As the world shut down early last year, Brandon Breaux began questioning the intention of his artistic practice. Art began to feel like a luxury to him, and he didn’t feel particularly compelled to make new work.
“‘What purpose is the thing that I’m doing in this world really serving?’” he says he asked himself. “‘Is [art] necessary? How is it actually actively impacting a moment like this?’”
He felt the urge to connect with people in a different way, ultimately launching a daily meditation group on Instagram Live last summer. After hosting the series for 150 consecutive days, he found that a broad audience was tuning in and people were attending the sessions consistently. “The theme of gratitude began to open up in [my meditations] too,” he says, explaining that after searching “inward,” he wanted to figure out how to show his admiration of others. As he began wondering how he could simultaneously keep up with his artistic and meditative practices—and continue to do so in public—his new project was born.
On February 1, Breaux introduced the portrait series 28 Days of Greatness on his Instagram page, in collaboration with Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation. The project honors and elevates everyday Black heroes—Breaux’s creative peers, mentors, collectors, and friends—during Black History Month. The project also signaled a meaningful return to his artistic practice.
In addition to being available on Breaux and Rebuild’s respective Instagram accounts, physical portraits will be posted outside the foundation’s Stony Island Arts Bank towards the end of February, so that the campaign will be accessible to Greater Grand Crossing residents.
“We’re not guaranteed time with people,” he explains. “A big part of me, going from 2020 to now, is also making a point to celebrate the people who support me. I want to uplift them for the work they’re doing because not a lot of times do people get the appreciation that I feel like they should. I think this is a fast-paced world and a lot of artists’ success seems to be about how many eyes you can have on [what] you make, and I didn’t want it to be that.”
Breaux selected his subjects based on who he thought deserved to be seen, mindfully veering away from depicting celebrities or high-profile Chicagoans, something he thought could come off as clickbait. He tells the stories of these everyday Black heroes, as well as his connections to them, in the captions of his Instagram posts, and the project is further bolstered by weekly conversations on the social networking app, Clubhouse.
Among the people that Breaux has highlighted are writer and filmmaker Travon Free; curator, artist, and architect Janice Bond; mixed-media artist Adrian Octavius Walker; rapper and librarian Roy Kinsey; and critical race sociologist and hip-hop artist Dr. Charity Clay.
Using Procreate on his Apple iPad, Breaux explains that he essentially uses the same process to create the portraits as he would with an actual oil painting. He prefers to begin with a black base and build from there, sketching the composition, blending textures and colors, and refining his color palette. For the project, he made a conscious decision to experiment with pastels, something that he says “speaks to where I am going with my artistic language and my voice.”
Each portrait exhibits a botanical motif, based on a plant concept he’s been toying with for years, where he juxtaposes the exoticism of plants with the perceived exoticism of Black people’s physical attributes. The motif is also a nod to his interest in permaculture—a philosophical and technical approach on how to live in harmony with nature—and diversity, one of the tenets of permaculture, which allows for a productive and interactive system.
While some of Breaux’s subjects aren’t Chicagoans, they are mostly people he’s met in the city, and specifically, people he’s met on his native south side. All of the digital paintings tie back to a memory from the area, allowing him to illuminate a place that he says “doesn’t necessarily get all good shine all the time.”
Central to Breaux’s artistic mission is bringing more attention to the south side, which aligns with Rebuild and Gates’s work to reimagine communities that have long been devalued. Founded in 2010, Rebuild supports artists and communities by providing free arts programming and leveraging the potentiality of these neighborhoods.
“It’s not always about what we can get out of a community, but about what are we willing to envision for a community and contribute to take it to the next level, to live in a community that is great for the people that are there—that is safe for the people that are there, that is beautiful. We put this effort into making it beautiful,” Breaux says.
Mental health has also always been a crucial component of Breaux’s work, something that’s reflected in his meditation series and his concept store Invisible Space, which, according to its website, aims to “encourage a more informed, connected, and healthy environment” in disinvested communities. While the multidisciplinary artist has been using his work to confront mental health issues for years, with 28 Days of Greatness, it remains more nuanced.
“I can’t help but reflect my experience and me being an advocate,” Breaux says. “I think part of even letting people know that they’re liked, that they’re loved is something that I think artists need to hear, I think people need to hear. I think individuals need to know because you don’t know where people are at a given time like in their life. For me, this is an opportunity to let them feel appreciated.” v