For many Black artists and creators, 2020 was a turning point.
At the forefront was a coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and brown communities and racial injustice protests after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. For some, it was a time to pause and take inventory of their place in the world.
Throughout history, Black people have shaped the narrative and identity of America, from food to music and even the Americana aesthetic. During enslavement, Reconstruction, and segregation, Black people continued to impact art and culture, exploring the topics of race, identity, and legacy in their work.
These innovators routinely transform tragedy, trauma, and brutality into art, many using their craft as a connection to their ancestors. Some do that by making patterns to empower the disenfranchised. Several use their skills to advocate for silenced voices. Others beautify to express joy in the face of overwhelming odds.
Each February, Black History Month is a formal recognition of such hard work and sacrifices, exploring the civil rights moments that have shaped America and amplifying the voices of Black designers, communities, and businesses that are working to move the cultural and artistic conversation forward.
To spotlight this work, we talked to 11 Black trailblazers and trendsetters, creatives from all walks of life making a difference across their respective art forms. They share their wisdom about how they got started, what they hope to achieve, and how the unprecedented year has shaped their outlook. They also raise the profiles of others, sharing their favorite creators and collaborating with other talented artists and designers. Their areas of expertise vary, but they all have one thing in common: Each brings inspiration to those who need it most and when uncertainty plagues so many.
Meet 11 influential Black business owners, artists, and founders making their mark in 2021.
Malene Barnett's plate is full. When she isn't traveling between her Caribbean-inspired home in New York City and Temple University in Philadelphia, where she's completing an MFA in ceramics, she's exploring the future of dwellings for Black families through Obsidian, a first-of-its-kind concept house.
The project is seminal for the Black Artists + Designers Guild, the nonprofit she founded with an unapologetic mission of carving out space for Black design talent. "The guild is not about, how are we going to show up in your space? My point was, we don't need your space to show up. That's why we created our own," she says.
Two years into the mission, the guild has propelled its members' artistic pursuits forward—one sold her most expensive piece at the Texas Contemporary fine art and design fair, an accomplishment Barnett says helps validate both the artist's work and the guild's purpose—and drew 200-some guests to the exclusive Decoration & Design Building for a Black History Month celebration last year.
But scale isn't her personal goal. "Design doesn't allow for conversation about the history of the work. It's very limited when it comes to cultural association. I wanted to make a shift so I could go deeper with it," she says, referencing her days as a rug and textile designer. "I don't want to be in a trap of constantly suffocating my creativity trying to appeal to all these different people. I want to focus more on art and less on quantity."
—Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson, from the February 2021 issue of Better Homes & Gardens
"I reflect on the lives of artists, activists, and family members. They include sculptors Edmonia Lewis and Augusta Savage, politician Shirley Chisholm, Linda London (my grandmother), and many others who have influenced my life and creative practice."
"I'm excited to see Bradley L. Bowers' next collection." The contemporary artist creates 3D-looking wallpaper, sculptural paper lanterns, and vibrantly colored shawls."
"I'm a fan of Pottery by Osa." She uses red stoneware clay, often leaves portions of her pots unglazed, and decorates with geometric designs.
A Map to the Door of No Return, by Dionne Brand, examines identity and belonging in a diverse and changing world.
Plants as therapy felt like a somewhat unorthodox concept in 2017 when Jasmine Jefferson, a mental health professional by day, launched Black Girls with Gardens as a resource for women of color to find support, inspiration, education, and representation in gardening. Three years in, the emotional benefits of caring for plants remain a through line in her own life (she now owns more than 100 plants) and in her work reshaping the narrative of home agriculture that, for many Black women, has been marred by slavery.
"A lot of times we associate [the cultivation of land] with slavery, so we don't want anything to do with growing food," she says. Pushing past that trauma has paid dividends for Jefferson and the community of gardening enthusiasts she has grown on Facebook and Instagram." Caring for plants provides us this moment of meditation. You are nurturing your plants, but you also are nurturing yourself, and you are taking time out to rest your mind," she says. Her group chats center on topics such as what members are growing that is culturally important to them and what heirloom seeds they're hoping to pass on.
The 2020 lockdown mandates proved to be a boon for the BGWG website, with a series of workshops (virtually to start) and a community garden model with accessibility top of mind on the horizon. But Jefferson remains committed to focusing her content and conversations on BGWG's four pillars: education, support, inspiration, and representation.
—Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson, from the February 2021 issue of Better Homes & Gardens
"I'm always excited to celebrate Black history and futures. I typically reflect on forgotten pioneers, such as gay rights advocate Marsha P. Johnson, author James Baldwin, horticulturist Edmond Albius, and all of our ancestors who survived so I may exist."
