Heart of the Arts: Meet Printmaker and Painter Jamaal Barber
Barber uses a variety of mediums to explore Black identity.
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
Jamaal Barber doesn’t like putting himself in a box.
A painter, a print-maker, a podcaster and more, Barber never stops creating. As one of Midtown Alliance’s Heart of the Arts Studio Residents, now he has a dedicated space for his practice.
We sat down with Barber inside his new studio at Databank, a high-performance computing center located on the campus of Coda Tech Square, to learn how he got here and where he gets his inspiration.
New Visions No. 1, Jamaal Barber
The Creative Force
Barber first realized he could be an artist when he saw father doodle a Mickey Mouse on a manila envelope that became his mother’s birthday card.
“I remember thinking, ‘wow, you can actually make this stuff,’” he said. “Ever since then, I’ve been trying to make stuff.”
Barber’s main medium is woodcut relief, and he also makes screenprints, ink wash drawings, paintings and collages. He embraces all of them — the process itself is what’s most important.
“Whatever I got around my room at the time, that’s what I’m going to use,” Barber said. “No medium is who I am. I am all the mediums. Ultimately, I’m the creative force, and whatever I touch will somehow speak to me in the end.”
Because This Is A Dream, Jamaal Barber
If you’ve interacted with Twitter or the New York Times, you’ve probably seen his work.
Once a graphic designer by day, Barber lost his job eight years ago and decided to give it a go at being an artist full time. It took him two years to sell a piece. He made $200, which he said is the best $200 he’s ever made in his life.
“That to me was the turning point,” Barber said. “It’s a hard process, that’s what makes or breaks you a lot of times. You don’t know if you’re going to get any reward. You don’t know if anybody wants what you’re making. But it’s not that nobody wants it; it’s that the right people don’t know you’re doing it.”
Barber said he enjoys the interactive element of having a work space in the middle of Midtown.
Barber has sold a lot of pieces since then and done work for Twitter, the New York Times, Penguin Random House, Black Art in America and Emory University. But he still has trouble believing it when someone shows interest in his art.
“You never know who is going to come across your work, who’s talking about it and who likes it,” he said. “I spend so much time at my table that I don’t know what’s going on beyond it.”
Barber’s art often explores Black identity through a political lens. But during the pandemic, when he was finishing his Masters in Fine Art at Georgia State University and quarantining at home with his family, he had a revelation.
“My work dealt with a lot of societal issues, but when you’re locked down and trying to protect yourself from the virus, this outside threat, what’s important during that time is your family,” he said.
Barber’s master’s thesis show, FULLNESS, addressed the entirety of what defines him, from moments of protest and struggle to the love and light he feels when he thinks about his wife and children.
The message of the series was represented differently in various pieces: in prints, he used the color black as a cipher representing Blackness; in paintings he didn’t use the color black at all.
“I’m still Black, it’s still about my Black experience, but this one color doesn't have to define who we are,” he said. “We can be much more… it’s really getting down to showing myself and my fullness, rather than this performative Black identity.”
During graduate school, Barber also started a podcast, Studio Noize, to celebrate other Black creatives. It began as conversations on Instagram, but when a glitch caused Barber to lose one of his interviews, he moved the show to a podcast format.
“I call it an archive of contemporary Black artists,” Barber said. “It has become a part of my practice.”
Studio Noize now has nearly 120 episodes. Although Barber didn’t set out with this intention, it also has lots of Midtown ties. He founded it with another member of the inaugural cohort of Heart of the Arts residents, Jasmine Nicole Williams, who stayed on as a co-host until last year. His first guest was Shanequa Gay, a local artist who had a temporary storefront activation that was part of the first phase of Heart of the Arts.
And, one of his most recent guests, Shoccara Marcus, was an artist in residence at Cousins Properties’ Promenade building. She was also the first in-studio guest Barber hosted at his Midtown studio.
“I feed on the energy of being in Midtown, connecting with people,” he said. “I can only hope someone is inspired by it.”
Some of Barber's ink walk drawings, which will be for sale during the Winter Studio Sale Dec. 4-5.
It Comes Back Around
As for Barber himself, he can find inspiration anywhere, and he works daily. Since he moved into his new studio in Midtown, he has started to create at least one ink wash drawing a day, in addition to anything else he is working on. Lately they’ve been based on Stevie Wonder lyrics he wrote in his sketchbook.
“I got super deep into Stevie Wonder for a while, so a lot of these ink blot drawings come from this nostalgic, funky kind of vibe,” he said. “One thing I learned from one of my mentors is to constantly be inspired by something. So I’ll look back at my sketchbooks from four or five years ago and find some good ideas in there. It comes back around, like a big wheel.”
A super graphic of Barber's For All My Brothers Lost and Found is on view at 11th and Peachtree.
See Barber and the other five Midtown studio residents’ work at the new outdoor art gallery at 11th and Peachtree streets, where supergraphics were recently installed on an empty building. Barber’s “For All My Brothers Lost and Found” is on view there, and his work can also be seen on street banners throughout the district.
“I always wonder what people will think when they see it,” Barber said of his work. “I hope they like it. I hope they get the intention and the energy I want them to get. I hope it brightens someone’s day.”