Culture 26 April 2017
She may be a teenager, but Autumn de Forest has already accomplished more than most hope to do in a lifetime.
The 15-year old artistic prodigy has not only sold millions of dollars in artwork, but she is also the youngest artist ever appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities and the Turnaround Arts program. De Forest has also been featured on almost every morning and daytime television show imaginable, lectured for top universities and corporations, and even had a personal meeting with Pope Francis, in which she gifted him a piece of her art.
“I am always studying art, whether it's looking for ideas, going to museums, or traveling," says de Forest. “Whatever I can get my hands on, I try to learn from. I realized [early on] I wanted to create all different kinds of [artistic] styles. I didn't want to marry one."
The Freshman at Odyssey Charter High School in Las Vegas is as imaginative as she is sophisticated. Quick-witted and thoughtful, de Forest is truly learning-obsessed, which is reflected in her multifaceted array of work that channels styles that range from impressionism to pop art. De Forest is also inherently socially conscious and has worked with a variety of social organizations including The Red Cross and Habitat For Humanity, to name a few.
“Before I ever sold a painting, I knew I wanted to help people with my artwork," says de Forest, whose work has benefited such causes as the Haiti relief fund, the Japanese Tsunami, Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Bombing. “I didn't think it was right to just create paintings and sell them. I wanted to sell them for people who needed help."
Autumn de Forest
With a talent that has been compared to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock, it is easy to see that de Forest has a taste level beyond her years. “I started painting in my late 5s and 6s," says de Forest with a laugh. “I saw my father sanding some wood and asked him if I could mess around. I picked up the paintbrush and started creating. I was just having fun and expressing myself and my dad said [my first piece] looked like a [Mark] Rothko. I didn't know who that was."
It wasn't long after that, that de Forest's mother came home one day with a number of canvases and high quality paints in the hopes of further inspiring her daughter's creativity. And inspire she did.
Autumn de Forest "Grasp"
“I wanted to learn more about the art world so I went to the bookstore and found some books on different artists [and saw pieces] like Dali's Persistence of Memory," says de Forest. "I was mesmerized by art. I didn't even know that you could paint like that. I realized that painting was my career and it's what I wanted to do."
The work that de Forest began creating was inspired indeed. With an inclusive approach to creation that incorporates simplicity and bold colors, impressionistic imagery, and awe-inspiring abstracts, each Autumn de Forest piece emits a feeling of worldliness and depth of thought. To see the evolution of de Forest's work over the last decade, visit her digital gallery, which chronicles it by each year of her life.
“Creating the piece is the easy part," says de Forest, of her artistic inspiration. “A lot of my paintings come from ideas that I think would look good on canvas. I will look at an artist for inspiration and then mix it with a problem of today to create a piece that not only appeals to the artwork but also to people in need. I want to make it more powerful than a pretty picture."
As she continued imagining more artwork, de Forest says she was asked about the inspiration behind it by friends and family, and thus began exploring more the “why" of her process. From there she realized that she was not only drawn to creation, but also telling stories. “I had a new passion talking about my artwork, giving it a meaning not just to me," she says. “After that day, each painting had a story."
Another passion that emerged was giving back. De Forest tells SWAAY that she has always felt a deep desire to help others, and that she began to incorporate that into her work by studying the news, specifically those devastating world events that affect so many. She began creating pieces that interpreted and ultimately, fiscally benefited the victims of unexpected tragedy.
de Forest with Pope Francis in Rome
“When I was six years old I saw on the news that there was an earthquake in Haiti," says de Forest. “They took a camera and panned over the destruction and I realized that I have to do a piece for all of those people who have lost so much; their loved ones, and everything they had."
For de Forest it is important not just to give donations but to actually imbue her work with the emotions of what others are going through. She is currently working on a series about the war in Aleppo inspired by this haunting image of a young boy in an emergency truck. “I'm currently working on a series concerning problems in the world," says de Forest. “I try to think 'if I were in this person's situation, how would I feel? Then I think how to tell that story through color and the strokes of my paint brush."
De Forest also makes it a point to visit underfunded and underperforming schools across the country to “work with kids, paint with them, empower and inspire them." Additionally, she has begun creating her own nonprofit, which she hopes will benefit young artists in underprivileged schools, helping them create college savings accounts.
To be sure, one of the biggest coups of her young career was being honored with the Giuseppe Sciacca Award for Arts and Culture, which de Forest traveled to Rome to accept. During her time in Italy, de Forest was given the opportunity to present a "powerful yet simple" piece she titled “Resurrection" to Pope Francis. “He inspires me just being a person," she says. "He is so warm, loving, tolerant and accepting. He took the time to talk with me, bless me and the piece as well. It was probably my favorite memory of all time."
When it comes to her own creative process, de Forest says it's a surreal, almost stream-of-conscious experience. “I definitely get lost in it, especially if I have a new series that I'm working on," says de Forest. “I try to create all my pieces in different styles. I can do an abstract one month inspired by Picasso and my next idea could be inspired by Liechtenstein."
