The Sitdown: Artist Hebru Brantley

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A former graffiti artist, the 33-year-old Bronzeville native is now a brand unto himself and a fast-rising star in the art world. But while it’s nice to get props from such high-profile admirers as Jay-Z and Lupe Fiasco, at heart he remains a “humble” Chicago kid who’s always striving to validate his late mother’s prophecy: “You were meant for something great.”

In any form of art, you have to have some sort of validation to get to that next level.

It was like, “Man, Jay-Z has a painting in his collection that I did, and that’s great. That’s awesome.” Then tomorrow came and it was like, “All right, that’s cool. Now let me finish every other thing I have on this list.”

Every artist wants the ability to get to that next level, whatever that is. For me, now is the time [to] definitely not falter, definitely not to take any days off. Because I don’t know how long people are going to care.

I think I’m naturally humble. And though I know my placement right now as far as me and the art world is very unique and different, it’s just life. I’m an artist. It’s just that now, I’m in a different tax bracket.

This is my city. This is my home; my family’s here. There’s not a lot of distractions. I feel very, very calm. I feel at peace. When I do travel to New York or L.A. or Miami, there are a lot of distractions, because it’s the scene, and a huge part of it is actually being there and having your face out there. Being talked about, talked to.

I love to create and I feel like there’s never enough time. There’s so much to do. I’ve got so much to say and it keeps me up at night.

I have to distract my brain to fall asleep. Like, I’ll watch really boring television. I mean, really boring. Like, the most obscure documentaries I can find that I have absolutely zero interest in.

[My mom] would tell me all the time, “You were meant for something great.” And it came at those times when you really needed to hear that from your mother.

It was praise. It’s like that pat on the head or that hug, that quick embrace from your mom — or a kiss. It just felt good. It was just a positive affirmation every time she said it.

She was diagnosed with cancer and went through remission, then my stepdad died and it came back right after. She was on the [downslide]. She wasn’t doing too good. I could see it in her; I saw her getting thinner. I had a show coming up, and it was really my first show in Chicago that I’d had in a long time. Everyone I knew from the guy that worked at Dunkin Donuts down the street to the banker that I just occasionally happened to cross, I had invited to the show. I wanted everybody to come see, because I was confident about my skill and my talent. And as it approached, with me doing hospital trips for [her] treatment two, three times a week and different appointments, I was worn thin. I didn’t have it as far as the artistic output. I was just kind of blocked. And I was scared to death, because I was like, “Man, everybody’s gonna think I’m a failure.” I was having a little moment and she just told me in a mother’s words, “You were meant for greatness. Own it.”

For a second, [my work] was very dark because I still was trying to deal with her death [in 2009]. And once I did and started to get past that, it became a bit lighter and a bit happier.

I just started thinking about the fact that we only have so much time, and you definitely don’t know how much time you have.

As far as my outlook on my career, it’s like, “Do it all now. Put that s— on the line. Just go for it. Don’t worry about this person critiquing you. Just do what’s in your heart. Go.” And it’s freeing. I became happier. And as my characters started to develop more and more, they changed like I changed. Their emotions were mirroring mine.

People lie to themselves all the time about something or another. Who they are, what their station is, what they mean to this person. Whatever the case may be, we lie to ourselves. And I just stopped.

I’m honest with myself. Maybe that’s the only person I’m honest with [laughs]. No, just kidding. I own my feelings, whatever those are, at that moment.

You want to do the best job possible. You want to hit a home run every time. Which isn’t practical, but I want to get on the highest base.

There’s pressure at moments, but then I remind myself: “I got it. Just push it out. Have fun.”


Twitter: @MikeTScribe

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