Originally from the island nation of Jamaica, Monique Steele is an illustrator, designer, and card carrying member of the Beyhive. Graduating with a BFA in illustration from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, she left for NYC to pursue designing full time. In her off hours, however she spends her time making art that represents all the things she’s a fan of from Harry Potter to historical fashion to killer queens throughout history and yes, Beyoncé. When she’s not drawing, you can find her incessantly spouting the virtues of non-prestige television, debating the best superpower to have (it’s teleportation by the way) or yet again shouting into the void about the one time she met Sebastian Stan on the streets of New York City (a fact she has yet to get over).
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
I create illustrations, mostly of women in historical costumes and occasionally fanart of things i enjoy, mostly fan-art of Beyoncé (so much Beyoncé). On the rare occasion I do a full illustration, I try to create a scene that tells a story. I want people who see my work to be able to come up with several ways the scene before them could play out.
BGC: Why do you create?
I create because I don’t think I know how to exist without making things. I draw to show appreciation for the things I enjoy and the things I wish I saw in day to day life. For me, it is a natural extension of who I am and how I relate to the world around me. Art and illustration are just subsections of storytelling and, growing up, I was a lover of stories. Drawing gave me a way to insert my own thoughts and feelings into worlds and landscapes and tales that didn’t exist outside of books and television. It allowed me to tell stories.
Creating also became a safe haven for navigating two very different cultures when I first immigrated to the United States. Having the ability to come up with my own space and rules through illustration was a source of quiet amidst the confusion. At the time, creating meant not having to choose a cultural identity where I could be wholly myself and express who I was, how I thought and what I enjoyed independent of which part of the cultural spectrum that placed me. While that particular battle no longer continues when I make art, I still find that its through the act of creating that I feel completely myself. When I create I’m not beholden to anyone else’s parameters but my own. In essence I create because it allows me to be the master of my own narrative.
BGC: Who is your audience?
Truthfully, that’s a question I’m not exactly sure how to answer. I think as an artist I’m just finding my voice and maybe because of that I haven’t really figured out who I’m making art for. I would like to believe that I make art for the people of color who just want to see themselves in ways that they’ve never even thought plausible. I want to make art for the people who’ve never been the star of the show and make art that centers them as the main characters. Mostly I think I make art for people who want to see flights of fancy, and bright colors and magic, but in ways that involve them and doesn’t relegate them to the side lines. I think my audience would be the people who, similarly to me, are just finding their voices and making spaces for themselves in the world.
BGC: Who or what inspired you to do what you do? Who or what continues to inspire you?
At one point in time the thing that inspired me the most was probably all the stories I grew up reading and the movies I watched growing up. I drew a lot of things that were based on trying to recapture the thrill of adventure that I would get from these stories and narratives. As I got a little bit more mature and settled in my work I still look to pop culture as a basis for what themes I want in a piece of work, but now I shift the lens a bit to refocus on my place and the place of people like me in pop culture. Realizing I’ve never seen many people like me in the stories I love to read about or watch helped drive me to make a lot of my later pieces.
I’m also very interested in history and research and highlighting time periods in which people of color existed but are often erased in the pop culture retelling of that time. It’s very often that a period piece will emerge and frame places like London as mono-ethnic societies. The references for Victorian and Elizabethan people of color that existed gets washed away from history and my desire to see those other versions of history does impact a lot of the stuff I try to make now.
Another big inspiration for me is definitely seeing the creativity from my contemporaries and other artists and creatives. I make quite a bit of fanart in my spare time, mostly when I see or hear something that strikes me in the moment. I might see a celebrity wearing an amazing outfit and that inspires me to try to recreate the look in a drawing or watch a musical performance that is so mind-blowing I’m immediately inspired to make something that captures some of that feeling. In a way, I feel as though I’m a creativity sponge. Seeing and experiencing spectacular moments of creativity inspire me more than anything else. Seeing something beautiful makes me want to create something beautiful as well.
BGC: Why is it important as a Black person to create?
It’s important because in many ways being a Black creative opens the door to so many others to feel like they can as well. I remember going to art school and not seeing people who looked like me, which in turn made me feel as though I didn’t belong in that space, a feeling that shakes your confidence in numerous imperceptible ways. Being able to feel as if you are a part of something and a valuable contributor to that community is such an undervalued experience. Feeling seen and valued starts with being able to identify that the people who came before you were also members of the creative community who did work that is appreciated amongst the work of their peers. Not seeing people you identify with in a space is a bar to entry that perpetuates until it becomes seen as truth. With every Black creative out there we nudge the door a little bit wider, bit by bit, until it’s an open doorway for anyone interested to be a part of the industry without feeling intimidated by their own otherness. Without us there to tell our own stories, we have to rely on others to tell those tales for us. Which leads to claims like “Black people don’t have their own stories unless they involve pain and tragedy,” a common refrain often quoted on the internet. Without Black creatives there to tell our stories in an honest, truthful, and non-judgmental way that belief spreads until it's considered to be fact.
BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
The creation vs. everyday life balance is such a tricky thing, because, professionally I work full time as a Graphic Designer. In a way I never really stop creating. When your hobby becomes your job, you’re always working, which is why I think it’s important to put the creating parts away for bit and take a break, mostly so I don’t “burn out” or go insane. I try, after I finish a piece, to set aside time and not dive right into the next thing. I also give myself a time table when I work because I do often come home on weekdays from my job designing one thing, to work on a completely different personal artistic endeavor. For instance when I come home in the evenings I won’t start working on my own projects until maybe 8:00 pm and when it hits midnight I try to wrap things up. When it’s a personal project, I know I have more time because the only one setting my deadlines is myself. Freelance gigs are a little trickier because, naturally, the assignment comes with its own deadlines. Regardless of whether it’s freelance or personal in nature, I do try to schedule myself and parse out time so I work in a way that doesn’t completely leave me running ragged. I also try to give myself moments to partake in other hobbies. Sometimes it’s as simple as taking a break to go see a movie or play a video game or hanging with friends, but I find those moments just as valuable as the actual act of creating. It’s in those moments that I refuel for the next thing or find something that sparks a new interest that sets me down the path to begin creating anew.
BGC: Any advice for young creators/ones just starting?
The greatest advice I can give is to create the things that you love. It's the love for creating things that keeps you driven to continue and the more you create the better you’ll be. Also, don’t be scared of putting out things that are less than perfect. A lot of times, especially when you’re just starting out, the worry of having to be absolute perfection to compete with other people in your field keeps a lot of us from making the things that truly embody our craft and our voices. Often times in trying to seek out perfection we begin to imitate work that we already deem to be impeccable and lose the essence of who we are as artists. In an attempt to display faultless work, we hold ourselves back from enjoying what we’ve made as well, which, I feel, is one of the greatest parts about making something. The process of creating is often times so messy and slapdash and it's through the throwing of all that craziness together that you find the thing that works for you. Take a risk on the imperfect and just be bold and proud of the things you make.