Editor’s Note: As the pandemic lays bare racial inequities in health care access and protests against police violence and racial injustice persist across the country, Art&Seek wanted to know what impact this moment in history was having on the creativity of Black artists in North Texas. In this installment, Desiree Vaniecia tells KERA’s Miguel Perez how her roles as an artist, teacher and mother fuel her creative ambition.
Black women are the foundation of Desiree Vaniecia’s work.
The painter was raised in a matriarchal home, and her work often looks to the women in her own life, like her mom.
“When I was buying a house, I made sure I stayed within 15 minutes of her house,” she said “Also, I see my grandma all of the time. And my great-grandmother, I haven’t been able to see her because of COVID, but I talk to her as much as I can.”
Her portraits, both strong and vulnerable, pay homage to her family and challenge stereotypes of Black women.
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“Londa’s Girl.” Before I was ever a mother, a wife, a woman, I was hers. I always can’t thank my Momma enough for deciding to have me and raise me. Everything that I am and hold dear is because of my Momma. Can’t do a self portrait without mentioning her. . . . This piece will be apart of Our Faces, Our Voices in September.
One of her latest pieces currently hangs at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center as part of the “Our Faces, Our Voices” exhibition. Simple clean lines and stark black paint set against a baby blue backdrop.
“I want to see the arch of the eyes, the way the lips are formed, and is the hair in front of the ears or is it pinned up,” she said. “Each of those details play a huge part into what I’m trying to say with the piece.”
Every brushstroke is deliberate.
And every painting starts off on paper as a poem or a thought that becomes a sketch that becomes a blueprint.
“When I’m in the zone, I’m focused,” she said “Even though there might be a kid screaming in the background or I have lesson plans to finish, my face is completely focused on that. I don’t break away until it’s done.”
It requires total discipline, and that’s challenging.
She has a four-year-old son, and she has about 350 art students at J.L. Long Middle School in East Dallas.
Her days start early and end late, filled with lesson plans, car rides, back-to-back classes, “and then, I go home,” she said. “I say it out loud, and oh my god, I do too much.”
But, her ambition is undeterred. The self-made artist has been on this path for five years.
“I’d just turned 25, and I was probably 4 months pregnant,” Vaniecia remembers. “I said, “I want to do something with my life that my son will be proud of.”
She says this year, especially, has been pivotal for her career as an artist.
Her work got a big boost of attention after a mural she painted in Deep Ellum this summer honoring the lives of Black men and women killed by police, was featured in the paper.
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There’s so many,” Vaniecia says. “That’s the sad part about it. How to fit them in here. Those people have died and I don’t think when they died they thought they were going to be a part of something, something bigger than themselves, a change, a revolution.” Vaniecia called on her friend, Joeneal Berry, to help her paint the mural. He says he hopes passersby admire it and that they’ll be encouraged to raise their voices in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. And as a African-American man, he’s glad to have had the opportunity to help out with this project and channel the anger he says he’s been feeling this past week. “Don’t stop for what you believe in," Berry says. "We need to tell these people in higher places and the government, the police department, that we are people too. We don’t need to be mistreated. Lift your voice. No matter how big or small, please lift your voice. Be respectful. But also be stern with how you feel.” 📸 @jmcwhorter11 @dallasnews
“Somebody took a picture of it before it hit Dallas Morning News, and then it was just off from there,” she said. “It was insane.”
A flood of requests followed: new commissions, social media takeovers, panel talks and gallery shows.
But, Vaniecia says some of the interest felt insincere.
“We’re going to give you these opportunities, but we don’t want you to say anything,” she said. “They’re letting us down. You just want to use my face. You just want to use my credentials or who I am to better your narrative, but you’re not listening to me as far as what you need to do for your institution to be better.”
Vaniecia is learning to navigate the professional art world: talking to the press, saying no to bad deals, and sharing her ideas without restraint.
“I’ve definitely been like, “this is what my work is about and this is what is stands for.” I’ve become very possessive. In a sense.”
Her success comes at a moment fraught with uncertainty. The pandemic has not been kind to her creativity.
“I’m really going through the most stressful time of my life,” she said. “I’m having more panic attacks. I’m really having moments where I cannot function for the day. But, at the end of day, I had to push through because at the end of the day, I don’t want to be confined.”
So, she soldiers on. Vaniecia is not wasting the momentum 20-20 has given her.
She’s already planning her next big move.
“Okay, I’m going to tell you my goal, and it’s going to be insane,” she said. “I want to run for board of trustees for Dallas ISD or I want to be a board member for the Dallas Museum of Art.”
A feasible, if ambitious, goal for an artist, a teacher, and a mother with little left to prove.
Like always, she’ll turn to the women in her paintings for help.
“My mom had always been my rock. My grandma had always been my rock,” she said. “Growing up in that, you realize that there’s only things that you can do and there’s only things you can do for your family to be successful.”
Vaniecia is defining that success on her own terms and in her own time.