Artist Makeda Lewis on Luck And Her Now Iconic Afro-Feminist Coloring Book
By: L. G. Parker
By now you’ve heard of Atlanta-based artist Makeda Lewis. The 25-year-old multidisciplinary artist’s Avie’s Dreams, an Afro-Feminist coloring book and surrealist poem, has been celebrated by Saint Heron, Nylon, Blavity and more. In its rich pages, uncolored images are accompanied by introspective words that speak to the artists journey as a person as well as Avie’s self-evolution, the book’s central character.
Lewis first released an earlier version of Avie’s Dreams on Tumblr in 2014. For many Tumblr users who share identities and experiences with Lewis, the coloring book was a creative coping mechanism that reflected a shared imaginary and healing process. In October, Lewis went on a tour of cities between Atlanta and New York to promote and share the coloring book.
Recently, I got the chance to meet up with her along the tour when she stopped in Richmond, Virginia. We chatted about the rest of the tour, the role of friendship in her work and luck.
L. G. Parker: In Nylon you said that Avie’s Dreams is a love letter and that reading across genres and mediums helped you create it. Can you talk about the folks whose work you returned to a lot in creating it?
Lewis: I think a lot of stuff from the book actually in combination with other mediums just came from conversations with friends and random people, like my best friend Myles and my ex-girlfriend. Music, too. I also listen to a lot of Junglepussy but I also listen to a lot of Little Dragon and Gotye and I read a lot of Nikky Finney, she’s like one of my favorite poets. I also like Nnedi Okorafor, she writes like really amazing science fiction and its rooted in West African culture and Octavia Butler. And you know…how do I say this…
LGP: All the girls?
Lewis: All the girls.
LGP: Can you say more about the role of friendship in this project?
Lewis: Friendship is really important to me for a few reasons. One, because, I think the increased visibly due to the work that you create, there are going to be a lot of people who want to be in your face just on the basis that they love your work. And that’s not necessarily the same as loving you as a person. So I think it’s really important to always be a grounded person and have people around you who know what you look like when you wake up in the morning cause y’all had a sleepover or who like were friends with you when you used to dress terribly. So they’re important to me as a person and if I’m not grounded then my work will show that.
LGP: How did you put the tour together?
Lewis: Originally my editor contacted me and asked me about having a release party in Atlanta and she wanted me to come to New York and have an event there. I’m the one that suggested stopping in different places between here and New York just to publicize more, but also I was going through some stuff personally and I was really interested in taking a road trip so I was like well we can pick cities between Atlanta and New York and then I’ll just stop along the way.
LGP: Something I noticed when I saw you along the tour is that you were very calm and it really stood out to me especially because this was your first tour. Were you nervous at all? What were your thoughts as you were going along?
Lewis: I didn’t realize that until the end of the tour, I think I feel like I’m more of an introvert than I realized and more so than other people perceive me [to be]. Even with the road trip it wasn’t just some lollygagging shit. Even though I had days where I got to explore the cities I was in, it still felt very much like I had a face on. And to have a face on for two weeks when you’re not naturally an extrovert…
It took me a while to appreciate the experience of the tour because I was still processing the fact that I felt emotionally overwhelmed by it.
LGP: You were saying that Myles told you to sit in your moment of the tour. Did you sit in your moment?
Lewis: I think it kind of comes in waves, I guess. The effect of the coloring book and going on tour and stuff. It’s not the same as visual media. It’s not like you’re on a TV show and then everyone all at once is like ‘oh my god is that Makeda!? I love that show so much!’
It’s very different, it’s like people are constantly meeting me for the first time so they’re constantly going into a bookstore and seeing my work or on someone’s Twitter or at a conference or whatever. It’s been interesting trying to get used to that. People’s energy is different when they meet you because of work of yours that they love. It’s not necessarily uncomfortable but it is a little bit much to get used to.
I think I had to really appreciate the moment for what it was that I am a young Black woman and this is the first like… completed, largely distributed body of work that I’ve put out. It’s published. And people can buy it in other countries. And that’s really, really, really cool. Everybody doesn’t get the chance to do that. Not necessarily because they didn’t finish something but because they might not have access.
I think a lot of people are really hesitant to discuss how luck factors into visibility and success but I think I was a little bit lucky. I didn’t look for publishing companies. I put my book together and I dropped it and I kind of… you know, I hoped people liked it and if ten people bought it then that would be great.
A few months after I put the book [on Tumblr], I guess because I sort of made myself visible by putting up a website and being on social media and always showing it to everyone, it might have been easier for me to be found but I don’t think necessarily I was in a space where I was shopping around or where I was being close to publishing circles or literature circles. I was kind of just like… here’s my heart, it’s out here.
At that time, Feminist Press was looking to publish their first coloring book and they wanted it to be a certain kind of coloring book so one of their editors was literally scouring for one and then they found me. So in that way I say that I’m lucky because I feel like there are plenty of artists out here and they could’ve seen another person’s artwork, even if it wasn’t a coloring book, they could’ve approached someone else to make a coloring book for them. I don’t know. I’m not the only creative nigga in the world.
Sometimes you do [have a plan and strategy] and it don’t work anyway. Not to say that it’s bad, I mean, it’s helpful to have a timeline and discipline yourself, but sometimes luck factors into how things play out.
LGP: You create in other mediums, too. Can you talk about those?
Lewis: I really like working with plexiglass because I think it’s the most blatant metaphor of why I create work: it’s see through. I can add so many different layers to plexiglass and you can see all of them at once.
I really like printmaking because it was one of the first mediums I explored using color in my work. Some of the methods of printmaking can be similar to the dishwashing. There’s just lots of slow deliberate movements you have to do where you’re conscious but it’s like… that moment for me when I’ve been running for an hour and I just kind of disconnect from the pain that my body’s feeling and all I feel is motion. It gives me another way to explore layers and color in peaceful, deliberate motions.
LGP: What are you creating right now? Are you back to exploring those other mediums?
Lewis: I think honestly I’m getting myself back into the mode of creating consistently because since the coloring book was published, I haven’t really done that much. For a while I was beating myself up about it but I think that was more influenced by the sort of culture of immediate gratification and consumption and productivity.
Sometimes I think, as artists, we can make ourselves feel bad if we’re not creating everyday or putting out a project every six weeks and it’s kind of unrealistic and it’s a little bit self agitating to badger yourself for not making something every single day.
Purchase your copy of Avies Dreams here and keep with Makeda at @themakeda on Twitter.
All photos courtesy Makeda Lewis
L.G. Parker is a Callaloo fellow and undergraduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University. They have served as a contributing writer to Black Youth Project, Blavity and Elixher, been published in Nepantla and are in Brooklyn Boihood’s Outside the XY: Queer, Brown Masculinity (Magnus Books, 2016). Their work is concerned with constructions of family, gender and the specific impact of mental illnesses on queer & trans black people.