Ronald Draper

What was your introduction to art and how did that evolve into being a full-time artist?

Growing up in New York City, our introduction to art is probably much different than anywhere else on this planet. You can’t help but to be around art. For me, it was looking at graffiti and Keith Haring’s “Crack Is Wack” mural and having no idea what they were but finding them cool. 

Funny enough, when I graduated from an art and design high school in 2004, I hated art. I went on to St. John’s with ambitions of becoming a lawyer, and while applying for law school my father died. Not knowing how to cope led me back into the art world. It started small with painting little things here and there and just playing around with materials in the house.

In 2013, I quit my job. I wanted to put my 40 plus hours a week into something I care for. People always try to wait until their hustle is paying them dividends, but you are not going to get full-time benefits from part-time work. My time at St. John’s helped me understand how to approach things from a business sense and multiply what I do as far as my art.

What are some ways you’ve applied a DIY approach to your career and how did it help propel growth?

When I was first trying to get my work picked up by a gallery, no one would even answer me.  Eventually I said to hell with it. I knew that I could get people to pay for tickets to go to a show. So, I ended up renting a space and rocking out with them for about two years. I liked having access to a space for showing, but I couldn’t work in it. After a while, I found a studio space big enough to allow me to stop working at home with math that made sense. I ran a Kickstarter campaign with a series of art created just for fundraising purposes as I didn’t want to devalue any of my other work while ensuring access. The amount given to the campaign correlated to the size of the art allowing everyone to participate. What I have here (The Draper Space) is not anyone’s investment money. It’s just me hustling, selling some stuff and making it happen.

How does having your own studio empower you?

I can do things whenever I want. I’m not at the mercy of a space’s schedule or anyone else’s feelings. I’ve learned to water the grass where I stand after realizing so many people have watered others’ grass. As an artist, you bring notoriety, style and people. I didn’t have the immediate following that these spaces have, but after a while, I started to pack out shows and now it requires less work. The studio also helps with balance. Having a wife now I understand that when I’m home, I need to be home. There’s no work aside from urgent emails or time sensitive things.  

How is your art impacted by different parts of your identity?

There are many titles that pull and push how I decide to communicate through my art and as I gain new titles, my work evolves. Being a married man is a lot different than even being with the same woman three years ago. Although I’ve always been responsible with my art, in making plans for fatherhood, I’m more conscious that it isn’t just for me. It’s for everyone that comes after me. I want to make sure that my children, and everyone else’s, have a clear sense of what went on. If you really want to study how people were emotionally and their reactions at a particular time, look at the artwork.

How did your identity uniquely impact the collection you are currently creating?

It’s me being a black man, me being a man whose father died, but also a man who didn’t know his biological father or biological mother, but knowing she was an addict. I realized that I have a bunch of questions and traumas that quite a number of people also have, but none of us are talking about them. Let’s discuss how the frustrations are heightened seeing certain people treated with more dignity and respect today as a drug user than people of Harlem were in 1988, or how weed is now legal in certain states and billions are to be made off of it while people who look like us sit in jail. Not only were we persecuted, we are blocked from participating in the era of legality. It’s a slap in the face, a kick in the balls and everything in between that doesn’t make sense.


What are some of the techniques you are employing with this collection to help relay that message?

I'm all about details. There’s so much art that you pass that is a great aesthetic, but do you really pay attention to it? I’m making it so you see just enough to question if you’re seeing things correctly. The layering and materials used create a necessity to look deeper. I played around with a lack of colors by keeping the collection very monotone. The black on black is a pun for everything they try to do and throw us into. The resin technique, which is a crazy high gloss, makes certain aspects pop. This is the first collection I’ve done where every piece is cohesive in message. It’s a manifestation of my storytelling becoming more advanced.

What are your thoughts on competition among artists?

A lot of artists have this thing where they don’t want to share resources because of a sense of competition. However, you’re only in competition if what you’re making is easily duplicated. If you’re making something that you know comes from your heart, no one can beat that. I can lock someone away in my studio for a week and their work is not going to be mine. It’s just that special sauce and once you realize what you have is safe, you have no problem opening your space, mind and opportunities to anyone else. I don’t care. I’ll tell you everything, because there’s nothing you can do about it.

Where do you see yourself fitting into the New York art scene?

I don’t give a damn if I fit in. We just talked about competition, and I’m competing against the notion of what it means to be a New York artist, where you show your work at galleries and then they take half of your money. I’m not a big fan of people taking my money. I’ve been able to create non-typical opportunities by working with real estate agents, architectural firms and established institutions. By going that route, I don’t have to bow down to the bureaucracy or red tape and I’m also able to put other people on. People call me a curator because I decorate the campus at Harlem Hospital. I’m really just secure enough to know that my work does not belong everywhere and want to pass along opportunities to other artists.

How does the space, one typically associated with bad news and shaped in many ways by poverty, impact how you approach your role at Harlem Hospital?

While the hospital caters to the physical, art caters to the mind. I’m thinking about how art can put someone in a mindset where they are open to healing. The artworks I select aren’t necessarily tranquil scenes, but I hope they produce a positive energy that takes some of the stress off the body. It’s also about people understanding that more than a lot of hospitals in New York City, Harlem Hospital is a community space, not just in the community. It’s been here and has grown with the neighborhood. It’s cool to be part of the process as people find reasons to go there besides hurt.

How do you balance monetizing your art with notions of accessibility?

That’s when you use the Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic model. I have the handwritten notes, sweatshirts and other items at lower price points. However, if you really want my work then you’ll save up to pay for it. As my value has grown, I no longer feel a way about feeling that way. I also noticed that the conversation shifted from my work being overpriced to people just saying they can’t afford it. When talking accessibility though, it’s a question of accessible to whom. Art isn’t just about buying. I never apply that pressure because it isn’t my goal; it’s a byproduct. If someone sees my artwork and is moved by it, that’s accessibility to me as my goal is to spread truth, talk the good talk and fight the good fight.

What is on the horizon for you in 2018?

The new collection is at the forefront now. I’m researching and making calls to institutions to show the collection but will have a reception here at the studio before it goes anywhere. I’m still playing with dates, but it will probably be mid to late April. I’m standing behind this as an entire collection that must be presented together and trying to figure out that look and feel. 2017 was learning the possibilities. 2018 is about exercising them, so I’ll be doing more of what I have been with increased efficiency.  

How do you stay motivated as you strive to achieve all of your goals?

I got a second-degree burn two days ago and haven’t stopped working since.  Motivation for me is getting all of my ideas out before I die, and ideas keep coming.  I know there are people to impact, positivity to pass along and again, truth to be told.