It’s hard to believe how much emerging artists Nick Davis and Melvin T. Halsey Jr. have in common. I mean, what are the chances of interviewing two artists for the same issue and finding out that both of them got into digital art when their wives gifted them an iPad? But that’s exactly what happened. And it’s not the only thing the two artists have in common.
For Halsey (also known as Langstn), the gift came in 2016.
“[My wife] saw the number of sketchbooks I was going through, so she got me the iPad and told me to try it out,” Halsey told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. “I’ve been hooked on it ever since.”
Halsey says he loves the flexibility of the iPad, above all else.
“I can take it anywhere,” Halsey explained. “If I need to backtrack, I can simply double tap on my screen as opposed to erasing and having a mess everywhere. It’s low maintenance. You can do a lot of things you do on paper, but when you do it on an iPad, or any type of digital surface, it’s a lot smoother and the process is a lot faster.”
Two years later, in 2018, Nick Davis received an iPad from his wife, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Davis was struggling with anxiety and depression after his seizures left him unable to work.
“I had nothing else to do,” Davis told CL. “Just to keep me focused, I started drawing every single day. One day I drew this Black girl and I called it ‘First Day of School,’ and ever since then I’d say God led me and told me to just keep going.”
Davis has always been creative in some form, but the iPad focused his efforts and gave him purpose at a difficult time in his life. Since then, he’s been hard at work, drawing something every day.
“It’s pretty much everything I do,” says Davis. “It keeps me focused. Without that, my mind would go everywhere.”
For software, both Davis and Halsey are big fans of Procreate. Billed as “the complete art studio you can take anywhere,” Procreate was created by and for creative professionals. The popular app allows artists to create professional-quality digital drawings, paintings, and illustrations from start to finish—no additional equipment necessary. At the time I wrote this, you could purchase Procreate in the App Store for just $9.99. There’s definitely a learning curve, but if you have a good eye and you put in the work, it’s possible to create something beautiful in Procreate, as Davis’ and Halsey’s work demonstrates.
Davis and Halsey are both portrait artists, but each has their own style.
Halsey brings a lot of tribal references into his work, from masks to fashion, especially in his “Ancient Roots” drawings. In 2020, his work took a political turn as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum.
“As an artist, I leaned into art activism, and it’s not something I ever thought I would get into,” Halsey told CL. “I usually keep politics and my art separate. Just with everything going on, and my personal experiences in 2020, I feel like I found a way to merge those two without it being overly-political or overly—I can’t even think of the right term for it—oppressive.”
Halsey said the work he’s created this year is some of his favorite, especially “Say their Names.” The piece features a Black woman wearing a yellow headwrap with the names Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Alexia Christian, Atatiana Jefferson, Pamela Turner, Dominique Clayton, Natasha McKenna, Mya Hall, Bettie Jones, Janet Wilson, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, India Kager, and Mary Truxillo. The woman cries, with a cop car in the background, in recognition of all the Black women lost to police violence. Halsey says it’s his most powerful piece yet. It’s also the only one of his digital drawings he displays at home.
“I’ve sold most of [my art], but that one I keep in my house because it just resonates with me,” Halsey told CL. “Everything I felt last year was channeled into that one piece.”
Davis also features Black men and women in his portraits, but his work is rooted in normalcy. Davis depicts Black folks in their natural states to show the world that Black is beautiful.
“I would say black is negatively viewed—people always look at black as a depressing color, or a bad color, and I just want to say that black is more than a color,” says Davis.
Davis launched his “Black is Beautiful” series around June 2019, and he figures he’s drawn about 600-700 pieces since then.
The digital portraits feature people of color and are inspired by the music Davis listens to, pictures, prose, and thoughts. Lately, he’s received a lot of inspiration from Lauryn Hill’s music, which he often listens to while drawing.
“Lauryn Hill is one of my biggest influences lately, for like the last 7-10 sketches,” Davis told CL. “I think she’s just real to herself. Her focus is not to get the reviews of people—she’s not doing it just to pose. She’s more than that. She’s realizing she has to be true to herself.”