"There are so many, but Lucrecer on Instagram (@soulsistaplants) is something."
Working the Roots: Over 400 Years of Traditional African American Healing by Michele E. Lee.
You can't unknow the connection between Black history and American cuisine once you've learned it. And in Therese Nelson's experience, you also can't help but share it. That's why she started Black Culinary History—to create a place to examine the culinary past, support and celebrate the work of fellow chefs, and build a culinary future. Her work educating Black food creators on culinary tradition isn't about defining what those fellow chefs cook, rather it's about helping them show up in the kitchen informed and full-throated about the place they've earned there.
In 2008, after graduating from Johnson & Wales University (a culinary arts school in Charleston) and working in the food and hospitality business, Nelson had a there-has-to-be-a-deeper-reason moment of inflection. It set Nelson on a course to preserve the Black culinary heritage through her food (she currently works as a private chef), the cookbooks she has cowritten, the exhibit she's advising on at the Museum of Food and Drink in NYC—African/American: Making the Nation's Table—and her mentorship of rising Black chefs. It's a calling spurred on by a circle of like-minded men and women and an intentionality about building community.
"I went from not really knowing anybody in the industry to watching people, who back then wouldn't even talk to me about being Black, transform their whole practice by centering culture," she says. Nelson continues to build from that base, which she believes is also a strategy counteracting the trendiness of being a Black food creator in 2021.
"So many figures that we revere now were not understood or revered in the time in which they lived, so I'm not sure that I'm willing to hold my work hostage to the whims of the Zeitgeist. The folks I know, am in community with, and see moving this world are doing forever work," she says."This is a life's calling."
—Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson, from the February 2021 issue of Better Homes & Gardens
"It would be Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. Her writing has changed my life, and she was someone who had the language for Black food culture before we knew we needed it."
"Aside from being inspirational, these women are operating businesses you should check out: Pastry chef Paola Velez is dismantling racism and reforming our industry one donut at a time. Mavis-Jay Sanders and Sicily Sierra use their culinary superpowers to create hot sauces and seasoning mixes and model equitable restaurant leadership. Andi Oliver is repping Black foodways in the UK while adding color and flavor to food media."
In Bibi's Kitchen, by Hawa Hassan with Julia Turshen, celebrates recipes and stories from African grandmothers.
There's a misconception that knitting is only for women with disposable time and income, and that women who have both don't look like Denise Bayron. But there's a long history of Black and Latino makers in the arts of crochet, knitting, sewing, and needlework that she is proud to represent. "I am a designer, and I am a Black Latina. Both are intrinsic parts of my identity and shape the lens through which I see the world, which in turn influences my designs," she says.
For Bayron, this means designs that are fashionable, sustainable, and fit a need. "Several years ago, I started sharing what I was making on social media, and my followers asked for patterns," she says. "It felt like a huge leap at the time, but I'm so pleased I took the chance." She launched Bayron Handmade in 2018 and began creating knitwear such as the Hatdana and Wave of Change Jacket, a major shift from her 15-year career in fashion, beauty, and lifestyle public relations. Now instead of focusing on the latest trends, she focuses on "slower, more conscious art," all of which she makes from her 280-square-foot Tiny House that serves as her home, workspace, supply storage, and pattern-making facility.
Bayron hopes her passion for sustainability and fashion inspires others when they make and wear her designs. "When you make your own clothing, you are no longer tethered to trends or gender limitations, and [you] have the ability to modify sizing," she says. "When you make your own, you are 100% in charge."
"Ann Lowe was a highly sought-after Black designer who made garments for New York's elite. She was recognized for her fabric choices and intricate handwork. She is best known as the woman who designed Jackie Kennedy's wedding dress, one of the best-remembered wedding dresses in modern history. However, when asked, Jackie dismissed Ann by saying the gown was made by a 'colored dressmaker.' Ann never received recognition in her lifetime, but she paved the way for present-day designers like me."
"I respect and admire Macharva. She is a mom, a business woman, a sewing pattern designer, and a do-everything woman. She does it all with a million-watt smile."
"One of my favorite local San Francisco Bay area, Black-owned businesses is Aliya Wanek. Her designs are comfortable but elevated, perfect for quarantine fashion."
"One lesson I'm trying to practice in my professional and personal life is to be mindful about how I invest my time. 2020 showed us that life is short. Life is fragile and precious. If time is my most valuable resource, then I am being selective about the people and projects I invest in."
