Reggie Singleton: Creating Art From Emotion
Reggie Singleton is a Detroit-based artist whose work draws heavily from nature, emotion, and personal experiences. With the goal of showcasing beauty with thoughtful use of line, color, and composition, his striking artwork also aims to include a form of Black representation. Over the years, Singleton has won multiple awards and is currently working to further his impact in the city. In this interview, he explains how a pivot from electrical engineering led him to a career in art, what fuels his work, and how he was inspired to create a special art technique he calls Surongajii.
Q. How Did You Get Into Art?
“I started drawing at an early age and continued through high school. When I was growing up, art was never considered the thing to do professionally. I never considered it as a career and thought it was just something kids did. When it was time for me to go to college, I went to Wayne State and majored in electrical engineering. After a couple years, I found it wasn’t working out but I was still drawing and was an avid coming book lover. In 1999, I found myself at a crossroad trying to figure out what to do with my life next. I knew I had to get serious.
I struggled with college for so long and wasn’t loving any of it. Even if I would’ve somehow managed to pass through engineering I would’ve hated the job. I found myself listening to a lot of motivational talks and heard the quote ‘In life, do what you love.’ I began to ask myself what was fun, natural, and something I could make a living off of. I was still drawing at the time so I decided to take some art classes since I was still enrolled as a student. Getting an ‘A’ in my poetry and Shakespeare class helped awaken something in me artistically and I felt that some form of art might be the way for me to go.”
Q. What Were Your Next Steps?
“I continued to take art classes, including a drawing class with John Haggerty. He taught me the basics of drawing human form and figures. By then, I was confident that art was the route I wanted to take and pursued a major in fine arts painting for about two years. There were certain artists whose work I wanted to focus on in my classes, but in college they present you with the curriculum they want you to have. I didn’t have the money to stay enrolled, so I made the decision to leave and focus on training myself. I developed this whole strategy of going to the Detroit Public Library every week and checking out books from the artists I wanted to study from. I studied everything over centuries of art and learned different techniques. I did this for about two years.”
Library books on a shelf. (Photo: Ekrulila/Pexels)
Q. When Was Your First Public Showing As an Artist?
“Around 2004 0r 2005, I started executing pieces but didn’t get into my first actual show until 2007. That’s when I felt I was ready to go out and show my work publicly. There was an artist call for the Sterling Heights Artist of the Month and I put up all of the drawings I had been working on that included some huge pieces as well. I was selected as the winner of the show and received an award. It was cool.”
Q. What turned you on to the abstract expressionism art form and artists like Charles McGee and Mark Rothko?
“I was drawn to some abstract expressionists, but more so for their colors. I wasn’t really trying to be that type of artist initially. I have ADD and get bored easily, so when I found myself doing the same type of drawing I tried to add in an element of difficulty. The more difficult and complicated it is, the more I’m interested. It’s like I have to figure out the puzzle. I started cutting out paper and making these shapes and forms that I would draw on top of. One day, I got the idea to just focus on the shapes and forms and eliminate the drawing portion. I practiced on paper first and then decided to try it on wood. After buying a bunch of wood, I cut them into shapes and colored them. This was my first sculpture that I named “Queen of Spades.”
There was an artist call out for the Michigan Annual and one of the jurors was Charles McGee. I was a huge fan of his work. I submitted my first abstract sculpture and he selected it for the show. Not only did he like my work, he advised me to keep going. His words are what motivated me to push forward with the abstract expressionism art form and that’s why I still do it to this day. ”
(Photo: Reggie Singleton)
Q. Everyone has a different perception when viewing art. In your own words, what do you seek to translate with your work?
“ I’m always trying to show beauty with everything I do. There are so many ugly things in the world, so I try to bring forth what I consider beauty through composition, line, form, and color. Even in my latest work I’m using natural wood and making forms based off of nature. So a surface with wood-grain [texture] is something I would try to incorporate because I want to let nature draw with me so it’s like a partner in the work.
I grew up on the Eastside in Black Bottom, so I use my life experiences as a Black male and people I’ve met along the way in my artwork. One of my pieces, “The Pride of Black Bottom” is based off artists who grew up there and were friends with me. A lot of my abstract drawings are inspired from actual people or situations – but mostly people. I don’t name names, I just title them and let the chips fall where they may.
Years ago, when I would study the classics by artists like Rembrandt and Ingres, they would always have these portraits of women with titles like ‘Girl in Hat’ or ‘Girl in Dress’, but I would never see a lot of Black representation in those pieces. Now that I am practicing art, I try to incorporate Blackness into my titles so that when you see ‘Girl with the Butterfly Locs’, or ‘Boy with Blowout’, you know the representation is there. This is something I feel I have to do with my art. We have to be the ones to tell our story because no one else knows our story.”
