Artist Kylie Cropper: Journey of self-discovery has been one of enlightenment and pain

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Art student Kylie Cropper holding a pair of prints of her original artwork, 1856,” based on Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”

MANCHESTER, NHKylie Cropper’s journey to and navigation in New Hampshire has been one of meaningful self-discovery. Born in Washington, D.C., with the heart of an art artist, Cropper is now a senior at the Institute of Art and Design at New England College and Design (formerly the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester), a place that has taught her many things, and where she says she has faced racial challenges during her four-year tenure.

“I’m the only Black senior at my school. It started off with four Black students my freshman year. So that environment was very interesting. It was less of an outlet and more of an expression. My art became my journal entries. It’s the most important thing in my life right now,” says Cropper.

Kylie Cropper, a senior at the Institute of Art and Design at New England College, is ready to make her mark and raise her voice. Courtesy Photo

“I think that most artists are very philosophical, and socially aware, and are very much embedded in the social justice of it all. But, I think the majority of marginalization of this school has been from, obviously, white people. I have a lot of compassion for them. Because I think the majority of them are just plainly ignorant.  As soon as I came here, I quickly learned everything that I needed to, and I accepted that. But, it seems like on the other side it is not really reciprocated. As far as a lot of things, I think that we [as artists]  are very socially aware, but I think there’s still a lot that the art world can do to just make sure we’re all self-aware and also educated. I think that’s a society thing as well, people are just not interested in educating themselves. But, to me, it’s exhausting, it’s just the reality of the situation,” says Cropper

In her senior year, Cropper will be exhibiting art that touches on her own journey of awareness and unearthing her personal exploration as a Black woman.  “I think generally my art comes from what I’m working through with that moment in my life. The thing about this year’s exhibition I’m super excited about is that it really was just a free rein sort of experience. I didn’t have any sort of expectation or any outside influence as to what I was making. And it was the first body of work that I think really just came from a necessity to understand my journey more. So it’s all coming from wanting to understand. I guess this body of work was more about educating myself on what I’ve been through, and where I am right now and kind of leaving it open. For a little bit of insight, this body of work is basically overall, the journey of my Blackness, and I’m leaving it open-ended because obviously, my life isn’t over,” Cropper explains.

Original art by Kylie Cropper for The Blueprint Project.

Cropper was commissioned as consultant, performer, and social impact innovator for Deo Mwano’s recent Blueprint Project. Her body of work includes “1856,” based on Toni Morrison’s novel, “Beloved”;  a piece called “Beneath the Surface,” similar to the iceberg concept, “that there’s more going on than what we initially see,” says Cropper; “3346” based on the number of Black lynchings that took place from 1882-1968; and the self-explanatory, “Don’t Touch My Hair.”

“I learned more in the four years about myself and my Blackness than I have 25 years of my life. So I’m very thankful for this time, and it has helped me to grow. But it’s been a very painful journey,” says Cropper.

The Institute of Art at New England College BFA exhibition runs May 5-20. Due to COVID-19 protocol appointments are required An online version of the exhibition will be available May 8.

I had the opportunity to interview Cropper about showing her artwork in the upcoming IAD Senior Exhibit.  

CC: How did you get involved with art?

KC: I grew up in northern Virginia, and I’ve always been interested in art. It was my outlet for a long time. I would draw on my parent’s wall, they didn’t always appreciate it. After high school, I took three years off and created an art business. I did a lot of commission work. I hit a place in my life where I was kind of at a crossroads, then decided to go to art school when I was 21. It was very formative for me as far as my art goes, but as well as my personal journey and being a Black woman.

CC: Do you remember the time where you created something where the artistic light went on? 

Yeah. A couple of years ago, I made a painting called “Black Hands.” It’s from the perspective of a Black man about to be shot by a white cop. It was huge for me because it was prior to the summer. Obviously, Black Lives Matter was still prevalent, but it wasn’t as “mainstream” as it was in 2020 and I made this print, I think in the fall of 2019. I wanted to wrap the conversation. I think that was a huge lightbulb for me. Making people uncomfortable is kind of my favorite thing with art.

