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We sometimes talk about using art to make a difference. And while some may be cynical about that claim, my guest today isn’t one of them. Dani Coke has an incredible story to share about how her art went viral overnight, made a difference, and really changed her life, and she explains her artistic process. As you listen to her describe her journey, you’ll get chills at the power of her art, just like I did!
Danielle Coke is a designer turned illustrator, social justice advocate, and entrepreneur. She seeks to encourage faith, inspire justice, and guide you through loving your neighbor well. Her illustrations aim to make complex issues more digestible and help others find and use their passions to make a difference in their spheres of influence. With a joy that flows from her dedication to loving God and her neighbor as herself, more than anything, Danielle hopes to encourage action as you hold her art in your home and carry it in your heart.
2:01 – Dani briefly explains her history as a lover of art and creativity
5:56 – Dani reveals the events behind her art going viral on social media
11:45 – Dealing with the duality of personal, empowering success under awful circumstances
16:34 – COVID and Asian hate as an example of Dani’s process for creating art with a message
20:42 – How Dani manages to avoid dealing with people nitpicking her over semantics
25:07 – The teacher with an assumption about Dani that almost put her off the art path for good
30:01 – The chorus teacher who encouraged Dani on her creative journey
32:48 – Advice for teachers who want to have difficult conversations with their students about race, gender, and privilege
39:29 – Using your sphere of influence to bring about change for causes that matter most to you
43:43 – Where Dani gets her creative inspiration from and some book recommendations from her
47:48 – The work of art that changed Dani’s life
- Oh Happy Dani
- Sphere of Influence Print
- Anti-Asian Hate – Pill Bottle art
- This Book Is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- “Our Deepest Fear” Wall Art Print by Marianne Williamson
- 82 Questions About Art
Be a Podcast Guest: Submit a Voice Memo of Your Art Story (Scroll to the bottom of the page to submit your story.)
Cindy Ingram: Hello and welcome to The Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator, and The Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delights of creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today, take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders, and let’s get started.
Hey everybody. It’s Cindy Ingram from Art Class Curator Podcast and I am so excited about this interview today with Dani Coke from Oh Happy Dani. She has an incredible story about how she used her art to make a difference and how her art went viral overnight and really changed her life. But the way she explains her artistic process and the power of her art just gave me chills as she was talking about it. There’s so much possibility here for you in your classroom so I cannot wait to share with you this interview, so let’s go for it.
All right. I’m so excited to welcome Dani Coke to The Art Class Curator Podcast. Welcome, Dani.
Dani Coke: Yes, I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Cindy Ingram: I have been binging your Instagram channel and all of your content online and we are so excited to share your story with our listeners because you have done some pretty amazing inspirational things over the last couple of years. Can you tell us a little bit more about you, your background, and your experiences?
Dani Coke: Yes. Absolutely. I’m Dani. I am 26 currently and I live in Atlanta, Georgia. I was born in Brooklyn, New York but I claimed that I was raised in the suburbs of Georgia because that’s where I moved when I was around six and that’s where I grew up outside the city. Last year, I actually moved into the city for the first time, which is super exciting and so that’s currently where I live. I have been into creativity and art and creating things for a really long time. I’ve always been into creativity and art, making things in my hands. When I was younger, I would put together gift baskets and I would paint terracotta pots. I even designed business cards to do lawn care for my neighbors but I was not into lawn care, I just wanted to design the business card. I’ve always been into creativity and things like that.
I majored in business in college with a hospitality administration because I wanted to get into event planning. I thought that was going to be my career and my life and I got a job at an event planning agency right when I graduated. I quickly realized that event planning was not going to be my career and it was not going to be my life but my way in the door was graphic design. I just fell more and more in love with it. While I was at that job, I also had a lot of experiences related to race, being a black woman in a predominantly white space, and I had moments where I would bring up to my boss like, “Hey, I would love if we could start conversations around diversity and equity and inclusion, maybe bring in a speaker,” and he told me, “That’s not something I’m interested in or will ever be interested in.” That moment illustrated to me, no pun intended, that it wasn’t the environment that I felt like I could truly thrive in. Late 2019, I quit my job, started my graphic design business and continued to do that through 2019 and picked up illustration as a hobby, Christmas of 2020. I’ve been illustrating ever since.
Cindy Ingram: Wow. That’s a pretty fast go from starting your own business to being as successful as you are. How many followers do you have?
Dani Coke: I think right now I’m at around 484,000. It was absolutely so fast-tracked. As someone who worked in marketing, graphic design, and social media, never have I ever in my life seen anything like what happened last year. It has definitely been a wild ride.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. We’ll talk about that in just a minute but did you make the painting on the wall behind you?
Dani Coke: Yes, I did.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, I’m obsessed. It’s so good.