Angela Richardson's eco-friendly journey started with the big chop. The start of the natural hair journey for many Black women, this involves cutting off any chemically processed hair and finding the right natural products for one's hair type. Richardson's hunt for hair care products free of toxins and full of the nutrients needed to undo years of processing broadened her view of the organic ingredient world. So much so that she started making her own organic soaps and lotions. Turning that hobby into a full-fledged business, however, wasn't Richardson's passion. "I felt that it was oversaturated," she says. "Plus, I just didn't feel like that was what I was called to do."
The market for green home products, however, was an open lane, especially for a Black female business owner with years of product development research under her belt. So she pivoted. By 2020, with shelter-in-place orders in effect and cleaning supplies flying off shelves, PUR Home was at its most successful. The move to support Black-owned businesses not only thrust the brand but Richardson herself, a self-professed introvert, into the spotlight. "I'm more of a behind-the-scenes type person ... but I always felt that Black representation and Black women representation in the brand was super important," she says.
In addition to the spotlight, Richardson found herself adjusting to the demand for her detergents, cleaners, and disinfectant sprays. Her approach (and new year's resolution): to be more thoughtful about the opportunities she takes on. "I have to see what the actual end result is," she says. "How does this not just benefit them because they are part of a 15% pledge or they want to say that they've supported a Black-owned business? I want to actually connect with people that may have that built in, but have a broader investment in the company.
—Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson
"I love Harriet Tubman. Her story is amazing, her history is rich, and every time I hear something else about her, I'm just amazed at the woman that she was and the things that she did for Black people. I love Michelle Obama. She's gonna forever be my favorite, always till the end. And I recently heard about Ella Baker: She was one of the ones that fought for Black rights during the Civil Rights Movement. But she also fought against sexism within the movement ... Women really ran the movement, but we didn't get that exposure."
"I definitely look up to True Laundry. They are veterans in this industry, Black-owned, and I absolutely have the utmost respect for them."
"Ivy's Tea: I purchase so much stuff from her it's ridiculous. Argie Essentials is a new brand that does skincare like body butters, body oils, and balms. I know how to do all of those things, but I don't do it anymore, so I actually like to buy from other brands, and she by far has some of the best skincare. Vicky Cakes Pancake Mix is my ultimate favorite because I love pancakes, and now they have syrup so it's the total package. I adore them. And Taupe Coat Nail Polish is a non-toxic nail polish company. I have basically all of her stuff."
Patricia Fox has always been fond of makeup, and some of her earliest memories involve spending time with her mother and grandmothers trying out their wares. On social media, where she is known as The Pink Sistah, Fox advocates for Black women and girls affected by diseases, showing them ways to express themselves through makeup and beauty choices. "Makeup is therapeutic—it's art," she says. "Some days, it gives me focus."
Fox was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 when she was 26. "I decided I had to start living," she says. So she left an insurance career to become a professional makeup artist. Once in remission, she searched for a way to bring beauty to the lives of others enduring the same feelings that come with challenging medical diagnoses.
Fox provides free beauty services (currently virtually) to cancer survivors and chemotherapy patients. She also collaborates with the Tigerlily Foundation, which provides education, awareness, advocacy, and hands-on support to women under 45 before, during, and after a breast cancer diagnosis. But her main advice for people going through a hard time? Find something that you love about yourself. "I'm always in full appreciation of who I am and how I look, even without makeup," she says. "I love my lips. I love my eyes."
On Instagram, Fox posts makeup and product, sure, but often the captions meditate on self-care, kindness, and courage. And she understands that the ritual of caring for herself is a powerful act. In 2019, Fox was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. On the hard days, when she couldn't walk, she chose to focus on her inner beauty. "Dark-skinned women still face a lot of colorism," she says. "Being able to confront that through art, through my expression being beautiful unapologetically—that's what makeup's done for me."
"I also admire Audre Lorde. I read her cancer journals. She's phenomenal and she was able to take up space and say, 'I am here, and this is what I want to talk about.' There's a vulnerability there."
"I had to learn that even in the face of problems and calamity, there's still joy to be found. What brought me back to center is that I bring relief and joy to people with what I do."
Amidst the upheaval of 2020, Bronx-born chef Kwame Onwuachi learned to slow down. "It was a tough year for all of us," says Onwuachi. "I had to look at what was important to me and what made me happy. I took a step back." In doing so, he gained a few life lessons that only a deep pause can teach.
