The Homegirl Project chatted with Alexis Williams about her journey uplifting POC artists through her innovative magazine.
Interview by Malavika Kannan
MK: What inspired you to pursue art and creation as a way to engage with the world?
AW: In the broader sense of the word, I’ve been creating ever since I can remember. I was probably six years old drawing flowers on construction paper and stapling them together into books. I’ve had a passion for writing since I was really young. I used to write short fiction and chapter books on the huge old-fashioned computer my parents gave me. I’ve been in art school for most of my life (middle school, high school, and now college) so I’ve always been surrounded by creativity and inspired to create. I studied creative writing in high school, which was an amazing opportunity that led to some of my greatest accomplishments (having my work published, serving as the Editor-in-Chief of a literary magazine, and reading my work in front of, collectively, hundreds of people). I'd explored visual art here and there, such as delving into photography in middle school after getting my first DSLR and creating collage art as a form of therapy or emotional catharsis, but until I started college I felt as though I didn’t have access to the right outlets or knowledge in order to express myself visually in art, which led to a lot of self doubt. I struggled for a few years with feeling legitimate as an artist, even in my first semester of college. But after discovering painting and being able to pursue film, which I’d been passionate about in high school as well, I realized that by being vulnerable and honest about my emotions and experiences through my art, I was able to touch people deeply and speak to their experiences, and this gave me the confidence and clarity to recognize my contribution to the art world.
MK: While the field is getting more diverse by the day, there isn’t always a lot of hype for artists of color. What inspires you to create?
AW: Artists of color are definitely still ignored by the greater art community. I think about this often and it’s really discouraging. Even a year or two ago when I was considering pursuing a degree in fashion design, I realized how invisible black fashion designers are, despite their talent, skill and influence, and it made me second-guess whether or not I’d have a chance in the industry. I still have these feelings when it comes to fine art. But at the end of the day, I know that what I’m creating, my ideas, and what I have to say matter. I know I can make change with my words and my art, and I’m inspired by other artists of color around me who are incredibly talented at what they do and are motivated to advocate for themselves and their identities. The people around me who I see doing amazing things, who share many of the same experiences I’ve had, are what keep me going. Attending Parsons has changed my perspective on so many aspects of my life and past struggles. I’ve gained confidence and comfort because finally I’m part of a community in which I belong and can thrive as my whole unapologetic self.
MK: How do you smash stereotypes with your work?
AW: Within the past year, I’ve made a conscious effort to break through barriers and stereotypes, considering my entire life I have felt trapped and confined in them. The most prominent barrier I’m breaking through with my work is the fact that the art world is predominantly white, and that white men still control contemporary fine art, but mostly the fact that most art is white-oriented and fails to acknowledge the experiences of people of color and their historical contributions to art. My recent paintings, collages and films only showcase people of color — primarily black women. We rarely see black art in metropolitan museums. This is the mold I’m pushing against.
MK: Did you ever receive opposition? If so, how did you deal with it?
AW: I’ve never received blatant opposition when it came to my work. For most of my life, I’ve been surrounded by people who supported my art and my writing, and had confidence in my ability to pursue my goals. The only thing I’ve experienced as an artist that I would consider opposition would be the knowledge, resources and outlets I lacked while growing up to explore visual art extensively and feel legitimized in my art. This is more of a figurative opposition, but it was my main challenge and made my exploration of new artistic mediums very difficult. I felt pressure to be the best at everything because I’m a natural perfectionist, but at the same time I felt I lacked the technical skill to get my work to the level I wanted it to be on, and this resulted in a lot of disappointment, discouragement and self doubt.
MK: Tell us about Pluto Magazine. Why did you found it, and what is its purpose?
AW: Pluto Magazine originally started as a final project for one of my classes at Parsons. It was a simple independent study of print media. I decided to make a zine and gather artwork from my friends and talented artists of color I know, and curate it in the style of a literary magazine, since that’s what I had experience with from high school. I made it in InDesign, presented it for class, and made copies for everyone who contributed it, but I also offered copies to anyone else who wanted one. Since working on a literary magazine staff in high school, I’d always had the goal to start my own magazine one day, but I definitely didn’t expect to do it so soon. I guess I took advantage of the fact that I’d already created a sort of mock-up of what I really wanted to do, which is to create a fully-developed 100+ paged multimedia magazine, so I viewed the small 10-paged zine I’d made for class as a first step in that direction. Then, the platform grew from there after establishing it on social media, creating a website, and inviting more people to get involved. I can see every day how much it’s growing, and it makes me feel so fulfilled and happy.