Dani Coke: Yes, there’s a period last year where I was just super burnt out with always wanting to make everything so methodical because my illustrations, as you know, are infographics, very detailed. I was like, “I just want to get back to the creativity of it,” so I freehanded this mural.
Cindy Ingram: It’s so pretty. Can I screenshot you, can you smile?
Dani Coke: Sure.
Cindy Ingram: It’s just so cute and you did the paintings too that matched it?
Dani Coke: No, I got those from Target.
Cindy Ingram: Nice. So good.
Dani Coke: My phone case inspired my mural. We are just off topic but I’m sorry.
Cindy Ingram: No, that’s okay. I love to see creative people and what they do. I think it’s fun to see those threads. I love too, in your story, you were talking about the business cards and stuff. I know a creative entrepreneur type of person always has those stories. Mine was that I sold presidential campaign posters to my neighbors. I was like eight. We all have those little stories. It was for a candidate I would not have supported today but that’s okay. You all can probably guess what side that is but I won’t bother.
We’ll go back on topic. Let’s go into what happened when you gained all those followers at one time last year? Can you explain what happened?
Dani Coke: Definitely, while always being creative and loving to create things, I’ve also always had this passion for justice, racial reconciliation, what that looks like now and my role in that story. When I started out my agency, the name of the agency was called So Happy Social—which might sound very familiar because my Instagram name is Oh Happy Dani—but So Happy Social actually came first and I only changed my personal handle for branding purposes. But the whole point behind So Happy Social was to equip positive mission-based brands, to use social media for maximum impact. I wanted to get behind the non-profit leaders, the on-the-ground people doing the work and say, “You don’t have time to worry about social media so I will do it for you.” I was like, “Yeah, that’ll be my place, my unique contribution while still doing what I love and I’m passionate about.” If that’s all I ever ended up doing with my life, I would have been content.
But fast forwarding a little bit to January of 2021, I had gotten my iPad for Christmas the previous year and I was drawing all these random things and Martin Luther King Jr. Day came and I was like, “Huh, I want to make an illustration about how it irks me that people take his legacy and really paint it as this passive peacekeeping legacy when in all actuality, he was quite radical, he was a disrupter, he challenged the status quo, encouraged civil disobedience. This man was not liked.” I wanted to make an illustration to shine a light on that perspective for my 700 friends on Instagram. I drew that and posted it. It was the first illustration that was just as related, but also the first one that was shared outside of my friend group. I was like, “People are sharing this to their story.” That is so bizarre to me and so I said, “Huh, I wonder Black History Month is coming up. If I stay in the vein of creating illustrations related to justice, I wonder if more people would be inclined to participate in those kinds of conversations if the art was pretty, aesthetically pleasing, simple but yet not sacrificing the depth of information.”
I did that all of February 2020. I just started talking about all different topics related to black lives, black flourishing and justice for the black community. I talked about everything from why it’s important to see color and not say that you don’t see color, to why you shouldn’t put your hands in a black woman’s hair without her permission. You just got to cover all the bases. You never know who you’re speaking to. I went on a rampage doing that and I had a lot of fun. By the end of February, I had about 10,000 people following me. I was like, “That is bizarre.”
Cindy Ingram: It’s making art and people are liking it.
Dani Coke: They’re liking it and they’re showing up. I was like, “Okay, I’ll keep going.” Then summer approached and then Black Lives Matter took center stage in a major way all over the world and then we witnessed the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. I began to use art to speak to those situations as well. My first viral piece of art happened following Ahmaud Arbery’s murder when I made a post from a Kamala Harris quote that basically said, “Exercising while black should not be a death sentence.” I illustrated that and it was my first piece to go way viral.
Overnight, it seemed that things really just went on fast track. I, in one week, gained, like you said, about 300,000 followers and I started having all these incredible opportunities to speak places and go on daytime shows and work with incredible brands. It all felt very unexpected. But I was pleased to know that my unique contribution, however small I thought it was when I first started out, ended up being used in a wild way, especially since people don’t always see art as a viable tool for activism, at least they didn’t, that’s changed now but yeah, people would pit it against each other. Art is meant to invoke emotion, activism is meant to encourage action. But when you put the two together, you have a powerful tool. You’re encouraging action by invoking emotion. I think that was very powerful and still is.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. I really love that you pointed out that your art is pretty because I noticed that too. I was like, “She’s talking about really important deep things.” The things in your art, if it gets in the right hands, it is going to make change just by the content. It’s in such an accessible format that it’s so easily shared. You put something so pretty, people are just more likely to share it. It’s like this sneak attack almost.
