NBCBLK28: Debra Cartwright: Coloring the Truth of Our Beauty

Artist Paints Watercolors of African-American Women with Natural Curls: 'You Want to Feel Pretty' 1:39

Debra Cartwright, 28, New York City

Debra Cartwright is redefining beauty with a few strokes of her paintbrush. The sought-after artist uses watercolors to depict Black women in an ethereal manner that is not often showcased in the art world. And that’s most definitely on purpose.

Debra, who herself rocks a wavy-curly head of thick hair, prefers to showcase women of color of all different shapes and skin tones, but all of her pieces emphasize a woman’s natural hair. In fact, it was Debra’s own journey from straight, relaxed hair to a more natural wave that prompted her, to begin painting in this manner.

“I only felt beautiful with straight hair, and I did a lot of reading at the time--a lot of Black women anthologies and bell hooks,” said Debra, who was a featured artist at last year’s Essence Music Festival. “I was feeling upset that I was so conditioned. You want to feel pretty with your hair, so that’s why I started painting these–to feel pretty and not as mad.”

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The artist says watercolors lend to her message of femininity and lightness. Her goal is to help overcome the heaviness in media around Black women who are often portrayed as angry or militant — especially when they wear their natural hair.

“We are in this American society that places this [militant] image at the top and we can’t get out of this hierarchy and it’s not catering to us, so it’s frustrating,” she said. “[These are] really strong subliminal messages. I want to change that conversation by inserting Black women and our natural hair as the main story.”

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Cartwright has been fighting these stereotypes since she was a young girl. In elementary school when she was cast as Cinderella in the school play, another white student told Cartwright that she “couldn’t be Cinderella because Cinderella wasn’t Black.”

After that, she painted a plethora of Black Cinderellas.

“We are in this American society that places this image at the top and we can’t get out of this hierarchy and it’s not catering to us so it’s frustrating,” Cartwright said. “We’re going to get this perception in our heads that we are not the princesses, we are not the most beautiful, or we are not the belles of the ball.”

Eventually, Cartwright decided to attend the University of Virginia and give up on art because it wasn’t a “lucrative career” in her mind. With the encouragement of her dad, she began pursuing the path to a law degree.

Image: Watercolor
Watercolorist Debra Cartwright paints in her home studio in Harlem, New York City. John Brecher / NBC News file

“I took a few criminology classes and hated them. So I slowly went into art and was like, 'I’m a history major,'” said Cartwright. “You know how you want to make your parents happy. But then I ended up as a painting major. I double majored in art history and painting. My dad wasn’t too fond of me going all the way there but he was still okay with it because he was like, 'You can go to law school after that.'”

Instead, she moved to New York after graduation on a whim, earning her associate’s degree in graphic design from the Parsons School of Design. However, it wasn’t until “going natural” two years ago and struggling with self-image that her paintings of Black women were birthed.

“In the media we (black women) are seen as being so angry,” said Cartwright. “There’s a lot going on right now with race relations and misogyny. We seem to be at the bottom so I wanted to create stuff that lifted me up and made me feel a little bit freer from all these constraints that we have.”

In order to create her work, she looks through magazines and advertisements. She has a Pinterest page full of poses and another full of the different faces of Black women. She then merges these separate elements into one illustration. Cartwright says seeing images of so many blond women all day at work drives her to recreate those images as women of color.

“When we are little (and) we have any special event we get our hair straightened. It was something to look forward to. You get a pretty dress and you get your hair straightened. It’s just a little crazy and the majority of Black women do not have straight hair so why are we looking at these images like this is what’s beautiful?”

On her Instagram, Cartwright has also gained popularity for her paintings surrounding the issue of police brutality. With pictures in response to Eric Garner’s death and the McKinney Pool incident, those paintings have helped her to express her feelings as well as support the #blacklivesmatter movement.

“A lot of these I’ve like cried while creating so it’s just kind of release for me to be able to express myself that way,” said Cartwright.

NBCBLK presents 28 profiles of notable black entrepreneurs, policy makers, athletes, entertainers, activists, and artists NBCBLK will reveal one profile each day of the month in honor. While some of the honorees are familiar faces, others are pillars of their communities, unsung heroes with stories to tell. #NBCBLK28.

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