ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Nikkolas Smith calls himself an artivist - an activist and an artist. He creates digital paintings of Black heroes and victims. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this story about an artist working to create awareness and promote change.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In his art, Nikkolas Smith celebrates and mourns Black lives, following the lead of the late singer Nina Simone, who advised, it's the artist's duty to reflect the times.
NIKKOLAS SMITH: So many Black lives have just been taken from this Earth. I've been just trying to process how that made me feel as a Black man.
DEL BARCO: Smith's portrait of George Floyd, whose killing sparked worldwide protests against police brutality, is now featured on billboards in New York's Times Square and at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. He painted Floyd wearing a tuxedo and bow tie.
SMITH: The piece has George Floyd staring directly at you, questioning, why did this happen to me? I want my art to show the world, like, this is a human being that lived on this Earth and should still be living on this Earth.
DEL BARCO: The group Black Lives Matter commissioned Floyd's portrait for the billboard and also for a video tribute to victims of police brutality.
KAILEE SCALES: Nikkolas is one of those artists who call on us to change the way we see ourselves.
DEL BARCO: Kailee Scales is managing director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. She's seen Smith's artwork go viral over the years. BLM invited him to work with them.
SCALES: He often captured people in their happy moments right before they were felled by violence. And so that really honored Black Lives Matters' spirit of creating humanity for Black people.
DEL BARCO: Smith's fans include former first lady Michelle Obama, singer Rihanna and others who repost and retweet his images. That includes portraits of sports, music and civil rights icons as well as victims of police brutality. He painted Breonna Taylor in her EMT uniform, Michael Brown in a graduation robe and Ahmaud Arbery in a tux.
SMITH: Typically, I like to create something a little bit more joyful. Even in a tragic situation, try to find the joy. But for Ahmaud, I said, you know what? I have to draw the tragedy, that terror and the pain that I'm sure was on his face. And it's kind of violent. It's not finished. A lot of my pieces are unfinished. I feel like that kind of is a parallel to these people's lives because they did not get a chance to really finish their life like they should have.
PETER SELLARS: The beauty of Nikkolas Smith's unfinished portraits for unfinished lives is haunting.
DEL BARCO: UCLA Professor Peter Sellars teaches courses on art as social action and art as moral action. He says Smith's portraits are crucial.
SELLARS: It's keeping memory alive. And memory is frequently what gives you a level of courage that's more than you think you have because, in fact, you're not alone. The ancestors are with you.
DEL BARCO: Smith grew up in Houston. And after earning a master's degree in architecture, he moved to Los Angeles. For 11 years, he worked as a Walt Disney imagineer, designing for theme parks around the world. On weekends, he began making his own art. In one of what he calls his Sunday sketches, Smith depicted Martin Luther King Jr. wearing a hooded sweatshirt like the one Trayvon Martin wore the night he was shot and killed in Florida. The image went viral and landed Smith on the news.
SMITH: The message was to say, why does he look like a thug now - because I put a hoodie on him? Like, it was supposed to, you know, convey the message of Dr. King's dream of not wanting anybody to be judged for their outward appearance.
DEL BARCO: In another sketch, Smith reimagined former President Barack Obama and his family as superheroes he dubbed The Real Incredibles (ph).
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DEL BARCO: Smith also created the official movie posters for "Black Panther," "If Beale Street Could Talk," "Southside With You" and "Dear White People." He also wrote and illustrated a children's book about Olympics gold-winning American gymnasts and another book called "My Hair Is Poofy & That's Okay."
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SMITH: And there's so many friends with so many different hairstyles.
DEL BARCO: Smith also teaches art to children, and he continues to sketch every Sunday. In the past month alone, his themes included lynchings, BLM protests, immigrant DREAMers and Juneteenth.
SMITH: People have told me that they feel like my art is a superpower because it helps people grieve, and it helps people process and deal with topics that - they may be heavy, and it might put a smile on their face. It might make them laugh, or it might make them cry.
DEL BARCO: Smith continues to spread his messages while quarantined at home in LA's Koreatown. He and his wife are getting ready for their greatest creation - their first baby, a boy.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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