a painting by the artist Brandon Breaux (img: a Black man seated in a room with a fern in the foreground, and the word SEEN superimposed on top of the image in coral-colored lettering
A painting by Breaux included in “BIG WORDS.” Credit: Brandon Breaux

Yes, Chance the Rapper did give a big push to artist Brandon Breaux’s career when Breaux designed the covers for three of the singer’s mixtapes: 10 Day, Acid Rap, and Coloring Book. Breaux also recently landed two high-profile commissions—the February 2022 Ebony cover honoring editor André Leon Talley, and the cover of Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation, a book by the late Congressman John Lewis. 

But in his paintings, the Chicago-based Breaux also pays homage to the nonfamous people who made an impact in his life, with a touching sense of gratitude. Those portraits and much more can be seen at “BIG WORDS,” his first solo exhibition, on view at Blanc Art Gallery in Bronzeville through May 27. The show was curated by Anna Cerniglia of Johalla Projects and Alison Cuddy, formerly of WBEZ and the Chicago Humanities Festival. Editor’s note: Cuddy and Blanc co-owner Eileen Rhodes both currently serve on the board of the Reader Institute for Community Journalism.

Breaux’s ever-expanding universe includes fashion, graphic design, mental health advocacy, kids’ TV shows, video game design . . . you name it. What permeates his work is a sense of beauty, kindness, and intelligent simplicity. With “BIG WORDS,” Breaux brings language to the foreground among other themes—language as a means of connection but also separation. 

The Reader interviewed Breaux via email shortly before “BIG WORDS” opened. In his responses to our questions, as in his art, Breaux found a way of bringing language and connection to the forefront—making sure he was truly getting the message across.

Isa Giallorenzo: Could you tell me a bit about your history growing up? Were you born and raised here in Chicago? What was growing up here like for you?

Brandon Breaux: South side! Chatham and Grand Crossing. Growing up was interesting. It was isolated because of segregation and gang boundaries, so I needed permission from my mom or grandmother to go anywhere. But still it was fun, very creative, very midwestern, you know, kind of the small community [in a] big city. And very tight as far as everyone knowing everyone’s business! 

In the press release for “BIG WORDS,” it says that “this multidisciplinary exhibition is a journey through some of the touchstones—people, places, and artifacts—that have shaped how Breaux has come to see the world, and is a meditation on the way identity evolves through an ongoing dialogue with public events and personal histories.” What occurrences in your life have influenced your art and the person you’ve become, and what are some of the ways they are depicted in your show?

There are many. Public school, where I developed my personality. My grandmother’s passing, when I was a teenager. Hip-hop and breakdancing were a huge influence. Traveling to Japan was a huge influence for my spirituality and belief system, my philosophy for how I anchor myself in the world. This show is a lot about family and how I grew up so it is personal and has a lot of things or images from home. My experience in Japan influenced how I spaced out and visualized the show as well as my sense of craft, building my own canvases and things like that.

When and why did you become interested in art? In a video produced by Rebuild Foundation where you talk about your 28 Days of Greatness project, I heard you say you only had one Black art teacher, Ms. Jackson. How did this teacher impact you?

I’ve been doing art since before I can remember. My mom says I was around three, maybe five when I started doing portraits of her: her face, her teeth, the glasses around her face—which I didn’t know how to do so I drew them curved around the head—kind of flat and 3D at the same time! 

Ms. Jackson was one of the coolest, most laid-back relationships I had with a teacher. I didn’t have an art teacher until seventh grade. We had an “art cart” but it wasn’t consistent. With Ms. Jackson, it was the first time we had an art room and work space to hang out. So I would go there and eat my lunch and finish up work, and just hang out. She was very kind, and called us all baby, like “Hey baby, how you doin’?” She was an artist and a sculptor and still is. 

“BIG WORDS”
Through 5/27: Sat-Sun, noon-4 PM, Blanc Gallery, 4445 S. King Dr., 773-373-4320, blancchicago.com. An artist talk with Breaux and a reception is scheduled in the gallery for Sat 5/7, starting at 1 PM.

The invitation to your exhibition also says that in your work “the juxtaposition of painterly images with graphic lettering invites a connection—or confrontation—with the way language can be both a passageway or barrier between worlds.” Could you explain that a little more? Is that related to the “BIG WORDS” of the title? How do you think language can be better used as a means of connection as opposed to a means of conflict? What kinds of attitudes can foster better communication in your opinion?

“BIG WORDS” generally relates to dense or inaccessible language and how language can be used to express status, value, or money. Class is at the heart of it, in terms of which people can afford the education to learn that vocabulary. In the show there are no big words in that sense. They are very common terms, SEEN or LORD. But they are physically big to address the elephant in the room—class or gatekeeping in the art world—and to pose the question “How am I expected to talk about my art?” 

Language can divide or connect equally well. Connecting is about really listening to people while also questioning how you personally receive the world. It happens through empathy and truly being curious.

Do you have any direct influences on your paintings? Your work is evocative of Kerry James Marshall and Kehinde Wiley. What are some similarities and differences you see between your work and theirs?

