Artist Uses Her Paintings to Make Others Seen


Photo by Gracie Rhoades.

Artist Ebony Johnson Wright sits in front of her painting, “Portrait of Jamal.” She primarily paints Black figures to showcase the beauty and joy of Black individuals rather than the pain and discrimination frequently portrayed in art. “I just want them to look like they are important,” Wright said about her portraits. “Like they mean something to the world.” Wright’s work has been featured in many galleries, including at UCM, and she has also won multiple awards for her art and the messages it covers.

  Bright ochre yellows, rich cerulean blue and dark, complex mixtures of brown made a series of paintings in a University of Central Missouri art classroom particularly eye-catching. Several three-by-four canvases featured Black people, with paint layered and brushed to create textured hair and facial features enlarged and emphasized to showcase Black beauty and joy.

  Ebony Johnson-Wright will graduate this May with a degree in art education. Her work emphasizes Black beauty, and her goal is for Black people to be seen in modern art. 

  Throughout her time at UCM, Wright has had her artwork hung in multiple galleries and museums and has won several awards. She is cherished by the UCM art and design faculty, who has pushed her to become the artist she is today.

  Rahila Weed, the chair of art and design and the program coordinator for art education, has Wright in class this semester for the first time, overseeing her student teaching. Weed said students like Wright are the reason she went into teaching. 

  “When you have people like Ebony who have grown so much and succeeded, it’s just really rewarding,” Weed said.

  Jasmine Cloud is another art and design professor who taught Wright. 

  “She made an impact on me from the moment she started taking classes with me,” Cloud said. “She has really worked harder than almost any other student I know in terms of seeking out her own success … not everything in my courses has come incredibly easy to her but instead of letting that hold her back, she finds ways to refocus and be very persistent in order to keep moving forward. I have a tremendous amount of respect for her.”

  Wright said that she did not have the greatest home life when growing up. As a kid, she said she did not feel supported by her family, and even though she knew she wanted to be an artist, she said she felt like it wasn’t a real job. 

  Wright is a nontraditional student. After she graduated high school in 2013, she said she didn’t believe she was smart enough to go to college and did not have any plans to pursue higher education. However, after a conversation with a woman from her church, Wright decided to apply.

  Wright started her education career as a speech-pathology major at age 21. At the time, Wright was living with the person who would later become her adopted mother, and Wright wanted to make her proud. She chose speech pathology because she said she felt like it was important, but her adopted mother encouraged her to follow her aspirations of being an artist instead.

  Wright switched to the studio art program and began taking art classes in 2017. In her junior year, she chose to add art education and become a double major. She said her professors helped her hone her passion and art style. 

  “My paintings are my voice,” Wright said. “When they see me, they’ll see my paintings, or if they see my paintings, they’ll see me.”

  A series of Wright’s works were in her senior show last semester, and she had nine portraits in UCM’s Gallery of Art and Design. 

  “The whole goal for that senior show was to make Black people visible,” Wright said. Each portrait was three-by-four feet, and the titles of the pieces included names, such as “Portrait of Darius” and “Portrait of Brionna,” so that potentially, when someone saw the painting, they could see themselves within it.

  One of the areas Wright specifically focuses on are the facial features of Black individuals, especially as many individuals face bias because of them.

  “We’re beautiful, regardless of what we look like,” Wright said. “It needs to be shared, and it needs to be seen.”

  Wright shared the story of a little girl who came to see one of her paintings when it was hung in the George Caleb Bingham Gallery Juried Exhibition in 2021. The painting, titled “I Don’t See Color,” was of two Black women looking in opposite directions, with Black people and children looking up to them.

  “[The girl] was so excited because of the way that I styled the hair on one of the kids,” Wright said. “She was so amazed that she got to see herself in a painting like that … This is exactly the kind of impact I am looking for. I want people to see themselves in my paintings, and it’s working.”

  Wright is on track to become an art teacher, but her true dream is to become a full time artist. Regardless of where life takes her, she has already made a profound impact on so many people, from professors to other artists, to her students and to strangers.

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  • “Portrait of Brionna”

  • “Portrait of Jamal”

  • “Portrait of Malik”

  • “Portrait of Xavier”

  • “Portrait of Darius”

  • “Portrait of Simone”

  • “Portrait of Ebony with Red Glasses”

  • “Fam Bam”

  • “Puffs”

  • “I Don’t See Color”

  • “The Beautiful Ones”