Reggie Singleton standing in front of ‘Girl with the Butterfly Locs.’ (Photo: Reggie Singleton)
Q. A few of your projects were created to convey emotion. What makes you hone in on the facial features of your subjects?
“I studied how to draw the human figure, but faces get right to the point. Sometimes I feel like adding body parts such as a hand would just get in the way – especially if it doesn’t add to the emotion of the piece. I like to get right to the point, and I don’t want to waste energy putting in something if it’s not gonna add to what I’m trying to say or translate anything. That’s why I just focus on the face and then proceed to add color.“
(Photo: Reggie Singleton)
Q. Is your abstract work fueled by emotion as well?
“Yes. Colors for me are like emotion. When I create my abstract pieces I always start off with a person in mind and go off of how I feel about that person. One of my pieces that uses teal and black is called “He Whom Stands in Judgement”. That piece is about a judgmental person I know, so when I saw that particular green it made me think of him.
Sometimes I’ll start off with a word. I’ll let the word guide me and I’ll build around it. That’s why, if you look at a lot of my pieces, you may see a word in there, but by the time I build all around it, it disappears and you just see the piece. The emotion is definitely there since all the abstract pieces have a subject matter, and I’ll pick a title that kind of plays off of whatever the subject matter is and what I’m trying to say.“
Reggie Singleton poses in front of “He Whom Stands in Judgement” artwork. (Photo: Reggie Singleton)
Q. Abstract expressionism involves creating with spontaneous brush strokes from an unconscious mind. How do you get in the zone to make art with this technique?
“I often feel like the piece is supposed to be a certain thing outside of me. If I’m listening properly and just letting it flow, it will turn out as it should. It’s my job to get out of the way and not overthink it because it’s already a certain end-game in mind. We are just a conduit for it to flow through. Even if you don’t understand what you just brought forth, it still is what it is.“
(Photo: Reggie Singleton)
Q. I saw that you not only use pen and ink as a medium, you use another technique that you actually created. What is Surongajii and how did you get the idea for it?
“Surongajii (surr-ron-gahn-gee) refers to the development of the wood sculpture that I do and how it has progressed over time. I started out making sculptures and those eventually turned to figures that would hang raw in the gallery with just a wire on the back. I started to feel like they needed to be framed so they could be more stable because I broke a few pieces while transporting them. I started putting them in a square frame, but since I always have to take it up a level, I decided to start shaping the frames into triangles and diamonds. This technique, Surongajii, is basically how the frame responds to the movement of the sculpture.
I came up with the name Surongajii by combining the Swahili words for ‘sculpture’ and ‘frame’ together. I’ve been studying up on Swahili for years and feel that it is a spiritual language. A lot of my pieces have been titled by me coming up with the English word and then finding the translation for it. I like to make everything African sounding. “
(Photo: Reggie Singleton)
Q. Has it always been easy to put your work out into the community or have you ever battled with imposter syndrome? If so, how did you overcome it?
“There is still some work that I’m nervous about and haven’t shown. Sometimes I’ll beat a work to death instead of letting it be because I don’t think it’s strong enough or good enough. I try not to fall into that mode, but it Still happens from time to time. I’ll have those days of low confidence where I keep fussing over a piece and other days I’m able to stick with what I make and get it into a show. I’ve never really overcome it, I’m just more conscious of it when its happening. Sometimes it helps to walk away from the piece for a while and come back to it a week or two later. I’ve created works that I thought was terrible, but I will bring it out into the public and someone will tell me how great it is. You just never know!“
Q. What can other artists do to put more of their work into the world?
“It all starts with you. You have to believe in your art enough to enter it into a show and be open to that acceptance or rejection. Being accepted will bring about a ton of confidence, but rejection is a part of the process. Sometimes artists get rejected and it keeps them from showing up again. I’ve been rejected so much I’m just numb now. Just recently I was rejected for a show and still went and enjoyed it. A juror stopped to talk to me and questioned why I didn’t enter. After explaining that I didnt get in, she was surprised that I was still in attendance. I was ok with not getting in, but if you don’t believe in yourself, your worth, and your work 100%, getting out there can be that much harder.“
Q. Is there any advice would you give to established or up and coming artists?
“Just work. Work on your craft. Find what it is you do well and focus on that; be the best at it. Find the level you are at and always be working and pushing to get better.“
Q. What impact do you want to make with your work over the years?
“I want to be known as a successful Detroit artist who shows all over the world. I really have a belief and love in Detroit first- so I want to start here and be successful everywhere else. I’m a passionate driven artist that is determined to bring about my point of view of beauty and the way I see the world as a Black man that has grown up in Detroit. “
(Photo: Reggie Singleton)
By Jess McKenzie
Jess McKenzie is a brand identity designer from Detroit, MI. She is a self-proclaimed nerd that loves 80s movies and longs for Saturday morning cartoons to return. When she is not tied to her computer, she can be found taking random road trips and practicing landscape photography.