Art & Design

Life imitates art

Life imitates art

How DC based Artist, Shawn Perkins, forged his own path in the cities emerging art scene.

Interview & Photography by Chad Balkum

Once a year Miami plays host to a dizzying mix of art elite, social media influencers, cool kids and general revelers. Art Basel Miami has become one of the best known art fairs in the country. The festival has spawned an array of additional fairs and parties all taking place during the same week vying for equal attention. With such a multitude of happenings during the course of one week it’s not hard to imagine how an emerging artist in attendance can be overlooked. DC based Artist, Shawn Perkins, shares thoughts on his first trip to Art Basel Miami and how he made the transition from  college athlete to full-time artist.

SH: I’m glad we got to be in Miami at the same time. So tell me how was your first experience at Art Basel?

I’ve been wanting to go down there forever but I didn't want to be there if I wasn’t actively a part of it. I just always had in my mind if I’m going to be down there I’ve got to be doing something. Most of the artists showing there, especially at the bigger shows, are represented by accredited galleries which I understand is a way to make it more selective. 

I made a last minute decision that I’m going to go down there regardless this year to see what it's all about & simply do my own thing.  I bought a plane ticket, packed a bag, grabbed 3 easels, a few canvases and some paint (that got confiscated at the airport) then headed down to Miami on a faithful whim.

SH: So you really didn't have any type of plan?

Sounds crazy but yea I was totally winging it. I was fresh off the plane walking around South Beach with my art and no specific destination. As luck would have it I ended up meeting this really eccentric dude riding around in a tricked out golf cart painted like a ladybug. We ended up having a great conversation and he randomly became like my personal Miami  tour guide. He showed me the areas I needed to be and put me on to the various art galleries in the area.

I was literally riding around Miami with Homie in a golf cart that looked like a ladybug. He even went out of his way to take me to pick up some art supplies and gave me a ride to a spot where I would be able to set up my canvas to live paint.

"I made a last minute decision that I’m going to go down there regardless this year to see what it's all about & simply do my own thing."

SH: This story sounds so crazy but for anyone that knows you this is typical for you. You always find a way to make the best out of your circumstances.

Yeah, honestly everything happens for a reason because the location where I set up my canvas I ended up running into someone I knew from Howard University. He told me about a guy that had a truck he converted into a mobile pop-up and I might be able to set up in. I was skeptical at first but didn’t have anything to lose so I ended up meeting up with the guy. The truck was basically a small semi but the exterior was all plexiglass that allowed you to see inside it from the outside. I set up a makeshift booth on a table outside of the truck with prints I had for sale while I painted on the inside of it. 

SH: That’s where I ended up linking with you, I always admired how you create your own opportunities. Let’s backtrack a little because I don’t think too many people know that you were a college athlete once upon a time. Can you talk about that and how that led you to DC?

I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan. I moved to DC when I transferred to Howard University. I originally went to a school out in Michigan which was a small, liberal arts college. I went there, because they offered me art & athletic scholarships for basketball. So as far as tuition, I only had to pay like a couple thousand per year. At the time it was really the best situation for me coming out of high school. I played ball there up until I tore my ACL at the end of my freshman year. I got surgery that summer and ended up tearing it again my sophomore year. At that point I kind of had to take a step back and re-evaluate what I wanted to do because playing basketball was really the only reason I went to that school. Once I couldn't do that anymore I really just wanted to go to a college where I could simply enjoy the experience and be around more people that looked like me opposed to being 95% white. 

"I quit my last job with $250 to my name. That really makes your mindset shift, when you have to wake up knowing you've got to find a way to go get it because you still have to pay rent, have a phone & eat."

SH: So what ultimately made you begin looking at DC as an option?

I began looking at DC because I had family out here and I was already familiar with the city from visiting a few times when I was younger. I ended up applying to George Washington, Georgetown, George Mason and Howard. I ended up getting accepted to all of them but because of my financial situation I decided on going to Howard as it was the most affordable option, which ended up being exactly where I was supposed to be. I majored in graphic design. That's where I learned a lot of my skills as far as Photoshop, making logos and brand development. I had really great professors that broke it down and made it as close to a real work environment as possible.

SH: Did you end up graduating from Howard?

I ended up having to leave school for a second time because I didn't have enough money to pay for my last semester. To this day, I'm like six credits short of actually having a bachelor's degree, which a lot of people don't know. I still just say I'm a Howard alum.That's the reality, I couldn't finish school because of the money. I just ended up working full time in the restaurant industry for almost nine years. I stayed in DC because it was either that or go back to Detroit. That was an easy decision for me. It was during that period, around my early to mid twenties, I’d say I really found myself.

"Why would God bless me with this talent if I wasn’t supposed to use it?"

SH: What happened during this point in time that allowed you to stay motivated & ultimately find yourself when you could’ve easily moved back to Detroit?

I knew I didn't want to be working in the restaurant industry forever so I had to ask myself, what is it that I really want to do? Even though I went to school for graphic design, that wasn't necessarily my passion. My passion has always been creating through painting or drawing. I started out drawing when I was young. That progressed to learning how to acrylic paint, oil, paint and things of that nature. When I'm painting I don't have any awareness of time. Four hours can go by and it only feels like 20 minutes. The real spark for me came one late night while watching a documentary on YouTube. I came across this documentary, Radiant Child. Watching it and seeing someone that looks like me doing what I'm trying to do now, 20-30 years ago, was just remarkable. That just made me feel like if he could do it so could I and drove me to start creating like a madman.

SH: I remember around this time it seemed like something just clicked for you and a switch was turned on. Is that how you felt?

At that moment I decided why not just take that leap of faith to see if I can do this full time. I came up with this idea called 30 for 30.  I did 30 different works of art over 30 days, it didn’t matter what it was, as long as I was making something every day. The purpose of it was to get me into a focused mindset. From that point things definitely didn't happen overnight, I had to show people that I was really serious about this. Nobody associated me with being an artist so I had to make that a reality. Fast forward eight years to the present, I've been a full time artist for almost five years now. I haven't worked for anyone besides myself.

I quit my last job with $250 to my name. That really makes your mindset shift, when you have to wake up knowing you've got to find a way to go get it because you still have to pay rent, a phone bill & eat. So I just kept that momentum and a mentality that no matter what, I'm going to make this work. Why would God bless me with this talent if I wasn’t supposed to use it?