Artist creates work for young people ‘who look like me’

Keturah Bobo recalls the moment she knew she had made it big.

“When the book came out, I was just glad to be able to go to Target and see the book. You know, just pick up some stuff I needed at Target and there's my book,” Bobo said, laughing, in an interview at the Far East Side office/studio/warehouse space at which she works and manages Ariel Brands.

“The book” is New York Times Best Seller I Am Enough, released earlier this year. Bobo illustrated the children's book, which was written by Grace Byers, an activist and actress best known for her role on TV's “Empire.” To reinforce her new, A-list lifestyle, Bobo mentions that it's still highly likely she is shipping your Ariel Brands T-shirt or mug order herself.

“I will never think that I've achieved the pinnacle of success. Where I'm at right now, I'm happy and lucky to come here every day and do what I love to do. Even when sometimes it's a struggle, I'm appreciative of it,” she said. “But I don't get too hung up on that [success]. I still have a lot of art to do.”

There were times, though, when Bobo didn't know if there would be more art to come. A lack of representation from “people who looked like me” in the field, burnout and practical implications all threatened Bobo's pursuit of art at different points in time.

An artist “from the time I could hold a pencil,” Bobo was an avid sketcher and made “probably a thousand” paper dolls when she was growing up in Toledo, Ohio. She liked making art. She even felt like an artist, though Bobo said, “I didn't know how to manifest that.”

Encouraged by a high school art teacher, Bobo pursued her passion at CCAD. But when she graduated in 2006, she was burned out. Lacking inspiration, she went nearly a year without creating her own art. Eventually, Bobo found work painting murals around the country, but was laid off from the company in 2008. It was then she had a reckoning.

“Both personally and professionally, there was this whole time period of ‘I don't know if I'm going to be able to pay my lights this month,'” Bobo said. “I knew I had to figure something out. It forced me to rely on myself as an artist, on my own vision. … I just started creating and putting stuff out there.”

With the internet and the emergence of social media, Bobo started to attract more eyes, but it was the development of her style and her characteristic figures of black women and girls, particularly with natural hair, that really drew people to her work.

“The hair, for sure, is one of the reasons people became attracted to my work. That, and skin tone,” Bobo said. “I was always adamant about being OK with having brown skin. Being a black girl and growing up liking dolls, they were always darker or lighter than me, so I wanted to represent that in my work. Sure, there's a little bit of me in all of those characters — some of them are all me — but I wanted to be that representation for young girls that I didn't have.”

Bobo had done illustrations for children's books before, but it was still a shock when she got an unprompted email from HarperCollins Publishers asking if she'd be interested in working on a book with a celebrity author. A Skype session with Byers and a first read of the manuscript assured Bobo that “we had a similar intention.” “It was a perfect collaboration,” she said.

A second book with Byers is already planned, one of three current illustration projects on which Bobo is currently working. She's not at liberty to discuss details, but Bobo did mention with pride that one of the books is in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution and its National Museum of African American History and Culture. (In other “big announcement” news, Bobo said there's something on the horizon for Black Card Revoked, a board game that her family created and which was developed into a show for BET.)

Outside projects and merchandise will, for at least a while, take a back seat to her illustration work. (Bobo would also like to begin developing a body of fine art work designed to be presented in a gallery or museum setting, she said.) And while Bobo might not have been able to dream up such a life when she was little, she did find a hint of it in an old tweet.

“I found a tweet from maybe 2010 where I said I would love to illustrate children's books,” Bobo said. “Still, it's weird to say I'm a children's book illustrator.”

Suffice to say there are a host of young “Keturahs” out there who are glad she is.