“…after a ton of time of trying to find myself, I realized that I had known the whole time.”
Vashti C. Harrison is a collector. A careful gatherer of moments and things.
Beautiful ones. Like her mother’s porcelain figurines, tiny brass telescopes, the Good Night Stories picture book from her youth, and the treasures she discovers during her thoughtful plundering of thrift shops and flea markets.
These cherished somethings – phenomenons more than mere objects – are memory lassos. Evidence of things not seen, but still felt. Each one transporting the acclaimed filmmaker, author and illustrator back to the future, by magical wanderings through yesterdays and right-nows.
How ironic that her book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, an homage to some of the most trailblazingest Black women of all time, was nominated for a NAACP award even before it hit the shelves!
That’s the thing about Vashti C. Harrison (middle initial included because like her father, we agree the ‘C’ adds even more magnificence to her name). She creates collections that take you there. Here, there, and everywhere in fact.
Where Vashti is sittin’ in her career these days is quite pretty. This exciting posture required a journey of detour-ridden avenues on scenic routes she’d probably rather forget.
A battle between a passion to be her most creative self vs. work in-and-around that career desire was an unrelenting one. She spent too much time in media jobs that were two degrees from what her heart longed for. So close, and yet so far, it started to change her.
Even though she was a recognized cinematographer familiar with film festival recognition, she settled for spreadsheet-maven duties because the job was for a major television studio. Requiring absolutely none of her creative time, it wasn’t long before a show cancellation and subsequent budget cuts decided that they required none of her time at all.
Miles away from her Virginia and artisan roots, fear of failing and flying free became deep-seated. Several seats deep.
Fraying at the edges, she finally packed up and departed from the Atlanta ties that bound and stifled her. Made a bee-line straight for her mama and daddy’s house.
And you know what?
Sometimes, you’ve just gotta go home. Sit down somewhere and heal. Relax back into the homemade parts of you. And she did.
Reveled in her family’s warm Trinidadian and African-American love, lore, and recipes. Legacies born in faraway places that remained close to their hearts. All of it nurtured a blossoming illustration artist the accomplished filmmaker also wanted to become.
Slowly but surely, Vashti the illustrator began to bloom. She woke up the warrior within and made her draw.
And just like that, the magic came. Flowed from her heart to her mind, down her arm and into the fingers fashioned around unfamiliar tools. Revealed in a couple of months’ worth of hard fought imagery that surprised her and impressed viewers. The natural talent she’d always just admired from afar earned her an illustration book deal after only a few months of walking in her purpose.
Trips back home will do that – bring out the best that was you from the very beginning.
Every once in a while, we have to haul-off and fight what scares us most. Start the battle with a “let it begin with me” and be the inspiration you’re seeking. Live your dream even on your worst days. Vashti decided that there was only way to her promise and that was through and by her hands.
A visual artist like no other, every story she tells is like magic on screens and now pages as well.
Quickly becoming a definitive voice of her generation, Vashti continues to amaze audiences as she blazes quite an impressive trail of her own.
Check out Nia Magazine’s conversation with the multi-faceted West Indian artist. We talk experimental film making, Trini folklore, her dream of being on Catfish, and being really happy about what she’s doing these days.
One of our favorite questions to ask is very simply: Who are you? So, who is Vashti C. Harrison?
VASHTI: I’ve always been a creator. That’s the thing that’s always defined me, even when I was trying to deny my creative side and study a million different things. First it was Political Science, then it was Foreign Affairs and French, then it was Art History and Art, and then it was finally Art and Media Studies.
After a ton of time of trying to find myself, I realized that I had known the whole time. That I’m my truest self when I can be making things and in charge of being the creator in the room. Of being a creative in the room.
Before I [studied] film, I was always drawing. And then I was introduced to the medium of image-making through animation and illustration, and then cinematography.
So, for me, Vashti C. Harrison is always defined by being able to create things and make things. And I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.
You mentioned you like to be in charge of your creative process. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by that?
VASHTI: A lot of people use the term of “world building” when they’re writing stories or writing scripts, writing novels or anything. I think there’s this power that comes with it; that you get to be in charge of creating an entirely new world and developing the rules, the laws, the images and the aesthetic.
When you have the most control over the whole process is when you fully allow yourself to.
A lot of creative work is collaborative, and you only get to be responsible for one aspect of creating a world. It’s really easy for me to let things get in the way of the creative process, especially if it’s a work environment where other people’s timelines are on my mind.
So, when I have complete power, complete control over something that’s fully my own, I can have the most fruitful creative process.
In what moments in your life, career or otherwise, were you absolute bravest version of yourself?
VASHTI: I think that it’s a really scary thing to go after a creative career.
My family has old school values; they really value hard work and having a “real” job. And, as much as I love being a creator, I wanted to have the full-time job. I wanted to do the things that people do.