It’s something Davis strives for everyday in his life and work, but he says it’s a struggle.
In a Jan. 9 Instagram post, Davis shared a portrait of Lauryn Hill sitting in thought, paired with the Hill quote, “We don’t want people to have expectations of us, but then we have expectations of everybody else.”
When you create on an iPad, social media is an obvious endpoint. It’s the easiest and most efficient way to get your work out there. Davis and Halsey both built substantial followings on Instagram before getting into galleries.
For Halsey, that Instagram account (@lang.stn) was enough to get his work noticed by Michelle Sawyer and Tony Krol of Tampa’s Mergeculture Gallery.
“That’s how the ‘Ancient Roots’ show came about in May 2018,” says Halsey. “That was my very first exhibit ever, and everything sold out that night.
Before that, Halsey wasn’t into the gallery scene. “There’s a realm within art that I was completely unaware of [Mergeculture] opened me up to a whole new world,” Halsey said, add that it was to enough to make him realize that art could become a full-time career for him.
“Before [the ‘Ancient Roots’ show], I just did commissions here and there, but never anything on that scale,” says Halsey. “I’m extremely grateful to them for that opportunity.”
In 2020, Halsey saw even more opportunities to share his art with Tampa Bay. He worked with a team of artists on Tampa’s Black Lives Matter mural at the intersection of East Cass Street and North Jefferson Street, exhibited his work at Mergeculture in Tampa and the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, helped start a new Black artists collective; and collaborated with Crab Devil, Tempus Projects and Illsol on the Cultural Currency mural—which features, in part, Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill—at the Peninsularium.
“For me, 2020 was a great year,” Halsey said, quickly adding “artwise” with a chuckle. “That was my first official mural—the street mural at Cass and Jefferson… It was [Krol’s] idea. He reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, we should start a collective of artists and create opportunities that aren’t there for others.’ After a few meetings, that’s where the New Roots Art Collective was birthed. And then from there we brought on Ron Simmons and Briauna Walker onto the committee. And then we reached out to all the local artists within Hillsborough County to participate. In total, I believe there’s 13 of us.”
As far as art is concerned, 2020 wasn’t a bad year for Nick Davis either. In January 2020, Dalia Colón interviewed Davis for a segment of WEDU Arts Plus. Two months later, as Davis topped 8,700 followers on Instagram (@ndartlife), Aubrey Jackson and J.A. Jones interviewed him for WTSP and The Weekly Challenger, respectively.
Since then, the Dunedin Fine Art Center included his work in its Summer 2020 show, “I’ve Come to Look for America.” And in October 2020, Creative Pinellas selected Davis, along with nine other artists, to receive an emerging artist grant in 2021. As an emerging artist, Davis will show his work in Creative Pinellas’ 2021 Emerging Artist Exhibit later this year.
“To be accepted now is a shock,” Davis told CL. “I think a lot of people see something in me that I don’t really see in myself. It’s good to have my artwork accepted.”
Despite his recent success, Davis still worries about people not accepting his artwork.
“That’s why I think, every day, it’s important to also include education and reading about inspirations and reminding yourself of what’s your purpose in this art world,” said Davis. For him, the point is to encourage others in his community to be themselves and express who they are.
“I think that’s what really led to ‘Black is encouraging, Black is inspiring, Black is love,’ Davis told CL. “It’s a quote I came up with just to encourage my community to accept that Black is beautiful.”
Halsey expresses a desire to help his community express itself as well. Through New Roots Art Collective, Halsey hopes to share his knowledge and connections with other Black artists who aspire to show their work in Tampa Bay’s galleries.
“I can’t give too many details on the one project we’re working on, but it’s tied into workshops with children—getting them more involved in the art process and being that role model or example that you can make a career out of being a full-time artist,” Halsey told CL. “The notion of the starving artist, or that art is more of a hobby, we’re out to change that perspective with examples, events, workshops, and just being active in the community and showing them the way."
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