by Isra Rene
Tobi Ewing is a multi-disciplinary visual and healing artist, and owner/creative director of Beauty As A Metaphor (creative studio). Tobi uses their artistic and energy-work training/background to intersect art, self care and self discovery over several mediums, painting being their focus, but Tobi also loves textiles, clay and sound.
*Care as the Antidote was transcribed from an earlier recorded conversation of the same name.
Isra Rene: For me, it’s always important to begin a story with trajectory. Sometimes, as emerging artists, it can be inaccessible to know how an artist gets from point A to point B or point X. I know it’s not a linear journey and that you didn’t wake up as this amazing artist. I mean, I’m sure you did. But what are some things that led you to be the artist that you are today and storyteller?
Tobi Ewing: Storytelling was really one of the largest themes I can say, that led me to where I am today, spiritually, energetically, career wise, and artistically. Storytelling was a way, a science, a technology, and a tool for me to use to be able to see outside of the lives that I had been programmed to believe, to invest in, and to work with. Things that actually weren’t prepared to take on the full capacity of who I am, and who you are, and who we all are.
I’m constantly re-centering and re-grounding myself in the truth that I was born an artist and I am an artist by nature. It’s some of what happened in the midst of my adolescence that taught me that I wasn’t an artist. And it was my, my naiveness and lack of resources and access, and confidence, too, that allowed me to really go hand in hand with these lies for as long as I did. For me, it wasn’t that I didn’t see Black artists, but not a ton and definitely not in comparison to the white artists that I saw. I’m speaking as someone who had the privilege and access to arts education in my day to day, Monday through Friday, school life from seventh grade all the way up to 12th grade. I’ve been involved in the arts, and so I knew that I could be creative, and, I knew that I could be artistic and whimsical, and all these things. Those were things that I definitely accessed and utilized as a young kid.
IR: I wish we could remain as free and adventurous as when we were kids. Possibilities were truly endless even in the face of adversity. There’s such a freedom in exploration and not being afraid to fail at a thing.
TE: Exactly! For me, the disconnect was that I could be a visual artist. For whatever reason, something cut off there. I knew I could dance. I knew that I could hold space for others. I knew I could curate a space. But, for me, being centered as an artist, and as a visual artist outside of dance was difficult for me. One of the things that really helped me to unravel and see myself again, as who I am, was storytelling. In 2016, I really began to do the work of being attracted to the stories of different artists and creatives, even if they weren’t visual artists, just learning more about people’s paths and their trajectories, and how they got here. And what I began to realize is that in the ways that I didn’t see representation and the ways that I experienced trauma as a child, I picked up this idea that I wasn’t worthy and that I needed to change who I was, and that I needed to be moving in perfection, as I’m doing that.
IR: This sort of cyclical but non-linear journey of self-discovery that you’ve shared is so interesting. And how at various points there were reckonings with yourself that resembled a sort of breaking away, then falling into patterns, then breaking away again. It reminds me of my own healing journey and I’m sure many others. It’s not linear! The decisions that you’re making every day are decisions that feel good to you in the moment. And sometimes, upon reflection, you realize, okay, maybe that wasn’t the best choice, but, somehow those choices still, you know, are building blocks to who you are and the makings of you as artist, arts administrator, curator, etc.
TE: I heard the message and I heard it again that spirit is like “I prepared you for this.” That’s why I don’t look back on the times where I got off track because all of that helped too. Even the time that I might have self-sabotaged, I still had some percentage of greatness still being guided by that. So even in my ways of self-sabotage, I might not have gone for the number one thing that I want, but I’m gonna go for number three, you know, because it still offers me something at that time. And it still offers me stuff today. So just listening to you speak about me being an arts administrator, arts dealer and things of that sort.. It’s like… you’re right. And I guess, the seamlessness of that comes from the ways that I felt comfortable to engage in those roles is because I have played those roles in support of other artists, and other creatives. I laugh because it really got to a point where it was like, Okay, are you going to finally start to turn some of this on to yourself?
