Faces Of Art: Robert Peterson Spreads Messages Of Empowerment With His Contemporary Portraits

Contemporary artist Robert Peterson emerged as one of the country’s most celebrated artists after picking up a paintbrush in 2012. This Oklahoma native was named the 2016 “Artist of the Year for Southwestern Oklahoma” by the Oklahoma Arts Council, making history as the first African-American to hold that title in the state’s history. His figurative work exudes dynamic shading and coloring, and most are portraits. Hear from this talented designer about his work and what inspires him.

Michiel Perry: Can you describe your early influences that embolden your pursuit of art?
Robert Peterson: I picked up a paintbrush for the first time in July of 2012 after an injury that required me to miss work. I began painting as a way to keep my mind off of surgery and the thought of possibly not being able to return back to my old job. It wasn’t until September of that year that I sold my first two larger paintings which allowed me to take my wife and I on our first vacation outside of the US. While sitting on the beach in Cabo I remember telling my wife that I think I could actually do this (painting) and I haven’t looked back since.

Michiel: How has growing up in Oklahoma influenced your art?
Robert: Growing up in Lawton, Oklahoma there was not any art culture. I took my last art class in 7th grade. I never planned to become an artist because the art I was lucky enough to be exposed to wasn’t interesting to me. If you’re not into western art or Native American art there wasn’t really anything for you here when I was young. In 2017, I became the first-ever Black person to earn the title of Artist of the Year in Southwest Oklahoma all while painting nonwestern, non-Native American works of art. I painted what felt good, I painted my truth. I’m hoping that the work I’m putting in will influence future artists. I want them to see there is more than what is exhibited in the majority of the museums and galleries across the state.

robert peterson somewhere between heaven and earth
“Somewhere between heaven and earth”

Michiel: How do you motivate yourself to start your next piece?
Robert: I find motivation from my family, my collectors and my past accomplishments. Like most creatives I sometimes suffer from creative block but for the most part, I’m always inspired and motivated to work. I love being in my studio. I love standing in front of a canvas and letting my brushes speak. Typically the painting I’m working on will inspire the next painting or a future painting and that cycle has continued to repeat itself for 9 years this coming July.

Michiel: What is your favorite connection or experience you have had after finishing a piece of art?
Robert: I believe I’ve had some form of special or favorite connection with each piece of art that I have created. One that stands out though is a painting that I did of a homeless lady sitting on some steps titled “Tar Covered Steps”. I’ve been homeless in my life. It’s the most humbling thing I’ve ever experienced that I’ll never forget. When I look back at those times I remember how people would look down on me and judge me without even asking me what happened in life that caused it. The truth is, I moved from Oklahoma to New York to attend Parsons the New School to study fashion design with the hopes of providing a better life for my family. I bit off more than I could chew, our country went into a recession and I lost funding as well as my job which closed its doors because of the recession. This particular painting pulled at my heart and I think I actually cried once I stepped back and looked at it for the first time after completing it.

“Tar covered steps”

Michiel: What do you want your art to communicate?
Robert: Where I am currently at in my work is highlighting and uplifting Black people and other people of color and how we are seen through my works. I want the dialogue between my works and the people viewing it to be about how beautiful, resilient, powerful and worthy we are and have always been.

Michiel: Can you describe feedback from one of your art pieces that made you see your art in a different way?
Robert: Last year during the protest I found inspiration in the fight against racism and police brutality. I decided to create a painting inspired by David and Goliath which I titled “Slaying Giants. Protest 2020”. I unveiled the painting by posting it on Instagram for all of my family, friends, collectors and followers to see. Almost instantly people began commenting, sending direct messages, texting and calling. This piece seemed to connect with people in a way that I hadn’t seen. There were people who shed tears, people who felt empowered, people who smiled, laughed and even yelled because they didn’t know how else to express themselves because they had survived so much in 2020.

robert peterson slaying giants
“Slaying Giants. Protest 2020”

Michiel: Do you have another passion that fuels your art?
Robert: My family has always been a huge part of my motivation and inspiration when it comes to creating.

Michiel: How has family and fatherhood played a part in your artistic development?
Robert: Family is everything to me. My wife is constantly pushing me to think outside the box. She challenges me to be better. I haven’t had but one or two times where I felt like giving up on a painting and she was there encouraging me to push through and finish the piece. One of those paintings was the Obama painting I did in 2016 which ended up becoming one of my favorite paintings and most recognized pieces.

Michiel: Do you consider different cultural experiences or how your art is perceived over time when creating your art?
Robert: I’m not an extremely deep artist. I create my truth. I paint what I feel, what I’ve felt and what I want to feel. I don’t put a whole lot of thought into how it will be perceived. I pray over my work before I start each piece, while I’m painting it and once I’ve finally completed the painting. I believe this is what I was created to do so I accept that God will allow each painting to be seen by the right people.

robert peterson miss brown to you
“Miss Brown to You” St Fleur Collection

Michiel: How do your art pieces differ when commissioned by businesses and artists versus creating your own piece organically?
Robert: This is a great question. When I’m creating a work of art on my own, whether it be for a show or just to create, I think the amount of passion is greater because you’re not limited by the expectation of the collector who is commissioning you. Typically when a collector comes to me with an idea for a commission they know what they want, are providing the image and know how they want it to look once it’s completed. It doesn’t always leave room for creativity. I do enjoy commissions though because that is where I am usually stretched as an artist. There have been times that I have accepted a commission job simply because the collector is wanting something that I wouldn’t normally paint.

Michiel: Can you describe your experience of networking with other artists and navigating how you promote your work?
Robert: I’m a very open artist. When I first started out I would send direct messages to artists, galleries, museums and even people that I knew were known collectors asking for advice. A lot of those messages went unanswered and even unopened. Because of that, I’ve made it a point to respond to every artist who asks a question or reaches out to me. If I know it, I will tell you. Because of this I’ve been fortunate enough to establish some really great relationships with some amazing artists.

Michiel: What would you say to new artists that are having a tough time while trying to build themselves up as an artist?
Robert: I always say the same thing, believe in yourself enough and eventually others will too. It’s not going to be easy but I promise it will always be worth it.

Michiel Perry is the founder of Black Southern Belle, a lifestyle brand focused on African-American women with a Southern connection. See more of her work for aspire design and home here!

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