Dani Coke: Oh, definitely. It was definitely a tool, a strategy for me for the longest time and still is. Even with the images themselves, I’ll use it to draw people in and then in the caption, I might slice you up with some of the stuff I’m saying, but it’s all part of the process of hopefully helping people to see things that they might not have otherwise looked at in that way.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Side note, but not a side note, to the listeners that are listening, I think that showing some of your art to the students would be a really powerful conversation because not only do you get to have the conversations about the stuff that you’re illustrating about, but then the art teacher can talk about, “Well, what did this artist do to make the message come across? What strategies did she use?” I think that’s another really powerful conversation too. I hope, from listening to this, we have some teachers that go out and do that. If you do, listeners, please tell us how it went because we want to hear about it.
Dani Coke: Yeah. That’s really cool.
Cindy Ingram: What did that feel like to have things explode for you like that? It’s like a really awful but empowering time but also you’re having this amazing personal success at the same time? How did that duality feel?
Dani Coke: I definitely had moments when I didn’t balance it well, burnout definitely happened. Part of what happened with getting that huge platform so quickly is that I took on the personal responsibility of thinking that I had to speak to every single tragic thing happening in the country or in the world and had to have some profound statement. Then when I was at a loss for words like, “Well, that’s just unacceptable because there’s half a million people waiting on you to say something,” I really internalized that pressure in a way that was not healthy or practical. That was a huge, huge and really difficult part of it because even with my process—which we can probably get into later with the creation process of the art—but I think for me, a lot of people see it and it’s like, “Oh, simple, cute,” but I also do think that people also understand the fact that it’s a very difficult process. Taking in what’s happening globally or in our nation, narrowing it down to a couple of points, conceptualizing it into an illustration that people can connect with, and then disseminating that information in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of the subject matter, listen, it is not an easy process.
Cindy Ingram: I am just stressed out hearing the process.
Dani Coke: Yeah. Because of the platform and the weight of it, I would much rather not make a graphic about a topic than to disseminate harmful information. It’s just something that I’ve had to wrestle with and I said you cannot be the answer to every problem, you can’t think an infographic will change the whole world all the time. That came along with it but it also brought such a beautiful community. People would probably be surprised, I received a lot of hate when I first started but after that ever since, the majority of what I get, 97% of the time is love, which is shocking considering how polarizing it is what I’m talking about.
But I think what is so cool about the audience is whether you agree with me all the way or not, you can’t deny that what I’m saying is oftentimes something that needs to be discussed and is an important thing. It’s not me trying to convince you of anything, it’s me presenting information to you that you can go and do with what needs to be done. Also releasing the pressure to convince people to believe what I believe has made this a lot easier as well.
Cindy Ingram: How did you get through all of that struggle at the beginning and the pressure that you were feeling, what strategies helped you through that?
Dani Coke: I think feeling the weight of that immense pressure, often enough, made me not want to feel it anymore. You can only bear it for so long for like, “All right, get off of me.” That’s what that was for me. I just had to keep realizing like, “Oh, I hate this feeling. I hate this feeling,” to prioritize not feeling that way. When it first all happened, I was like the energizer bunny, like making a bunch of graphics and then launching things and new products in a store, and now I have a whole second business. It was just going really fast. But then I would take chunks of time away from social media and not tell anybody I was leaving and come back and be able to speak to the next moment because I took the time away to recharge and energize myself without feeling as though I owe anyone an explanation for anything.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. My coach always says rest is a business strategy. I think that’s true for teachers too that are listening, because most of you are not running businesses, but that time that you’re spending resting, the time you’re spending turning off the lesson plans, stop integrating, that is going to make you a better teacher because you’ve given yourself that. I think that’s a really important message there.
I don’t necessarily have a question about this so I’m going to try to figure this out, you describe that process of taking it and disseminating your process for creating something. You ran through that so fast–
Dani Coke: Sorry.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, no, I’m just like, “Wow,” and I hadn’t even thought about that as a thing to ask but now I’m just like, “We’ve got to talk about that because that is really just a creative process in such a beautiful way.” Can we just dive into that more? I don’t know exactly what the question is but how do you start?
Dani Coke: Yeah, definitely. Here’s what normally happens, there will be a trending topic, breaking news, headline, and it’ll lead to a lot of discussions online. I always encourage myself to not feel the need to be a breaking news source or consistently talk about all that’s trending all the time, it’s just not feasible. In those moments, I like to remember, “Okay, your job is to speak to the heart of the matter. What is that piece of truth that you can pull out of all the chaos? What is that one simple thing that someone can cling to?” That’s what I’ll start with and it’ll take me in a certain direction. I can actually give you an example of a piece and walk you through that as I talk about this.
Cindy Ingram: That’d be great.