IR: And by turning your support inward for your own benefit as an artist, you were able to highlight other creatives and artists to bring your vision to life. This seamlessly transitions into my next question about your current (sold out!) collection, The Makings of Me. I want to know how you conceptualized this collection. What were you listening to? What you were thinking about? How were you feeling? How did you decide to collaborate with other artists and promote the show?
TE: Community has always been important to me. I recognize it again as being creative, actively. Community was something that I am thankful that I always kind of felt. From within my family or with my friends. Post-college is when I really felt alone. It was a different transition. We were all spread out, and it wasn’t the same. And, I was without community in the way that I was used to having it. That isolation, for me, made me realize that, just like creativity, I’ve got to have community and find ways to really be active in communities, and nourish the communities that I have and find my way to new communities. This specific project with The Makings of Me, required me to really, really tap into my radical Black imagination, my confidence, and my power. There was a different sense of intensity, or just maybe a bubbling, that I felt for this project because it was my project and I’m doing it during a pandemic. This really challenged me to ask “How can I create this virtually?” It was so ingrained in my heart and in my spirit, I knew I had to do this project. It got to a point where it no longer became a choice. It’s not about if I’m going to do it, if I’m going to finish it, but that I have to finish it. The Makings of Me collection is a dedication to my younger self, my childhood self as an altar of gratitude to young me, being who I was as a young person. It’s like patting my little self on the back and saying to myself “Girl, you are this weird, artsy, Black girl that invited it all, loved it all, moved with it all, and navigated it all, without having any kind of theory attached to it. Just living in my truth.”
IR: Say that! It’s such a special place when you arrive in your truth and are able to make space and room for other truths, experiences, and beings. Caring enough about self and your community to see its potential hand-in-hand. A radical Black imagination that centers care as a practice of embodiment and not a stagnant thing. Care as a resource, maybe?
TE: That’s why this project was so personal to me. That is why I wanted it to be intimate. That is why I wanted to have my community be a part of this. I took this project as sort of a challenge to see what it would look like if you undoubtedly believed in yourself and if you gave it your all, no matter what happens afterwards, or during. This was also one of my first projects that I wasn’t worried about finances and I understand the privilege and the blessing that is, and therefore, I made sure to make it do what it does. (Laughs) Before in projects, I wasn’t at this place financially. And ain’t nobody rich, but, I’ve been able to save my money over these years when I felt as though I didn’t have the money or I didn’t have the resources because I didn’t have the money. Another thing that I’m divesting from is a lacking mindset. No matter what number I see in my bank account, it’s irrelevant to my worthiness as an artist and what I can create.
IR: I love that care has no monetary value. Even though capitalism will make us believe that we should commodify it. I want to expand on our definitions of resource and resource sharing. This project not only highlighted your many capabilities, but also the capabilities and resources of your surrounding community.
TE: Care, pleasure, and joy are themes and life practices that I am committed to and have dedicated my life to over the years. I’m thankful to have other people who can be real with me in ways that if I try to hide from myself and my own, you know, reflection and mirror, but I definitely am guilty of that, especially around art. I always asked myself “Who can I partner with? Who should I partner with? How can I get this institution to recognize me? What program should I apply for?” And I’m not speaking directly against that, because in the future, I don’t have any issue with partnering with certain institutions, or collaborating with folks who have a larger platform than I do. But for me, and especially with how intentional I was thinking about how I want to start off my art career, it was so important that care was centered. It was so important that community was centered, and it was so important that I was centered. I think a lot of times when we are partnering with these larger institutions, the motivations of the institution then becomes centered, not the artist, not the story, not the livelihood of the artists and other things to follow that. So I had to ask myself, why are you so busy researching who you should get to notice you? Maybe you should take some time to look at and take inventory of who’s already seeing you, who’s already showing up for you, who’s already supporting you. It was an intentional thing to challenge myself to partner with people in my own community – people who I already have a connection with. That’s why it was so easy to invite one of my childhood best friends, Zuri Ali, a Cincinnati based artist, to have a conversation with me about my collection and arrival at The Makings of Me. Working with Zuri, in this sort of “professional” way was really awesome. We had meetings behind the scenes before the actual conversation to outline what we wanted to talk about and just share how much we have been inspired by each other. I think the conversation spoke to the conjuring of that community, a sort of independent Black, queer art community or collective.
