24 Hours That Changed My Life Forever: The Phoenix Art Museum & Meeting Kehinde Wiley / by Antoinette Cauley

It seems like just a yesterday I was a middle school kid laying on my bed drawing photos of all of my favorite athletes and musicians. I loved art more than I even knew how to comprehend. In a world full of uncertainty, loss and confusion it was my only constant. Life was tough as a teenager and the power to create was the only thing that gave me real purpose. It was true love in the form of liberation. But, it was just something I did. It was never something I thought could be a career, that is, up until the end of 2013. That's when the seed was planted my journey as a working artist began. I am now a full time working artist and the journey has been quite the roller coaster.

I saw a friend of mine a few weeks ago who goes by the name of PK Tha Poet. He told me something that really had me in awe of how far I have come. He said, “Antoinette do you remember the first conversation we had? You told me that you wanted your paintings to hang in the Art Museum. That was two years ago. So when I look at your posts I just think ‘Damn she’s so close.’” It wasn't until that moment that I realized where I actually am and how far I have come. Working with the Phoenix Art Museum for the opening night of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic was in my opinion the first step towards the direction I want to go as an artist.

In order to really understand the importance of this experience I need to take you back. I was depressed. I couldn’t paint. It was hard to move or to even get out of bed. It was July 2016 and I had just gotten back from Denver’s Black Arts Festival. I had a goal in Denver and I didn’t meet that goal. I felt like a failure. That sense of failure led to severe depression. One day I was sitting in my car on the phone with one of my best friends and I was telling him how I had been feeling. I was telling him how hard it was to get out of my funk. As we were talking my FB notifications popped up and told me that Kehinde Wiley commented on my painting I had done. It was a recreation of one of his pieces. I broke down. It was like the Universe was saying, “Don’t give up Antoinette. I have and will always have your back. Remember that.” What were the odds that my all-time favorite artist, my absolute HERO would leave a positive comment on my photo when I was feeling so hopeless? SO, you can imagine how shocked I was to receive an email from the Phoenix Art Museum a few weeks later stating that they wanted to know if I would be interested in facilitating life drawing at a special event featuring a collection of work from Kehinde Wiley. I was a little in shock and overwhelmed with joy!

And so, the process began! I was asked to during First Friday which was the opening night of the Wiley exhibition that he himself would be in attendance for. The behind the scenes process was so amazing to witness and be apart of. There were meetings, tours of the museums library and education centers, studios and galleries I had yet to explore. I even had the opportunity to wander the museum on a day it was closed and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Talk about incredible! One of the most memorable parts about the experience leading up to the big night was filming a short video. It was like a dream seeing myself talk about who I am as an artist as well as my favorite artist and to see it posted all over the museums social media. Talk about humbling!

After over a month of anticipation, preparation and excitement, we were down to the final 24 hours before the event began. It was Thursday and I had just arrived for Kehindes lecture at Phoenix Community College. The room was filled with people anxious to hear what this living legend had to say. I sat in the third row. I’ll never forget the moment he walked on stage and seemed a tiny bit nervous. It hit me. My hero is just as human as I am. I can do all of the amazing things I dream of and he is a living example of that. I listened to every word and soaked in every moment. He started with showing and explaining his early paintings and his struggle with his identiy as a Black man in America. He took us around the world and shared his creative experiences and processes. He was so inspirational. I left the lecture feeling so unbelievably hopeful.

The next day I arrived to the Museum an hour and half early. I waited patiently in the orientation room. He would be there soon for his show and I wanted to meet him before the celebration started and before I would be tied up facilitating life drawing all night. I remember Airi (A Museum staff) walking into the room and chatting with me for a bit. I began explaining to her how much this experience has meant to me and how life changing it has been. Her eyes welled up with tears as I spoke and then I began to tear up. It meant more than I knew how to convey. If you knew all of the breakdowns, struggles, stress over how to pay bills, confusion, doubt and fear that have existed in my world over the past year then you would know how much this meant to me. To go from feeling like a failure to being emailed by the Phoenix Art Museum...It was a break through. They saw the worth in my as an artist and so there was absolutely NO reason I shouldn't see that same worth.

After waiting in the orientation room for awhile, Christain (Another Museum staff) came to find me to let me know that Kehinde had arrived and now was the time for me to go and meet him. He walked me into the gallery and walked me right up to Kehinde. I waited paitently as people swarmed him hoping to get a word in and possibly a photo. Finally, it was my turn. He reached out his had to greet me and immediately said, “Wow! I absolutely love this (pointing to my skirt)! This is great!” I had on a hand painted skirt so you can only guess how geeked I was to hear that! Lol!

I then proceeded to tell him that he was my hero and that he inspired me so much. I told him that I had quit my job in Feburary to be a full time artist that I had been hustling my ass off. He got very serious and held my hand with both of his as he gave me words of wisdom and encouragement. He reminded me to give it my all. That moment is one I will never forget. Not only did the Phoenix Art Museum give me the opportunity to work at an amazing record breaking event, they went out of their way to ensure that I had the opportunity to meet my hero, to hear his lecture and gain more exposure as an artist.

Walking through his exhibition that night allowed me (for the first time ever) to visualize my end goal. It allowed me to see what I am working towards. I needed that. I needed to see someone who looks like me, a Black man from L.A., doing what he had done. I needed to feel that hope. I needed to soak in that experience. I think the Universe needed me to know that this is where I am headed and that through my persistence, dedication and positive projection I WILL get there. It absolutely changed my life because my end goal suddenly became tangible. It became real and it was hanging right in my face on the walls of the museum.

Words cannot begin to explain how grateful I am and will forever be for this experience. To go from a kid who used drawing as an escape to being a part of my favorite artists opening night at the Phoenix Art Museum, wow…just wow. I especially want to thank Lani, Felicia, Dawn, Airi and Christain at PAM for making this an experience I will never forget.

Statistically I am not supposed to make it. But I have. I have and I will continue to make it and continue to break through the barriers. I once met the Director of the Phoenix Art Museum and I told her that one day my art would hang in her halls. She commended me for my determination. That wasn’t my wishful thinking, that was projection. This experience was not only a sign; it was a stepping stone to the palace that is my dreams. And when I get there I will open the doors of complete freedom and weep at its beauty. I will have done all I set out to do and It will all have been worth it.

Photos by Quinton Prunty