De Forest, who hopes to attend UCLA and study abnormal psychology when she's old enough of course, said the relationship between the brain and emotions has been currently inspiring some of her newest pieces. When asked if she has time for normal teenage activities, de Forest says she loves hanging out with friends and going to the mall. Of course, unlike her friends, she is also actively creating museum-quality artwork, and working to change the world through philanthropy. No big deal.
“I definitely would love to continue exhibiting and creating different artwork," says de Forest, regarding her future career. “As a female artist creating pieces that are sharing important messages in the world, it would be remarkable to continue this work."
6 Min Read
I live the pain and stress of being black in America every day: I am a black woman, the mother of a black son, sister to black men, and aunt to my black nephews. I remember what it was like as a young girl to be afraid to go to Howard Beach for fear of being chased out. I know what it's like to walk on Liberty Avenue and be called "nigger" and being so young that I didn't understand what the word meant, I had to ask my mother. I know too well that feeling in the pit of your stomach when a police car pulls up behind you and even though you know you haven't done anything wrong you fear that your life may be in danger from what should be a simple encounter. Like all African Americans, I am tired of this burden.
African Americans have a long history of having to fight for our humanity in America. We have had to fight for freedom, we have had to fight for equality, and we have had to fight for our lives. The fight continues to go on. I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight." When I say this to my white counterparts it can sometimes be uncomfortable because it's clear that they just don't get it. They view it as melodramatic. But it's not. It's part of the black experience, and it is the part of the black experience that black people don't want.
I have often quoted that line from the character Sophia in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, "All my life I had to fight."
While I was out yesterday, passing out PPE and talking to people, a woman asked me, "What is it going to take for this to change?" I told her that I think peaceful protesting is a good start. But it's just the start. We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
This injustice, inequality, and inequity will not spontaneously disappear. It will take bold, outspoken, and fearless leadership to eradicate the systemic racism in our country. We must address the violence at the hands of a police force paid to serve and protect us. We must address the recurring experience of black people being passed over for a promotion and then being asked to train the white person who was hired. We must address the inequities in contract opportunities available to black businesses who are repeatedly deemed to lack the capacity. We must address the disparity in the quality of education provided to black students. We must address the right to a living wage, health care, and sick pay.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system. One that works for all of us. I am running to become the mayor of New York City because I can't assume there's another person who has the courage to do the work that needs to be done to create a fair and just city.
We can't elect the same people for the past 20-30 years, some in the same positions, and then talk about how nothing has changed in the past 30 years.
There are some things we may not be able to change in people, but at this moment I think that whether you are black, white, purple, or yellow we all should be looking internally to see what is one thing that you can do to change this dynamic. Here's where we can start:
If we want change, we need a total reform of police departments throughout this country. That is going to require taking a hard look at our requirements to become a police officer, our disciplinary procedures when civilian complaints are filed, and a review of what and how we police. No one deserves to lose their life based upon the accusation of carrying counterfeit cash. We also need to hold police officers accountable for their actions. While it is their duty to protect and serve they should not be above the law. Even at this very moment, police officers are overstepping their boundaries.
If we want change, we have to build a sense of camaraderie between the police and community. A sense of working together and creating positive experiences. We have to be honest about the fact that we haven't allowed that to happen because we have utilized our police department as a revenue-generating entity. We are more concerned with cops writing tickets than protecting and serving. Even during these moments of protest we are witness to the differences made when the police supported the protesters and stood hand in hand with them or took a knee. It resulted in less violence and more peaceful protest. People felt heard; people felt respected; people felt like they mattered.
While we like to regard the system as broken, I've come to believe the system is working exactly as it was meant to for the people who are benefiting from it. We need a new system.
If we want change, we have to be willing to clean house. And that means that some of you are going to have to step up to the plate and take roles of leadership. In my city alone, there are 35 city council seats that are term-limited in 2021. There are some that aren't termed but maybe their term should be up. Step up to the plate and run. If nothing else it will let our elected officials see that they need to stop being comfortable and do more. We don't need you out in the street taking selfies or reporting the problems to us. We need solutions. We need you in a room implementing policies that will ensure that these things don't continue to happen.
If we want change, we need to support grassroots candidates that are not in corporate pockets, who are not taking PAC money, and who really want to make a difference to their community. We need candidates that know first-hand and can relate to the experiences that many of us are going through.
We are at a pivotal moment. It is inspiring to see people from all races and backgrounds in the streets protesting, standing up for justice, and wanting to see change. We must seize this moment, but we must also be mindful that change requires more.
People often ask me why I decided to run for office? I am running for me. I am running for the little girl that was called nigger on Liberty Avenue. For the woman who has been pulled over for no reason. For my nephew who was consistently stopped during the era of stop and frisk. I am running for your son, your brother, and your nephew. I am running so that the next generation will never have to say, "All my life I had to fight." Because although we won't stop until we see justice and changes that address inequality and inequity effectively, this fight is exhausting.