Scrolling along the Instagram feed of painter and entrepreneur, Gerda Boateng, you are met with a few distinct features: the colorful and lush watercolors, the beautiful depiction of Black female figures and the occasional smiling creator of that work. She paints mostly Black women, whose faces register calm confidence against playful backdrops. In speaking with her, there is a cheerful and determined tone that comes across. She is firmly and yet somehow delicately carving her place in the art world. Born in Ghana, she moved to Canada at the age of 6, and quickly learned how to take hold of the life she wanted to live.
“I’d rather be broke doing something that I love than waking up every day hating my own life and making money.”
Mixed Media by Gerda
“For me, coming here and learning to be independent and figure things out on your own has been a great quality for me to have when you’re wanting to become an entrepreneur and I think that’s why I want to do it so badly, because I don’t want to rely on anyone to make me who I want to be. I don’t need another establishment to make me feel like I’m a success because they’re giving me this paycheck. I want to feel successful because I’m doing something I genuinely love and I’m making money from it.” Gerda Boateng, much to my surprise, is a self-taught artist. She had intentions of becoming formally trained but found the academic world of art to be toxic. Although she recognized the need to be thick-skinned, the lack of allies and negative environment impressed upon her a notion that art just wasn’t for her. She tells me some of that story. “… I found that the critiques of my work, it was never positive. Even if it wasn’t good enough, [there] was no positivity at the end of the criticism….You have to have thick skin when it comes to that, so I was fine with that. But when I was hearing it from every angle, every professor, I was like ‘what am I even doing here? I don’t even know why I’m here’. I just had to get through it, graduate with my degree, and then figure out where I was going from there. But I knew art was not the way for me. After having those four years of experience, I got the degree [in Design] but no passion for art.”
So, for years she turned away from art, or so it seemed. She found herself in creative positions that cultivated her eye for putting beautiful things together and, at the same time, communicating a message. Since her interests and skills ranged across various areas of design, she found that she could do a lot. Rather than being confined, she branched out. Eventually she realized, her path was leading her away from a traditional nine to five and towards working for herself. But at first, things were rough before they got better. She recalled finding good work but not quite being fulfilled. It was in uncertain times when her health took a turn that she found her way to art again. “When you’re going through something like that, you’re just kind of thinking to yourself…time is not really on your side. You just start to think and worry about what’s going on, and what’s going to happen.”
Luckily she came through with a bill of good health, and a newfound power. With her mom as a supportive figure, she began posting her drawings and art on Instagram. “…I was more motivated to do more with it because I felt like now I can use my art to say something. Now I can use my art to express who I am…”
Watercolor by Gerda
“I prefer to draw Black women especially because I feel that when it comes to us, there’s a certain form of art that we’re usually used to looking at when it depicts us.” She noted that Black people are often portrayed in serious manners, perhaps it provides depth, perhaps it shows our struggles. But what if there was another side to us? “…I wanted to have something that expressed Black art but differently because I felt that, when girls see this art, Black girls, and women see my art I, number one, want them to see themselves in it but I want them to see themselves positively, light-hearted. The reason my females have this lush look is I want them to be very tranquil, kind of Zen. They’re in deep thought but not too much thought. It’s honestly not intentional and I think that’s why our art expresses who we are without even realizing. Everything I draw, I don’t intentionally try to give them that look. It just happens that all my figures have that same stare.”“…I want to be able to provide something that [Black girls and women] can find that expresses them, and they find it beautiful.”
The path to finding your style and finding your voice is winding. Early days of posting were less curated and less focused. Having many talents and just as many interests, Gerda found that she was posting a lot of everything. Her Instagram is called GerdaCreates with a tagline of The Gerda Project. “I feel like there are so many things I’m trying to have a hand in. And so, my Instagram is that process. Now my art is that expression of it because I found that thing I love and it works for me, and other people appreciate it. And I’m just happy with where the project went. If you saw my Instagram before it was like…I did jewelry, I did hair, I did everything.” She is now more focused in on creating certain kinds of work and creating with purpose. So why watercolor?
