21 Portraits in 28 days

As I'm learning more and more from successful artists, it became clear to me that one of their common traits is the ability to produce a lot. Even while reading Arnold's biography, I realized how much work he put into his craft which made me take a look at how much work I do and realize that I could do a lot more. There's also a really good audio from Tai Lopez on YouTube entitled Be Prolific - Gulp Life, where he talks about the about the importance of producing on a high volume : Gulping life instead of just sipping. He also talked about how Pablo Picasso produced over 3000 pieces of art in his life. All this information inspired me to challenge myself to produce more. So, at the beginning of last month, I came up with the idea of creating a portrait of an important figure during black history month. I ended up creating 21. They took a little longer than I expected (about 3-4 hours each), but I managed to do one almost every day of the month. It was a great way for me to learn a little bit more about this part of history that I hadn't really paid too much attention to in the past. By taking the time to do a little research, I found new inspiration from people who, no matter what their obstacles were, figured out a way to live their dream and lead the way for many after them. 

I've uploaded all the portraits on my Society6 profile (society6.com/mjillustrates), so if you're interested in buying a print there are quite a few options available. 



First African American : Nat King Cole

Nat King Cole is considered to be one of the greatest jazz pianist of all time. He played his first performance at the age of 4 years old.  At 12 he was a church organist and he created his own band at the age of 16.  He started out as a jazz pianist, performing with two other musicians and playing for the public in various venues. He was asked one day to sign by one the patrons one night and people took notice and he got a record deal that led him to record popular classics such as "The Christmas Song" and "Unforgettable". In 1956, he became the host of the Nat King Cole Show on NBC. It was a controversial show because it was the first time an African American starred on a variety show. The show lasted a year. Cole pulled the plug because of the financial pressures of running a show without national sponsorship. He continued to create hits and selling millions of record around the world until he passed away from lung cancer, most likely caused by his heavy smoking habits, at the age of 45. Several years later, Nat King Cole was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Down Beat Jazz Hall of fame, the Hit Parade Hall of Fame and the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was also awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. 

First African American : Bessie Coleman

Born in 1892, Bessie Coleman was the 10th child of a family of 13 kids. Being of African descent in those time meant that there weren't a lot of career opportunities for a young black girl. By the time she was 23 years old, she was working as a manicurist in a barbershop. Her faith changed when she heard her brothers and other military clients talk about flying during World War 1 and how women in France could also fly planes. This inspired her to want to become a pilot. And since no aviation school would let her enroll due to her skin colour, she took it upon herself to learn French and work extra jobs to save enough money to travel to France via boat and earn her pilot licence. 

In 1921, she became the first African American female pilot and the first to have an international pilot licence. This fearless petite woman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting. This was the only way she could earn a living doing what she loved, since commercial flight had yet to be established. In order to become a stunt pilot, she had to go back to aviation school for more advanced lessons. Once again, discriminations in the United States kept her from being able to enroll in the school so she headed back to Europe to learn from teachers in France, the Netherlands and Germany. She then returned to become an acclaimed pilot nickname "Queen Bess" by her fans, both black and white. She had dreams of starting an inclusive aviation school. Unfortunately, she never got a chance to fulfill that particular dream. In 1926, her plane unexpectedly dove and spun around while she was planning a parachute jump for the next day and her mechanic was flying the plane. Both her and her mechanic die on impact.  

During her short life, Bessie Coleman inspired many African Americans to dare to dream bigger  and that no matter how big the obstacles are, if there's a will there's a way. 

First African American : Henry Ossawa Tanner

Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African American painter to gain international acclaim in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was the only black student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and it was not always a pleasant position for him to be in. In his autobiography, The Story of an Artist' Life, he stated  that the racism he endured troubled him deeply while living in the United States. This pain led him take an opportunity to move to Paris where he felt more accepted amongst his peers. In his new home, he met and learned from several prominent artists. His popularity increased when he started to pain biblical scenes, and in 1986, Tanner got one of his paintings accepted at the official art exhibition of the AcadĂ©mie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He maintained a successful career as an artist and was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1923, one of the highest honors in France.

Tanner is also the first African-American to have a painting, Sand Dune at Sunset, purchased for $100,000 by the White House for their permanent collection, during the Bill Clinton administration era. 

First African American : Zelda Wynn Valdes

Zelda Wynn Valdes was a very successful fashion designer and costumer with a knack  for designing outfits that masterfully highlighted women's curves. Her style caught the eye of Hugh Hefner who commissioned her to create the famous and iconic Playboy Bunny outfit. She also created outfits  for many of the celebrities of the 40s and 50s, including Joyce BryantDorothy DandridgeJosephine BakerElla Fitzgerald, and Mae West. She was the first African American to own a shop, Chez Zelda, on Broadway in New York city. Later, at the age of 65, she became the head costume designer for the Dance Theatre of Harlem and kept that role until she retired at 83. 

First African American : Arthur Mitchell


At a time, before the civil rights movement, when many believed that African Americans were not physically fit to become ballet dancers, Arthur Mitchell, an African American teen from Harlem got offered a scholarship by the co-founder of the School of American Ballet, Lincoln Kirstein. George Balanchine, a prominent choreographer originally from Russia, took Mitchell under his wings, went against the grain and not only did he teach a black man to dance ballet, he created leading roles specifically for him. When parents didn't want their child to dance with him because of his skin colour, Balanchine supported him and told these parents to take their kid out the school. He even refused to have his group perform on TV when he was asked to remove Arthur Mitchell from the group.  
A couple years later, the death of Dr. Martin Luther King triggered in Mitchell the need to create the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first of its kind, as a way to reach out to kids who didn't get the same opportunities he did as a ballet dancer. From its humble beginning in a garage, to a full fledged school with dancers touring around the world, Arthur Mitchell, through his hard work and dedication opened (and still is opening), doors for many dancers, adding more colour to the world of ballet and giving many the permission to live their dream of bringing something of beauty to the world through dance. 

