Two pivotal experiences would guide Desmond Beach’s artistic journeys.
The first was a fourth grade class project in which he created a map from peanuts and glass marbles. The praise he received from it was the first indication that maybe it was something he should pursue.
The second was his admissions interview at Maryland Institute College of Art. Beach loaded the sculptures made for his high school A.P. portfolio into his mother’s minivan and arranged them on the sidewalk about a block away from the admissions office. The admissions counselor reviewed his work there. Beach’s interview was on a Friday, and he received the phone call about his acceptance that Sunday. Thus, the path was cleared towards his becoming an artist.
But the years between fourth grade and college were building blocks leading to his destiny. Even then, the art he was creating reflected his own life and experiences. The same themes are still present in his work today.
“I’ve only made work about the Black experience and my experience. My entire life, I’ve only made work about the beauty and trauma of being Black in America,” he says. “Even in middle school, I found a way to make it about Black people. In high school every piece I made, whether it was about how to do a still life or how to do a linoleum cut, I found a way to put a Black subject into it.”
What’s different today, is that he uses his work as a way to intentionally bring people together. His interactive shows encourage people to participate in creating art with others. He hopes that in doing this, people begin to see the humanity in each other. If people can work side by side to create art, perhaps they’ll start a conversation. And through that conversation, maybe they’ll realize more similarities than differences.
His work is a practice and expression of healing for himself, his community and his ancestors.
"I’m here to heal my people’s trauma and pain and to make my ancestors proud. That’s what it’s about,” he says.
You can learn more about him and see his work at desmondbeach.com
Beach also took time to talk with us about art, healing and the inspiration behind his work. Read below our conversation.
How long have you been an artist?
I want to say I’ve been an artist my entire life. I probably really started taking it more seriously when I got into a performing arts and visual arts high school in Baltimore. Then I went to undergrad and grad school for it. I’m in a Ph.D program right now. That’s been 25 years I guess.
What are your earliest memories of creating art?
I have a real clear, vivid memory of this. I was in fourth grade. I wouldn’t say that I’m a procrastinator, but I’d wait until the assignment is due to get something done. We had an assignment to make some type of map. I waited until the night before to do the assignment. We had a week or two to do it, I guess. But I didn’t tell my parents about it. So there weren’t any supplies or anything for it. But what I discovered at home—there was a bowl of peanuts inside their shells on the table, and my Mom was a florist at the time. She had her own shop. So she had these glass marbles to put at the bottom of vases for arrangements. So I took those glass marbles and the peanut shells, and I made this map using those two elements. And I remember taking it to class, and my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Robinson, was like, ‘Oh my God, Desmond, this is amazing." She went and called other teachers to come see it. And just from that one act, I was like, "Ha ha, I got something here."
People really took notice of something that I did. It was really affirming. I wish I could tell her that that single moment sent me on the journey of being an artist. It was making something out of nothing that she saw the value in. And so that just set me off on it.
When did you realize that this would be your career?
I guess it had to have been when I was about to graduate from high school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I wanted to go to college or not. I was just happy to be out of school. For the first semester after high school, I worked until maybe December.
I remember one of my high school art teachers was like, "Why don’t you apply to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)?" I was like, "Okay. If I get in, I guess I’m going. If I don’t get in, it’s a sign that I’m not meant to be an artist."
So I applied. An admissions counselor called me over the weekend after my interview and said, “I want to offer you a position…"
Then I was like, maybe I do have something. I went back to that moment I had in the fourth grade where I received validation for the project I had done. Here it was again, applying to college. I only applied to one school, so I was putting all my eggs in that one basket. This must be the path I must take. It has to be the path, clearly.
I always wanted to engage art and working with young people. I really thought I’d be an art teacher, which is what I did the past decade or more. But there was also something in the back of my head nagging saying, "that isn’t all of the story." It was part of it, but not all of it. Being an art educator wasn’t filling all that my soul wanted. All that my spirit was requiring. It wanted more.
Your subjects have always been Black, was this intentional or subconscious?