Dani Coke: Earlier this year, the topic of anti-Asian racism and hate was top of mind. A lot of conversations were happening about that and the year before actually, not this year but last year when COVID was starting to spike, we were seeing a very similar thing. People weren’t talking about it as much because Black Lives Matter was so loud in that moment rightfully so. But I remember that it was still very much a problem, anti-Asian hate. One thing that I was hearing a lot of rhetoric from government officials and people around us was that it was an Asian virus. They were tying COVID-19 to an entire group of people in a very harmful way. I was like, “Okay, I see what’s going on here.What are some points that I need to pull out of this that I can communicate to the audience in a simple way that it’s really important that we take control of this narrative and not perpetuate harmful stereotypes?” That was the first thing I did.
Then the next thing I was doing, I also grouped that in with listening, I call it listening, I like to say that I have my ears to the ground, especially when these things are happening, I listen to what’s happening in the community at large but I also listen to what’s happening in my own community. What questions are people asking? What dialogue are they having amongst themselves? That also helps to inform what I want to say because often, what we’re talking about amongst each other is where we’re trying to figure out the heart of things, how can I apply it and internalize what’s happening in my own life. That’s where I like to live.
That happened and then I narrowed down to maybe five points, four steps, three ways, or one simple quote or thought. In this instance, I wanted to pull three points out. I got that list and then I moved on to conceptualizing. I take the content. In this instance, I wanted to do an illustration that talked about what I called three pills you need to swallow about the Coronavirus, because I’m very literal, so I conceptualized a pill bottle and three literal pills. Under pill number one, I said, “Diseases can make anyone sick from any ethnicity.” Point number two, “People of Asian descent are not more likely to contract the virus.” Point number three, “Fear of getting sick is not a valid excuse for xenophobia or racism.” Those were three points I wanted to drive home. It seems obvious now looking back but man, oh man, during the height of the hysteria, people were wild.
I said, “Okay, I think the concept of a pill bottle and a bunch of pills will make a lot of sense in this conversation of COVID, let me illustrate that, those will be my points.” Then research, especially to get to that point is huge for me as well, making sure I have credible sources that I’m citing, that all the information is accurate, things like that. At the end, I have an illustration that is hopefully simple and digestible and you’ve got takeaways but the process of getting there is a lot of listening, a lot of planning, writing out things, illustrating. I would say illustration is probably 15% of the process. I didn’t spend too long doing that.
Cindy Ingram: I think that all the teachers listening need to have your students listen to everything you just said because it just was so good. I noticed that in the world of fighting these injustices and things, there are a lot of people who are just ready to immediately nitpick anything you say. Even if you’re on the side that they’re on, they’re like, “Oh, but what about this? Oh, you said this wrong. You used this word and you really should have used this word,” do you get a lot of that?
Dani Coke: I love this question because the answer is no, because I am so careful. I write something, I read it a million times, I write it a bunch of different ways. I can even give you an example. A lot of talk is happening right now around language that we can use to be more inclusive to people in disabled communities, words that we might throw around often that actually would be more helpful if we didn’t. I think that’s a really good example of the fact that language is ever-changing and evolving but it’s important while we don’t get tied to language because of the fact that it’s like a living thing, I still believe that as often as we’re able to make sure we’re adopting inclusive language for the purpose of not causing any confusion or distraction as we try to convey our information.
For example, I do not often use the word crazy in my vocabulary. I’ve said wild a lot of times and I opt for wild just for the purpose of not wanting to distract from what I’m saying by using a term that someone else might see as, “Ah.” You can’t do that with everything, but as often as I’m able, I will make those swaps for the sake of one, inclusion, and to lessen distraction because I don’t want you to give me any excuse as to why you weren’t able to hear the point that I’m trying to make, but also I don’t want to cause harm while trying to convey that information either. That goes for things as simple as language changes or as important as conveying this huge subject like the school-to-prison pipeline, for example, is something I made an illustration about last year. I was very particular even with the way I illustrated students in that illustration. It’s like, “Make sure whatever community you’re talking about, say that community, don’t just lump everybody into this giant category. Who is most affected by this?” It’s just very important to be as clear as possible. I always lead with that which is why research is such a huge chunk of my process. Very, very rarely, if ever, do I have pushback over semantics or the way I use my words.
Cindy Ingram: That’s really good. That shows that you’re very thoughtful. Do you run your copy and stuff by different communities and stuff before you do the illustration or do you just keep it with yourself?
Dani Coke: Mostly, I keep it with myself. It helps that I’m a part of an underrepresented community because I have proximity, but also, if I’m talking about another community, chances are that I’m learning from people who are members of that community and so I connect with them with my illustrations or my verbiage and I’ll say, “What do you think would be best to include here?” But I think more than anything, I’ve started to send my illustrations for second eyes over my captions and words because of spelling. I’m spelling things wrong. Teachers are the most supportive members of my community. There’s so much support but teachers really show up for me. With that, they show up in the comments and say, “You were supposed to use the possessive form of ‘its’, that one has an apostrophe,” and I’m like, “You got me, you’re absolutely correct. You’re correct.” I’ve been trying to prevent that as much as I can. They let me know.
