Artist Rohan O. Henry
A Human Masterpiece
Moe: I am so excited to have my first true artist in Atlanta Cosmopolitan Magazine. Mr. Rohan O. Henry, thank you so much for doing this interview with us. Thank you so much for coming through.
Rohan: Thank you. I’m doing beautiful. I always say that. I always try to keep that in mind. Yeah. I am doing great.
Moe: Awesome. I have had an opportunity to see your beautiful artwork. I described it as Mixed Media, but, you know what… you’re the artist. How do you describe your artwork?
Rohan: I would say, Urban Expressionism. I call it that in a sense, because the quality of it is like creating my own language from an urban perspective. I try to create a language and put in a lot of metaphors, you know, that a purist or a pure artist would look at and see things and get an understanding of it. It’s more like, if you look at my work, it’s a lot going on, whereas, basically, it’s just my language going on and having a conversation with the viewer. I developed that by you know, doing a lot of investigation and reading on art history and a lot of artists that do a lot of abstract work, and the history of art. If you look into it, a lot of the work is like telling a story. But, it’s how you tell it, you know what I mean? You tell it in your own language, so that a deep thinker would look at it and see certain things in it and know what you’re communicating and what you are trying to say.
Moe: Absolutely. You mentioned a beautiful thing, that you studied art, in particular abstract. Is abstract one of your favorite forms of expression in your art?
Rohan: Yeah. It’s one of my favorite forms and I like doing portraits, but I add a little zest to it, where I try to make the portrait of the person I’m doing, autobiographical. It’s like explaining a little bit of the person just by drawing little things. Or, if I’m painting, I put things in it that expresses who the person is in detail. Yeah, it’s gotta be deep details, but I give an essence of the person, but by using a lot of forms and lines and colors that gives off that representation of who that person is.
Moe: That’s incredible. I notice that you use a lot of famous people. I saw Muhammed Ali one. How do you decide who you are going to capture in these amazing art pieces that you create?
Rohan: Okay. First and foremost, I don’t like doing one if a person has passed. You will see a lot of painters who do that sort of thing, but I don’t like doing that, because that kinds of drains you personally, because you have to go so in depth. The Ali one was done before he passed because I like his story and what he was about. Those were done before he actually passed away. So what I did, I knew he was Muslim and he studied the faith very strong. For one of them, I went to this place I go to and I got a few papers that had Arabic writings and I put that newspaper in the back and then I put the picture over it. You know, little things. Just trying to be creative from my own mind, and not doing something that someone else has done already. You know the history of Ali by reading or following his story, but if you look deep into it, you will see a bicycle, because originally he started fighting because when he was around 13 years old a kid stole his bike and he wanted to fight back to get his bike back. All of that from when he was a boxer. I remember that’s his story. So, you add little things like that and people who are connected will see those things. A couple of famous poses, you may add a little bit of that and you figure things out.
Moe: So, it really is your perception of how YOU view that person that you are projecting onto the form?
Rohan: Yeah. And on my IG page is says RohRoh11 and you will notice I did a few portraits of some people and I tried to talk to them to get an understanding and I add things, like where they are from, or something personal. A friend asked me to do a portrait and I know them, so I added some personal things about them. It goes a long way.
Moe: Well, it’s absolutely beautiful, and I can see why your artwork is taking off and people are definitely taking notice. Now, you mentioned that you use elements like where they are from. I would love to touch bases on where you’re from. I understand you were born in Kingston, Jamaica. Is that correct?
Rohan: Yeah. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica and I left Jamaica when I was like 12 years old. I mean I had come to the U.S. before. My first time coming to the states I came to Chicago, Illinois, and then I went back home for about a year. But I when I moved here, I remember there was a great transition. It was during a part of the Reagan era, in ’84.
Moe: Oh, wow. It was a lot going on then.
Rohan: Coming into New York, I lived in Brownsville for years. Brownsville is very close to my heart. I lived there and I few times I went to the schools and talked with the kids and showed them a few works in the neighborhood. Sometimes, I would teach a few kids and show them a few styles. You gotta understand in my community, growing up as an artist, I was mostly self-taught. When I got older, I went to college and I started to mix some of my courses with art classes. I graduated as a mental health worker, but in school, I used to pick a few art classes with my regular classes. Growing up trying to be an artist…you know…I’m the oldest of three. So, I was always helping out and getting a job and working and stuff, helping my mom pay a bill or whatever. So, when I did say to her that I wanted to be an artist (laughs) It’s gonna be kind of funny how she said it. She said (uses Jamaican accent), “Artist? Artist don’t make no money. You sure that you wanna do that?” So, you know, I’m trying to make sure I help my moms out and everything. I didn’t know a whole lot about art, but I knew about Basquiat and Warhol at that time because he was coming up. I knew about those artists and saw their work during the time I was living in New York. I was in tune, but I didn’t know much about it. My art teacher never really expounded on it. You know, there was graffiti, but graffiti was not really ever my thing. I thought it was too messy, you know, how the train looked and everything. At that time, they had a problem with graffiti. You would go to jail. So, you know, I didn’t even want to get caught up in that. I never really did much of a graffiti thing, but, I used to draw all the time.
