If you’ve ever needed a pick me up or a constant reminder on just how magical and more than able we are to fervently chase after our dreams, Harlem based artist Ronald Draper is just the man to share those words of encouragement with you. “Dear Brilliant Brown Girl: Don’t dim your light for those who can’t handle your shine,” is just one of the “love notes” used on his 4 piece collection of limited availability custom artwork, which is of course now sold out. “In addition to my larger artwork, I also like to create smaller things that are accessible to everyone,” says Ron. Bitten by the art bug since he was a kid, Draper has been creating masterpieces even before he hit the double digits. As we sat in his studio, full of large colorful, quote filled pieces, I couldn’t help but notice the tiniest paper piece hanging up on the wall behind him. Bright cut out shapes pieced together, very much similar to the style that Draper has come to be known for. I guess when you’ve got it, you’ve got it and nothing like a mom to recognize her baby’s talent. “This is one of my childhood pieces that my mother saved,” he says proudly. With work spewed across Harlem from classic go tos like BLVD Bistro and Angel of Harlem to Harlem Hospital, Ronald’s distinct work has become a staple in the neighborhood he’s called home his entire life. Ron recently gave The Know It Alls access into his studio to get a closer look into the mind of the man that went from art to Wall Street, right back to art again and just how he’s cultivating Harlem’s appreciation of art and proving by example that art is so much more than a weekend hobby.
AB: When did you start painting?
RD: I’ve done artwork my entire life. My mother always kept art around me. She said, “Listen you have a talent, it’s your responsibility to cultivate this talent.” I ended up quitting art after high school. I went to a specialized art high school that made art feel so normal. It wasn’t really fun. I was just doing it for an assignment. I didn’t feel inspired anymore. I decided I wanted to be an attorney and I went to St John’s University and majored in law and business. I graduated, worked on Wall Street for a few different law firms before I realized this is not what I wanna do.
AB: How did you get back into it [art]?
RD: When my father died, I had never lost anyone that close to me. The thing is, with art, it’s self therapy that you don’t need anyone else to do. You don’t need anyone else to take part in it and that’s how I got back into art. Art gave me an outlet to cope. A lot of people that knew me from growing up said, “I’m glad you got back into art because so many people I went to school with stopped. I’m glad somebody is still doing amazing work.”
AB: You use a lot of words and quotes within your work. How did that originate?
RD: I had a huge sense of resentment when my father passed away for the way I had treated him a few years before. He just wasn’t the person I thought he should have been but then you realize that people can’t be something they’re not. I remember seeing this quote by Albert Einstein, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree you’ll think it’s stupid forever.” I realized looking at that quote how good that made me feel and it kind of put things back into perspective for me. I thought if that quote could do that for me, there has to be ways the use of words can do the same for other people. I started playing around with quotes here and there and it just became my thing. I’m a guy that likes to speak but everyone has their medium of getting their message across. Some people write books, make music, I just chose art as my medium to get my point across. I use the quotes I think can change people’s lives and put it in a form you can’t forget.
AB: What medium do you use?
RD: Wood is my thing. I started off with glass. I still do glass work now but its more special order work. I can cut wood into whatever shape I want. It’s more durable.
AB: Do you create everything on your own or do you have a team?
RD: Everything I sell with my name on it, only my hands have touched. I don’t like mass produced things. My framed artwork series, is often mistaken for prints but it’s all hand painted. They’re not prints but I wanted to create something relative to prints that everyone can have.
AB: How did people come to know your work in Harlem?
RD: It started with BLVD Bistro. That was so random. I did this project Take Care of Harlem and Carlos, the owner of BLVD donated breakfast to all of my volunteers. I remember going through his IG and seeing a blank wall in his restaurant and I said, “Hey what are you going to do with this wall.” He said, “Nothing.” I said, “I got some work for it.” At first the piece was just on display but Carlos loved the piece so much his wife ended up buying it for him. After that, he bought more work to fill up all the walls in his space. Next came Corner Social. One of the general managers was always eating at BLVD Bistro and saw my work and asked Carlos for my info. People find things. Its not necessarily exposure, its repetition. It’s not as if I can have work here, in Newark, NJ, here in Delaware, in Miami, allover. The same people won’t see it. They’ll just see it once. But if you have multiple pieces in one area, people will begin to recognize it.