Cindy Ingram: They let me know too. It’s like, “On page 46 of this document,” and I’m like, “Oh, yeah. Thank you for catching that.”
Dani Coke: Right. I’d be really grateful, for real.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, because it’s a lot to keep up with. It’s so interesting because I think I’m lost in the possibility of showing your art to students and I’m having a hard time getting away from it because I keep going off in my imagination, but I think it’s such a powerful lesson. Speaking of teaching, did you have an influential teacher that helped you along your path?
Dani Coke: Yes. I did. It’s funny because I have influential teachers that have affected me in both positive and negative ways very specifically. I’m going to tell you the negative influence first because you’ll find that it is actually quite relevant to the subject matter of your own podcast.
Cindy Ingram: Okay, let’s do it.
Dani Coke: Let’s do it. I told you all throughout my childhood, I was very creative, always making things. I got to middle school and an art elective was an opportunity. I was like, “Absolutely, this is my time.” I really enjoyed that class, we did a whole lot of different things. But we had one activity every Friday that was a free drawing activity. Basically, Friday is when it was due but you would get a piece of paper at the top of the week, take it home, draw something, bring it back on Friday for a grade. I loved that. We got this long paper too, it was really cool. I would take that home and I would draw Disney characters because I really love Disney. I had all these small VHS covers and I would put the VHS, I would stand it up and then I would sit with my paper and I would draw the character big. I loved doing it and I impressed myself with how close it would look to the thing so it made me really excited.
I’d bring it in on Fridays. I remember the very first time I brought mine—and I drew Ariel from the Little Mermaid on that big rock, she was on the cover—and I turned it in for a grade and the teacher gave it back to me and she was like, “Please make sure to not be tracing. B-,” and she wrote that on the paper. I was like, “First of all, you could have asked me if I was tracing,” but it felt to me that she assumed that I traced and marked it down because of that. She never asked me, we never had a conversation about it, but every single time I turned in a freehand drawing of a Disney character every Friday, I would never get an A. It would always be like, “Please be sure to not trace.” C+ or B- with no reason. It’s very odd to me. I would love to know to this day how she decided to find those grades to my art but it was discouraging for me definitely because it felt to me as though that could have been an opportunity for you to affirm a natural gift but you decided to assume that it wasn’t.
Cindy Ingram: That makes sense if you’ve been teaching this kid for three months and you’ve seen all of their art that they make and you’ve seen their drawing ability and then they turn in this beautifully perfect thing. I think every art teacher has experienced that and you’re like, “No, there’s a dispute here.” But you just met this teacher, she didn’t know who you were, and she didn’t even talk to you about it.
Dani Coke: Yeah, throughout the entire time, I would make other art in class, my guard would get good grades. It was a consistent thing. I wish I could even have the opportunity to draw in class and be like, “Look, if you want me, I could sit my VHS tape right here and I could take my big piece of paper and draw it so you can see.” I know that’s not always feasible but I really feel as though that assumption, although it makes sense she’s looking at it, it’s like, “That’s pretty,” it would have really been more encouraging for me if she would have asked.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Just have a conversation about it.
Dani Coke: Yeah. Throughout the entire time, she would mark me down. I just was like, “Well, let me not even bother that,” and didn’t consider pursuing art as a career option. I just took it off the list.
Cindy Ingram: It was like it was enough to completely discourage you altogether.
Dani Coke: Yeah, throughout the entire class, you’re going to keep marking me down and accusing me of doing something I’m not doing. Then me, again, a predominantly white space, my teacher is white, I’m a student of color, if you’ve already been treating me this way, I don’t feel safe to come to you and be like, “Hey, I’d like to talk about this,” that’s not something I would want to initiate. I don’t know. I’ll just take it and just forget about it. It was very easy for me to do. I continued to draw here and there in my own time but I just did not think of it as a goal.
Cindy Ingram: Wow. That’s quite a lesson, it really is. Because I’m sure that teacher, I don’t even know, I was going to make assumptions about her but then I could have been wrong. Who knows what she’s all about.
Dani Coke: The thing that would have made it better for me would have been a conversation.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, for her to be curious about it rather than just to assume that you’re tracing.
Dani Coke: Exactly. That definitely influenced me in the opposite direction. But I did have another really amazing teacher, she was my chorus teacher. She just consistently encouraged me. I felt she really believed in me and my creative ability on that front of music. So much so that she made me feel like I had the ability to try out for a lead in the musical my senior year. Then I got it, it was Les Mis.
Cindy Ingram: Oh.
Dani Coke: Yeah. We did Les Mis and I don’t know why we thought we could do Les Mis. I tried out to be Fantine. It was just a really fun experience that really changed my life because I was like, “I can do really hard things and I can do them well.” I consistently came back to that whole experience in my mind throughout my life like, “If I could do that, I could do this.”