I’m extremely devoted to empowering and uplifting artists of color, especially since realizing how ultimately invisible and unrecognized we are in the art community. This is Pluto’s purpose. I actually wrote a thinkpiece recently on how my personal experiences with race and self acceptance, as well as my knowledge of the various and complex ways people of color are mistreated in society, inspired the creation of Pluto as a platform for POC to discuss their work, why their work matters, how their work intersects with their identity, and to just be their talented creative selves — and to be commended for that. There are lots of new people who have been introduced to the magazine recently with no prior context of its mission, so I felt the need to clarify that and hopefully inspire them to get involved.
MK: What are your thoughts on how creation and activism could intersect to create change?
AW: I’m a strong believer that the only way change can really be made is through the intersection of creation and activism. Art and creativity serves as portals allowing others to view the world from our perspective and empathize with our experiences, and this is the greater purpose I believe art plays in society. Activism, on the other hand, is how we verbally and physically fight for change, but without creativity (and the ultimate vulnerability that comes with it), lives can’t be reached, hearts can’t be touched, and history is bound to repeat itself.
MK: What advice would you give young creators?
AW: The main piece of advice I would give young creators is to trust yourself and have faith in your vision. You can’t expect other people to care about what you’re doing if you haven’t taken the time to build confidence in your abilities and the strength to advocate for yourself and your work. If something is meaningful to you, it will be meaningful to someone else. If you care about something and you express this passion, then someone else will care about it too. But at the same time, try not to be too concerned with what people think. Focus more on how you feel about your work — if it fulfills you, if it makes you proud, if it makes you happy — because there is no point in doing anything that doesn’t contribute to your happiness. There is no point in creating if that creation does not fulfill you in some way. I’m a strong believer that the beauty of life lies in the fact that we have the freedom and the ability to do what makes us happy, and to advocate for ourselves, our beliefs and our visions.
MK: Who inspires you in life?
AW: There are many people who inspire me in life. Creative and intelligent black women in my family inspire me. Powerful women in strong leadership positions inspire me. My friends inspire me. Artists who make work with autobiographical, historical and emotional significance inspire me. Black fine artists, like Jacob Lawrence and Kerry James Marshall, inspire me.
MK: The key theme of The Homegirl Project is "female empowerment." How does this issue impact your own life?
AW: I feel the empowerment of women is very necessary. Sexism still exists and still plays an active role in how women are treated in society. Women’s lives are in danger every day because of their gender. Men in power continue to decide the lives and fate of women without having any knowledge or understanding of their experiences. I grew up with a lot of confident and strong women in my life, so I consider myself lucky because I had these role models to shape my own perspective of what was possible in my future and the person I could become. I also grew up with many kind and loving men who supported these women, but I recognize that not everyone was surrounded by so many healthy relationships and positivity in their adolescence. Despite my positive environment, I definitely had an awareness from an early age that women lack the amount of opportunities that men have, and are not taken as seriously as men are. I think the issues of sexism and gender roles are much more complex than most people seem to acknowledge, especially when other identities are at play. The term “intersectional feminism” is often misused and misinterpreted by young girls and women who take it for face value without knowing much about its true meaning and context, but I was fortunate enough to take a Women of Color Feminism class during my first semester of college which depended my understanding of this concept, and has given me the knowledge to begin to address and navigate these issues.
MK: What is one issue that you want to change about the world?
AW: I wish the world was less divided when it comes to race and social status. In modern society, there’s an obsession with wealth and outdated standards of beauty that stem from racism and prejudice. Hardworking people struggle to survive on their low wage while rich people and celebrities have more money than they know what to do with. People of color are rejected opportunities so that white people can remain in the spotlight. All of this is unfair. The racial injustice is what I’m trying to change with Pluto Magazine, but I’m not sure what I could do about the economic side of it. Realistically, there is probably nothing I can do to change such a system, but seeing deserving people of color work hard and struggle to make ends meet is one thing that continues to sadden me about the world.