IR: Well, this will be my last question. The title of this talk is Care as the Antidote. We know that some people had their superpowers downloaded on January 1. So first, I want to know what is one of your superpowers and what care practice is your antidote?
TE: I love that you said one of my superpowers instead of the superpower because I read a fortune cookie the other day and it said something to the affect of “You’ll be discovering a new talent soon.” And I thought well, “What can I say?” It’s written in the stars. I’m a multi talented person, exactly! I will say one of my superpowers is believing in myself and recognizing my power. I think that was definitely one of the superpowers that I’ve picked up. I think I’ve always been an ambitious person. And I’ve always believed in myself for sure.
I’ve had high confidence but I do reflect on it and kind of notice I didn’t always really believe in myself. I didn’t always believe in myself as far as centering me. I feel as though that’s getting better. I’m believing in myself more holistically and more well-rounded. Particularly with things that I come across that I feel as though I can’t do this on my own but really taking that time to pour into myself for myself is my power. So that’s definitely one superpower and I think just the power of creation is one of my superpowers. For me, it speaks to my art. The ability to regenerate, rethink, recycle, and to have a constant flow. I will say my care practice has been rest.
IR: Yes! Rest as reparations. Rest as care. No more overworking!
TE: Yes. That is huge for me to say because, in relation to what I spoke about earlier, as far as finances, those were two things I struggled with. Productivity relates to finances in this context. Those have been things that I’ve had to unlearn and kind of tiptoe out of it. I learned that things can still happen and that I am still productive and I don’t have to work 50 hours a week. This year, I let the universe force me to sit down, and I actually surrendered. I told myself “You know what, I’m going to sit down.” I’m not going to rush to try to find a job during this time. I will work with my savings, I have unemployment and I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to use my own skills to manifest my own stability in this way. I’m going to sit down and I’m going to rest and I’m going to relax and I’m going to reflect and I’m going to let spirit speak to me and I’m going to talk to my friends and my community and check in with my family and check in with myself and spend a whole day crying.
IR: All of this is care work for me and it resonates so much! Thank you for your vulnerability. Well, what’s next for you? Where can people connect with you?
TE: My pleasure Isra! thank you for holding space for me, it means a lot to share my experiences. My first time working with an independent curator and I’m just thrilled. I’m excited to have a couple murals coming up this spring. I’m expanding my creative studio and services and working on some painted/dyed textile collections and floral art. Of course more paintings. Some other things in the works, but I’m just so thankful and manifesting more in-my-bag energy. To stay connected visit my site/portfolio at beautyasametaphor.co and sign up for my newsletter – I’m also on IG @beautyasametaphor.
About the writer: Isra Rene is an independent curator and cultural producer committed to strengthening bridges that center and envision community care as sites of creative re-imagination and ways that creative expression assist with these sites. She is the co founder of Care Collective, an artist collective committed to highlighting the creative and care practices of black, queer and trans artists. She holds a Master Degree in Arts Administration and Policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Bachelors Degree in Sociology and Anthropology from Spelman College.
**Tobi’s most recent ‘the makings of me’ is a collection of eight paintings created in isolation fall/winter 2020. The works were released on December 18, 2020. The works are a dedication and altar of appreciation to her younger self, an offering of gratitude for moving past fear. This collection marks Tobi’s first painting collection. Collecting this work holds great appreciation in Tobi’s journey.