Intro & Interview by Shanon Weltman
You might know of New York City artist Byron McCray as a talented painter or illustrator or graphic designer, but he’s much more than that. He’s also a true-orange-and-blue Brooklyn rep, positive mentor to kids, and his Leo magnetism is unavoidable. Byron has his shy side like most artists, but unlike his introverted colleagues he puts himself on display when he expresses himself at weekly live painting events in Brooklyn. We’re thankful we’ve gotten to know him through working at the Harlem School of the Arts. Check out Byron’s website SongPaint.com and read our interview to get to know this ace of acrylic paint.
SHANON WELTMAN: Who are some of your favorite artists, painters and life inspirations?
BYRON McCRAY: I would have to say Khadir Nelson, he was introduced to me when I was in college. One of my mentors brought me to the Society of Illustrators, and showed me some of his work and he basically said “this is who you need to be.” He went to Pratt, he’s an African-American artist, he does a lot of illustration that’s focused on the African-American experience and I’m just inspired by his technique, his oil painting and I’ve always looked to him like he sets the bar for everything. That’s my main inspiration. As of life inspirations, people around me, conversations I have that can be found in my work or just my own experiences. It’s really nostalgic, the things that I focus on may be around the 80s or hip hop or influenced by music fixtures or African-American fixtures.
LL Cool J
SW: Your website is called SongPaint, do you only paint musicians?
BM: At first it started that way, but as I’ve grown up and as I’ve started to pay attention to the world around me, it’s expanded quite a bit. I don’t pigeonhole myself that much, but I still enjoy the occasional artist here and there. I’m able to focus on the world and focus on my scenes as opposed to just musicians.
SW: Who is your favorite musician to paint so far?
BM: Marvin Gaye. I have, I’d say about four Marvin Gaye paintings. He’s an amazing artist, he went against the grain of MoTown and that’s what I like to do in my artwork. I like his music and I like that there’s so many versions of him. He’s gone through many different changes and evolutions that I think it’s great to capture him in all of his different phases in life.
SW: Where did you grow up?
BM: I grew up in Brooklyn, in the Clinton Hill area. It’s a very artistically diverse area, so I was exposed to a lot very young. And, I lived right across the street from Pratt institute, so that was a great great place to start. I took classes there when I was very little. You could just walk around and see sculptures and draw there and just really suck up the artistic energy of that space. The whole area of Clinton Hill.
Walk Together Children
SW: Did you ever get to see Spike Lee as a kid? Just in the neighborhood?
BM: Yeah! Yeah, you know Spike Lee, he used to have a store actually above his studio over there on Dekalb Avenue. It was “40 Acres and a Mule”, it was a clothing store, but you know it was a lifestyle so I still have some of my old memorabilia. He would throw these block parties every summer, where he would invite guests. I met a lot of people because of his block parties as well, like Gregory Hines. I’ve met a bunch of people who’ve been in his films, Wesley Snipes, Denzel. Much of who helped unify Brooklyn. And with him, Brooklyn is synonymous with block parties, there’s a great community for that. It was great to be around for that.
SW: What kind of opportunities has painting in a public setting opened for you? What has that brought to your life?
BM: That’s done wonders. Definitely exposure, just breaking down that wall that we as artists usually have, that people don’t usually get to see. I’ll work up until the finished product, so I’ll enjoy kind of putting on a show in a sense. It used to annoy me when I was younger, that visual artists didn’t get as much play as say dancers or the actress or the singer. We have something to say also and it’s actually kind of fun to go through the motions when creating our pieces. I think it’s great to break down that wall and let people into that side of you and learn your process and be able to talk to you about it. It has opened doors because you connect with people on deep levels. They feel that they’re a part of the creative process from the blank canvas to the final product. I’ve been invited to paint here and there, and it’s really great that people are starting to come on board and start to support live art. I’m glad to be a part of that movement.
SW: Have you gotten any commissioned work out of it?
BM: Commissioned work? Yeah actually, I’ve started to do a lot more private parties for people. Which is great, people have asked me to do specific pieces, things that they might not have had the opportunity to purchase, I’m doing another version of. For example I did a Grace Jones piece live and someone saw that it sold, so now I’m creating a Grace Jones piece just for them. It’s exciting to see these doors open up just from doing live art.
SW: Do you listen to the musician you’re painting as you’re painting them?
BM: Sometimes! Sometimes, I think you can tell what I’m listening to on certain pieces. If it’s a Michael Jackson piece, yes I’m definitely pumping up all of the Michael Jackson songs for that energy, it makes you closer to what you’re painting, the subject matter. Sometimes it’s just capturing a mood when you’re painting, you might want to put on some Jazz to mellow you out or put on some hardcore hip-hop to get you in a more excited mood.
SW: Has working with kids influenced your art?
BM: Absolutely. There’s a while when I did not want to paint, I got out of school and I didn’t have any homework anymore and I was just exhausted from that whole educational process, so I started taking time to take a break, but being around kids has definitely reminded me of the hunger that I had when I was a little kid and dreaming of being a big-time artist. It’s great to be around dreamers 5 days a week, it reminds you of your goals and what you need to take care of. There’s definitely a motivation to get out there and do my best and create the best I can be, because I was given a gift.
SW: Imagine you’re on Soul Train in the 1990s, the spotlight falls on you – what song is playing?
BM: What would be the best song for me? So many, oh my god. It might be a Kid ‘N Play song to be honest with you, because of the Soul Train lineup, get down there… “Ain’t gonna hurt nobody” by Kid ‘N Play.