Illustration • Inspiration Interview with Create Guest Editor Rob Zilla

We asked “vector monster” and longtime friend of Create Rob Zilla to help us highlight underrepresented artists. 

Alejandro Chavetta is Adobe Create’s Editor in Chief. 

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, we at Adobe Create have taken a close look at the content we’ve put out over the past several years, and we feel that we’ve done our readers, and the creative community as a whole, a disservice: we have failed to properly represent the diversity of that community, specifically in terms of showcasing Black creatives and their work. To remedy this, we’re launching a new program that will continue indefinitely. Each month, we will hire a notable Black creative and welcome them onto our editorial board, to help us curate and showcase stories and social-media content about other Black artists they admire. 

Our first guest editor is well known to people who read Create, attend Adobe MAX, or tune into Adobe Live—Rob Zilla, a.k.a. Robert Generette III, frequently works with Adobe; as a matter of fact, Adobe commissioned him to create the image that accompanied the company’s message of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  

self portrait of artist Rob Zilla

A self-portrait by Rob Zilla—get to know the man just a little bit better in our 2016 interview, “18 Increasingly Irrelevant Questions for Robert Generette III.”

This month, Rob will be choosing a handful of artists that we will highlight on our Instagram channel. I also spoke to Rob via video chat as we kicked the project off. 

Alejandro Chavetta: Thank you for making time for a conversation. So, as we explained when we first reached out to you, we wanted to have a plan of action—to really take this seriously and acknowledge the fact that we haven’t been doing a good job, and to try to remedy that. I want to enable people to tell their stories, and to use the privilege and platform that we have to do that, because I think what we’re going through today as a collective community has painted a clear picture of how we have failed the Black community and how we have left people out, or not proactively sought them out. We’re so glad that you’ve agreed to be our first curator, to help Create tell people’s stories. 

Rob Zilla: I think it’s a little bit harder right now to tell those stories because there are so many people who want to be heard. Everything has happened so quickly—I don’t think that I fully had an opportunity to really get to express myself, on the topic of the current uprising and protests. So much is happening right now and so much is being uncovered. It’s like I’m in this crowd of people shouting and I’ve got to wait for them to take a breath, so I can quickly blurt out what I’ve got to say…. It’s coming. But I have to get past the emotional part of it first. I didn’t want to be too emotional about it—the main emotion that comes up is anger. 

AC: Yes, that’s the reaction. I feel like there’s a difference between response and reaction. We can react, but responding is very different, more thoughtful. People are expecting us to react in situations that are tragic or very difficult. I wanted to develop more of a response. I’m trying to understand it at the same time, and think about how we can start a conversation that can continue to evolve. 

RZ: So my wife is an educator as well, but her field of study is mathematics—and the whole thing when it came down to that common core thing, or what most folks consider new math, was that it was just a process of acknowledging that there is more than one way of solving a problem or getting to a solution. And I kind of apply that to a whole lot of subjects—like, there’s not just a single one-size-fits-all answer for everybody…. The whole outlook on this thing—I’ve got two sons, and it’s scary. It’s scary. Like you can look suspicious to someone and that can be your last moment—just looking suspicious, you haven’t even done anything wrong. All these minor infractions, all these unarmed black men. It’s crazy to me. 

AC: A really eye-opening thing for me is that it’s not really about looking suspicious; it’s that the color of your skin determines that—that’s the only reason. It’s not that you dressed funny or you were in the wrong place. When you’re a Black person, that supersedes everything else…. I feel like we have not been educated enough and haven’t been open to really understanding that story so we would be better able to address it. And now we’re all panicking…but it has been here all the time; people have been screaming about this for a long time. It’s just that we have not been listening. 

RZ: I think Will Smith had the best quote: “It’s been around, but it’s just now being filmed.” Whoever thought of putting cameras on the back of phones—in a way they actually sparked this movement. It’s interesting—and I think that for the important thing for me as a creator is to direct attention to it. I want to effectively speak to somebody who may be on the fence about things.  

“These uncomfortable conversations, we have to have them. When it’s something that’s urgent, we have to initiate the conversation.”  

 

AC: Creativity is such a powerful tool. So how do we present that as a possibility, a tangible thing, with everything out there that gets in the way of people’s possibility? People need to see themselves in this world. They need to see role models. Creativity is such a powerful tool to be able to do what you love for a living. And it can be hard to figure this out. 

RZ: I’m still putting that jigsaw puzzle together myself, man. It was rough at first. I didn’t have enough padding when I jumped out of education and went into freelance full-time. 

AC: Do you miss teaching now that you’ve been a full-time illustrator for a while? 

RZ: I taught here in Maryland for about twenty years. I taught from pre-K all the way up to twelfth grade—mostly art, but the final four years was film photography, 35mm film. And I loved it. It was selling my passion, which was creating art—and to teenagers, that can be a hard sell. At the same time, I always considered myself a student-teacher because there were things I’d learn along the way as I was teaching. A lot of photographic composition things have made their way into how I do illustration…. I do miss it. I want to actually go back and teach photography again, get in the darkroom with the kids, see that surprised look on their face when a negative turns into a photo. To see the confused look—the possibilities of this antique machine that their grandfather had in the closet. It’s cool to see the world as they see it, which you do when they capture these moments. I tell them, “You’re not taking pictures. You’re capturing a moment.” I always taught photography as a form of storytelling. 