Moe: What was the earliest age that you remember drawing?
Rohan: I started drawing even when I was back home. As a kid I was drawing. I was like nine years old and I can remember I was very good at like doing coloring books. As a kid then, if you had a coloring book and you finished it, and it looked real nice with the colors, and the colors were right in the lines and everything, your moms would put it up and show people at the house. I mean it was the seventies (laughs), so you gotta understand. It’s a definite transition from using a computer or Ipad. I tell a lot of kids about this when I am speaking about my art. I used to have a lot of coloring books stacked up and I used to color in the lines. My moms used to like the way I did them, so I was doing art ever since them. But all through my younger age, art was just an escape.
Moe: Wow. You have an education and background in mental health. At what point did you make the distinction as an adult, that art was your first love and that you were an artist who was going to pursue his dreams?
Rohan: Well, I had a brother. I say had, because he passed. He always pushed me. Him and my sister, both of them. I am the oldest of three, on my mom’s side. So, both of them always pushed me, and they would tell everyone, ‘yeah, my brother really knows how to draw,’ and would show some of my stuff. You know, I never really thought of myself as an artist, be he was always pushing me. He would say, “Yo, man, you should do this. You are good at this.” You know, I used to big portraits of somebody if they asked me to do it. Like I said, I some practice when I was in school since I had taken a few classes. I already knew the forms and how to do certain things, but I just kept pushing myself and showing myself. You know I travel and move to all types of different states. I always like work and wherever I am, I will take an art class somewhere. I have only been like to three states. I’m a little bit nomadic. I like to move around and go to different places. So, between Florida and Atlanta, I lived in those places for a little while. So, I would always go to an art class, so I could better myself in a certain style that I like in painting or whatever. So, yeah, like probably 10 years ago, I said, “Yeah. I am an artist,” and took it on myself to carry that moniker. But, I am more into just being a father to my kids and being a better person.
Moe: I love that you are so genuine in the things that you say. Your artwork is very pure as far as your expression is concerned. I have to agree with your brother and your sister, there is definitely something very special there. I hope that you will continue to develop that. Let’s talk about when you made the decision that you were an artist and that you were going to claim that part of your gift and present it to the world. I saw that you are not only using canvas and other types of media, but that you are also transferring some of your artwork onto things like t-shirts and bags and I lost my mind. Your art is so beautiful, and to see it as wearable fashion is amazing. Are you going to be developing a line, or are you just doing it as the request come? What’s your plan for that?
Rohan: Yeah. I am developing a line, slowly but surely. You know, I do sculpture, and I have a lot of ideas. It’s a journey. It’s a beautiful journey. It’s the only way I can describe it, and you have to have patience. Just like how I have learned every skill in it, and I have so much more to learn. I’ve traveled to other countries to see other art and link up with other artists and things like that, you know? I’ve done my ground work. I do it to the purest form of it that I can. It’s more than just going out there and trying to build a brand and you’re going to go out there and make a lot of money and all of that. It’s way more to it than that. To me, personally, I read a lot about a lot of other artists that have been doing it for years and they go broke doing it, just trying to live a mundane life. Their art only sells after they have passed on. You know what I mean? But to say that, I just love doing it. It’s more than just an escape and when I lay down that ground work to do something, I am one hundred and fifty percent in it. So, yeah, I am building a brand. I have a lot of different things I want to try out. As I go along, like I said, it’s a journey. To be honest with you, I don’t even think that I am fifty percent the artist I’m supposed to be when it comes to my work, because I work while I do art. I am not a full one hundred percent artist. So, it’s like I come from work and like my easel is there and I go on it, or I am doing something with a can. or someone asks me to do something at their house. Like, I just finished a job for this guy who has a mobile barbershop. It’s a mobile shop on wheels and I have done a few jobs for him in his barbershop that I think is really good. I think I have that on my Instagram page. So, you know, there are levels to it.