Whenever I thought about making a piece of work, it was always about Black people. And particularly about really trying to honor Black people. To give back respect.
When I really became aware of that, was probably around my junior year of high school. One of my aunts had passed away. I wanted to make something that I felt would honor her. Something that would celebrate who she was. So I found this photograph of her when she used to model when she was younger. I did kind of like an Andy Warhol kind of piece where I just repeated the image over and over again, maybe like 100 times.
At the time didn’t even know who Andy Warhol was. All I knew was that by reproducing that image over and over again, I got the sense of me creating something that was important. The act of repeating the image over and over again was in some way being transformed into something that was sacred and something that was going to glorify and celebrate her the more that I copied the image.
The more I copied the image, the more intense it became. And so that’s when I really decided to hone in on that and be deliberate about it. Being deliberate about telling the Black experience, the good and bad of it all—the joy and the celebration and the resistance. All of that came from when Aunt Joyce passed away and going, "How do I honor her?" Then I was like, if I can honor my aunt that way, then I can also honor my other ancestors. Those that I know and those that I don’t know. So that has been my pursuit for all of my adult career, my adult life, is to make work that honors the ancestors.
Do you practice art as a form of healing?
Yes. I’m so glad to talk about that because I really do believe that the work that I am making is meant to be work that helps to heal the trauma of the Black experience. I really do believe that. I believe that the work that I am making is divine and has healing properties. It has healing properties for me, as a creator. The act of making it helps me to heal my hurts, my pain, my trauma of living in my Black skin.
But I also feel like it’s helping to heal the trauma of the ancestors and the generations to come, because I think that what my work does is that it brings to the surface the pain. It acknowledges the pain. It doesn’t want to shy away from it. It wants to call it for what it is. And then, once we’ve acknowledged it—well, how do I feel that? And how do I process that in a healthy way, and then how do I move on to the healing process?
I feel like that’s all in my work. I feel like every piece that I’ve made has that intention. When a person of color, a Black person comes to see the work, that the experience and that by being in the same space with it, some healing is going to take place.
Maybe it’s not going to heal all the hurt and trauma, but it’s going to begin to tap into that place in us and start to bring some healing. And on the flip side, I think it also then pushes white people to then recognize their part or their hand in the Black experience and how they have to own that as well. So I feel like it’s dual purposes.
I really feel like the ancestors have called me at this time to do this work of healing. I am just continuing what they were doing, and I’m picking up where they left off. So that when I become an ancestor, others will pick up where I left off. The time that I have on this earth, on this planet is to begin to heal this stuff so that the next generations won’t have to heal the same trauma.
How has your work evolved?
I think that when I first started making work, I really wanted to talk about the Black male experience. I thought that I could only make work that was true to my experience. I only know what it means to be a Black man. I don’t know what it means to be a Black female. I don’t know what it’s like to be a non binary person. But in my studio one day, this still, quiet voice just came to me and said, "Desmond, you’ve got to make work for the entire community. Not just one subsection of the community. It’s for THE community. So you have to begin to make work for everybody. It has to be inclusive of everybody."
And so that was another place where I was very clear and very intentional about the shift in the work that I started making. The new body of work that I’m working on right now #saytheirnames is definitely trying to tap into all of the lived experiences of Black people, to speak to that hurt and that pain in that way.
In my performance work also, when I create these holy or sacred spaces for us to gather and to do this healing circle work—that, to me, is for everyone. It’s to bring the full community together to do that work collectively, because I think that we can do it individually, but we can also do it collectively.”
Can you elaborate on this section of your artist statement: “The works of art serve as a forum for illuminating the existence of the nameless, grief, celebration, and resistance.”
When I say the nameless, I’m talking about the ancestors, and when I say ancestors, I mean collective ancestors. Not just those who share a name with me, but the African ancestors of the diaspora. All of those who toiled and suffered and survived. Those who we’re never going to read about in a history book. We’re never going to ever know their names. All of those bodies that were on those ships, all of those nameless ones.
But back to what I was saying about celebration in the Black community, there is mourning and resistance and celebration at the same time. I like to phrase it the "Three Phases of Black Joy."