After I finished grad school, I set out with my sights on getting a job in the film industry, because that’s the logical next move. Not so logical [though] for the path that I chose; which was experimental cinema.
As an experimental filmmaker, the general goal is to make art, to continue making movies, and to find a way to fund that process. And so I thought, Well, it’d be great to get a day job working somewhere in the film industry, so that when I come home, I can work on my own creative things.
It was very much compartmentalized in my mind that working in the film industry wasn’t my career. It was the job that I had, to help facilitate my career.
I ended up getting [a job] in Atlanta. I went to grad school in California, so it was a big move to decide to go out to Atlanta to work on a TV show as a production coordinator for the animation department.
I don’t think most of the people I was working with knew that I liked to draw, that I really had a blossoming career in the experimental film world, that I was showing movies at film festivals.
I was the person making spreadsheets. It was the job that looked good on paper, and it was perfect for my family; it was what they wanted to see from me.
And then the show got canceled.
I was one of the newer hires, so I got laid off and I didn’t know what to do next. I kept looking for work in Atlanta. And then it became really scary. I didn’t know what to do next, and I had this burning feeling. Like, I could get another job doing this, but it was not fun not being the creative person. When you know you could be an essential creator in the room, but you’re making spreadsheets and keeping track of other people’s processes.
I was looking for work for probably eight months, determined to get another desk job in a decent industry, but maybe slightly more creative. When that didn’t work out, it was the most terrifying thing, but I decided I’m gonna go home, and stay at home with my parents, and try to make this illustrating thing work.
I started my Instagram account right after I finished grad school, so the whole time I had that other job I would go home and draw, and then post things onto my social media.
I had it under a different name at the time. I was kind of self-conscious. I didn’t want the animators… these really talented illustrators I was working with… I didn’t want anybody to know it was me.
I think the bravest I had to be in my career was to just throw caution to the wind, and try to become an illustrator when I have never had a class.
I’ve never had a painting class. I’ve never had a color theory class, and no one ever formally taught me perspective. I did a couple [of] drawing classes my first years of college, but those were just prerequisites. And then I jumped into filmmaking.
I grew up in a really, really small town, so the idea of moving back home with my parents came with this huge stigma of feeling like I’d gone completely backwards, that I might get stuck here. But I really just thought, There aren’t going to be any distractions here. I’m just gonna put in the hard work and then really make a strong effort.
And only a couple months in… I think I moved home in April 2016… in May 2016 I joined the SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. And then, on June 1st I got my first picture book offer, to illustrate a picture book.
Are you serious?
VASHTI: It happened very quickly, and I know that it doesn’t happen like that for everyone, but it was a terrifying thing.
The part of me that really wants to have a strong hold, and control over my own destiny and path… that part of me was dying for eight months while I was trying to figure out a new job.
And then suddenly, I jump very recklessly into a new career that I had no background in.
It feels like your career journey has had several twists and turns, not exactly a straight line. You always stayed in tune with the part of you that was craving to control your destiny. Even when you tried to stifle it, she was still there. How do you stay in tune with that part of yourself?
VASHTI: Well, I think of it a little bit differently.
I think of the part of me that’s really neurotic, controlling, and wants to fit everything into a neat story – that’s the part of me that would have taken the full-time job. That’s the part of me that really just wants to follow the rules.
And then the other side of me, the creative self, is the one that’s like, You know you’re really only happy when you’re making things. So are you gonna be able to be happy if you have this day job that is stressing you out all the time?”
And, for [me] that’s the one that always wins out.
What international career experience has been the most exciting for you?
VASHTI: As an experimental filmmaker, my work has shown around the world. I’m very lucky to have shown my thesis on Field Notes; I feel so blessed that I get the chance to share that story with the world. It’s a collection of stories, of folk tales, from Trinidad and Tobago, told through the voices of my family.
The thing that I notice the most about the viewership experience around the world is that people always come up to me and they get very excited. They always feel a little bit of themselves in that film, even if they’re not Trinidadian.
Storytelling is just human nature. It’s how we pass on information, it’s how we pass on traditions, and people relate to that so much. The things I want to make have this central core sentiment, that value – sharing stories with each other. And I get really excited when I can kind of tap into that with other people around the world.
I’ve felt the most global reach with my filmmaking.
I think my filmmaking is really tangential to my illustrating. It just hasn’t really been exhibited into the mainstream, or into the world yet. But for me, the creative process is similar, and they’re working simultaneously.
Most of my film work focuses in on folklore, and my family, and Trinidad and Tobago; whereas my illustrations so far have a focus on girlhood and my more American viewpoint of being a Black woman in America.
I want to bring the two together in the future, [I] just haven’t had the opportunity yet.
