Elizabeth Bayne: There have been approximately 300 Black alumni in the 90 years that ArtCenter has existed. That part.
Devin Strothers (BA '09 Illustration): Yeah, that part. It's like three Black people a year, basically. If you divide it up. When I came there were six or seven of us sprinkled through everything. Maybe 10.
EB: Had you ever been in that type of environment before, where there weren't that many Black folks?
DS: I grew up in West Covina; there are no Black people over there, really. And all the Black people went to public school, and I went to private. So, I was usually one of two. When I got to high school there were more Black people. But it was pretty regular to be one of the only ones.
EB: How did you decide that you wanted to be an artist? And was that a tough decision?
DS: I didn't really have that many options, really. Because I was kind of a bad kid. So, I wasn't getting into a university or a Cal State. I was either going to community college or applying to art school. And so, I applied to ArtCenter, not even really knowing what all this was. And I got into Fine Art at 18. I did graffiti when I was a little kid. The only thing I was interested in was drawing. So when I turned 18, my mom was like, "Either you're going to move out of the house, or you've got to go to school."
EB: How did you find out about the school in the first place?
DS: Someone came to my high school and talked about it. I was in this little section of kids who, to graduate, got to go to these other classes. And they would come and talk to us about other alternatives besides going to university, like going to specialized schools. So ArtCenter was one of the schools that came.
EB: Why did you ultimately decide to come here?
DS: Community colleges are just like high school; I was trying to do something a little different. Plus, it was art school, so it was specialized in what I was interested in at the time.
EB: What was your first impression of the campus?
DS: It was wild seeing the architecture; ArtCenter is kind of a trip. Coming up the hill for the first time, just the whole pristine setting of it — it felt like art school. The first class was intro art theory, and I didn't really know what was going on. I was fresh out of high school and a lot of shit was over my head. It's stuff I read now actually, like Gertrude Stein and shit, and I'm like, "Damn, they gave me this to read when I was 18."
EB: Did some of it sink in, do you think?
DS: There's still something that permeates in the work I do today — or kind of floated in somehow. I had this class in Fine Art and my instructor, Pauline Sanchez, actually told me to switch majors. She was like, "You don't know what you're doing. You should go into illustration." And actually, I took her advice. It was better to go to illustration. It was more technical, almost like a boot camp in a weird way; they kind of whip you into shape. Illustration gave me more boundaries and kind of gave me a foundation.
EB: And you needed that structure?
DS: I really needed structure, really needed somebody to tell me what to do. Because I kind of was a wild kid or whatever. So I needed that discipline. And I got that over there. But I work in the fine art world now, which is, I think it's kind of funny.
EB: Were you the only Black person in your class?
DS: There weren't many. In most of the classes, I was usually the only Black student.
EB: What does it mean to be a Black artist?
DS: Shit, I don't know. It means that you're kind of adding to this long history of how Blackness is represented. And it's a very diverse kind of history to join. What I work in, which is the art world, music influences it heavily, so do fashion and sports. All these things influence the whole longevity of the history of what it is to be Black. So I would say it's mainly about adding to this ongoing history of representation, how we're represented and how we want to be shown to the outside world.
EB: How has ArtCenter impacted your life and influenced your career?
DS: It showed me a lot of things that I later could comprehend. And it was like a fast-forward or a jumpstart into the way a lot of things work in the art world, actually.
EB: It sounds like ArtCenter helped develop your voice?
DS: I would say my voice developed because there was no other Black voices really to compete with. I tried to be loud and very blatant about the work. And I guess that's what led me into what I do now. So yeah, I guess the lack of a Black voice made me want to create one.
EB: Back to the 300 Black alumni in 90 years. Does that mean progress? Or does it mean the school's not doing enough?
DS: For the school not doing enough, I would say the price is a deterrent for a lot of students. Just because it's so expensive. Now with Instagram, it's a lot more attainable to see yourself as an artist. As opposed to when I was coming here in 2004, there was no Instagram. You didn't really see this platform with all these Black people doing all types of amazing things. It's a privilege to go to art school. You just didn't see that when I was growing up.
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo credit: Everard Williams
My voice developed because there was no other Black voices really to compete with. I tried to be loud and very blatant about the work. I guess the lack of a Black voice made me want to create one.Devin Troy Strother (BA '09 Illustration)Contemporary artist
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