AB: Aside from your own artwork you are also the Director of Contemporary Arts & Culture at Harlem Hospital. How did you get that position?
RD: I pitched that position myself. All the artwork going into the hospital goes through me. I get to pick and choose and curate what goes in the entire campus. They didn’t have that job, I just created it. If you can’t find a job, create it. I also teach at Eagle Academy in BK. I’m the head of their art department. I teach an art history class called “Art is Activism” where kids are learning how art has helped shape activism and movements. They take their thoughts and ideas and help to create culturally relevant pieces that tell their story and help advocate for change. They’re learning how to speak on what they want to be changed through their artwork.
AB: You do a lot of work to give back to Harlem. Why do you have such strong ties to Harlem?
RD: I’m from Harlem, I can’t see myself thriving in one place and not making sure everyone is okay. I can’t help everyone necessarily but I can do what I can. There’s been events that my team and I have put together through my organization, Take Care of Harlem where we’ve fed thousands of people. I can’t say I’ve touched everyone one in Harlem but I’ve touched a lot of people. Instead of leaving and going somewhere else I’d rather build my community and make it the way i want it. I remember a line from a song that always stays with me, “My grandma doesn’t want to leave the hood so I just need to raise the slums up.” So to that point, if she’s not going to leave I rather make it a better place while I have the opportunity.
AB: Tell me a little more about Take Care of Harlem.
RD: Take Care of Harlem is a community based organization that was started by myself and a few of my friends, all in Harlem. We all have different initiatives but aim to change Harlem through the realm of fashion, culture, and entrepreneurship. Through the entrepreneurship component, we work with younger students in schools and try to speak to who we can to encourage. It’s not as if other people can’t create their own jobs. Not everyone has to be a doctor, police officer, fireman. 60 percent of the jobs that we have now were not even in existence 10 years ago. Think about all the jobs that sounded crazy 10 years ago. People are saying get a real job, this is not a real job but their job will probably be nonexistent 5 years from now. Whatever you want to create will be a job if you make it a job. The industry changes. You can be whatever you want to be. Why? Because I built a job from scratch.
AB: What part does your family and fiance play in your career as an artist?
RD: My mother has always been there, always pushing. Even when I didn’t want to push hard. Like my high school portfolio, she kept it when I didn’t want it. I would have thrown that thing away, she always encouraged. If Keisha, my fiance wasn’t a creative, this wouldn’t have worked. When two people are creative, they understand each other. She’s able to support me. She’s able to understand me in a way that other people can’t. She’s a creative so she knows what it feels like to deal with certain things. When I’m at shows with hundreds of people in attendance, asking me questions from left and right, she’s there checking in on me making sure I have everything else handled in my personal life. When I’m saving the world, someone has to save me and that’s what she does. That’s her.
AB: What role do you play in evolving the art scene in Harlem?
RD: I always believe in just being the person that I needed growing up. When I was younger, a lot of kids I knew were into art but their parents or whoever was around them told them that art wasn’t a real career to pursue. I want to be the guy that tells them, yes, it is, because look at what I’m doing. You can’t say it’s not a real career when you’ve seen the things that I’ve accomplished.
AB: What career advice do you have for young artists that want to make art a career?
1. RD: Be business savvy. Understand that you’re an artist but you’re also a business. There are artists that don’t do well because they don’t treat their work like a business. They show up when they want to show up, disappear for a little while and say, “I’m an artist, that’s what artists do.” If you want people to spend their hard earned money on what you do. Be the right representation of who you want to be and what a business is.
2. RD: Don’t stop working. There are times that you will be down. There are times that you will be fighting for what you want and fighting against everything that’s going wrong, because things will go wrong I guarantee it. Art is a luxury product. In the sense that, you’re going to have times when you’re not going to make the money you want to make. Or you see a lot of people making the money you think you should be making so you decide this is not what I need to be doing. No, don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. Keep on going and understand that you have to fall in love with the process and know what you really want to do. If this is something that you’re really into then all of that stuff won’t bother you. You have to really want it because passion is what pulls you through these times. I remember I had times when my lights were off, times when my phone was off. I had times when I was backed up on every bill I could think of. I could have easily ran and got another job but I said no, this is what I want to do so I’m going to push through and get to the other side and be a stronger and better man for it.