Midsummer, he made the decision to leave his position as executive chef of Washington, D.C., restaurant Kith/Kin. For three years, Onwuachi cooked expansively and generously, exploring ingredients and dishes rooted in the flavors and foodways of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. In 2019, he was named "Rising Star Chef of the Year" by the James Beard Foundation. In years prior, he competed on Top Chef, opened and closed a different restaurant, and published his memoir, Notes From a Young Black Chef. Shooting for a feature film based on his book begins this summer.
But like so many Black professionals, Onwuachi encountered racism and prejudice throughout his culinary journey. Thanks in part to ongoing protests against racial injustices, these conversations have been pushed to the forefront, and not just among Black people and other people of color.
As Onwuachi reflects on his talents, and where to apply them, his focus is on community. "It's been more about giving back," he says. "I went back to the Bronx to feed my community. That was eye-opening because I was able to reach people with food in ways I hadn't before. Before, it was transactional. This was taking care of my fellow human beings. People were thankful they were getting a meal. That's why most of us got into cooking — to feed people. It changed the way I think about food."
—Hali Bey Ramdene
"Malcom X is always a huge influence for me—his ideals and how he wanted to educate people on their worth. Malcom X is someone who I look up to."
"Tavel Bristol Joseph is doing incredible food at Hestia in Austin, Texas. Just order everything."
"There's a pastry shop in Harlem that I really love —Harlem Chocolate Factory. There's a banana bread bar with cookie butter spread that's phenomenal."
If Bo Shepherd had to say exactly where she found her calling, it was on a bike ride around Detroit, at one of the illegal dumping grounds that were cropping up around the city at the time. The automotive interior designer, along with her partner Kyle Dubay, a graphic designer, began collecting discarded building materials as they rode, hauling relics of Detroit's architectural heyday along with them. Their plan: Turn their finds into one-of-a-kind furniture and decor.
"Our process has been an evolution, but our ethos and our main goal have always stayed the same," Shepherd says. The passion project turned into Woodward Throwbacks, a furniture-design business that now employs 12 people and occupies a 24,000-square-foot former Dodge dealership. "Before we were just making smaller home decor, now we're designing coffee tables, kitchens, and one-off pieces. But we're really passionate about highlighting the materials we use," she says. The duo is also passionate about highlighting the work of fellow artists, a mission propelled by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial injustice. This includes an ongoing series that incorporates the work of local artists into Woodward Throwbacks furniture.
The next phase of Woodward Throwbacks will take the business deeper into the interior design world. "With the construction boom in Detroit, there are a lot of investors coming into the city who aren't really taking the neighborhoods and those communities in consideration," she says. "They're pretty much gutting the spaces ... so we really want to be able to connect with the community and make sure the charm is still intact."
—Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson
"My heroes are a bit more personal. My dad is my biggest inspiration because I kind of got into this construction industry because of him. [My parents] actually were the ones who supported my move to Detroit to work in the automotive industry. And then when I told them that I was leaving the industry to start this crazy woodworking business, they were cheering me on."
Avery Williamson, an Ann Arbor artist and soon-to-be collaborator. "We're launching a couple of mirrors that we're going to make and send to her so she can create her art on it."
Ciara LeRoy learned basic embroidery growing up in her grandmother's kitchen. Drawn to lettering for its accessibility, it wasn't until later in life that she returned to her grandmother's art form. "I love incorporating lettering into my art because words can be a really great, accessible bridge into art for folks that feel art is too intimidating to engage with or too complex," she says. "It's cool to use words to ask questions, present new ideas, and new perspectives."
After establishing Pretty Strange in 2016 to showcase her prints, stickers, and client work, Leroy turned to friend and fellow artist Felice Salmon to help transform her lettering into three-dimensional artwork. She soon began stitching phrases. In May 2020, she stitched "The Cycle," a colorful embroidery describing the cycle of outrage in response to Black tragedy. The piece went viral on social media, a turning point for her artwork. "I've chatted with other Black makers about it, and it's very bittersweet," she says. "It's very validating to finally have this kind of success, but it's also upsetting because it's essentially because of Black death."
The success of "The Cycle" expanded LeRoy's work through partnerships with Madewell, Loft, Canary + Co., and Uncommon Goods, where she sells embroidery kits assembled in her living room. "Everyone can't afford to buy a finished piece of art, so I'm glad that I can offer a product at a lower price point," she says. "It also increases the craftiness and artfulness in the world, and people learning new skills."
However, the pandemic has proven both an inspiration and a burden for LeRoy. "Sometimes it's really inspiring because having time in isolation as an introvert can be extra inspiring because it gives me more time alone with my thoughts," she says. "Other times, the pandemic really drains me. I find a lot of artistic expression in being out in the community because so much of my work is based on human connection and observing people doing what they do and saying what they say."
