My family was wrecked by the early death of my father. I was still an infant when he died but I grew up among the refuse of his loss. Then at the age of 14 my beloved step-father died. Something clicked in me then, a will to look at tragedy head on and to deal with it. I remember returning to school after my step-father's funeral and making a conscious choice to hold my head up and move on with optimism - my first of many survival tools.
As a young adult, I continued to grow and learn. The biggest lesson came as I shepherded my mother through over a decade of health issues including three brain surgeries for a non-malignant brain tumor. I gave her the best possible care I could while raising a family, until the very end. I held her in my arms when she died. I have looked death straight in the face.
But before she died my mother taught me another important survival tool - joy. Even as she struggled with her brain tumors, I witnessed her time and again turn nurses and doctors into applauding, laughing friends.
My whole life has taught me the definition of melancholy; beauty within sadness.
I bring all these tools; melancholy, straight forwardness, joy, and optimism to my art practice. In my photography, paintings, and prints I have tried to look head on into the major issues of my day, to find or create my own story within them, and to make new room for empathy, joy and even optimism.
Creating this art not only transformed by life, but the lives of my family. As my wife and I worked with Montagnard refugees, we took along our toddler aged son. He vividly remembers entering the homes of close refugee friends and seeing a whole hog being slaughtered in their kitchen. Today, he is an attorney for the ACLU working on immigration issues along the US / Mexico border. Our second child grew up playing in my studio and today is a writer and artist teaching in Chicago schools. Gay and Trans, we celebrate the unique gifts she brings to our family and the world.
Today, my wife and I live in Manhattan where we run a Quaker intentional community. During the Covid Pandemic we stayed put when others fled the city. We walked the empty streets of New York City and came to know and love Gotham in a new, more intimate way. My art has been shaped by those walks, when we had nothing but graffiti and architecture to look at as people and open stores were mostly absent.
Looking straight on at whatever crisis has come to me, embracing melancholy, joy, empathy, and optimism has not only helped me survive but given me a lifetime of reward.
I hope my art work imparts some of all that to you.
- Todd Drake
Q: Why is your web address "the-equalist"?
A: I believe we are all equally human. I make art to remind us of our shared humanity and shared responsibility.
Todd Drake is an interdisciplinary artist who focuses on human rights and environmental issues through photography, painting, and printmaking.
Originally from the North Carolina, Drake lives and works in New York City.
Recipient of a Rockefeller Fellowship, numerous Fulbright-Hayes, North Carolina Arts Council, and Department of Education grants, Drake has exhibited across the United States and internationally including exhibitions in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
He has also authored and designed books used extensively in educational setting including Going to Carolina del Norte (design and photography by Drake, authored by Dr. Hannah Gill ), Feeling a Type of Way, and A Journey Like Us -Getting from There to Here. The latter is used in programing in international high schools. His most recent book in title Other Tears, Recognizing Signs of Trauma In Children and was inspired and dedicated to the children separated from the families at the US/ Mexico border.
Drake's most recent solo exhibition is Rising and is a series of prints and pen and ink drawings dealing with the issue of Global Warming. His surrealistic imagery links his experiences growing up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with his concerns for what will be lost due to the rising tides of Climate Crisis.
Drake's photos have been included in the exhibition Gateways / Portales on undocumented immigration at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum, Drake's traveling exhibitions have also shown in college venues including Rhode Island School of Design, New York University, in museums such as the Heart Mountain Interpretative Center (site of Japanese American Internment during WWII), and museums such as Mathers Museum, the Weatherspoon Art Museum and the South Eastern Center for Contemporary Art ( SECCA.)
Working in a wide variety of media with a focus on printmaking, photography, and installation, Drake’s interest in activism, teaching, and visual based research has led him to create exhibitions that blur the lines between art making, curating, and teaching.
He has worked collaboratively with communities including Muslim Americans, undocumented immigrants, and Palestinians.
Drake’s work documenting the lives of Muslim Americans came to the attention of the United Nations and resulted in his invitation to travel as a visiting artist for the US State Department.
In 2011, Drake traveled to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to conduct workshops and exhibit work from his Esse Quam Videri - Muslim Self Portrait Project. This ongoing project is supported by the Center for Global Initiatives at the University of North Carolina.
In 2013, Drake worked in Palestine where he traveled and held workshops across the West Bank and Jerusalem, culminating in an exhibition at The International Academy of Art -Palestine, in Ramallah.
He has also worked extensively with the undocumented immigrant communities in the American South and those left behind in Mexico. Drake wrote and illustrated a children's book Give Me Eyes. (Video version) He has also created the exhibition HELP: Hidden Work, Hidden Lives. This traveling exhibition draws connections over exploitative labor practices from the era of slavery through Jim Crow to undocumented immigration. Drake was also instrumental in helping FaithAction International House initiate a faith based community ID Program, important and valued by both the police and immigrant communities.
