Natalie Osborne, a Tulsa, Oklahoma native, was exposed to art in its many forms from a young age. Obsourne had never been to Chicago—that is, until a teacher from The Art Institute of Chicago made a presentation to her high school class. Impressed with the striking artistic images of Chicago, Osborne decided to make the Windy City her alma mater. She went on to enroll at the Art Institute and majored in fine arts, joining the ranks of other talented and notable alumni such as Georgia O’Keefe, Nick Cave, Richard Hunt and Cynthia Rowley to name a few.
Osborne creates works that reflect her background, heritage and upbringing. Her portraits of Black women are striking, familiar and colorful. We sat down with the talented artist to discuss her portraits, her inspiration, and the direction ahead.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did your journey begin?
Well, I’ve always known that I wanted to be an artist. From as early as I can remember it’s what I wanted to do. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma—north Tulsa, Oklahoma. That’s known as Greenwood—Black Wall Street. It’s the historic site of the Tulsa massacre. I was raised in the historic area where everything is still Black. It’s still a Black community. I went to a historically Black elementary school, middle school, high school and so, all the teachers there taught us about [Black] culture. Black history. I wasn’t somebody who learned Black history when I was in high school, I learned about it throughout my whole education. And, growing up, there was so much art because it’s just an area that’s commemorated all the time. There’s always some type of celebration or commemoration and that’s always included art, art shows, things like that. So I was always exposed to art. I always knew that I wanted to be an artist.
What brought you to Chicago from Tulsa?
I honestly had never been to Chicago. A teacher from The Art Institute of Chicago came to my high school in Tulsa. The painting classes that I had at Booker T. Washington High School were real painting classes, so she set it up as a studio. We had huge wooden easels, we had to paint large-scale paintings, we had critiques, we had to photograph-document our work, we had to do art history research. So it was taught like a college-level studio painting class. And that teacher entered our works in scholastic competitions and so we got enough awards where schools would come to talk to the class about if anybody’s interested in going to art school. So someone came from the Art Institute of Chicago and they showed slides of Chicago and I was like “What?!” … I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen Chicago before… it really was like the Wizard of Oz to me! It really was like the Emerald City to me because in the photographs, she showed all the architecture and then she showed all of the large-scale city art. So, you could see the Picasso in Daley Square—the sculpture. There’s a Cezanne mural in the same area off State Street. There’s so much…and then she showed slides of the museum and slides of the collection. These were all of the paintings that we had been learning about. So, literally, all of the paintings that I had been studying in a book were in the permanent collection of that school, of the museum, and I just thought to myself, “I would be standing in front of those.” And, so…I was sold. I was like, “that’s where I’m going.”
You worked for the Downtown Arts Association in 2011, and in 2014 you started your online store. Between 2011 and 2014, were you painting?
I did not have even one painting. I was so immersed in working. During that time, everything was rocky financially. I think that’s near and around the time when all the financial institutions had kinda hit bottom and all needed to be bailed out and everything was bad as far as money. Working for the Downtown Arts Association—it was because all of the storefronts in The Loop were empty because all those businesses had closed down because of the recession. I don’t know if that’s accurate but…because of the financial downfall, a lot of downtown Chicago was [a] ghost town. And so the Downtown Arts Association got in touch with artists to fill those storefronts with what they call “pop-up galleries.” So, between opening my online shop and getting back to Chicago, I basically just struggled. I was just working two and three jobs. I was just working all the time. And, I remember meeting somebody. I wanted to make sure one of the shows at some of these pop-ups were filmed and I remember telling him I was a painter, and he wanted to see my work. I had nothing. I had nothing to show because I had spent at least three years just hustling—just on the grind, you know. But then when I got good and on my feet, I was able to start making very small paintings, I had no supplies. I had no materials. All my money went to rent. So, I started painting on magazine pages. I would paint on magazine pages and I entered art markets in Chicago—little sales markets where vendors could set up. And then people would come to those markets, buy the little paintings on magazine pages, and I set up an Etsy shop so that whatever they didn’t buy I could sell in the shop. So that’s how the Etsy shop came along and those little magazine paintings then funded me to make my work and then that funded me to be able to stop doing all my jobs and to be a full-time artist.
Your paintings are very colorful—the eyes are very pronounced and the lips are very full. Is there a particular reason why you use the brown, pink and green colors?
The color combination came to be just because the Earth tone [is] brown. I use that same color—whether it’s a background or a face—that’s usually the base of it for me. And then I use the colors that really pop from it. To me the colors that really stand on it nice and strong, where it can stand by itself and [make] a bold image, are just a few colors. So I kinda have a palette… so I use the pink and the green. I kinda just interchange those colors. And then I’ll take white and mute out all of the brown and just kinda leave it where it’s just the face [or where it needs to be]. But it always starts as that rich earth. Whatever colors stand [out] of that are what’s gonna stay, and then I might just refine the background.
Do your paintings have names?
So they’re all Josephine Baker [laughs]. Every single one of the magazine pages is a Josephine Baker girl… But that’s where I do my nod to graffiti because it’s like in graffiti you have a tag—it’s kinda like how the artist [Takashi] Murakami has a character called [Mr.] Dob—that’s a reference to graffiti where you have a character that you can do over, and over and over again. Then you just give them different qualities each time. And so, in graffiti, they call that a “tag.” So my tag would have been a Josephine Baker Girl.
Your work has an element of graffiti and I saw a piece that looked abstract in nature also. Where do you get your inspiration from? Are your paintings influenced by someone you know?
