How Detroit Artist Waleed Johnson Balances His Painting Career With An Engineering Day Job

Choosing to invest time and money in your art takes courage.


As a young black girl and daughter of immigrants growing up in the Indianapolis suburbs, I wasn’t exposed to many people who looked like me pursuing a creative occupation. Well, successfully, anyway.

I always loved writing and treasured the praise I received from English and journalism teachers across my k-12 education. Their feedback assured me of my talent and planted the idea that I should study creative writing in college.

I studied healthcare management and policy instead.

I grew up poor, and like many poor kids who succeed in the classroom, I felt it was my duty to follow a practical path. I wanted to study something that would lift me out of the trenches. Why invest in something that I really enjoy and know I’m skilled in, but can’t say for certain will sustain me financially? 

I didn’t even consider that I could do both.

I eventually found my way to creative work a year and some change post-grad, but for fellow Midwesterner Waleed Johnson, the opportunity to pursue both the practical and the creative found him during his undergraduate studies, just as he was beginning to let go of art altogether. 


“Growing up, my mom could keep me entertained by just giving me a pencil and a stack of paper

“After a bit of back and forth with my mom in high school about potentially pursuing an art career, I abandoned that idea and went into engineering,” Waleed explained. He realized a passion for art as a child, noting that all his mother had to do to keep him entertained was “give [him] a pencil and a stack of paper.” 

Waleed Johnson at the “Detroit Future History” opening at Irwin House Gallery.

The Notre Dame engineering student just needed an opportunity to present itself.

“I thought that was the end of art for me, but in college I found out that my university had a 5-year dual degree program specifically designed for engineering students. After some thought, I decided to do that, with a BA in Studio Art being my second degree. I entered the program late, so I had to cram everything in to get the degree, but that’s where I learned to paint.”

Now, the Detroit-based artist manages to balance both his engineering day job and his impressive painting career. 

Looking at Waleed’s art — the powerful, vulnerable portraits and murals that leave you pondering the meaning behind them — you may assume that painting was always second nature to him. He acknowledges, though, that it took some training.

“I took two painting classes as part of my degree. The first was in the fall of 2014, and it started off pretty rocky,” Waleed explained. “In fact, I remember working on my second painting and thinking to myself, ‘painting is not for me.’ Thankfully, I stuck with it. Eventually, things began to click and by the time I graduated, I had fallen in love with it and wanted to continue doing it.”

Paintings by Waleed Johnson

Waleed received high praise for his impressive painting talents, even winning two scholarships at Notre Dame: the Barbara H. Roche Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Painting, and the Mabel L. Mountain Painting Prize, both in 2015. 5 years post-grad, Waleed has now been featured in galleries and shows across the Midwest and had four pieces published in The International Review of African American Art’s Creative Class of Detroit.

Despite the accolades he managed for himself in the infancy of his painting career, Waleed stays driven and curious, and is focused on bettering himself and his work. 

“I don’t know if I have a favorite piece—my goal is always to make my latest piece better than the ones before it—but I do feel like I have a favorite series of pieces, which was the “Reflections” series,” Waleed shared.

Paintings by Waleed Johnson

You can view the full reflections series here.

“I think those pieces challenged me technically and creatively to convey my vision on a new material that I wasn’t used to working on. It also took me a while to refine my concept, and thinking about that journey makes me feel good. A nationally known collector, George N’Namdi, who also has a gallery in Detroit, bought two of my paintings from that series for his personal collection. I’d have to say that that is my proudest accomplishment thus far.”

Of course, working a full-time job and dedicating your spare time to art can prove difficult, and Waleed opened up about the challenges he faces. 

“Since I’m not [a full-time artist], there are only so many shows I can be a part of, and I don’t yet have the exposure available to some artists in my community who are doing this full time,” Waleed shared. “The important things are to educate yourself about the path you’re taking, know your goals, and having a plan to accomplish them.”

With a job as demanding as engineering, I was curious to know where Waleed’s inspiration comes from. 

“People inspire me. I love how we can instantly connect with an image of a person; usually more so than an image of something else. I appreciate the intricacies of portraiture: even the most subtle facial expressions can change the meaning of a painting and can evoke emotions,” Waleed explained.

Paintings by Waleed Johnson

He’s particularly enthusiastic about color, and finds himself most inspired to portray people of color in his work.

“Color and the mood and meaning it can bring to a picture also inspires me. My work focuses mainly on people of color because I feel that there need to be more images of us in the art world. My work is constantly evolving, but I’ve explored themes of race and racism, diversity, identity, and I’ve even started exploring the themes of mental health and anxiety in some of my most recent work.”


“I want to create images that are beautiful, but ultimately my desire is for these images to be ones that people can connect with, causing them to think.”

There’s much to be said about young Black artists establishing themselves within the fine arts. It’s a predominantly white, often Eurocentric field, and many Black artists find themselves compelled to share the stories of our people and other marginalized, muted communities. We deserve to be seen, for all of our strength and pride, but also for our vulnerability and humanity. 

Waleed is able to contribute to this art because he didn’t give up when things were confusing. He took opportunities to learn, endured the growing pains, found what inspired him, and is now doing the thing he loves most — and he’s doing it well.

Waleed’s advice to artists in need of a confidence boost?

“As long as you’re constantly working on improving, and you have a vision for your work, you’re moving in the right direction.” 

Pro tip: find a friend like Waleed, and keep them close. He’s a walking, talking example of Young Black Artist excellence, and we’re excited to see how his art evolves.


Stay connected and check out more of Waleed’s work below!

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About the author

I was born to two Ethiopian immigrants in the great city of Indianapolis, Indiana, and moved to Brooklyn, New York after graduating from Indiana University in 2016. I currently spend my days as an Associate Creative at BuzzFeed, writing posts and directing videos and photo shoots for tech + finance brands and nonprofits.

I identify as a storyteller; someone who helps others find and amplify their voices, works to connect people to one another, and helps make a rapidly shifting media landscape more educational, inclusive, and representative of the world we live in. I’m passionate about sharing Black stories, and I’m so excited to show the world how deeply, dynamically talented we are, in every corner of the diaspora!

In my free time, you can find me reading, people watching in Bed-Stuy cafes, or watching old Vines (RIP).

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