"I love Shirley Chisholm's quote, 'If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.' I have a T-shirt that says, 'Folding Chair.' A lot of the existence of being Black, or a person of color or queer or any marginalized group, is constantly having that folding chair and getting to a place where you're confident enough to put that chair down and saying, 'I'm going to create those opportunities instead of waiting for you to give those to me.'"
"Stay ready. Stay ready for when your career can pop off, be ready for your dreams coming true, and things that you hadn't even dreamed about becoming reality."
In March 2020, Bia Yapp was in the process of selecting flowers for her impending nuptials. Inspired by the modern floral arrangements by Maurice Harris of Bloom & Plume, she started arranging flowers in her free time. "I fell in love with the process of arranging," she says. "I gifted the arrangements I made to close friends here in L.A. and posted photos of the blooms online." Thus, her eye-candy Instagram account @BiaBlooms was born.
Around that time, the pandemic resulted in stay-at-home orders across the United States. Yapp's social media presence flourished as her designs, replete with colorful bouquets and the occasional gravity-defying arrangement, captivated housebound audiences. The 29-year-old entrepreneur and floral artist is also the founder of BEOTIS, a boutique agency that represents a roster of multi-hyphenate artists, speakers, and writers of color. When in-person events went virtual, she decided to direct her energy into her newfound joy. After a warm reception, she began building a business around her colorful creations.
At first, books and bouquets existed together. "In the same way that when you're learning how to write you often work off of a prompt, the books were a helpful jumping-off point for me," she says of floral arranging. "They had a set mood, tone, color palette that gave me constructive bumpers to work off of as I created an arrangement. As I've developed and refined my own style as a floral designer, I've found even more ways to source inspiration."
As Yapp's confidence grew, so did her decadent, bright floral pieces. In social media captions, she is mindful to explain her process to those who want to learn more about creating art with flowers. "Demystifying the process is a goal of mine," she says. "I am grateful for the work of Erin Benzakein and her book A Year In Flowers, which laid a solid foundation for me. I always try to pay it forward with whatever information I can."
Yapp plans to continue spreading joy through flowers, and in January added the title of jewelry designer to her resume. Inspired by the heirlooms that her grandmother saved and later sent for her wedding day, Yapp collaborated with Local Eclectic to design a 9-piece jewelry capsule collection. The pieces, including a set of delicate dahlia earrings, also draw on her love of florals. A portion of the sales will go to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit based in Montgomery, Alabama, working to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.
Ava DuVernay, award-winning filmmaker, whose works include Selma, When They See Us, A Wrinkle in Time, and 13th.
Queen Los Angeles. This 200-square-foot storefront is known for its good vibes, as well as a variety of plants, pots, and art by Black women.
Deep Black Design. North Carolina-based Sherród Faulks creates handmade ceramic goods with a luxe modern aesthetic at affordable prices.
45 Three Modern. Specializing in mid-century furniture and vintage contemporary art, this curated furniture store is considered one of the best-kept design secrets in LA.
"Balance! It's been a long year. BEOTIS does a lot of event-based work and that completely shut down, went virtual last spring. In that vacuum, I had to innovate and pivot to keep my company afloat."
Teri Johnson loves candles: first as a consumer, then as homemade gifts for family and friends, then as a side business to sell at farmers markets and pop-ups in Harlem, New York. In 2014, she founded Harlem Candle Co., a luxury candle collection that has since expanded to include reed diffusers, room sprays, and accessories.
"When I was making them in my kitchen, I'd have to make hundreds of candles because I had a pop-up the next day," she says. "Your energy goes into it, so I really do love candles. And I love being able to make something that's going to bring joy to someone's life."
And with so many spending more time at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, candle sales are up. One of Johnson's goals is to transport you to a different time or space through aromatherapy. With names like "Savoy," "Ellington," and "Brownstone," each of her soy candles boasts subtle fragrances that pay homage to the Harlem Renaissance. That could be to Josephine Baker's dressing room filled with the fresh scent of Moroccan rose, or tobacco notes that suggest a night with Langston Hughes, or even on stage with Billie Holiday and the scent of gardenias she famously wore in her hair.
"Josephine Baker was extremely resilient ... She was a fearless, bold, beautiful force, and she was so far ahead of her time. For her to be that way back then in the 1920s as a Black woman, that just took so much courage."
Nude Barre. "They have tights and leggings, and now bras that match your skin tone. They're so comfortable, and the founder is actually Harlem-based. It's so nice to be able to wear a brown bra that matches your skin."