Well, yes. I didn’t know until I made them and stepped back and looked at them. I’m aware that most of them are my mother. I’m very aware. Like when I step back and look at them now, each one of them looks just like her. So… (points to picture) this one—it’s so obvious that it’s her… Pretty much all of them, it’s so obvious that it’s her (laughs). Now it’s obvious. At the time, I didn’t know I was making her over and over. But I grew up around… I had so many sisters. I have two brothers. I have a little brother and a big brother, but in between, it’s all girls. And, there’s a lot of us. There’s five girls total… so we’re all stair steps. And so growing up with my sisters… by the time we made it to middle school, high school, we would all be hanging out with our other friends in the neighborhood and they were girls and they would be the same as us… so when all of us would get together, it was like this whole… I used to say, girl gang. But it was sort of like a tribe of girls (laughs) and I recognized after a while, I didn’t know at first… that I was surrounding myself with that type of dynamic by creating all these girls and I recognized kinda my hometown. I recognized that feeling in each one of my paintings. And so I kinda do feel that sentiment of all the girls together.
What does your mother think of your artwork? Does she look at them and say, “That’s me, and that’s me and there I am again”?
Absolutely! Yes! She tells everybody. She’s like, “That’s me, that’s me, that’s me, that’s me, that’s me.” Yes.
Do your brothers feel left out?
I think they do feel left out because I was raised by men. I had my grandfather, my uncles, my father, my big brother… and his whole crew all looked after us all. So I think they do feel like they’re not getting that recognition. I do think that.
Do you have any paintings that are of men? Or a male likeness?
I have, but they just all end up looking like this (laughs). It’s like this voice comes out and I can tell you why. I think it’s because… Black women are… their beauty techniques, like whatever they do to beautify themselves, whatever they do as far as their style is concerned, has always been the prototype. And when you walk through these institutions, when you walk through these museums, you do not see paintings of Black women. Kehinde Wiley has been making paintings of Black women. That’s beautiful. We have Mickalene Thomas. But, when you walk through the history of the museums, and not the contemporary side, when you walk through the history of it all, you don’t see Black women. And I know today Black women are the archetypes of style, of fashion, everything—makeup, entrepreneurship. The way that women look and what they describe as beauty is, you know, Black women. So I think that is where the ambition lies. I know that I make paintings that people can have in their homes, but I always aspire to leave behind something that I want to be… I want to put Black women on those walls in those museums. I really do. People always talk about, “Well, then you’re crossing boundaries. You can’t be commercial art. You can’t sell for interior and then want to have work one day in a museum.” But that’s not true. If you talk to artists, we don’t have any of those boundaries. It’s people who are not artists who say, “These are what the boundaries are.” But, artists… we’ll make some jewelry, we’ll make a painting.
How long does it take for you to make one of your pieces?
That’s the question of the year. The Josephines don’t take long at all. [Those] are acrylic on paper and so I can do three or four of those in a day. But the oil paintings…whew! They are tricky. I used to paint with nothing but acrylic. And so for the past four years, I’ve been just full oil and it is harder…it takes longer. Sometimes, I can get a large-scale oil piece finished in two days, but sometimes it’ll take two weeks. There’s one in there that has taken two months. It’s just because the material is less forgiving. The oil, you can’t just wait until it dries and paint over it. It takes a long time. You have to be very careful of how you handle it because it’s toxic. There’s a lot more that goes into it.
No discussion would be complete without my asking you about your Daydream piece. Your Daydream piece appeared on author Warsan Shire’s book titled, Bless the Daughter—Raised By A Voice In Her Head. She’s a British poet. How did that collaboration get started?
Yes! I’m so proud of that. Warsan Shire purchased prints from me when I was first doing the prints. The only print I had was the Daydream print and the Reflection print. So it was just a black print and a white print. So, one was black with white lines and one was white with black lines and she bought those from me. I remember shipping those to the U.K. And then she contacted me and said she was writing a book of poetry and she wanted that image. And, I said “Yes!” Actually, it was a designer from Random House Publishing—the Great Britain Random House Publishing contacted me and then she contacted me next. That was difficult because I had never worked with book illustration before and it’s very technical. You have to get things right… and that’s when I learned that artists cannot do everything creative. Just [because] they’re creative, they can’t do everything… I learned that’s the reason why she wanted this—when I look at a picture of her, she does look just like that Daydream. That looks like a portrait of her.
What’s next? What can our readers look forward to?
Well, I am going to continue to make the pieces bigger and bigger and bigger. But while I’m doing that, I’m gonna try not to get away from being able to have those accessible pieces because they have been getting fewer and fewer—the 11×17 ones that are forty or fifty dollars. They get fewer and fewer because I’ve been focusing so much on pushing myself to do something bigger, bigger, bigger. I don’t have any upcoming shows. I have an upcoming launch… and I am going to start launching differently. I am going to start doing a launch where it’s originals. So it’ll be a launch for original paintings—large and small and then they’ll be a launch for prints.
How can readers get in touch with you if they want to buy some of your works and if they want to reach out to you? What’s the best way to do that?
The best way really is through Instagram @natalieodecor. I know I say I don’t hop on there, but messaging me there is really good because I can get you my email address. People can email me as well. So email and Instagram. I do check my messages on Instagram and I let everybody know what’s available…My Etsy shop is called NatalieOdecor.
Dierdre Robinson is a writer and accounting manager in Chicago. She has a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. She last wrote about photographer Sulyiman Stokes for the Weekly.