Freelance visual artist Kyle Yearwood grew up fixated on magic.
He was entranced with the Harry Potter novels and inspired by mystical and adventurous films like “Forrest Gump,” “ Big Fish” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” that challenged the depths of reality and imagination. But when it came to cultural figures that looked like him — an African-American male in Baltimore — the images weren’t as endearing, he said. It affected his self-esteem, he said.
“When we grow up, we're fed so many visions of what happiness is, and I think a lot of people when they become an adult, they wake up one day and it's not how they envisioned as a kid, especially being African-American. You get to a point where you live out all the things you heard about in terms of discrimination, lack of resources in your community, or just not feeling equal,” he said.
“The music I was listening to, the images of black people that I was shown, it wasn't empowering. It wasn't anything that made me feel good about myself, so I was really conditioned to not love myself.”
The Morgan State University alumnus has gone on to make a career of uplifting imagery, some of which has made a significant impact in social media: Last month, his piece “I heard the Black girls in Baltimore can fly,” which pictures three young African-American girls holding hands as they slowly propel higher and higher in the air within a Northeast Baltimore neighborhood, went viral.
This week, Yearwood went viral again after transforming a controversial H&M ad that depicted a young black boy in a sweatshirt that said “coolest monkey in the jungle.”
“It’s a narrative that has been pushed on us African-Americans for a long time, that we have evolved from monkeys, and a lot of people don’t really know the royal history of melanated people, so with this artwork, I just wanted to really express the royalty and power that is our history,” said Yearwood, who in response “fixed” the image — transporting the boy in front of pyramids.
Setting out, Yearwood was determined to reverse all the negative imagery, starting with himself. He combined creative self-portraits and photography with uplifting animations, fluttering butterflies and flowers, often with the backdrop of Baltimore to create new realities and positive representations. His go-to aesthetic was magic.
Sometimes he’d be lifting off in the clouds with a bouquet of black star-shaped balloons or red roses in his hand, the petals fluttering to the ground. Other times, he would disintegrate. The extraordinary scenes gave him a new perspective of himself, he said.
“Putting myself in these magical scenes and in a powerful light, I was really able to start loving myself. I was able to gain confidence through that,” he said. From there, he found his voice and message of his artwork, and he realized he was touching others in the process.
The 26-year-old Parkville resident, who works part-time in the film department at his alma mater, has gone on to create various entrancing visual works and animations that have captivated people from Baltimore and beyond.
After the debut of “I heard the Black girls in Baltimore can fly,” his personal Instagram account was flooded with notifications. Several publications and platforms, including Essence magazine and annual arts festival and website AfroPunk, reposted his video, resulting in well over 100,000 combined views on Instagram alone.
“It definitely brought me to tears,” said Yearwood, who created the video by re-purposing a clip from “Etherealistic,” a short film he had co-directed about three Baltimore girls who dance throughout the city as a way of enlightening and healing the environment.
“I really wanted to bring that back and just remind people of how powerful, how magical, how gifted we are. … It's me putting those people in magical, empowering situations, so we can start to believe again,” he said, but some people found the image of the young black girls to be eerie, which he found concerning.
”I had to respond back to a couple comments. What I said was, ‘The only reason why it may be creepy to you is you're not used to seeing black people do magical things,’” Yearwood said.
Addressing the H&M image, Yearwood gave the boy a spinning crown and changed the shirt’s text to “Royalty.” The Instagram visual, which ends with the boy sporting a triumphant grin, has received more than 180,000 views and was recognized by news various outlets.
“Usually my artwork isn’t politically charged, but this time I felt like I could say something with my artwork that would shift the narrative from negative to positive,” Yearwood said.
“Self-image to me is so important. How we see ourselves, it determines our actions and how we think, so when I create, I try to empower myself and others.”
Yearwood, whose work is also inspired by heartbreak, love, music and film, has been working on his art diligently for the past two years since graduating from Morgan State University’s film department, he said. It was there that he honed his skills in photography, editing, animation and special effects in the school’s screenwriting and animation program. After graduating, he continued to teach himself different skills by learning from other artists’ YouTube tutorials, he said.
Keith Mehlinger, 63, associate professor, director of the digital media center and coordinator of the screenwriting and animation program at Morgan, described Yearwood as “quietly awesome” — a hard worker who is constantly on the uptick, combining music and imagery with stills and animation.
”Kyle represents what I would like to think would be the quintessential student from our program. Someone who takes cinematic storytelling and applies it across all these different genres, and morphs it into the best interest of a story — capturing theme, look and feel,” he said, adding that some of his recent works remind him of Miles Davis album covers from the early ’60s and ’70s.
“He’s really being creative as all get-out.”
Much of Yearwood’s work is created using self-portraits, requiring him to use his self-timer on his Canon, later manipulating the photo with editing software and compositing it all together with video, animation, music or natural sounds. Other times, he works with other creatives and companies to make their vision come alive. Often, he creates with his muse — his girlfriend and local musician MovaKween, born Jasmine Wilson — to shine a “prettier light,” he said.
MovaKween, 25, praises Yearwood for his ethereal, Afrofuturistic work. It’s filled with love and it speaks for itself, she said.
“It allows people to see people in a different light,” depicting magical realms, and things people daydream about or don’t see on a daily basis, she said.
“It just goes beyond. It’s just a powerful enlightening experience,” she said of Yearwood’s art, emphasizing that working with him is a “breeze.”
“I just literally have a conversation with him about how I feel, about life and inspiration about a particular song. He takes that and comes out with a grand piece of artwork,” she said.
And though Yearwood’s short clips and animated artworks are perfect for social media platforms like Instagram, the artist will be taking his work to a more physical realm later this year in the Baltimore Galaxy Project, to be presented at Light City’s Neighborhood Lights exhibition. During the free annual international light festival, Yearwood will project re-imagined galactic-like scenes of the city in an installation in Darley Park, near Clifton Park. It’s his hope to get people “to look at their environment and dream again,” he said.
“It's not just about revitalizing the home and the buildings in the environment. It's about revitalizing our mindset,” he said.
“I want to start showing people that we can do the impossible here. I want to show people there's magic here in Baltimore.”
To view Kyle Yearwood’s artwork, check out his Instagram page @kyle.yearwood
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