“I went to watercolor, because I felt that number one, I like instant gratification. I shouldn’t say that, but I do. I like that it dries quickly, and I don’t have to wait forever. Even though there’s the process of layering to get the color you want, but it’ll be done, it dries fast. And I went for the watercolor because I like the [whimsical nature] of it and how the colors can be very light… I felt like it was expressing what I wanted and I stuck with it.” She has dabbled with oil, charcoal, and ink. She’s not afraid to explore but she knows what she likes and what she’s good at. Finding yourself as an artist takes knowing what that artist likes and what you can do with what you like. Circling back to the her statement on doing what she enjoys, she found that there are other truths to accept in the entrepreneurial world. Truths like not everybody will love you do, but you should. And, “…as every entrepreneur knows just because you come up with this idea doesn’t mean that anybody’s gonna love it, and even if they do love it doesn’t mean that they’re gonna buy it, and even if they’re gonna buy it, it doesn’t mean that they’ll spend hundreds… you know, it takes a while before you get to a point where you feel like you’re doing well.” It’s being able to accept what you can control and lean into the available resources. For Gerda, she’s able to lean into the art community in Ontario.
Mixed Media by Gerda
“If I am able to be exposed in some type of establishment where it’ll showcase my work on a lot of things besides art prints, I think that would be when I’ll feel like I have hit the milestone that I’ve always wanted, which is to have my work being owned and seen by everybody. Whether you like it or not, it’s here.” Gerda has been able to showcase her work in galleries and at art and market events. She was recently able to showcase work with Black Owned Unity, an organization focused on building economic empowerment and Black Women in Motion, a grass-roots initiative with programs designed to help young Black females transition into adulthood. “There are a lot of opportunities that people have made available to me. I’m grateful because I think they like what I’m doing. There are people that invite me to these certain things or let me know I can be a vendor at certain things or showcase my art. In the community that we have here I feel like people are open to support one another. Black people here in Canada, in Ontario, we’re all trying to grind; we’re all trying to be successful on our own and so we have a lot of opportunities to do that.” She aims for shows that support the Black community but also attract a wide audience. For her, it’s about coming together. “…being able to be a part of these events that support us, bring us together and allows us to see what is available, that’s where my heart is at.”“…As I get more serious about it I realize I have a purpose: it’s for Black people. I’m not trying to prevent anybody else from enjoying it, but this is for us, I create for us”.
“I’m starting off simple, doing what I know I can do no matter what and then I think as I get more comfortable with the commissions then maybe I’ll venture out and try new things. Right now, its pencil, charcoal, ink, watercolor.” As a new and scary move, Gerda has taken on commissions. What makes commissions so scary anyway? “It’s a step within my journey that I’ve had to get over because it makes me very anxious. I have to do and draw people that are looking for it to be exactly like them. There’s just so much pressure that goes into doing a commission for a piece of work. I’m getting over that fear.” She’s facing her fear by doing. In time, she hopes to become more and more comfortable taking on these kinds of projects. For her, providing quality work is no laughing matter. She wants clients to feel like they have been given something worth their money and, as an artist, she wants to feel she has created something worth giving. It’s a form of stretching and challenging herself all for the sake of growing as an artist.
Watercolor by Gerda
“I try to stretch myself by doing or creating things without references, or creating things without knowing exactly how to do it and hope to figure out ‘if I do this wash of color and add this to it, let’s see what happens’ and if it does what I’m wanting it to do then at least I know for next time I can try this technique. And usually if it doesn’t work out then I resort to YouTube because it saves everyone. It saves us all.” For her, there are no signs of slowing down.
For other creatives out there, she had this message to communicate about the idea that artists are in constant competition with one another:
“What you create and what I create will never look the same to an onlooker. The person who loves your work, will love your work no matter how it compares to mine. [We] are in an industry that’s allowing us to express the wonderfulness that’s in our fingertips and we don’t have to fight each other to be able to do that. We don’t have to take from somebody else or try to be mean to another artist…So, it doesn’t matter how saturated you think that this art industry is, us being creatives there’s always going to be a venue for us. We’re always going to have the ability to expose our art. People will find a way to love it. It doesn’t have to be that ‘if I get this then you won’t.’”
In other words, people feel like there’s a limited number of seats at the table. There’s not. There will always be a fan of your art and people to appreciate what it is only you can do.
CHECK OUT MORE WORKS BY Gerda:
Artist Gerda Boateng showcasing her artwork