AC: That’s a very interesting take on it because in the age of Instagram, we often don’t think about photography as a narrative form…we have been taking it for granted. I was listening to one of your interviews or videos— I think it was with Paul Trani—and you were saying how technology is just another tool; it’s not about starting with it, it’s just another thing that you use. 

RZ: Yeah, I mean digital technology is all very expensive crayons. I’m speaking to you through an iPad right now, and no disrespect to Apple—but it’s a very expensive crayon…. But back to what you were saying, this is the funny thing and why I enjoy teaching more with the analog form of photography: it forces the kids to be more selective about what they actually press the shutter button for. When they’re using their phones, they can just press the button or shoot it in burst mode. Even when they get to digital photography, they can take endless shots. But with film, there are 24 exposures. They’ve got to wind that film one shot at a time, and they’ve got to really think.  

Rob recently developed this image for a Skillshare class about drawing coloring pages. The Skillshare will be released in August. 

AC: The Black Lives Matter piece that you did for Adobe—what was your thinking about that? How did you land on the raised fists as the image you wanted to use?

RZ: Well, it was the first thing that came to mind, and I can give a couple of explanations. First, there’s the solidarity represented by the fingers coming together to form a fist. This was an emotional piece as well—you know that meme of the cartoon character Arthur, where he’s upset and he’s balled his hand into a fist? It’s a cartoon, but it represents that first reaction you have when you want to fight, when you feel cornered—you ball your fist up; it’s a defensive stance. Then I had the notion of showing different types of people standing together…. One of the fists in that composition is actually one of my sons. It was his fist. The main fist in that composition was mine. And I wanted to get different perspectives and genders. Two fists were women’s…. To elevate a fist, it symbolizes an uprising. It’s a peaceful stance because you’re unarmed. And there’s hope in those fists being elevated together; it’s a strong vertical stance. I submitted some other stuff; I submitted some dialog bubbles saying that Black lives matter. You know, that’s a show of solidarity too, everybody standing behind one phrase. 

AC: You have young kids—what do you tell them about what’s happening in our country right now, and how do they deal with it? How is this all affecting you as a dad?

RZ: I have the difficult conversations when they need to be had. I have been telling them for years—you’re little Brown boys, so you can’t do some of the things that your counterparts do, that other kids can do. For instance, you have to be careful about being emotional, because any emotion can be taken as aggression when you’re a little Brown boy…. My 12-year-old son and I have escaped from the house during the quarantine to drive around the neighborhood and hunt Pokémon. It was on one of those trips that he asked me who George Floyd was. And I tried to find the most direct way to tell him, keeping in mind that he’s 12…. As a parent of course I want to shelter him from some of that stuff, from the ugliness. But these uncomfortable conversations, we have to have them. When it’s something that’s urgent, we have to initiate the conversation. 

 

Follow Adobe Create on Instagram to see the artists Rob Zilla chooses to feature over the coming month—and to find out who our next guest editors will be in this ongoing series. We will also add them to this page, below, as they are featured on Instagram. 

The first pick we are rolling out is @Kokayi, a Washington, D.C.–based artist, producer, and designer. “Living While Black,” his seven-song EP, is “a snapshot into the micro- and macroaggressions experienced by a Black person living in America on any given day.” Curator Rob Zilla says, “At the start of the movement, Kokayi released a video on his Instagram account of him reciting recently written lyrics. His composition touched on everything I either thought or felt in the moment. In the past, musicians provided a soundtrack for movements. This story needs one. Synesthesia.” For early access to new beats and projects, go to Kokayi’s Patreon page.

Next up is Dian Holton (@dianholton), an art director at AARP, an artist, and a stylist. Her passions include publishing, philanthropy, fashion, travel, and footwear design. Adobe Create guest curator Rob Zilla says, “Dian Holton creates ‘Daily Digits’—numeric characters and forms with the placement of conventional items. She is a creative statistician. For me, numbers and data relative to this topic are key in providing facts, starting that uncomfortable conversation, and inspiring others to tell their stories.” Holton says, “‘Daily Digits 8:46,’ constructed with funeral flowers, represents the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck.”

 

Rob’s final choice is Fresh Daily (@freshdotdaily), also known as Michael Richardson, a  cartoonist, graphic designer, and illustrator based in Oakland, California. With a background in commercial art and cartooning, Fresh Daily works in a simple, bold style with a heavy emphasis on illustration. He collaborates frequently with music artists but also works on projects across the spectrum of design. Adobe Create guest curator Rob Zilla says, “Currently, people of color are seen as a threat by many, but Michael visually dispels this myth. His recent series of prints depict scenes from ‘Black life’ using a soft color palettes of color with black abstract figures as the focal point. The power is in the interaction of his subjects and the omission of facial details, which allows viewers to envision themselves in the scenes. Empathy.” 

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