By Aaron Zhang
Nya Spivey can turn anything into art: “Right now, I’m actually painting clouds on my ceiling… it’s a process,” she said. Spivey’s art is often inspired by a dreamy, almost-accidental moment—for example, after she splattered some paint on a pair of jeans, she decided to lean into the mistake and painted the rest of the denim as well.
Her acrylic pieces also showcase her carefree style; on Zoom, a painting of hers hangs in the background, retro swirls of purple and green over a black print. “Whatever comes to my mind, I just kinda do,” she said. “It’s very calming for me.”
Spivey has always loved doing art—“My whole life I've been pretty creative,” she said. She cites her father as a major inspiration and role model for her growing up; the two of them would make artwork together. “I think that's part of why I really like doing art,” she noted. “It’s because my whole childhood, I was creating stuff.”
Spivey also acknowledged the influence of her eighth-grade art teacher, whose class helped her realize her interest in art. As a project, her class picked an artist and recreated their pieces. Spivey’s unique approach to artwork meant that she struggled with this project, but the class then discussed how art is made with a personal perspective; that is, it is open to interpretation, even in recreation. “It doesn't have to be perfect to other people. It’s whether you like it or not.”
To that end, when Spivey first started painting, she mostly produced landscapes; she used to post her work more on Instagram, and she found that nature content is more social media-friendly. Then, she said, “I started to actually get in my own style and my own taste for doing paintings.” Eventually, her style evolved into the three moods of her current work: nature and landscape paintings; dark, fiery paintings; and, in her words, “African-inspired paintings.” From her development in style, Spivey has grown to appreciate the creative aspects of art alongside the technical ones.
Race has not been a significant barrier for Spivey, but there is a distinct lack of representation of people of color in the art classes she’s taken. In art history, a subject primarily dominated by a Eurocentric narrative, she was not shown many diverse role models. Additionally, she lived in a primarily white neighborhood when she was younger, where she generally went along with the status quo. “I didn’t really think that there were other ways of doing things than the way I grew up and knew,” she admitted. “I didn't really realize that there were other things that should be happening with diversity.”
As Spivey grew older, she started noticing racial microaggressions in her community. For example, she recalled when a classmate once questioned why she was drawing an African tribal blanket. When Spivey explained its history and cultural significance, her peer said that the piece still didn’t really make sense. It was then that Spivey realized that “this wasn’t how it’s supposed to be.”
Furthermore, as Spivey had experiences with new social groups, she “realized how different people are and how much diversity there actually is in the world.” Because of her newfound understanding, she aims to combat the aforementioned Eurocentric narrative that she sees in her art classes and use her work to promote people of color: “What I don’t see, I put in my paintings.”
Many of Spivey’s pieces speak to who she is; they show her background, her culture, and her identity. For her, the importance of art comes from its range of viewpoints and dialogue between different experiences, “because then, it’s not just a one-sided type thing.”
Spivey believes schools and other institutions could focus on promoting diversity in the works they present for others and for themselves. She explained that art is rooted in heritage and history; “the more diversity that’s in the arts, the more people will be able to understand other people's culture.” Even if the sharing of culture is not explicit or overt, “the inspiration or intentions [of art] will be from their culture, so people will be more exposed to it,” Spivey said.
Moreover, Spivey believes it is “very important for teens to be able to see other teens’ art because it just makes it more real that teens can actually make a difference.” While youth may feel that age is a barrier to participation and engagement with causes and culture, Spivey feels that “the more art from teens that’s represented in places, the more that the word will get out”; the more the word will get out, the more teens can effect change. And that, for her, is the beauty of painting.
Nya participated in our Teen Mentorship Program this summer, and you can view the art she created through that opportunity here.