We can go through all of those in one event. Take for instance, in the middle of the pandemic and all of the lockdowns, we had all of the Black Lives Matter protestors. All of those things happened because of the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and so many others, again, names that we won’t know who have been murdered by the police.
In those moments, we do things as Black people. One, we celebrate the life. We celebrate who they were. We mourn, we get sad. Our hearts get broken collectively for another one of us that’s been taken away.
And then we also say we can’t stay in that place. We’re also going to have to resist. We’re going to have to find a way to continue to fight so that this won’t continue to happen to us. All of that happens, split seconds, we go through those emotions, over and over and over again, as we’re processing what happens.
Like, that’s part of the celebration, resistance and joy. Then I think there’s another part of celebrating. The fact that we are survivors. That those of us who are descendants, those from the African diaspora, the Middle Passage, wherever we are, we celebrate the fact that we’re still here. We celebrate the collective belonging with one another.
Policing is often very present in your work, what do you hope people take from it?
Bottom line: it’s to show humanity. The mugshot series, “This is Not a Mugshot.,” is intended to challenge bias and perspectives and to present one’s humanity. It really is about, this is a portrait of someone. It’s a snapshot of someone. We don’t have to assume the worst or allow the bias in which we might have been taught to think about or perceive about Black bodies. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can consciously decide to think differently.
It’s also for Black people to see ourselves in a way that’s different from what the colonizer has told us about ourselves or what they’ve tried to teach us about ourselves. So it’s also trying to heal that stuff, the internal hatred that we might have learned or possessed in our own bodies from living in an anti-Black space or world.
When I look at a beautiful Black person, I don’t immediately think, "that’s someone sinister. That’s someone meant to cause me harm. That’s someone who’s dangerous, or lazy or doesn’t want the same things that I want in life."
I want (viewers) to see that this person wants the same things that I want in life. They want to be happy. They want to be loved. They want to love others. They want to support their families. We all have the same goals, the same desires.
How did you start incorporating fabric into your work?
Fabric has its own language in itself. I used to make a lot of piece-patch quilts in high school and undergrad. There’s something about taking the used garments from my family that has its own history and its own story and putting it together.
To me, I was seeing the quilts as like family portraits. It’s who we are. We’re telling our story. Some of my ancestors who maybe were illiterate and didn’t have mastery over reading, it was a way for them to tell stories. A way for them to keep the family history and knowledge going. That they could look at that swatch of fabric and say, "That is when your mother got married. Or that’s the dress I wore to your grandmother’s funeral." It was a way of telling the story.
That’s another thing about my work that I think is important, this idea of storytelling that as Black people, we like telling stories. In my family, I grew up sitting in the room with my parents, and my uncles and my grandmother and them talking every Saturday before we had dinner, Talking about what it was like growing up. So much so that I was like, I can imagine that! I can imagine the room. I can imagine what it smelled like. They always talked about their lived experience. Always.
I’m trying to tell stories in the same way. I want you to feel confronted and challenged, but also supported and loved and protected and safe, as well as nurtured. I think of how my parents raised me that love comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s in discipline. Sometimes it’s in confronting you and challenging you. And sometimes it’s like holding your hand and supporting you. I try to take all of those lessons that I’ve learned and hope that people can find it relatable.
Another thing about the materiality in my work—there’s something about that idea of human connection. I think that people are very used to looking at paintings on a wall and going like, "Oh, that’s art." But I also think that creates a barrier, at times. Like, that’s there, I’m here.
I hope that my work can go between those spaces. That you can see it in a cube and see it as a fine art piece, but then you also want to have it on your couch at home. You also want to hang it on your wall at home, because it also feels like home to you. It feels also very nurturing and feels connected in a way that hopefully breaks that barrier between a pristine painting on a wall to, "Oh, he just took some fabric and sewed it together, and his seams aren’t even straight. It’s all right."
Was “Color Me This” your first interactive project?
