When you hear someone mention a strong artist, typically you think of your favorite singer or rapper who is a current hit on the charts. In the Washington, D.C metropolitan area, Johnnie Bess is an up and coming artist, but you won’t see him in any music video anytime soon.
Bess who prefers his artist name “Monk” can be considered a triple threat. A junior painting major and photography minor at Howard University, Bess has mastered the skill of painting, sculptor and photography.
“I’ve been painting since ’98, [and] besides loving it I have gotten a lot of good feedback” Bess said.
His talent has gained the attention of a few celebrities as well. Bess designed T-shirts for former heavy weight champion Mike Tyson’s fight merchandise and merchandise for the District’s godfather of Go-go artist Chuck Brown.
For two consecutive years, Bess has won first place in undergraduate painting for his division at Howard University. In spring 2006, he became an honorary member of Black Artists of D.C.
“I feel Johnnie is the strongest undergrad art student in painting,” said James Phillips, an assistant professor in the art department at Howard University.
Currently, Bess works as a freelance illustrator, designing model toys for companies and sketches for Five Jungle, an urban clothing line.
When asked why he wanted to turn his talent into a career, Bess simply replied, “I wanted to make a living doing something that made me happy. I wanted to do something that was effortless, [so] that I can wake up every morning and do something with a smile on my face.”
Bess has turned his love for art into a medium to give back to the community as well. He currently teaches a hip-hop workshop on graffiti at Duke Ellington School for the Arts and other local schools.
Although it may seem that Bess has a head start on a bright career, looks can be deceiving. No matter how talented an artist may be, it is extremely difficult to get art work on display at galleries and exhibitions.
During the Harlem Renaissance there were hundreds of gifted black artists, but only a few were widely recognized. Many black artists believe racism in the art institution still exists, making it twice as hard for them to make a living solely off their craft. Additionally, even when artists are able to get galleries to display their work, the galleries frequently keep 40 percent to 60 percent of the profit once a painting or sculptor is sold. This forces many artists to sell their work independently or on a smaller market.
Despite the obstacles that await Bess in the future, he is determined to pursue his dreams. Bess plans to pave the way to create more opportunities for other black artists like himself.
“Ten years from now, I see myself as a leader in our generation’s cultural revolution,” he said.
Bess’ paintings will be on display at the Howard University student art exhibition held in the spring as well as at Tryst, a coffee shop located on 18th Street this April. His collection can be viewed at Anna Daughter House, a private gallery in Northeast Washington, D.C. or online at “www.majorityartistsforum.com.”