Cindy Ingram: I love that.
Dani Coke: Yeah. Being pushed, it was the exact opposite experience. She saw the talent in me. Instead of writing it off, she invested in it and encouraged me to see it through.
Cindy Ingram: That’s beautiful. I love it. My daughter just tried out for her first musical yesterday. I cannot handle the wait, I know she can’t either but I’m like, “I need to know it’s okay.”
Dani Coke: Oh, that wait and then they upload that cast list.
Cindy Ingram: I know, 10 AM on Friday, I’ll know. I’m going to be constantly refreshing the browser. I think it’ll be on the web.
Dani Coke: Oh, it’s going to be a really good time in her life too.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah, awesome. Did you grow up in a family that fostered this activism mindset or is that something that you think more came from with you and on your own?
Dani Coke: Yes. I feel as though being a member of an underrepresented community was a really huge driver and also being a first generation American. I’m a daughter of immigrants, my parents are Jamaican. I saw how hard they worked to get here and to build a really comfortable life for us here and that really motivated me to do what I could to make sure that other members of my community have similar opportunities. That was always inspiring for me growing up and even into college thinking about ways that I could contribute to that or at least being an example or saying like, “I’m making my parents proud by doing this.” That was always an internal driver for me. It changed in different ways how I lived that out today but I can trace that all throughout my childhood and growing up, that desire to want to do good for them.
Cindy Ingram: That’s beautiful. Speaking to teachers about, they’re still teaching it in my head as I talk to you, but I know that a lot of teachers have a really hard time talking about really hard things in their classroom. They’re hesitant to bring up, especially now with all this critical race theory BS that’s happening, they already were scared to have those conversations about gender or about race or about privilege, do you have any advice for teachers who want to have these conversations but are scared to?
Dani Coke: That is hard. I can only speak from experience in the fact that talking about it doesn’t necessarily get easier. But I think the way you prepare yourself and set up and execute the conversation as far as “What is this environment that I’m creating? What are the visuals that I’m using? Am I making this feel safe or is this conversation being framed in a way where my students will be able to easily sense my fear and apprehension and feel a little nervous about it?” For me even, that’s why I was so adamant about spending, this past month, creating resources specifically for teachers like posters and printables and bookmark stuff. I’m like, “I want to make it as easy as I can for you in a society where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so to have those conversations and ease your way into those conversations.”
If I were a teacher, but god bless y’all because my lord, I think that I would attempt it by taking a current event and tying it to a historical event that is very, very similar. It gives you, not necessarily a crutch, I don’t know what the word is, but it gives you like a parallel that you can run alongside without feeling like you’re completely out in the deep end with this topic that’s so hard to wrap your mind around just to show that history, yes, it repeats itself but it also evolves. The way, for example, with racism that we’re seeing it now, same struggles years ago but it just looks different. I think if the underlying message is wrong then, wrong now, I think you can’t go wrong with that. Things that are wrong will always be wrong and so you don’t have to be like, “I’m scared to say something controversial.” If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. I think your students especially who are wrestling with all these different things and hearing so many things in their own communities and environments, I think that’s doing them a service to be like, “Yeah, I’m going to maintain the integrity of this message and the fact that wrong is wrong and right is right and just as just.”
Also, the tool of pretty, I would definitely say to use that to your advantage too, I think either pretty or like something illustrative that can tie what you’re talking to a real life object or thing that they can connect it to is such an invaluable technique because they’re like, “Oh, yeah, that makes so much sense because I’ve seen that, I know what that looks like.” I think tying it to real world objects or things. Object lessons, I love them.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. That’s what we’re all about at Art Class Curator, the object is a work of art. I like what you said because I say this all the time that if you have a conversation about a work of art, it makes it easier to talk about the hard things because you’re talking about that artwork. You’re not going, “Hey, kids, let’s talk about race today.” You’re like, “Let’s look at this artwork and talk about this artwork and we’re going to talk about race through this conversation about this artwork,” and it just makes it just a little bit easier to talk about and it makes it a little bit less like personal and more about something else. I like what you said about the history because you’re talking about the history but then you’re talking about all this through the history so it just makes it a little bit easier.
Dani Coke: Yeah. I’d also say one other thing, I think when you mention history, it reminded me of the fact that, of course, not every teacher teaches history and so a lot of people, especially teachers often wonder like, “Okay, how can I even tie these hard conversations into what I teach because I don’t even teach anything like that?” But I think a super cool opportunity would be to seek out the professionals, the leaders, or the historical figures that you might often reference in your work that started or originated a certain theory or concept or technique and look for underrepresented communities who also contributed to those things because highlighting them also gives you an opportunity to highlight their lives, their struggles, and race and justice can often play a huge part in that and that’s another way to ease into those conversations as well. I think that’s also an added tip. Search for key leaders who may not be white and use that as an opportunity to amplify but also educate in a different light as well.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. I think that’s really important. Just as an art teacher, for example, if you’re teaching a lesson about line and you want to use an artwork about line, just choose a black artist that has an artwork about line instead of choosing your typical van Gogh or whatever. van Gogh’s awesome but you can easily make those substitutions and it’s a great value to your students.
