In high school, Not Real Art Grant winner, Nadyia Duff, chose Cooking as her elective. But, as fate – or the art gods would have it, cooking class was full, and Duff was placed in an art class.
“We should be able to create a work of art that doesn't have anything to do with struggling, or plight, or rage.”
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Duff moved to Miami, FL in the mid-‘90s where she still resides today. Her artist bio reads, “Nadyia Duff is a Jamaican/American multiethnic Artist, Art Educator, and Museum Educator living and working in Miami Florida. Nadyia combines the painterly and realistic to tell elaborate narratives using her method of drawing and painting.”
Duff’s earliest memories as an artist began by observing her mother’s artistic endeavors. “My mom would do little drawings for holidays like Christmas. She drew these characters and she was always creating something.”
Another one of her early artistic memories happened in elementary school when Duff was invited to join the art club where she got into trouble for drawing a Laura Croft Tomb Raider character wearing a bikini. “This is not allowed in school,” her teacher snapped, and the sketch was taken from her. When it’s suggested that perhaps that drawing might be worth a considerable amount of money now, Duff laughs it off.
Duff asserts that first and foremost, she is a storyteller.
“I'm really big on telling stories. I always want to tell a new story with whoever I decided to put into a portrait. I get the pictures from this app that I work with called Sktchy. People post their pictures and have artists from all over the world draw them. I pick interesting faces, people from diverse backgrounds. What I want to do is to tell a story about them. It can be fiction, it can be true. I just want to tell these stories of people in these joyous moments in time… So first, I look for a face. Then I'm kind of like a mad scientist. The story will eventually come to me before I finish the portrait.”
In her artist statement, Duff describes her process as a combination of “painterly and realistic with traditional and digital mediums. I play with the ideals of pop art and contemporary art. Every layer in each portrait is a unique and spontaneous buildup of mediums and color. The only thing planned is where the subject will be placed on the paper. When working with ink, and markers there is little opportunity to go back in and fix which makes each mark a strong artistic decision. Each portrait I create is different up close and at a distance. The subjects of the portraits are random, the backgrounds are random, the colors are random but, in the end, thin layers, thick layers, thin lines, bold lines, opaque and bold values, scribbles, and vibrant colors all combine to create one cohesive narrative that the viewer can interpret their own way.”
Duff acknowledges that she isn’t interested in doing the art that others may think she should be doing. “We shouldn't only be in museums because we're talking about the Black human body, or the Black struggle or the Black plight. We should be able to make a van Gogh-Esque landscape and be in a museum or we should be able to create a work of art that doesn't have anything to do with struggling, or plight, or rage. The plight, the struggle, the past – I’m very tuned into, but there are many people telling that story…That story goes beyond what I could put in a piece of paper or artwork.”
“I want to tell stories that are mostly about joy.”
Duff clarifies that she is searching for simple, everyday moments in her subjects. “I want to tell stories that are mostly about joy, people existing who are not in turmoil, not unheard, not those in pain. You know – just people in situations like camping or hiking in the mountains. Things that you don't really see on the news.”
As an art educator, Duff sees a movement towards “conversational art, where we're teaching students how to personalize their art and make it mean something to them. A lot of these children are very in tune with what's going on in current events, in media, in life, and they have information at the tip of their fingers, so they question us. We're able to have these really interesting conversations about art, and what art means and what their art can mean to others.”
Duff says she is inspired by artists who “are not trying to be super realistic with their work, like super- realism where everything must be perfect-looking and every detail is there. I like artists like Jenny Saville and Egon Schiele, where they push the button and distort things, where things don't look exactly how they're supposed to look. I also like Mickalene Thomas. I like what she does with the vivid backgrounds of her subjects. And I also like simpler artists like Grant Wood. I am inspired by his landscapes, and how it's very simplistic, but you can just tell so much about what's going on in the picture. I think I try to emulate that a little bit with my backgrounds.”
Subjective, singular moments
Duff reflects on the influence of singular moments. “My art is about sharing snapshots of people's lives. Anything could have happened before and after that one Snapchat, or portrait, or Tweet. Sometimes they don't put an expression on their face. So you can decide if they're happy…The viewer doesn't know if it's a singular moment or not. But that relates to what we see when we [view] other images in the news or are on social media; we're getting one snapshot. We take from it what we can, and we believe it or we don't.”
What does the world look like without art?
“I don't know if there would be a world at all. We're so dependent on art, even when we don't think so. Everything around us is art. This chair I'm sitting in – somebody had to design it. The phone I'm using – someone else designed it. The interfaces that we use. I don't know if there would be quite a world without art.”
When asked what she most wants her audience to know, Duff says, “This is your opportunity. I'd like everyone to know that. Don't take those singular Snapchats as truth. You never know what anyone's going through. It's important to look at the larger picture of everything before you make any judgments.”
The best thing about being an artist is…
“The best thing about being an artist is the joy to imagine and share your creation with others. It's just a lot of joy and peace of mind.”
Please follow Nadyia on IG: @nady_art