Trying To Make Sense of Something

an artist profile by Devon McKnight

It’s Saturday night, and we’re sitting in Wardell McNeal’s bedroom. Two distracting black kittens are investigating my new smells and playing with anything worth pouncing. It’s a small space in East Oakland. The room is bookshelves. Shelves filled with philosophy, fiction, poetry, Derrida, Baudrillard, Murakami. 

Wardell sits at a tiny desk with an overhead light where he works on his paintings in the small amount of non-working hours he has. His daily grind is trouble shooting marketing strategies and product design at A2B in San Francisco, a company that designs and manufactures electric bikes.  It’s one of those jobs where you’re never really not working, a lot of after hours and late nights. So the weekends have become Wardell’s “studio time.”

He contemplates his everyday sketches. Sketches he makes on the BART commutes from the East Bay to the City or in bars after work where he unwinds with a shot and a beer. These drawings are where I first encountered Wardell under his Instagram name @post_structure. To me these sketches are the work, constant figures of the downtrodden. I was drawn to the mess, the history of line, the prolific-ness, the everyday, the seen, the felt truth of it all.

The sketches exist as themselves, as practice, and as reference. Ideation. They’re him, they’re what he sees and they’re what he sees in others. They’re the overlooked bodies of a society who forgets.

I’m reminded of modern masters like Matisse and Picasso that drew constantly. Constantly sketching models. Contemplating the world through the figure. Wardell wants to perfect his skill. He wants to challenge himself. He wants to know everything. He’s hungry. He shows me pages in his stack of sketchbooks where thoughts were born, where they appear again in another more elevated form, and then later in one of his paintings. Having never been to art school where one presumably learns to paint and draw and sculpt, he has recently embarked on teaching himself. He reads books about Picasso’s Guernica, studies how-to’s on the steps of painting and references Caravaggio’s depictions of horrifying scenes. He sees a Barry McGee show and is inspired. He visits St. Louis and Ferguson and a concept is born.  He is a student of life.  Wardell is an observer, seeing the fine print in the everyday, slowly connecting ever-present parts of his life.  

I ask him where the people in his drawings come from. It’s complicated, but it goes back to his first models, his younger brothers who are twins. Long face, round nose, larger lips. Back in the day he’d draw his brothers with exaggerated features and they’d hate it.

But this was also Wardell creating character. You can see his sketches mimic his mood. A long BART ride after a late night working delivers sleepy passengers, or the weight of financial and racial burdens gives way to a long-necked, slumped-over figure.  

I struggle as I write this to name the facial expression: 

-Tired, but a specific tired, tied tightly to a constant head above water and the water is thick with blood

-Disbelief, in the blatant destruction of the body, your body, and a world that is complicit

-Profound loss, as a daily, every single day emotion 

I ask when his practice of daily sketches and Instagram posts started, “sketching and ‘gramming sparsely 2.5 years ago, then started being religious about it around November of last year.”

In late November of 2014, Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown was acquitted of any murder charges and the nation erupted in protests. 

These gestures are the sadness of today, the weight that our generation carries from home to job and out with friends and back home and in to bed with us. 

For the majority of people of color in this country, everyday is like quicksand, eating them alive as they walk down the street. But Wardell stays hungry for more knowledge and skill and life, day in and day out, in the midst of a society where young black bodies have become our detritus.

When I ask Wardell why he draws, he says, “I’m just trying to make sense of something.”

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