Another thing that you said when you were giving advice was about creating a safe space for the students. I think that so much of teaching is what’s not said, it’s in your attitude, it’s in your passion, it’s in the way you set up your classroom, it’s in the way that you greet your students. I love that you brought that up as creating today’s space and I think hanging your posters up on the walls, it’s going to trigger to assume when they see that on the wall, they’ll say, “Oh, okay, this is a place that I know I can feel this teacher is on my side.” It’s just little messages like that mixed with interactions, mixed with everything else, that students will feel more and more safe.
Dani Coke: Yeah. Definitely.
Cindy Ingram: We will link to, because you mentioned you’re creating stuff for teachers, so we’ll link to that in the show notes so that teachers can get their hands on those things for their classroom.
Dani Coke: Definitely. If anyone ever has ideas of what they would want to see, I always want to hear that too because I am just wanting to help and this is just my line that I feel like I can run in with confidence and I would love to help in any way, so yeah, hit me up.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. That’s actually a good segue to my next question because someone on my team mentioned, she saw this quote from you and was really moved by it, I’m going to read the quote and then I would love for you to share your thoughts on it but it says, “I believe that you have the power to make a difference in your direct sphere of influence and bring about real change for causes that matter to you most.” I think that the direct sphere of influence part is really important. Can you talk about that a little bit more for us?
Dani Coke: Yeah. Definitely. Last year, I drew a graphic about this topic, the sphere of influence, because I found myself always saying it and I have this picture in my mind of what I was thinking of when I said it but I realized, it probably would be helpful to translate that. I drew this infographic where at the center, it says “Your sphere of influence” I’m talking about the sphere of influence, at the center, it’s you, and then there are pathways to different buildings as if I drew a city or something. But the buildings would be named like your house, your job, your place of worship, your businesses that you support, the school your students attend, the local government. All these ways that you’re connected to your community very tangibly, I would say these are areas within your own sphere of influence, these are areas that through direct or indirect action, through really big or really small ways, you can make a difference in causes and areas that you care about.
For example, even talking about the home, the goal is to have to have an actively anti-racist family, you want to raise children who care about inclusion, diversity, justice, and as well as you and your whole family, prioritizing things that matter to you no matter what that cause is. I think that there are steps that you can take to get there and I wrote those steps along the path and I would say things like having those hard conversations, dedicating yourself to ongoing learning and growth. I really believe that when you think about your own personal contribution in the world, it’s easy to think of people who are doing really huge things and say, “Well, I can’t do that so I can’t really do much,” and that’s so false because the biggest and most important thing about your sphere of influence is that nobody else has it.
There are people that you have influence over or have contact with that I will never meet, never influence, they will probably never even see my art. That, while a beautiful opportunity, is also a big responsibility because it means that none of us are off the hook with talking about what matters, especially what we’re passionate about because that gives us that personal connection and each of us has that story. You have what it takes to make a difference in your sphere of influence because it’s something that you have that no one else has access to.
Cindy Ingram: Oh, I love that. I think that it’s a really important message because I know a lot of people, myself included many times, I’ll get really worked up about something and I would be really passionate about something but I feel completely helpless like, “What can I actually do?” Then I’m not only upset about the thing that’s happening but then I’m also feeling guilty that I’m not doing enough. It’s just this cycle of negative emotions that are not helping anything that helps you realize what you can actually do and what will actually make a difference and then release the pressure of this other stuff that I can’t do and focus on, “Hey, I can help my kids better understand the people that I’m around on a day-to-day basis.”
Dani Coke: Yeah, you have to trust and believe that this is a team effort and it relies on everybody doing their individual part. I think remembering that is encouraging.
Cindy Ingram: It made me think of your boss at your old job who wasn’t receptive to you in the sphere of influence, like he needs some lessons, maybe he’s gotten a substitute. That’s wonderful, we will put a link to that in the show notes as well for the listeners to check out. Do you have any artists or artworks that have influenced you?
