Visual artist Ari Brielle grew up in Allen and has been making art since she was three years old. She’s always had an interest in capturing the human figure, but it wasn’t until her time at the University of North Texas, where she graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary art design in December 2016, that her work began to have more of a focus. During her time in Denton, she experimented with different art mediums, including graphic design and printmaking, before she settled on working with gouache paint in 2017. As she explored different art forms, she says she also began to think more about “what it means to be a black person in this country and in the world,” as she watched tragedies, such as the killings of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, unfold.

In her work, Brielle delves into “black femininity, identity, and softness.” Her first solo exhibit, “We Made Cool,” was at Dallas’s 500x Gallery in 2017 and explored, using bright, candy-colored paintings, how black culture regularly informs and is appropriated in popular culture. Brielle’s most recent exhibit, “Safe Place,” looked at how black women maintain agency and community. Her work evokes feelings of safety and familiarity, like looking at portraits of my friends and family members, even when some of the topics she touched on weren’t quite as comforting. The exhibit, hosted at Dallas’s Oak Cliff Cultural Center in August, featured pieces such as “Homegoing (Am I Next?),” a painting about the murders of black trans women in the Dallas area. Brielle is currently working on a series about black women and health set to debut in March 2021 at the Cliff Gallery at Mountain View College in Dallas, but when she’s not researching, sketching, or painting, here’s what the young artist, now based in Oak Cliff, does On Texas Time.

On finding her current medium

I was doing a lot of printmaking [at UNT]. I really like lithography and etching and screen printing, but also just drawing with charcoal, that was my main thing. And then towards the end of college, I took a watercolor class and then an intro to painting class just as a requirement. I was always scared of color and I always worked achromatically; I never used color in my work. But I feel like painting that way doesn’t really benefit the medium and it doesn’t translate as well, at least for the way I would go about it. I started to really fall in love with painting and color and thought, “I get it. I get it now.” I like watercolor, but I just never really mastered it and I’m kind of impatient because you have to wait for it to dry. So I switched to—in my watercolor class—using gouache, which is what I use now. So that’s what I’ve been sticking with since college.

On what she’s working to unlearn

Oh, my God. Everything. Literally everything. I’ve been thinking of that word a lot. I’ve been thinking about it in terms of unlearning all of these systems and norms that we’ve been conditioned to believe are right. And how a lot of things that we need to unlearn are things that are harming people daily, whether that be homophobia, transphobia, racism, xenophobia. Even as black people we can “other” people. We can’t be racist in that we don’t have institutional power, but we can oppress another group of people. I think about that with black men versus black women or even like black cis women versus nonbinary people, how we can cause harm to each other the way that we think of that person as valuable or not. Unlearning these systems or even just with our daily language, how certain words can be really hurtful to people. I’ve had to unlearn a lot and I still am. A main thing that I’m still trying to work through is my privilege as a cis woman versus trans women, especially black trans women and being more inclusive of them when I speak about women. I don’t ever want to make it seem like I’m just talking about one kind of woman.

On “Safe Place”

There’s one piece called “Ours” where a girl is doing another girl’s hair, and I think of those times where we can be totally ourselves and comfortable with each other and not have to code switch. Something I was thinking about, too, was referencing our own icons and how artists will appropriate images of Renaissance or classical paintings and give it a new spin. Like Kehinde Wiley and the way he poses his figures. I’ve always loved taking an image and flipping it and changing the narrative. It’s something that you can recognize, but it’s in a different context. So I started thinking about doing that but with people in our communities that we recognize as icons, like Toni Morrison, Sade, or Audre Lorde, and it was really cool to see the people that picked up on that and who recognized that. That’s a form of being in a safe environment: you can rest, but you can point out these things that you know, and these figures that are so beautiful and powerful within your community.

On artists who inspire her

I love Lorna Simpson, who’s a visual photographer. She makes these beautiful collages, and with her collages she does that thing where she’ll take an image from Jet magazine or an iconic black publication and then reinterpret it. I love Solange. She’s amazing. She’s a visionary. Wangechi Mutu is another black woman visual artist. I love Vicki Meek, who is here in Dallas. She’s very unapologetic and she does amazing installations. Letitia Huckaby, she’s one of my favorite artists. She’s lives here too, in Fort Worth, and she does amazingly beautiful photos that she’ll print on fabrics or sugar cane fabrics or artifacts from back in the day, from slavery. She’ll print photos on them and they’re really, really amazing.

On her parents

Both of my parents are pretty supportive. My mom was more reasonable, and wants me to be able to eat and live. So she was more into me maybe majoring in business or something like that. But of course, once I decided on art, she was totally supportive, and she always offers to help ’cause she has a tax background in finance. So she’s always offering advice on pricing or contracts, which is super helpful. Both of my parents realized that it’s just something I care a lot about and it’s just innate to who I am, so I think they’re just both like, “as long as she’s happy we’re gonna support.”

On being called an “emerging artist”

Maybe I do identify with that, because I still have a hard time calling myself an artist. I think it’s mad imposter syndrome, honestly. My friends will introduce me as that before I will myself. Even though it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life and something I’ve always loved, I still don’t claim that for myself. In a way “emerging” is kind of accurate. I’m emerging into this identity, I guess. Sometimes it’s weird when I see that with other artists. Because I’m thinking, “They’ve been making work forever.” Sometimes it feels loaded because some people assume that’s how I make my living, like I’m just selling work all the time. I don’t ever think of selling when I’m making work. Of course, that’ll be great to sell everything, but I never think of that. When I’m making stuff or sketching or whatever, I never think of selling. A lot of times we attach success to monetary value. I feel successful as an artist, even though I’m not making my living as an artist.