How Caribbean was your upbringing in Virginia, though?
VASHTI: My mom is from Trinidad and Tobago, and my dad’s African-American. My mom is of Indian descent. As I grew up, I was really familiar with the idea of Trinidad, certainly with the music and the food. And sort of, definitely aware of the otherness of my family and my mother in our Virginia neighborhood that was almost split evenly, a Black and white community.
But I definitely think that’s an experience that a lot of first generation kids experience.
It’s like, they know the food, they know the music, and they know the culture almost superficially. But for me, it was an eye-opening experience the first time I went to Trinidad. I didn’t really know what to expect.
It’s hard to paint a picture of a place that feels so foreign, because everyone in my mom’s family, all of her brothers and sisters left in the ’70s. It was a 20 year old story at that point almost, by the time I was old enough to really understand it. It felt so distant.
So when I went I had no expectations.
As a young person, as an early filmmaker, I was making a lot of work about fairy tales and the way that fairy tales, folktales and myths tell universal stories and can highlight very clear human truths, rights and wrongs. And I was using the fairy tales that I kind of grew up with, like Grimm and Andersen. And there was some kind of distance between myself and that work.
But when I went to Trinidad and Tobago for the first time, it was just incredible. The way that people spoke; it’s just embedded into the language, this relationship to mythology and folklore.
Any time anything might happen… like, if you say your hand is itching, they might say, “Oh, you’re gonna get money soon.” These little ideas, little superstitions, or little colloquialisms are just part of the whole lexicon of storytelling. And I was just so fascinated with it.
My work really transitioned after that point, because I was like, Oh, this is what I’ve been waiting for. These are the stories that I’ve been thinking about my whole life, and just hadn’t known about. All of my work became about investigating this culture and the way stories are used there.
The natural and supernatural are so intertwined, and I think that’s beautiful. So a lot of my work is about that.
As an illustrator, I haven’t really had the time to focus in on that, but I have a ton of stories that I’ve wanted to make and bring the two mediums together.
As a Black woman with burgeoning powerful positioning in media, is there extra pressure to deliver quality content?
VASHTI: Yes, certainly. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but as I’m seeing people are really invested in my work, I feel like there’s pressure to get it all right.
Because I didn’t grow up in Trinidad, any time I tell a story about Trinidad I feel this intense pressure to do all of the research. And sometimes that means it slows down the process. As much as I want to get things out into the world, it takes a lot of time.
The same is true about telling stories about children and little Black girls.
I can tell my own story, but it doesn’t fit the same format as typical stories that I’m seeing other people share. Like, I grew up in a very small town, I didn’t have a lot of things like pop culture. I didn’t grow up watching a lot of these shows; In Living Color or Martin or A Different World.
I see these pop culture memes and stuff on the internet, and it feels like it’s [a] part of this particular Black experience that was foreign to me. So, as a person who’s creating work featuring women of color and people of my generation are looking at it, I feel pressure to get it right. To be able to share, to be able to incorporate everyone’s experience into my work, and especially when I talk about it.
When does a story begin for you; a story you’re going to tell?
VASHTI: They always start with an image; a single image in my mind. Or maybe, it might be inspired by something I see.
It might be something as subtle as the way the light is hitting the leaves outside my window, and I think, Oh, that looks incredibly magical.
I have this particular lens through which I view the world; where I’m on the prowl for things that feel slightly magical, slightly supernatural, and just really beautiful. The kinds of things that I wish more people would look at.
Has fear ever held you back?
VASHTI: Yeah. It definitely slows me down. It’s incredible how much power it can hold over me, and I don’t think I have the best way of dealing with that yet. Even on a larger scale, I’ve let fear of being a creative person hold me back long enough, you know.
I think that I’ve made the jump now, and I know that this is my career and this is what I’m doing, so I can keep sight of the bigger picture that I’m really happy. I remind myself, I’m really happy to do this, and I’m so lucky to keep doing this.
It’s just a constant battle I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
It’s this weird relationship. It’s like a constant shame that nags at you and tries to pull you back. I just have to keep sight of, and remind myself that I’m actually really, really happy to be doing the things that I am.
Would you say that’s been one of the most important life lessons you’ve learned?
VASHTI: Definitely. I think I’ve said it a couple of times, now: it’s not easy to be creative. I feel like there [aren’t] enough times I can say it, though.
Actually, drawing is a really great example. People often think that if you’re good at drawing, it’s all easy for you. There are days when I draw something, and it’s just like, Oh my God, have I learned nothing? This is so awful I can’t believe that I created this.
It’s a constant thing you have to keep up with and practice because it’s a skill, it’s not a talent.
Learning to keep moving forward – even when you’re so frustrated with yourself or terrified of what happens if you move forward – that’s definitely one of my most important life lessons.
