain, and I know many people have experienced ‘slapping on smiles’ to mask their genuine emotions. Nina Simone is included in Black Icons as her music brought peace to my life when I needed it. Her voice and the lyrics that she wrote gave me a lot of encouragement.
Bolanle: You are a member of Disrupt Space, an agency for Black visual artists, what is it like working with other Black visual artists?
Elicia: It is fun, and everyone is a disruptor in their way. When I listen to the other artists, I learn a lot more about my heritage, each artist bringing their culture, technology, and creativity to the table. Disrupt Space is such a comfortable and safe space; everyone has a voice. I feel I am part of a family. If I need help, an opinion or want to discuss something, I can tap into the group and say ‘What do you think?’
Bolanle: You are currently creating a non-fungible token (NFT), how has the process been, and what will you create?
Elicia: The process has been good, very fast-paced. I feel very supported by Yahoo. The piece that I'm working on is entirely personal. My sister, Shelana, passed away in January 2021 after three years of battling cancer. She was also an artist. When I shared the ‘Movement’ series with Shelana in 2020, she loved the ‘Red Movement’. The brief for the NFT piece was a celebration of our culture, art and technology. I decided to combine my Movement series and the Black Icon series. Shelana was my Black Icon, and she loved Ford Mustangs, which I found out when I showed her my abstract work, so I decided to combine the two loves for my piece. As NFTs are digital and can be in the public sphere forever, making this piece in tribute to her feels as if Shelana is still here. For me, it is a beautiful and authentic way to honour her legacy.
Bolanle: That is beautiful. Thank you for being so open and sharing that with me.
Watch: Black & Beautiful in Britain