Cooli Ras has a full palette. The Jacksonville artist (born Chris Clark) paints full time, either at his home studio or his space located in downtown’s Union Arts District. Ras continues to hone his skills as a social media artist and presence: his Instagram page, filled with original work, boasts nearly 35-thousand followers. In four short years, his work has been shown in nearly 50 exhibits, from local galleries to Art Basel Miami Beach and the Through Our Eyes cultural exchange program exhibit in South Africa. His wife Kandice Knecole Clark, known in the art scene as Zenslayfu, is an artist as well, and they are the parents of three young children.
“COVID-19 has been crazy, with my art and family life,” says Ras, with a soft chuckle. “Actually this has probably been one of my more unproductive years; I haven’t been doing as much work as usual.”
For artists and non-artists alike, this has been a year of shared disruption. The five-month fever dream that began last Spring, of the furious spread of a lethal-and-still-inscrutable virus; a string of racially-motivated murders and attacks, followed by mass protests initiated by Black Lives Matter with many international cities answering in solidarity; calls for justice and an end to police brutality, answered with a regime of even greater federal law enforcement deployments; all strangled together by deranged national leadership that is as solipsistic as it is grinningly smug. All the while people have been in lockdown, then partially bailed out, only to go back into quarantine, and online, where a different kind of virus–conspiracy theories–began to spread.
“I think what’s happening now was bound to happen sooner or later and I’m happy that a lot of things that have been going on for years and years are finally getting out into the open, due to social media and camera phones,” says Ras, of the firsthand education and exposure to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; to name just two of the many Blacks in this country receiving the certain end game of racism: death. “So it’s showing us the good and the bad.”
“For artists, I think it’s a great time; because art, for me, is a form of journalism,” Ras continues. “And people learn differently and I think images are a strong way to tell this story. So artists are also journalists, documenting what’s going on. We speak about what we see, and what we believe in, through our art.”
Whether through his commentaries on social consciousness or celebrations of family and identity, Ras reports in real time, on canvas and paper. “I always compare my work to writing in a diary or a journal, where you’re just talking about life and the everyday experiences except I’m painting it on a canvas,” says the 32-year-old Ras. “It’s a journal in picture form, a documentary, about family, life, and everything about me.”
On both his large-scale canvasses, or smaller studies, Ras generally focuses on the face, where expressions can appear nebulous and readymade for interpretation. In one piece, a young woman, her short hair flowing backward into the red surrounding her, as wisps of blue light flick around her face, seems both guarded and bemused. Women are presented in certain nobility in Ras’s work; painted in profile, hair banded in gold, with expressions both regal and determined. A large-scale work features four bearded men staring straight at the viewer, a rumination on wordless communication. At times Ras dips into the mystical and phantasmagoric. Using a burnt paper bag for a surface, he offers a micro-fable, a young and shirtless, two-headed man whose body is covered in gold tribal markings, staring down a vaporous shadow entity.
“I’ve always gravitated toward people. I usually focus on the profile and side-view. Someone’s profile and them facing you seems like two totally different people, or two different stories. That’s why I sometimes use text as well, to tell their story.”
Judging by the sheer volume and various faces populating his work, it seems like Ras has a never-ending cast of models to paint. “Normally I try to create my own subjects. People will ask me, ‘How do you know these people?’ But I look online, on Instagram, or Google for reference pictures, and I take just a little bit of features from different faces so a lot of these are just composites that I created myself.”
In Ras’s world, art is a full-time job and the creative path has little time for breaks. Long hours are spent cloistered within four walls, canvas, and paint. If he’s lucky, Ras arrives at what he calls the “Flow State,” where the colors of consciousness and creativity mix on their own accord. “When I’m in that state, nothing else exists. It takes a while for me to get started. I’ll have to stare at the canvas for 30 minutes and when I finally dip my brush into the paint it’s like I’m turning my soul over to the canvas,” explains Ras. “I don’t stop for food or to use the bathroom [laughs] and my body kind of shuts down. I can’t stop and come back the next morning to finish anything. I can’t stop until it’s done.”
Ras aligns himself with graphic, rather than realistic art. He cites his earliest days of making art. “I always wanted to create my own comic strip for the Sunday papers.” At age 15, he discovered Aaron McGruder’s groundbreaking comic strip, The Boondocks. “To see a comic strip featuring a little kid with dreadlocks; and I had dreadlocks at the time–I’d never seen anything like that.” Not long after, Ras created High School Stinks, his own original comic strip for his high school newspaper.
The graphic-sensibility is evident in his work as a muralist. While he doesn’t really consider himself a true muralist, he’s completed 15 commissioned works. Murals featured at sites on Church Street, Davis Street, and Ken Knight Drive allowed Ras a chance to expand on his themes. Ras and other local muralists’ work can be found on his wife Kandice’s informative and much-needed site, Black Mural Map, which she routinely updates.
Ras considers himself self-taught. Yet some of the most radical artists were autodidacts, including Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns, Keith Haring, and Yoko Ono. As a youth, Ras formally studied trombone and drums; he studied audio engineering at Full Sail University. “I learn the most from watching documentaries about other artists’ lives, processes and work,” says Ras. “I also watch a lot of lectures and artists’ talks more than anything else.”
Through social media, Ras learned about Black art as well. “My parents always made art and I always made art. And it’s kind of crazy, because I couldn’t name any black artists until I was in my mid-twenties.” After posting a Facebook query, “Who are the Black Master Artists?” friends suggested he check out the works of Romare Bearden, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, and Augusta Savage. “And through social media I began to find and connect with both emerging and established artists like Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Derrick Adams, and Kehinde Wiley.” Motivated by his self-taught studies and increasing Instagram connections, Ras recently enrolled in classes at FSCJ to formally study art, an interesting and humble move by an artist who is already known and garnered success.
This fall, Ras will be featured in a one-man show at the Black Wall Street Gallery, an innovative space devoted to Black artists, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “My show will be about ‘Unity’ and all of the pieces will correlate to that theme: with COVID-19 and the protests, as expressed through ideas of people of different races or political viewpoints; marching together, or where we can agree on something like social distancing.”
Cooli Ras is single-minded in his discipline. He has found his own groove of self-perpetuation, from the sheer amount of actual output from his studio and public murals, to his savviness at networking with, and learning from, predecessors and peers on Instagram. Providence is immeasurable, yet persistence is methodical. Ras leans into the latter to invoke the former.
“I think I’m driven. A long time ago I mapped out a plan for where I want to be and I’ve tried to take the necessary steps to get there. I just have a drive to succeed to show myself I can do this.”
This arts profile originally appeared under the headline “Flow State: Cooli Ras keeps it current and personal while blowing up the Instagram feed” in Void Magazine’s September 2020 issue.