To just keep going because, obviously it’s for the bigger picture. Sometimes you can really, really lose sight of that.
What books, songs and experiences have inspired your journey?
VASHTI: I actually listen to everything. I think I just don’t have the relationship to music that most people do. I like to sing, but I don’t have favorite singers or songs –
Well, what do you like to sing?
VASHTI: A lot of show tunes, sometimes. My roommate is in theatre, so it’s been a lot of show tunes, lately. But, you know, I listen to popular music. I have always had a love for doo-wop, because my dad used to play a lot of doo-wop when I was younger.
On a more straightforward level, I really like to read people’s biographies and hear about their stories. I’m always listening to Audible books when I’m drawing. I don’t like to listen to too much fiction while I’m drawing, because it can take me into someone else’s world.
In terms of creative practice, Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic was really useful for me when I was in that fear state of, “Do I go after my creative career?” That book is literally about creative living beyond fear. I think that’s the subtitle of it.
My journey is honestly about fitting the right aesthetic.
I have a few lighthearted inquiries, but I kind of know the answer. 90s R&B or today’s Trap music?
VASHTI: Today’s trap music.
What are you bopping to right now?
VASHTI: I don’t always listen to popular music; it can be a little bit distracting because I’ll sing. But sometimes I’ll be listening to soundtracks; the soundtrack for Planet Earth is really good for drawing.
And then, do you know the podcast S-Town?
I do. I do.
VASHTI: The guy, I think his name is Daniel White? No, Daniel something. He composed all the music to that, and it’s got this kind of quirky, almost magical but definitely mysterious vibe. And it’s good for drawing as well.
Your favorite reality TV show. Do you have one? Do you ever get a chance to watch TV?
VASHTI: I do, because I can while I’m drawing.
I don’t know if this is a guilty pleasure… this is like a 100 percent full pleasure. I really love Catfish: The TV Show. It’s like my dream to go – to be on that show –
To be on Catfish?
VASHTI: It would be incredibly hilarious if someone … I don’t know if someone could catfish me, but maybe if they used my pictures…
Yeah, there’s something really great about that show to me.
One last one. Which would you prefer – for someone to make you a mix tape or give you a playlist link?
VASHTI: I’m thinking more about the context.
If someone made me a mix tape, that requires a lot of thought and thoughtfulness. So intrigued on who that person is and why they gave it to me.
If they sent me a playlist, I think the context would be slightly different, and I’d be like, Okay, cool. Thanks. But I’m curious about the person who made the mix tape.
Are there any more dreams to achieve for Vashti C. Harrison?
VASHTI: Are there any more dreams to achieve? Well, I have bigger dreams, now.
I feel this constant … I don’t know what the word is. Maybe it’s a fear. A lot of creative people have been talking about this post the 2016 election – like, are you doing enough? Am I doing enough for the world, for the people around me… if I’m just drawing, if I’m just writing? What have I done for my community today?
I’m thinking bigger picture, these days.
I feel really strongly about fighting for the environment and ways to encourage people to be more active and conscious of the world around them. Because if each one of us thought about our community a little bit more, we [could] affect so much more change.
The dreams I have for myself and the future, are to utilize the platform I have, or the talent I have, to reach more people and get us to be a little bit more conscious of each other.
I’ve been listening to biographies about astronauts and people who’ve gone into space. And there’s this one book, A Man on the Moon; it’s the formal history of NASA and the United States’ missions to space.
The thing that most of these people walk away with after having gone into space, is that you expect to go to the moon and think the moon is so beautiful. But the thing that most of them come away with is: they’re able to take this huge step back and see what they call the shining jewel in our solar system.
It’s really terrifying that this is the only place we have. This is the only planet we have access to, and I really would love to make sure that we’re not the generation that didn’t do enough to help save it.
Those are my dreams, now. To figure out a way to inspire people to realize how beautiful this place is. And if we don’t take enough care of it, it won’t be so beautiful for the next generation.
We don’t need the sun to shine.
Sick of darkness? Light that thang up yourself! Use your talent and resilience to build opportunities for yourself.
Ijeoma Umebinyuo told us: “Start now. Start where you are. Start with fear. Start with pain. Start with doubt. Start with hands shaking. Start with voice trembling but start. Start and don’t stop. Start where you are, with what you have. Just start.”
We are each, always and forever, a woman of influence for ourselves.
Make smart ‘risk everything’ moves for that full future you’re dreaming of. When you start living life like you mean it, the walls blocking the promises of your destiny come tumbling down.
They’re only borders anyway; set-ups for death-by-drowning in complacency. Walk over, under, and through ‘em. Don’t allow strongholds designed by society and our life experiences in it to hem you up.
Repeat after Fantasia, “I tip toe through the traps that they set for me.” The world is yours. Go on and get it!
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