3. RD: Sometimes you just have to not listen to yourself. Don’t give up and understand that if this is not what your passionate about, don’t do it. Cause passion is going to get you through the dark times. Without that you’ll crumble. So know that this is what you want to do. And once you know that this is what you want to do. Don’t stop doing it. And don’t stop working. A lot of people get lax and just stop working when they’ve made money. I work harder now then I did 3 years ago when I started getting back into art full time. I work a lot but I rather work 100 hours then work 40 hours for someone else.
4. RD: Surround yourself with dreamers. If you want to do something that involves your dreams surround yourselves with those who do the same. Luckily I have a good circle of friends that are fashion designers, friends that own their own businesses. If you’re not around that you won’t know what it looks like to really work for yourself. If not, you’re going to be around people that will say things are impossible as opposed to people that will say this IS possible, why because we can figure this out. Surround yourself with people that are dreamers and doers. Even if it’s not the same industry. I have people around me that dream. And when you have people around you that dream, it doesn’t seem like you have your head up in the clouds. Besides, people who have their head up in the clouds don’t get anything done. The work is on the ground. And you have to be around people that understand that. Your dreams can be wherever they are but you need to understand that work needs to be done. It’s not just a dream and being around those types of people you will always have that perspective.
AB: You’re in a position right now that so many artists would love to be in, supporting yourself solely through art. How did you get here?
RD: I work a lot non stop. I’ll have conflicting conversations with people where they’ll tell me, “Ron take a vacation, you’re working hard,” and in the same breath they’ll ask me, “How did you do this? How did you end up in this position?” You can’t ask me why I work so much and then ask me how I get what I get. I’m the true definition of a workaholic. The harder I work, the more I grow. The more I can do, the more business I can generate. Passion has to lead you. If it’s not something that you would wake up and do for free, then this ain’t for you. Make sure whatever it is you want to do with your life is something that you’d do for free if money was no object. That’s what you want to do for the rest of your life. Because when the money isn’t coming in you have to understand that something has to carry you through. The fun, the joy the love of it has to carry you through. Be obsessed with whatever you do. I’m obsessed with progression. Find what you love and let it kill you, let it run you into the ground.
AB: How did you support yourself when you first made the switch from your full time career to just art?
RD: I sold my 1st piece of artwork for $20. I took the $20 and used it to buy more supplies to make more artwork, made more artwork, sold more and reinvested it. It was tough, I needed the help some days. I remember I used to work a random odd job at Crunch gym. There’s always a way. If I really want to get things done, I submerse myself in it and I figure a way out. Even though sometimes it may feel like how am I going to do this, a light bulb goes off and something presents itself or I squeeze an opportunity out of something else. I maximize everything, every opportunity. If you offer me 5 paintings, I’m trying to figure out how to get you to buy 6 or 10.
AB: What’s your advice to people looking to make their passion projects their full time careers?
RD: Your side hustle will always remain your side hustle unless you treat it differently. People will say I want to fully pursue my passion but I have to wait until it gets to a certain point before I can leave. Things will never get to that point because you’re trying to get full time benefits off of your 14 hours a week or whatever amount of time you’re giving to your passion. It’ll never be what you think it’s going to be unless you jump all in. I had a huge art show coming up and I told myself I’m going to take 2 weeks off so I can get the work done for this. And then I thought about it and I realized, I don’t want to do this anymore. So I quit and focused fully on my artwork.
AB: What is something that sets you apart from other artists?
RD: The diversity of my portfolio. I do a lot of different types of art, not just putting things on the wall but doing installations as well. I’ve built things for people from scratch. I’ve done whole floors of schools. I’m not just making a painting and hoping it sells but specializing in the fact that I can build work for anything. I’ve made myself extremely versatile while still keeping the identity of what my work is.