Moe: That is how you build your name and your brand though. When people are requesting you to do the work, that’s incredible. Obviously, when people come sit in his mobile barber shop, his customers are going to be asking him who did those dope art installations. I have to say to you, though that even though you say you are not a hundred percent there, that it is because you are constantly in a state of developing and improving. I know that when you put your hand to your work, that you’re not finished with it until you are one hundred percent satisfied with how it looks. Would I be correct?
Rohan: Yeah. You are definitely spot on with that. You know what? It’s a communication. It talks to you. It tells you when it’s done, because you are doing stuff on it and you’re going back and forth and having a conversation with the work and what you’re putting there. You’re trying to step away from not saying, I want to paint it this way for the viewer. You know what I’m saying? You’re painting from your heart with your God given talent and that God blessed you with. You let your hand move on the surface of whatever you’re doing. That’s from my perspective. That’s how I do it. Sometimes I sit back and I’m like, wow! You’re moved by it. It’s like kind of going in a trance where you let your hands just do the work. Your hands are the brain, actually on the surface. I have spoken to a lot of artists and they will tell you that. Just like that singer that will say, ‘I get nervous before I go on a stage,’ and you, who does not get on a stage or does not perform, will say, ‘get out of here, you don’t get nervous. How do you get nervous? You know what you are doing.’ It’s probably in that sense a little bit, whereas, it’s just something that comes over you, that you just let take that part of you and get it done. I have some work that I have been working on for years, and I just know it’s not done.
Moe: That is wild, but so amazing, because whenever you do finish, the end result is just so beautiful when it’s done and you know it’s done. So, what is the hardest part about being an artist?
Rohan: The hardest part is the financial part. That’s the part, and getting your work out there. That to me is, because you have to do it on your own. But, in every institution of fashion, or music, or anything, you’re gonna always have gate keepers. Gate keepers will always be there. It’s you, within yourself that has to fight that hurdle, and build up a lot of confidence. I’m still trying to build up a confidence, and going out there and knowing that people are going to say how they feel about your work. That’s just their opinion. That’s not what you’re trying to put out there. That should not deter you…what someone else thinks of your work. Like I said, there are a lot of gate keepers. They always want to put up who they want to shoot up big and help them get to where they want to go. But the art world, man, it’s fickle. You got people that want to use you and they want to sell your stuff and attach a lot of price to it. That’s why a lot of people have agents. I really can’t afford an agent right now, someone who goes out and does the leg work for you and handles the business side of it. Trying to be sincere to your work and trying to handle the business side of it is very, very hard.
Moe: I can imagine. Some people out there are only thinking about the profit part of it, and not the actual art itself and what it really means to you. Instead, they are only wanting to monopolize on it. I definitely understand. You actually had your art displayed at an event recently. How was that, and how did it make you feel to see your artwork hanging up on a wall where others could actually come in and see it?
Rohan: Yeah. I mean, that was great with people coming in. I had a mixed crowd of people, but it wasn’t an…I wanted a more urban setting. Not to sound cliché, but I really want more black people to get an understanding of art. My own people. I am saying that, because if you look at the history of art, with a lot of black artists, they never stay in the United States. Once they get on that level of being recognized as an artist, they don’t stay here. I’ve done my homework on that, and I’ve met a few of them. They will go to Switzerland, or they will go to Japan and other exotic places where people start seeing their work and they start purchasing it. They don’t stay here that much. I can probably count on one hand where you will see artists who are considered “rock star,” artists in the states, that are black, who are really rocking the world out there. If you see their work, you’ll know it, like, Kehinde Wiley. He’s up there and known as one of the best. You have a few artists out there…I can’t really remember the names right off the top of my head, that’s making millions doing art. But for me, personally, it goes beyond that. I just want more of our people to understand it more. Like I said, I earlier on, I did not have a full understanding of it. It’s a part of me, this calling. I feel like there are a lot of kids in school that don’t really have an understanding of our art. If they get an understanding of how to transform their inner darkness on paper…not even just paper, but dance, a rendition, or through poetry. I feel like if people taught them and they had more of an understanding of how to express themselves through art, it would help them. In our community there are a lot of mental health issues, and I feel like if people knew how to express themselves amongst each other using art as an outlet, it could take away some of those issues. Mental health is going to always be around in our community, but I feel like that could chip away the stigma that we have. It goes beyond that, like, if I paint a picture of you, and you love it and you keep it in your house, when you pass on, your family will keep it.
