After talking to San Carlos Apache artist Robert Wilson about the things that inspire him, it’s not hard to believe him when he says, “pretty much anything.” Over the course of our conversation, I lose count of the number of times he says some variation of “I wanted to learn to do that,” when he recalls first seeing something that lights him up: graffiti in an older kid’s notebook in middle school, new styles and mediums of fine art in high school, or Japanese anime art. Wilson doesn’t stop at admiration; if he likes it, he teaches himself to do it. “I’m learning every day,” he says.
Wilson, 23, who is also a freelance graphic designer, traces his beginnings as an artist back to his father. “My dad used to always like doing drawings in the kitchen. I would sit there and watch him as he would draw. He would be drawing whatever came to his mind […] traditional baskets or people or elders. I liked that. I was like, ‘Wow. That’s really cool.’ I wanted to learn how to do that,” Wilson says.
“What really got me into art was when I’d seen graffiti art,” explains Wilson. “Some of the older students, the seventh graders and eighth graders, they carried their own sketchbooks and they had some taggings in there […] and I asked them if I could look at it.” Wilson was a sixth grader and remembers not really being able to read the lettering, but still connecting with the work. “I really loved the colors and how pretty it looked. And I wanted to do that,” says Wilson. So, he practiced.
“As I continued through the years, practicing, I really couldn’t do it in school or class because everybody looked down on it,” remembers Wilson. They saw graffiti “as something negative, or gang-related. It kind of really hindered me.” There was this devaluing, but also utter negation. Once in middle school, Wilson handed in an assignment that had graffiti art and a teacher told him to re-do it because what he had done wasn’t art.
In high school, there was a shift. “They were more laid back about it. […] They saw no harm in what I was doing, as long as I got my assignments in. They would tell me, ‘Robert, finish your assignment and you can go ahead and draw.’ So, I got my assignments in.”
One teacher in particular, Mrs. Levenson, was hugely encouraging to Wilson. “She saw the potential in what I was doing and she wanted to further that—taking the time for me as a student in any projects we did and pushing me a little further beyond what I knew, what I was comfortable with doing.” Levenson forced him out of “the little square I was in,” just doing graffiti work, explains Wilson. He stuck with Sharpies for six or seven years, but he says Levenson “gave me thicker paper, watercolors, gave me pastels and a big sheet of paper,” opening him up to exploring different mediums in his work.
Wilson seems to approach nearly everything as an opportunity to grow as an artist. He remembers working on carving with Levenson. “I was enjoying it the whole time,” remembers Wilson. He made the ambitious choice to carve a buffalo and didn’t finish it during the allotted two weeks in class, so he asked Levenson if he could continue working on it during his lunches. She obliged. “Doing that carving and sculpting, it kind of made me pay more attention to detail. After that, I started seeing more and more attention to detail when I started doing pen and marker type work,” says Wilson.
During his first year of high school, Wilson met Dr. Carol O’Connor, founder of the Rhyme-N-Reason Foundation, when she was a substitute teacher in his art class. O’Connor remembers meeting Wilson. According to O’Connor, she brought a big book of graffiti to show the students and asked the class if any of them did graffiti. One hand went up: Wilson’s.
O’Connor’s background as an educator and her passion for hip-hop are evident in Rhyme-N-Reason’s mission: to present “innovative multimedia educational programs that are culturally relevant, rigorous, and significant.” For the past four years, O’Connor, who lived and worked in Globe-Miami for a number of years, has published the Telling Our Own Stories book, featuring art and poetry from young artists around the world. Issue four, which is available at the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts in Globe, features work from students in San Carlos, Globe, and Miami, as well as Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Mississippi. Wilson did the cover art and graphic design for issue four of Telling Our Own Stories, which features his art, as well.
Wilson also collaborated with O’Connor on issue three, and the pair recently presented their work to tribal leadership, successfully seeking funding for issue five, at which they’re already hard at work. “For the majority of the presentation, I talked about a lot of things that we’re doing and how it’s benefiting some of the kids out there,” says Wilson. Wilson says he wasn’t that nervous to present because as a flute player he performs at events like Apache Jii, which helps him feel comfortable speaking in front of people.
Wilson explains that in some contemporary hip-hop, “guys up there rapping about drugs, girls, money,” as Wilson characterizes it, can contribute to misconceptions about rap, graffiti, and hip-hop culture in general. “When you look back at the earlier hip-hop, graffiti, and rap, it wasn’t all about that. It was talking about their life story. It was talking about the struggle, how hard it was, and the things they’ve gone through,” explains Wilson. Telling Our Own Stories features work in that spirit.
O’Connor echoes Wilson, saying that “the stories that they [the artists] tell and the things about their lives are really important for everybody to hear. […] When people don’t have a voice, that’s when they start doing really crazy things that hurt themselves and other people too.” Telling Our Own Stories facilitates the vital work of providing space for young people to claim their voices and have their experiences recognized. “People need to have other people value them, especially people who have been through some difficult situations,” she says. “They really need some people to say, you’re really cool, you’re smart, and I love what you do.”
A couple of years ago, Wilson was back at San Carlos High School to meet with students about Telling Our Own Stories and watched a student trying to draw an Apache woman. “They kind of were getting there, but they didn’t like the way that it looked. They kind of scribbled it up and threw it away. I took the paper and said, ‘I’ll finish it.’ I tried to finish what he drew and gave it back to him,” remembers Wilson. “I told him that it may not look good now, but if you keep at it, it’s going to look great.” Looking back at drawings he did when he was younger, Wilson says, “I’m really excited that I kind of stuck with it.”
Wilson sees his art going more toward realism, right now and in the future, and he’s constantly seeking to get his work in front of fresh, critical eyes. “When you ask around the same community […] they’ll pretty much always give you positive feedback, but you need that criticism,” he says. “It’s like racing against the same person all the time. It’s not going to change anything unless you go against someone who is better. I kind of strive for that—to be better at what I’m doing.”
To contact Wilson about graphic design work, email email@example.com.
For more information about the Rhyme-N-Reason Foundation, visit them on FACEBOOK or on their WEBSITE.
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Edible Baja Arizona, Modern Farmer, Punch, Serious Eats, and elsewhere. Her first book, Beyond Canning was published in February 2016.