Drake's photo series include a book project titled A Journey Like Us: Learning from Diversity. Supported by NC Arts Council grants, Drake collaborated with a wide range of students including immigrant students who attend several North Carolina high schools to share their struggles and triumphs through portraits and their own writing.
Drake also revisits his family's connection to model homes in a series and relates his own story to the wider issue of poverty, and the loss of the American Dream. Titled Dreams Deferred, this series begins with Drake's father who built mobile homes in the early 1960s and looks at the vintage mobile home as a symbol of loss, both personal and societal.
Drake currently lives in Manhattan where he co-manages a communal living house with his wife, teaches, and makes his art where he can including on his kitchen table and in the ally by his building. He teaches art and advertising at Manhattan Early College School for Advertising in lower Manhattan.
Drake enjoys running, biking, swimming, playing the mandolin and is married with two amazing grown children.
Resume and Selected Exhibitions
Peace Pole Installation with Handmade Posters, Stuyvesant Square Park, NYC Parks Department, New York, NY
Entwined Voices, Interactive Open House, 15 Rutherford Place, New York, NY
Rising Prints and Paintings on Global Warming, Solo Show at Dredgers Gowanus Canoe Club, Brooklyn, NY
Love Over Hate Print, giveaway to essential workers and the community during Covid Pandemic, 215 E 15th Street, New York, NY
Other Tears: Recognizing Signs of Trauma in Children, self-published portfolio book, New York, NY
You Never Walked Alone, Double mural installation at FaithAction International House, Greensboro, NC
Unit in Light Community Performance using lighted signs promoting unity, Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Monthly Meeting, Brooklyn, NY
Permanent Installation of Feeling a Type of Way photo series at Brownsville Academy High School, Brooklyn, NY Made possible with support from CAMBA and BRIC Arts Media.
Gateways Portales, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC
Open C(all): Up for Debate, Group show at BRIC Arts Media House, Brooklyn, NY
A Journey Like Us, Portraits from NE Guilford High School, FaithAction International House, Greensboro, NC
SALAAM being here: Photography, Installation, Hanes Gallery and campus of Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, Sept 24th thru October 9th, 2015
Just Us, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC
Remote Sites of War: Todd Drake, Skip Rhohde, Christopher Sims, at Fine Art Museum, April 10-May 30, 2014, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC
Double Vision - Perspectives from Palestine, March 3-28, Curtis Harley Gallery, University of South Carolina Upstate
The Stories We Tell, Workshops and exhibition,
International Academy of Art-Palestine, Ramallah
American House, Jerusalem
Immigration and Refugee Day Exhibition, UNCG, Greensboro, NC
Reorienting The Veil Exhibition and Conference, UNC, Chapel Hill, NC
Elon University, Elon, NC
Zones of Contention - US/Mexico Border, Weatherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, NC
Mathers Museum, Bloomington, ID
Heart Mountain (Site of WWII Japanese Interment Camp), Powell, WY
Group Exhibition, Dhahran, Saudia Arabia
Bahrain Center of Art, Manama, Bahrain
Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, Durham, NC
New York University, New York, NY
Rhode Island School of Art and Design Providence, RI
Theory on Community Based Art Making
" I can't tell you how much it means that you take the time to form friendships with and between the people in your writings and portraits. No one ever feels objectified. Your work preserves the dignity of your subjects."
- Sonya Parker, project participant
“All humans are not equal.” I have heard this stated again and again in my travels around the world - in The United States, Germany, Mexico, Palestine, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. At its core, this comment is pointing out the real inequities that exist between people; inequities in access to resources, freedom, and healthcare. Such a statement usually follows on the heels of my sharing the belief that all people are equally human. This is also true. In fact, its denial is the meta reason for the former; when we deny the humanity of another it becomes easy to exploit, to maintain obvious inequities, or to kill. My work shines a light on this practice by presenting marginalized communities in their full humanity. Through images and narratives that spot light their individual struggles and personal joys, I provoke the viewing audience to re-examine their assumptions by presenting images and information often in direct opposition to what they have seen before. The tension between the two often bring to the surface stereotypes and assumptions formed through exposure to mass media and not personal experience. To counter this powerful influence, I use tools that are available to me as an artist. Research proves that the human brain remembers most effectively through still images and narratives. I use both to present new information that may take some time to reconcile. I also use venues such as museums, universities, and academic conferences, that offer other learning opportunities on the content found in my exhibitions.
I acquire my content from prolonged periods of working collaboratively with community members. Some projects have taken years to fully execute. Using visual based research methods, I take time to form friendships, study and learn the history of the community, and collect narratives and create images that are shaped deeply by the input of the community. Recognizing the importance of first person perspectives, I also take time to teach image making skills to community members. These efforts have resulted in collaborative exhibitions, and also inspired and supported artists on their own paths. I also take time to give back to the communities by donating my time and resources without the expectation of personal return. These volunteer opportunities are part of a holistic approach to art making that I have found creates unique work, is personally rewarding, beneficial to the communities, and is sustainable.