It was the first of that kind. I’ve done other kinds of performance kinds of pieces where audiences are encouraged to participate, but that’ more improv. This show was very deliberate. It was all about audience participation. And the show wasn’t going to be complete until the audience finished it.
I’m in show currently, that just opened this week in Baltimore, where I did these 6-foot drawings where the community will come in over the month to complete them.
Everybody has a marker. Nobody’s marker is more expensive. They’re all the same marker from the same store. We’re on even planes. I can be an educated person next to a 3-year-old, next to an elder. And we can all work on the same piece together with the same level of intensity and have the same impact. There won’t be any hierarchy in this experience. It’s trying to get to the trueness of equity. We all have what we need here to be successful. And so, the idea of that work was really trying to get to the heart of people’s assumptions and biases. So if a person is red and green and blue, then can you like me? Then am I kind and gentle and funny and compassionate, and I’m not threatening and scary?
I’m trying to break down barriers. I want us to see each other’s humanity. And try to unlearn, deprogram all of the white supremacy teachings and doctrines that we have grown up in and lived in. We’ve got to do it. Because we’ve been doing it this way for hundreds of years, and it hasn’t been working out. At least for some of us, it hasn’t been working out.
So that now has become something that I’m really interested in. We’ve done drawings. Can we build sculptures that way? Can we build community? How do we get communities to come together? If I can borrow from African proverbs, it’s like being a trickster.
Here I come, bringing you something tantalizing. Oh, it’s just coloring. We’re just going to color in pictures. But once I get you there, now we’re going to start breaking down those barriers and those stereotypes by working side by side. You didn’t know that was going to happen, by working on this drawing, but that’s the intention. That people with whom you’d never have a conversation, but stood side by side and engaged in the same thing. To me, that’s like, ‘Ha ha, that’s how we’re going to break this thing down. We’re going to do this little by little until we chip away at it, until it finally has been destroyed.
Is pleasure present either as a theme or as an emotion when you’re creating your work?
Definitely, personally, it is a theme. Pleasure. I even get emotional about it. It’s hard for me to find the words for how I feel making the work, because I feel that the work I’m doing is so purposeful.
I imagine the ancestors are just cheering and screaming me on, going, ‘Yes Desmond! Yes, Desmond!’ It somehow washes over me, and I become overwhelmed by it. Like, it becomes so pleasing that I am doing something that is pleasing them, something that’s honoring them. It’s not about myself. I don’t want notoriety for Desmond being the artist. I want the work to be noticed for my ancestors, for my mother, for my father, for my grandparents.
That’s where I feel really good. That little piece of that collage, that little piece of fabric I just sewed on, that little piece right there feels real good.
So the pleasure part for the viewer seeing the work, I don’t know that that’s always present, I think it elicits other kinds of emotions, maybe sadness at times, and maybe sometimes horror because some images aren’t always easy to look at.
So for those viewers, they may have a different experience. But for me, it’s always a pleasure. It’s pleasure, and it’s painful at times. But for me, those two emotions can rest in the same space at the same time. I can feel them both and understand them both.
I feel most like myself when I’m in my studio. My studio becomes the sacred space. It becomes the sanctuary. It becomes the place where I am fully who I am. All that I am gets to show up there, and that feels really good. Because there are no pretenses there. I close the door, and I’m just authentically who I am. I’m vulnerable. I’m open to the process. That is a very enjoyable, pleasing kind of feeling. Because I would say most often I, and maybe others, walk around feeling guarded all the time, trying to protect ourselves. And so to walk in the room to my studio and close the door, I get to exhale and exhale for real. It feels amazing. There’s no other feeling like it. I equate it to going to church, the same way that I feel in the middle of worship at church is the same feeling that I have when I walk to my studio and I feel like the answers are in the studio. Dancing around and celebrating. We are in there clapping and singing, and we are having a good time. Even when things aren’t going well. I had an idea, and I didn’t execute it the way that I wanted to execute it, that’s still a good day. Still a good day.
A native of Baltimore, MD, Demond now lives in NY. To stay in touch, follow Desmond on IG @desmondbeach and Facebook!