UMKC art student uses her lessons in academia to paint the Black experience.
Her colorful canvases hang around the room, and right before my eyes, the dull of a cloudy Wednesday afternoon transforms into something much more special as I sit with UMKC student artist Cicely Jones. Our conversation flows as smoothly as the brush she’s using right now to add the finishing shadows on her latest piece entitled “Neighborhood Hero” (pictured below).
We discuss the peaks and valleys of being a black student artist and how these unique experiences shape her artistry. As her painting hand travels back and forth from palette to canvas, I’m amazed at how she’s able to keep up such a conversation while creating this work of art. Then, it hits me: this is what it means to be a student artist. It’s a balancing act, and if there’s one thing to learn from Cicely Jones’ artistry, it’s that we should answer the call to create–whenever and wherever.
I watch Cicely blend shades of brown oil paints as we discuss the foundation of her artistry. “My art is more so about how I perceive the Black experience…it’s different from how a modern institution like a museum would portray it. My art is raw, uncontexualized, not watered down. It’s not sugar-coated. It’s very realistic”, she explains. My eyes search the studio walls for the paintings that attest to this truth. And the truth, which Cicely nobly reveals, is based on her perception of the Black experience, not anyone else’s. It is clear to me that she can dig deep into her struggles and create something meaningful.
Being a student artist comes with its own set of struggles while being a black person comes with another. As we reflect on what it’s like to live in both worlds, Cicely first recalls how being a student artist has helped her artwork. She explains, “You can learn a lot of things by living in the world and having normal everyday experiences that influence your artwork. But there’s a different type of message that your artwork captures when it’s rooted in academia.” Cicely goes on to say that “It comes from you knowing your history and connecting it with events of the present. A lot of topics that you want to address as an artist, [a collegiate career] adds context and meaning. You might think you know everything about a particular series, but if you watch a lecture or read a case study, then you gain a new perspective.” The benefit of being a well-rounded artist is irreplaceable, and with this, I certainly understand the importance of higher education for an art student.
Though, with everything, there’s an opposite. In her fourth year as an art student at UMKC, Cicely has almost survived it all. She states that the number one struggle of being an art student today is the strain on creativity. “If this is something you want to do, you’re gonna want to do it every day all day and not stop to go to class or hop on a Zoom meeting. [School] throws your momentum off. It can also negatively affect your mood, which can throw off your focus and perspective, and ultimately your message. It just messes with your headspace.”
I’m curious to know how Cicely nurtures her headspace as a student artist. As I scan her studio once more, I wonder if the amount of creations surrounding us is a direct result of how well she’s taken care of her headspace. “The best advice I’ve given myself is to just answer the call to urgency. If I feel like I want to create, I just sit down and create. Even when I don’t want to because some of the best artwork comes out of working through pain and discomfort.” And my curiosity is satisfied. I realize that the care Cicely’s taken into dealing with uncomfortable emotions directly correlates with how much she’s able to create.
When it comes to her creative process, Cicely brings the same energy to her personal art pieces as her graded work. “You expand your palette as an artist when you do these different assignments. You tackle different topics, use different mediums, consider different ways of looking at artwork, and getting others to look at your artwork. And that’s been something that’s helped me as a student artist.”
The introspection Cicely exhibits is commendable and lets me know that she’s found a quiet strength within herself. I question if she’s ever struggled with believing in herself or felt discouraged on her path of being a student artist. “I think a lot of student artists have had those experiences because we’re student artists–we have a voice that’s not mainstream. We don’t have as many experiences as professional artists. We don’t have the same opportunities to have solo shows, get written about, or just experience that other side of art. We’re on the “making” side of it. It’s a good side to be on, but most student artists want to experience the other side as their career grows. You want more people to look at it.”
She wipes a paint-stained finger on her shirt that reads UMKC in large blue letters, and I’m prompted to ask about the stain that the Kansas City community has on her artistry. “The Kansas City art scene is important to me because it told me that I was an artist. It basically told me in all capital letters, I AM AN ARTIST. Within this city, I’ve tried to run away from my talent so much and got into things that I really wasn’t into. The city really helped me to get to where I wanted to be with my artwork.” This pride is quite evident in her artwork. Cicely’s love of self is the blueprint for her love of community–a love that lives on in each painting.
Drawing on her personal experiences as a student artist, Cicely can create a world for herself that honors every struggle, emotion, and triumph. Being a Black art student in Kansas City has, ultimately, been about merging two worlds to express a greater collective experience. While most people step outside of themselves for meaning, Cicely searches deep inside to grasp true emotion.