By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times
Justin Slaughter, a recent graduate of Center Point High School, has gone from a self-taught artist to first-place winner in the Congressional Art Competition. He will be heading to Washington, D.C., on June 22 for a reception recognizing all the winners from across the nation.
Each spring, the Congressional Institute sponsors a nationwide high school visual-art competition to identify and encourage artistic talent. Slaughter, who represented Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, is still surprised he won.
“I thought I was going to get runner-up,” he said. “When they called honorable mention, … I thought I guess I didn’t place. I leaned over toward my mom when they were calling first place and was about to ask her who she thought won—then they said my name, and it just shocked me. I’m still in shock.”
Slaughter said he saw many amazing pieces at the Congressional Art Competition Reception for District 7, hosted by Congresswoman Terri Sewell and held last month at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where the winners were announced. The theme for this year’s competition was “An Artistic Discovery: Celebrating Alabama’s 200th Birthday—Telling Our Story.”
Slaughter’s painting, titled “The Heart of The Camellia,” depicts the state’s story by featuring Alabama founder Hernando de Soto, the Vulcan statue, and Civil Rights icon the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth with the state capitol building in the background. Shuttlesworth represents Alabama’s Civil Rights heritage; Vulcan, Alabama’s love for monuments and statues; and de Soto, the state’s history.
“I really just tried to go for the main things, the key points of Alabama and what I’ve always known Alabama to be,” Slaughter said. “I went for our past, I went for us as people, I went for the monuments and statues that I see, and I went from there.”
Slaughter, who plans to attend Birmingham-Southern College in the fall to study art and graphic design, said he is self-taught because no one encouraged him to pursue art as a career: “I taught myself just the basic things while watching shows.”
Shading and lighting came easy to Slaughter, so he watched shows that featured anime, a style of Japanese film and television animation typically aimed at both adults and children, “to figure out how people were built,” he said.
“I also studied myself to see how I was built to … have a better variety of what to draw.”
Some Disney shows also influenced his style of art, Slaughter said.
“You see a lot of Disney-based things in my art,” he pointed out; for instance, one of his drawings includes a Mickey Mouse-inspired hand.
Slaughter remembers sketching and doodling as a child, but he only started taking art seriously as a sophomore in high school “after becoming depressed,” he said.
When he couldn’t get into a high school he wanted to attend, Slaughter focused on art to deal with his feelings.
“The more I drew, the better I felt,” he said. “As I drew, I realized I could pull myself away from the … the negativity I always brought upon myself.
“I felt like I was creating more things to help me develop as a person. … I felt like I was doing something I was meant to do, so the more I created the better I felt. Art pulled me from a very low point in my life and put me where I am now.”
Slaughter only recently took up painting, and he is constantly sketching and creating every day.
“I’m always thinking stuff up,” he said. “I take … a couple of hours or a day to get some paper out, … tape down on the edges to make sure [the paint] doesn’t bleed all the way over to the sides, then I start to sketch. Whatever comes to mind, I just … do my line work and pick out my colors based off what feels right for the picture.”
Part of Slaughter’s creative process involves mixing colors to see which ones best complement each other and will work for the piece. In certain situations, he uses a Chameleon marker, a tool that allows artists to seamlessly blend and ensure smooth transitions in colors.
“I definitely love using color,” he said. “In my opinion, when it comes to art, color is one of the most expressive things you can add. … It brings more energy to a picture. … It also adds more dimension and sets off things [that are] beside each other. I love using a variety of color to draw the eye to specific locations on the picture and to bring the picture together.”
Slaughter is inspired by other artists—such as Belgium-born illustrator Vince Okerman, who has a large social media following—because their styles are similar.
“I started to develop my own art style as I continued my art,” Slaughter said.
In the Family
Another source of inspiration is his mother, Tomiko Slaughter, who is also an artist.
“I [saw]a piece that she has hanging up in my grandfather’s house, and I told myself, ‘I want to be as good as her one day.’”
Slaughter’s grandmother, Loventrice Bevelle, would buy poster board and other materials so Slaughter and his two brothers could draw when they visited her.
Bevelle said, “There was always something [to] draw with because his mother, my daughter, was the same way. She drew on anything.”
While in Washington, D.C., for the Congressional Art Competition reception, Slaughter will also participate in the Rhythms of Color Art Fest and Student Art Competition (Friday, June 28). These events are a continuation of the work he has done locally.
Slaughter painted a piece for the 2019 Center Point High School senior class, and his art teacher, John Smith, suggested that Slaughter submit something for the Congressional competition.
“I decided that I might as well do something for it, too, because I was going to be drawing anyway,” Slaughter said. “I also wanted to express, in my own way, the meaning of Alabama and … celebrate Alabama.”
Creating art “feels right with me as a person when I draw. It makes me feel like I’m producing something new,” Slaughter said. “I would like to create a career out of something I love to do, not just something I don’t mind doing. … That would be wonderful for me as a person, and it would be better for me in the future.”
Slaughter is looking forward to majoring in art and graphic design at Birmingham-Southern and evolving as an artist.
“When it comes down to my art, I want to offer something that’s pleasing to the eye, something [people] can enjoy looking at,” he said. “I have never felt my art is great. … I always draw to get better … because I can always see my own flaws within my work.
“I want people to have fun while looking at my work. Don’t try to look at it and understand every single message. … My art’s not always that kind of work. It’s supposed to entertain you … and make you think about something positive.”