First African American : Halle Berry

Halle Berry started out as a model before venturing into acting. She participated in several pageants and won the 1985 Miss Teen All American, and the 1986 Miss Ohio USA. She later went on to pursue her dream of working in the entertainment industry by moving to New York to become an actress. After a rough start where she was homeless for a short period of time, and collapse on the TV set while shooting a television series, she managed to get a small role on Spike Lee's Jungle Fever movie but it wasn't before she landed a leading role on Boomerang that she started to get some attention. She continued to work on various type of roles to establish herself as a professional actress. She's notorious for taking on role that doesn't always rely on her beauty. It took her 10 years and 16 movies before she was finally able to win an Oscar for her roll in Monsters Ball for best actress in 2001, and thereby becoming the first African American woman to win it. 

First African American : Booker T. Washington

I had never heard of Booker T. Washington before doing a little research for this series of portrait, which is surprising considering all of the things he has accomplished during his lifetime. Washington was a dominant leader of the African American community from the late 1800 until his death in 1915.

Born from an African-American mother, who was a plantation slave, and a caucasian dad who's identity remained a mystery, he became a free citizen at the age of 9. He went on to pursue his education while working to earn money to pay for his education, and became the leading voice promoting the progress of African-Americans through education and entrepreneurship.

As an educator, author, orator and advisor to presidents of the United States, Washington was the giant who's shoulders key leaders, such as Martin Luther King and Barack Obama, have been able to stand on. His mission was to empower the African-American citizens through education and self help, thereby solving the problems of discrimination and inequality. He believed that by providing needed skills to society, Black Americans would play their part, leading to acceptance by White Americans.

Brooker Washington brought together middle-class African-Americans, church leaders, caucasian philanthropists and politicians to work together on a long-term goal of building the community through education and self help. His connections enabled the establishment of several black schools in rural areas through their donation of money, time and labor. He later founded the National Negro Business League in 1900 with the support of Andrew Carnegie in order to promote the commercial and financial development of African Americans. It was later renamed the National Business League in 1966 and still exists today. 

Washington is also the author of several books including the best selling Up from Slavery, still available today. Following the success of his book, he and his family were invited to dine with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White house. He was the first African American to be invited.  

Washington continued to work on his mission until his death at the age of 59, due to a heart failure. His legacy includes over $1.5 million to the Tuskegee Institute, the school he lead for most of his life, as well as the education and empowerment of the black population in the South. His contribution to American society granted him an honorary master's degree from Harvard University in 1896, and an honorary doctorate from Dartmouth College in 1901.

In 1940, several years after his passing, Washington became the first African American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp. He later was honoured on the first coin to feature an African American ( from 1946 to 1954).  A memorial was dedicated to him in 1984 at Hampton University near the historic Emancipation Oak, and another memorial was erected for him in 2009 at the West Virginia State University. Several schools throughout the state have also been named after him.  Brooker T Washington is a key player in Black history who had a dream of inspiring former slaves and their future generations to become more. I bet he would be proud to see how far we've come, 100 years after his death. 

First African American : Oprah Winfrey

There's no question that Oprah Winfrey is a pioneer in the entertainment industry and an important figure in Black history who keeps breaking new grounds in a very positive way. Oprah wears many hat : she's a talk show host, an author, a model, an actress, a producer, a CEO, a philanthropist and more. Despite her difficult beginning, as a child born in poverty to a single teenage mom, she defiantly found a way to pull herself out of her traumatic environment and went on to become one of the wealthiest, most loved and recognized celebrities in the world. 

Oprah is known for her very popular show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was the highest-rated program of its kind. She completely change the television industry and help countless people around the world deal with their own issues, traumas, prejudices, growths, pains and joys. She's written five books to date, and published O, The Oprah Magazine, which I believe to be the first of its kind as well. She also has a radio channel, Oprah Radio and a very popular website fill with a lot of valuable content for its viewers. It's no surprise that she became the first African American billionaire and is considered to be one of the most powerful and influential woman according to organizations such as CNN, TIME, Life, USA Today, Ladies Home Journal, Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, etc. 

Oprah is also quite the philanthropist: As of 2012, she was reported to have given away $400 million dollars to educational causes, as well as 400 scholarships, countless prizes on her show and a vacation in Hawaii for her employees and families (1065 people). She is the first African American to join the list of top 50 most generous Americans. 

Oprah continues work on making the world a better place and raise the bar when it comes to the possible accomplishments of not only African Americans but every individual around the world, no matter what their circumstance may be. 

First African American : Louis Lomax

Louis Lomax was a scholar, graduate from Yale University, who pursued a career as a journalist and author. During his short life, he wrote for various publications, gave lectures and hosted television programs. In 1959, he became the first African-American television journalist for WNTA-TV. A notable moment of his career involves a five-part documentary series called The Hate That Hate Produced where he introduced Elijah Muhammad and Malcom X to the viewers who, for the most part, hadn't heard about them until then. He died in a fatal car accident at the age of 47 before he had a chance to finish his book about Black history.