Moe: Absolutely! That is so true.
Rohan: It goes such a long way when it comes to art. I could go deep all day talking about the different trajectories of art.
Moe: This interview has been absolutely amazing. What is most important is that the people reading your interview is for them to see your artwork. That’s gonna tell it all to be honest. You have been so patient and so kind just giving us an overview of who you are and what you do, I would love you to give some advice. How would you motivate someone who has a talent for art but has no idea of how to get started?
Rohan: That’s interesting. I have worked in a facility where I have actually done that type of work before. Just the mechanics. You know, like I said, your hands turn into your brain. Your hand is a voice. Say I work with someone who has depression, and I give them materials, and I say, “hey you can use this paper.” I would show them styles, and whatever they are comfortable with, that’s what they do. It’s a process, and they are allowed to continuously use that process. The more they get into it, the more they learn how to use their hand as a voice. The more they want to say and get out will come out. You have to be continuous with it. It’s almost like therapy. It’s just like being a teacher. You have to have a gentle way of doing it, not in a judgmental way. Let their mind follow through in how to do it. When I teach someone about how to do art, I let them find their way of how to get the lines to look like how they want them to look. Another thing above anything else, that a lot of people don’t realize is, if you see it in your mind how you want it on paper, all you have to do is just try to follow the map of what you’re seeing and you put it back on paper. You have to have a patience to do that. So, that is the key part of it. Whatever they see in their mind can be put on a canvas. A canvas can be anything, a wall, a cloth…whatever. However they think they want that picture to look, I can help them put that picture up. Yeah. It’s not that hard. You just have to have patience. That is the number one thing that will help you build your work as an artist and will help you to get to know how to do your work.
Moe: I have to be honest with you. I speak to people all the time, but there is something very different about you. I am not saying that from a natural perspective if you get what I am saying. I am speaking from a spiritual perspective. I did not know who you were, but your art immediately popped out to me. I don’t see things a lot, where I can say, I really want that or would love to have it, but I do feel that way with your work. I believe that it has a lot to do with how honest you are about your work. You may not view your art like that, but the people who see it, see what I see. They say this is hell of amazing. This is phenomenal work. This is something I want. I have a feeling that you are going to end up in a lot of galleries in the next couple of years and that you’re going to do well because your heart is just in a different space with it.
Rohan: For sure. For sure.
Moe: I’m excited for you. There is just something different.
Rohan: I visualize it going places and I have built up a body of work over the years that people have purchased, so, like I said, it’s a journey. I will be honest with you. If I was doing it full time, I get up in the morning and paint, paint, paint… I mean Jesus, I don’t man…life would be so… Tell you the truth, right now, I’m getting ready. I’ve been putting in a lot of work and saving up money, because when July comes, I’m not doing any type of work. This is one of the first times I have made that choice to take almost like a sabbatical when it comes to art. I just want to take time to create, create, create until December, or however long. I’m looking forward to that. I am looking at trying to get a residency. Where ever I get it, I’ll take it. Preferably out of New York, though. I would love to get a residency in another state and just do the work there. We will see how it goes. So, I am working on that.
Moe: Would you consider a residency that is out of the country?
Rohan: Yeah. Like I said, there are a lot of gate keepers. Plenty of them, all around the world. You just have to know the right people, talk to the right people and be in the right hands. Cause nowadays, it’s not as easy as you think it is, you know what I mean? There is also the shady side of it. Within everything there is a shady side.
Moe: Absolutely. There is always the good and the bad to everything. There is no neutrality. It’s either gonna work out for the good or it could go the complete opposite. Like you said, the middle is where the gate keepers are who try to control everything. They try to influence what is good and what is profitable and salable according to their ability to benefit from it. This has been incredible. I have learned so much just speaking with you. I would love for you to give a closing statement to those who will be reading your article. If you were to sum up this entire interview, what would you say?
Rohan: If someone sees my art, they could look at it 100 times and see something different in it. It’s just going to speak sincere volume from my heart. I’m just letting it rock out. It’s a blessing. It’s more than a blessing because we have technology now, where you can get a lot of hits and people can look at your work. I try to get back at them and tell them thanks. So, more than anything else, I’m able to build on that and build a clientele and a fan base and collectors. Even if I make a lot of money from it, it’s gonna go beyond that. Not even to go into my pocket to be honest. One thing I have learned as an artist, is when God blesses you with something, sometimes it’s to bless others. You never forget that. It’s not even about the financial security, it’s just knowing that I will get a chance to do it.