Dani Coke: It’s interesting because it took me a while to even refer to myself as an artist because what I currently do, I feel like, is so, so simple but I now know the power that’s in that. I find my inspiration mostly not from artists but from other forms of artwork like literature, poetry, and writings, speeches and things like that. I really, really love Maya Angelou. I have her full collection of work and I’m really inspired by her poetry and how she ties and infuses justice and her experience with race and her experience as a woman and how that influenced her work in a way that made it super powerful. I found a lot of inspiration from her. I found a lot of inspiration from MLK, truthfully, not even in the cliche way, his work is incredible in so many different ways. I have a collection of his works too and I’ve been reading that all the time. I just draw inspiration from people who used every part of their human experience to influence the work that they put out there because that’s what made it so unique and so powerful. I think everyone can take a lesson from that.
Cindy Ingram: Oh. I want to write that quote down, thankfully it’s recorded. What did you just say, using the full aspects of humanity, basically, to create, oh, that was good. I have to go back and listen to that again. I love that. I would challenge you on calling your artwork simple. It is simple but it’s simple and the most calculated and precise, very calculated, slices through.
Dani Coke: I love that.
Cindy Ingram: That’s harder to do than something not simple.
Dani Coke: Yeah. That’s a really good point.
Cindy Ingram: It’s powerful and it just gets you immediately and that’s why it’s exploding the way it is because it just gets right to the heart of it. I keep making this hand gesture, listeners can’t see it but I’m just like, “This is what it does.” That’s awesome.
We are wrapping up. I know you have some book recommendations out there in the world, do you have any book recommendations for art teachers who want to dive into this work?
Dani Coke: Oh, sure, yes. There is actually a really great book by Tiffany Jewell called This Book Is Anti-Racist. It’s aimed towards young adults but it’s filled with beautiful illustrations. She partnered with a woman of color illustrator and it’s just so beginner-friendly, it’s so beautiful to look at and it tackles so many different aspects of anti-racism in a way that is digestible. I love, love, love that book. It’s beautiful and so fun.
I also think a very good introduction to this work would be So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, really great book, again, really great introduction to the work in a way that is digestible. But she does not mince words so just be prepared for it to be direct but still very helpful and fruitful for you. Those are two books that I would highly recommend. Those are two good ones to start with.
Cindy Ingram: That’s good. This Book Is Anti-Racist one sounds perfect because I think a lot of people need a more beginner book like that.
Dani Coke: Yes, so fun. I love it.
Cindy Ingram: I love it. That’s good. We’ll put links to those in the show notes as well. We will also link to your website and your social channels. Can you tell listeners how they can connect with you online?
Dani Coke: Yeah, sure. You can find me everywhere at Oh Happy Dani and my website is ohhappydani.com.
Cindy Ingram: Okay. Last question, I ask this to every podcast guest and that is which artwork changed your life? It doesn’t have to be a visual artwork, I know you are talking about theater and different things too, so it can be anything.
Dani Coke: Yeah. Something came to mind immediately. The poem Our Deepest Fear by Marianne Williamson. Completely. From a child, I was in a girls empowerment group at the boys and girls club when I was growing up and they gave each of us that poem in a frame and I would read it every day. It really helped to this day, every single word is powerful and helpful. The lines that stick out to me the most even to this day is “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that others don’t feel insecure around you.” There are so many times where I try to make myself small because I didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable and I see now how much of myself I was holding back from the world because of that. Now, in the season where I feel like people appreciate those things about me, it is just so liberating because I can freely pour out. I feel like anyone in any stage of life can relate to that as well, not shrinking for anyone.
Cindy Ingram: Yes. I have that actually a poster or two.
Dani Coke: Oh, my gosh, that’s so empowering.
Cindy Ingram: It’s so good. It does because I think that we’re taught, especially as girls, that you don’t want to stand out, you don’t want to be too much, you don’t want inconvenience at everybody with your strong opinions and strong feelings so you just have to keep them down and it just doesn’t work before, it’s just not the way we should be. It’s not the way change is made in the world and that’s not how you’re happy and that’s not how the people around you are fulfilled. That’s beautiful. I’ll find a link to that poem too and put that in the show notes as well because it is so good.
That was an amazing conversation. I am very inspired. I wish I had a class to teach right now to bring your art to, but I know that the people listening right now will do that and that would be so good. Thank you so much.
Dani Coke: Yeah. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me and you’re awesome.
Cindy Ingram: Thank you.
If your art appreciation classes were anything like mine, they happen in dark rooms with endless slides and boring lectures. Art in the dark. But art appreciation doesn’t have to turn into nap time for your students. Start connecting your students to art with powerful class discussions. It can be intimidating to start talking about art with students, so teachers always want to know what they should say. The real question is what you should ask. You can get 82 questions to ask about almost any work of art for free on the Art Class Curator Blog. The free download includes the list of questions plus cards that you can cut out and laminate to use, again and again. These versatile questions can be used in everything from bell ringers to group activities to critiques. Just go to artclasscurator.com/questions to get your free copy today.
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82 Questions About Art
82 questions you can use to start and extend conversations about works of art with your classroom. Free download includes a list plus individual question cards perfect for laminating!
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