CC: In order to start a dialogue?

Exactly, yeah.

The artist at work.

CC: So why New Hampshire? Any reason in particular?

Not really. A lot of art schools that I got accepted to were twice as much money, and I just didn’t see the value in that as I was getting a BFA.

CC: What are your favorite mediums to work with?

I started off my BFA career with a ceramics major, so I did a lot of sculpture and 3-dimensional work. Now I work basically only with printmaking processes. My senior exhibition work has a lot of embroidery as well. So those are the basic three mediums that I work with.

CC: Who inspires you?

Oh, my Gosh! Amber Rose Holden is a great artist. Hank Willis Thomas, he is a very contemporary artist, and Zanele Muholi.

CC: What would be the ideal future of your art?

So a lot of artists nowadays kind of conceptualize their portfolios and their titles as being socially-aware artists. And that’s kind of what I envisioned my work in. I want to work in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion space. But then also, I really want to make sure that I have passion. When I worked as an artist for three years, the passion really wasn’t there. I just think once there’s pressure to make ends meet, the work loses its true conceptual motifs, and for me, that’s the reason why I make art, is to, as I said before, it’s like a journal entry into my life. And if I have to constantly just put out work, just put food on the table, it loses all of that.

CC: Ideally, if you felt you could make a really good living off of your art, and still keep the passion for it, what does that picture look like?

I think there are plenty of artists now who can make work that is conceptually important to them and also makes a great amount of money, but I think that work is easy to mass-produce. So where does my work fit into that world? I think it would be great to be able to make millions of dollars making art, but money isn’t the motivating factor for me.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas on his work, “Absolut Power,” “Racism is the most successful advertising campaign of all time. Africans have hundreds if not thousands of years of culture. Having all of these people packed into ships and then told they’re all the same, reducing them to a single identity—that’s absolute power.”

CC: Would you like to see your art and like a major exhibit?

This is an interesting question because I’m taking a course right now called African-American Arts and Civil Rights.  Hank Willis Thomas actually makes a lot of work for galleries and museums. There’s this piece that he did called “Absolut Power.”  I wrote a paper in this class about whether or not work in gallery spaces or behind glass could have a big social impact. I worried artists making socially aware work, like Thomas, wouldn’t be able to reach all the avenues towards education. And what I want to do is educate. Slowly, I think museums are starting to grasp the contemporary power they have in curating certain works. So, I hope to show in a museum one day. I grew up in Northern Virginia. A lot of my family is out of Philadelphia. Philadelphia was my second home. And I grew up in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So, if I ever had to choose a place to have my work exhibited it would be that museum. It’s literally my second home. I’ve been there maybe a bajillion times.

CC: I noticed that in your artwork, snake, skulls, octopus, and tentacles? Is there something going on there?

I’ve always been really interested in fluid motion. I’ve also always been an Edgar Allan Poe fan. Like the dark Momento Mori sort of style has always been interesting to me, that’s where those visual elements come from. I don’t think there’s very much of a deeper meaning to those things. I just like fluidity. 

CC: It seems like you could even do tattoo art …

Yeah, I’ve actually designed a bunch for my friends, and I designed some of my older brother’s tattoos.

CC: How many tattoos do you have?

I have seven.

CC: Do you believe that you channel when you do your artwork? 

Yeah, I think every artist does.

CC: What’s your favorite piece of art that you have done and why?

My body of work for my senior thesis is the most proud I have been thus far in creating work. I am proud that I was able to provide vulnerability in the self-portraits I created and hope to carry on with the same sentiment moving forward. So, with that being said, “cultivated” is my favorite piece I have made this far. It is the last portrait in the series of three and is my favorite, being that it represents the place I am now; as the educated Black woman I am.

Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic Movies. See her work here.