Meet the creatives behind the artwork on Pontiac's walls

If you find yourself on a stroll or driving through Downtown Pontiac, you’ll notice the blown up artwork adorning various buildings throughout the city.


The unique group of art and photography make up the Top 25 pieces chosen from a pool of talented creatives -- local, statewide and beyond -- submitted for the annual Canvas Pontiac contest, in partnership with the DIA.


Metromode recently spoke with four artists from this year’s competition -- new and returning -- to learn more about their respective pieces, the Canvas Pontiac 2019 experience; and, their advice to up-and-coming creatives.


Steven Conyers, “What is Black Beauty?”


What do you do when your former high school teacher tags you in a Facebook post for the Canvas Pontiac contest, just four hours before the deadline?! You submit your artwork, and hope for the best.


In photographer and graphic designer Steven Conyers’ case, you end up winning first place in your category; and, receive the Community Choice award, taking home $2,500 in cash prizes. Talk about the stars aligning in your favor!


“The experience at Canvas Pontiac was really amazing,” said the 22-year-old artist, who goes by Art of Kingz. “What really impacted it, and made it for me was not only did I get recognized for my photography work, it really felt like the story behind my artwork really matched, and really fit what was happening in Pontiac at the time.”


Conyers’ award-winning image was part of a series of work called, “What is Black Beauty?”, featuring his girlfriend (pictured on the right) and her friend. Encouraged to push beyond creating high-quality images, Conyers says he wanted to extend his limits; and, pull out the deeper meaning behind his work.


“I wanted to just focus on the lenses of ‘What is black beauty in America?’, with a focus on black women, “ said Conyers, crediting his models for serving as the visual and symbolic representation of the message behind his image.


“I kind of just sat them down, and had them talk about their experiences growing up being black, and being a black woman in America, and some of the things they had to go through,” said Conyers, highlighting shared experiences of having to assimilate into a predominantly white high school, heightened struggles with identity; and, the infamous “Can I touch your hair?” encounter.


Following his Canvas Pontiac experience, Conyers says he’s returned to Downtown Pontiac; and enjoys the mix of fine art with newer techniques and styles, such as the murals popping up around town.


“Keep trying. Don’t ever give up. Never stop believing in yourself,“ Conyers said of up-and-coming artists, who may be struggling to find their way. “Just continue to create; and, keep creating what you find to be beautiful.”


Sherell Chillik, “Love & Watson”


Similar to Steven Conyers, Detroit native Sherell Chillik says she learned of Canvas Pontiac through Facebook -- more specifically, she came across the competition while scrolling through her timeline.


Making her contest debut, Chillik placed first in the Handcrafted category for her piece “Love & Watson”, taking home $2,000, plus a gift bag from the DIA.


“Those are my little cousins, who I adore, so it was inspired by my trip to Florida,” said Chillik. “My cousin Chrissy, her last name is Love; and, her sister’s last name is Watson.”


As a way to “document their childhood”, Chillik says she captures photos of her little cousins every chance she gets; and, the winning artwork was inspired by a combination of random, separate images of the children.


“I struggled with that piece for a long time,” said Chillik. “I found the images I liked; and, I was like, ‘What can I do to represent their childhood?’


“I wanted to have a spiritual component to it, so I was like how would I explain God, or prayer, or Jesus to children?” she explained.


Drawing inspiration from a metaphor used by a preacher, comparing prayers to God to the smoke that rises from incenses, Chillik said she thought of a more kid-friendly approach; and, came up with the concept of bubbles.


“I wanted [the bubbles] to represent my prayers over them, even though they’re far away,” said Chillik. “My little prayers over their lives, and me thinking of them as they navigate this dangerous world.”


Although the children pictured are black, Chillik says the piece isn’t a statement about blackness; but, simply children being children in a safe space.


While she appreciates the aesthetics of art, Chillik says she is passionate about the expression of her craft.


“Art is definitely a serious thing for me, because it’s a way for me to seriously express what I just need to get out of my soul,” said Chillik. “It’s seriously an expression of myself.”


Her advice to emerging artists: “Continue to draw like crazy, learn art history, learn anatomy, learn perspective. If you can do those things, you can do anything.”


Ryan Tavarez, “Rebirth and Multitude”


Canvas Pontiac alum, and winner of the 2018 Community Choice award, Ryan Tavarez returned this year with his piece titled “Rebirth and Multitude”, inspired by the current resurgence happening in the city.


“I feel that the City of Pontiac is in a state of rebirth, and I think that it’s going through changes, and it’s being reborn,” said Tavarez. “Throughout the piece, I use various symbols and symbolism from native tribes that signify rebirth, or a new day.”


A Pontiac native and resident, Tavarez says he hopes there is a growing awareness and interest -- locally and in surrounding areas -- in what’s happening in the city, and it’s creative community.


“We have a pretty awesome, creative scene here in Pontiac, but I think it’s segmented; and, people don’t always realize they’re surrounded by creatives,” said Tavarez. “I think the program is a really cool way of showcasing talent down here; and, for artists to get together and gather, whether that’s at the ceremony, or otherwise.”


As he matures, as an artist and with age, Tavarez says he finds himself placing greater importance on creating and making things — something, he says, everyone has the potential to do, in part, because of our shared ability to interpret and draw emotions from art — even if we’re not in agreement with one another.


“Art for me, because I work in comics, is a way to tell stories,” said Tavarez. “But I find that it’s a way for me to communicate different ideas and experiences; and, communicate certain emotions that I have to others, to try to resonate with others; and, find community with them.”


Tavarez says the process of creating art can be a solitary one, so he encourages new artists to find and connect with other artists through networking, mentorship, or socializing.


“Sometimes we can get very holed up, whether we’re in our studios, whether it’s for work, or whether it’s something we don’t exactly share, or maybe we don’t feel like it’s good enough to share,” said Tavarez. “I think for new artists, it’s to find that community, and interact with them.”


Mary Patasky, “Endurance”


Mary Patasky is no stranger to Canvas Pontiac; and, neither is her marker-based artwork, which has become a staple placement (2018-present) outside a local convenience store in the city’s Downtown area.


Patasky says she’s honored to participate in the annual competition; and, says the people behind the scenes, who make it all happen, deserve just as much recognition for their hard work, and passion for what they do.


“So many good people make this happen. Marijayne Renny, Mike McGuinness, Daniela Walters, to name a few,” said Patasky. “So many donate their time to making Canvas Pontiac. Putting up the canvases, holding an awards ceremony, [etc.]


“But the most important thing they do is brightening the commute for anyone driving through Pontiac all year long. I think we all thrive seeing art in the community.”


Patasky, whose piece “Endurance” symbolizes the beauty that emerges from hardships, says art is about evoking emotion -- not just the aesthetics.


“Expressing yourself. Letting out emotion,” said Patasky. “It doesn't have to be pretty. Be messy. Be you. Get it out there. Let your brain-children fly.”


If she wasn’t doing art, Patasky says she’d be spending her days hanging out with her pet cat Tom Hanks, fish Violet, and chameleon Lilith. Or, simply passing the time thrift shopping; and, getting lost somewhere among the plants.


“If we're talking career-wise, I'd like to think I'd be something like a veterinarian or a therapist,” said Patasky. “Perhaps combine the two -- a pet therapist.”


For now, Patasky channels her creative energies into her day job as a graphic designer for Earth 2 Earth, a Pontiac-based screen printing and embroidery company, where she comes across the work of a lot of up and coming creatives.


Her advice them; and, other aspiring artists?


“Be humble. Throw away the ego,” said Patasky. “The most successful creatives are the ones who aren't bragging, and bring a positive message.”


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