I think all art is about being influenced in some way by the things around us and what we gravitate toward. At the same time I have been doing portraiture since I was a kid so it comes from my personal influences. With Kerry James Marshall, there is a similarity in the focus on the Black figure and the exaggeration of color and tone, although I didn’t get why that was important at first, until I heard him talk about it. His consistent investigation of the color black and the endless variety within that caused me to look deeper at people and the things and colors I do see and why I see them that way.

The plants are inspired by George Washington Carver’s work and ideas about permaculture—I took a class in that and became interested in plants as intelligent life forms. So I kind of wanted to make them the costars of my artwork or center them at times. Respecting all life forms is important and for me painting is a way to show respect and gratitude.

How do you choose the subjects in your portraits?

Lately I have been trying to be better about pouring into the people who pour into me and reciprocating the generosity they give me. The 28 Days of Greatness portraits were like gifts to people who inspire me. Often portraits are about celebrities or exalted figures and these are not about that, they are about ordinary people who are special to me and are about showing what love or gratitude looks like.

What are some materials and techniques you like to use?

Oil painting for sure and garments as a medium of expression. I am interested in repurposing objects to make new uses out of old things, and creatively reapplying old materials. 

Brandon Breaux Credit: Nolis Anderson

What was it like working with Chance the Rapper?

It was pretty life-changing because of the impact it had. To collaborate with someone as committed as he is was amazing. It brought me opportunities and trust in my ability, my eye, and my capacity to make effective art over and over again. Through it I realized my work had value and could travel far, I just didn’t know how far.

What other highlights in your career are you particularly proud of? By the way, I’d like to congratulate you for the Ebony cover honoring André Leon Talley, and the book cover for Congressman John Lewis’s Carry On.

My collaboration with the MCA store. When I first started designing T-shirts one of my goals was to have them in museum gift shops, to have them seen in that way and context. 

Also, the digital miniseries What’s Good, which I directed with a friend for PBS. That was great because PBS has done so much for kids. It impacted me as a child so it was great to do something for kids on that platform.

What are some other areas besides visual arts you’ve branched into? I see you promote a shop called “The Invisible Space.” Do you own it? What’s the idea behind it? Do you design some of the featured products? I particularly love the sold-out Breaking Bread necklace (a collaboration with the artist Secret of Manna). Do you plan on restocking it? Asking for a friend . . .

Yes there are some of those necklaces at “BIG WORDS!” I own the brand Invisible Space and the concept is to acknowledge some of the places people don’t recognize enough. I wanted to shine a light on them and the people that make them, especially on the south side. It is also a way of talking about spiritual things, like yoga and meditation. I have always been really interested in multimedia, but since visual art and graphic design are the mediums I have stuck with the most, that’s what people know me for. But I am also into sound, video games, and fashion—lots of things.

I’d love to know more about your meditation workshops and lectures. Why did you decide to go into this line of work? How does it relate to your visual art?

Meditation became a focus during COVID because it offered a good space for people to find a way to calm down. There weren’t a lot of resources for that. Prayer is more of a solo experience so I wanted to do something where people could be with their breath and each other, because not having that space and connection impacts our mental health. It was needed and I wanted to take some responsibility for making it happen. Lectures: important that people heard me speak about the work because speaking is a great and immediate way to communicate your passion and ideas. That realization and knowing how important storytelling is to my practice, since I think of myself as a visual storyteller in a way.

You recently hosted a men’s mental health and conversation workshop promoted by Babes Only at Lululemon. What do you think is specifically important for men to know about mental health? Additionally, I noticed you commented on the Will Smith Oscar incident on your Twitter account—what’s your take on what happened? What counsel would you give to both Will Smith and Chris Rock, from a mental health perspective?

It is OK to not be perfect and not carry all the groceries yourself, so to speak. Sometimes the world thinks that’s what it is to be a man, to take on the weight of the world, to take it on the chin.

What we saw at the Oscars had that going on. It didn’t feel as if it was about that single moment, but had been building up and hit a breaking point. They both have an impossible task sometimes, to appear perfect while being so surveilled. There is healing for both of them to do. 

Could you tell me a bit about your “Seeing Futures” project at the MCA? What was that experience like for you and the participants?

For me it was very fulfilling to really have that conversation, to lead that meditation and to incorporate it as art. It was the first time I incorporated one of my wellness practices or anything in my life as a performance. So it was great. We didn’t have permission to do it, we just did it. And then the MCA posted it. I thought it was a good time for people to come out and meditate on how things could be more inclusive. There was lots of focus on what was wrong and what we don’t want to see, so sometimes the work of ideating and talking about what we do want to see doesn’t get done.

I see you have an artist residency coming up at the Kennedy Center in D.C.—what do you plan on showcasing there?

[The residency program] is called Office Hours and you have six days to do what you like, just show up and do your thing. Don’t know yet what I am going to do but I’m looking forward to it!

What do you envision for your career and life in the future? And where can we find out about it?

Making more art, creating more experiences, and telling more stories. I have a new site coming this summer but for now brandonbreaux.com.