UP4 - From Detroit to SoHo: The Rise of Konstance Patton

Written by Jeanelle Folkes
Photos by Jeanelle Folkes & Ana Candelaria

If you’re reading this, you survived the hellish year of 2020. Between the worldwide pandemic, the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and more, the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2020 election, the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency, and adjusting to life, work, and school from home – it’s a miracle we were able to make it through with our sanity intact.

During the height of the chaotic year, social distancing became our lives. For a time, New York City was a ghost town. Stores boarded up for fear of rioting and looting, giving the city an apocalyptic look; decked in raw plywood sheets in place of windows. However, artists saw these plain plywood sheets as fresh canvases that could be used to beautify the city and share their messages through art. One such artist was Konstance Patton.

T.K. and I had the opportunity to sit down and catch up with Patton at NoMo SoHo, where she currently resides with fellow artists; Keiji Drysdale, Trevor Croop (Light Noise), Sule, Brendan T. McNally, Amir Diop, and Manuel ‘Manny’ Pulla (The Creator), collectively known as the SoHo Renaissance Factory. Together they work in a collaborative studio, creating works for the hotel and the city. NoMo seems the perfect space for creatives, with its luxurious lighting, colorful hallways and spaces, with plenty of room to add artistic touches to the lobby and bar areas.

Resembling the deities in her Goddezz Project, Patton arrived adorned in jewelry, three long braided ponytails trailing her movements. True to form, she has the look and creative energy of an artist, and the regal feel of a goddess

Resembling the deities in her Goddezz Project, Patton arrived adorned in jewelry, three long braided ponytails trailing her movements. True to form, she has the look and creative energy of an artist, and the regal feel of a goddess. While I’ve seen her Goddezzes around the city, this was the first time I had met her in person. We greeted warmly (she’s a hugger like me) and got settled in to get started.

Young Hustler on the Come Up

“I was always an artist. I grew up with my grandmother mostly… she was an artist,” Patton explained, sharing how she got her start growing up in a creative family in Detroit, MI. “My dad’s mom, Nana, was an artist in different ways. She would take clothing that weren’t usable anymore and cut them up and make these quilts. Whenever someone had a kid, they would get one of these blankets. They’re very special in our family. And so, I witnessed her making that my whole life. And then I lived with my Grandma Mildred. We had a kiln in the basement…” Storytelling seems a natural part of Patton’s charm, as she weaved a tale of her family history.

Art was simply in her bloodline. With a love for lettering and cartoons, she began practicing at a young age by drawing Super Mario, Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, and bunny rabbits. “I got this tattoo of a bunny rabbit that I drew every day – I don’t even know where I saw it – but I got a tattoo over in Cologne, Germany because that’s where I first did street art, and there were so many bunnies.”

The bunny is symbolic of her early artistic growth. “I tried to make a bunny out of a Zest, you know, the green bar soap. I grabbed the butter knife and I’m hacking it. I must have been six or so. [My grandmother] was like, ‘No! You’re doing it all wrong!’ and she gave me a paring knife and showed me how to whittle it, you know.”

Patton also credits her Native American culture and her upbringing in Detroit for sparking inspiration in the everyday items she saw. “I’m part of a tribe and I grew up in a very traditional beading household, you know, but like American fried chicken and Jeopardy. Iroquois is the land, and I’m Ottawa and Chippewa. They’re way up in Northern Michigan in Petoskey. My grandma lived in Petoskey, so I go there a lot… So, it’s my mom, my grandmother, and some uncles and aunts are Saginaw Chippewas. I’m Little River and my cousins are Little Traverse Bay, but they’re all the same family.” She explained, “I grew up in the hood, but it was cool because in Detroit, everyone was black. Sometimes we’d go to the county where my grandmother’s house technically was, like 3 blocks north of Detroit. So, we had access to really good schools and great orchestras and stuff. Versus with Detroit public schools, there weren’t enough books to take home for homework.”

In high school, she chose music over visual art, with the violin as her instrument of choice.  Playing 2nd chair in her orchestra, as well as with a string quartet, Patton once dreamed of going to Juilliard to study classical music. But her other muse called to her. “I think I was 15. [There was] a Native American magazine. I remember a piece in there— this girl did it— it was in pencil. It was so good. And I was like, ‘Man, I can do that.’ And so, I grabbed this picture of my great grandparents, my grandmother’s parents. And I drew it. It took me a little while, a few days. And then my grandmother was like, ‘You drew this?’ That was when I really started taking it more seriously.”

Shortly after, she decided to leave high school to pursue traveling, and by nineteen she saved up enough money to buy a plane ticket to Italy, where she stayed for about four months.  “My friend had taken one semester of Italian, so I was like, ‘We’ll go to Italy.’  It’s so crazy when you’re young. You’re just like, ‘Yeah, why not?’”

They landed in Rome and eventually made their way to Palermo and Gaeta, bartering with some Navy officers to work out a living arrangement. With her notebooks and nothing to do, she started to really take artwork seriously, beginning with graffiti style writing. Exploring Gaeta was where she discovered her love of traveling, but the experience also prepared Patton for what was next. On her flight back to the United States, a passenger saw her drawing and asked if she was an artist. In a declaration that would cement her future, she said she was.

Upon returning to Detroit, she moved into a building where artist Donald Calloway had a gallery. She paid him twenty dollars a week to teach her how to use a pencil and watercolors, working her way up to sculpting and painting. “He’s a genius, who is still a mentor of mine. He stabilized me. He helped me get my portfolio together. Then I applied to all these schools,” she explained.

The next steps were always on Patton’s mind, and New York felt like the right move. A classmate mentioned moving to New York to attend Pratt Institute, so Patton saved up money and left for the big city before the end of her semester. When she arrived, she would buy generic materials to practice with. A friend of hers put her on to the Art Students League of New York, a long-time running independent art school that provides atelier studio art classes in painting, drawing, sculpting, printmaking, and mixed-media art.

She started doing thirty hours a week working in wax, doing bronze sculptures, then doing finger drawing. This continued for a couple of years, all while working a job in the cafeteria there at the League. “I’m a hustler, dude,” she explained, “I basically asked the guy that I knew. He’s a master welder, his name is Steel Mill.”

She asked Steel Mill to teach her how to weld in exchange for being a studio apprentice. In turn, Patton applied to and got into The New School, where she eventually transitioned to from The Art Students League, then, later on, attended Parsons School of Design. “I finagled my way in there because I had been working in the sculpture studio as an apprentice, kind of making my own work. When I went to The New School, I was like, ‘I don’t want to just take art classes.’ I was already twenty-six. I took some business-type classes, looking at it like, ‘What kind of toolbox can I actually use?’”

It was a bit of a full circle moment for Patton, but also a time when she would be able to put the skills in her toolbox to good use and establish good connections.  “When you’re a black girl, people ignore you. And I’m like, ‘Okay.  Ignore me.  I’ll be over here right behind all that doing all this stuff.” She continued, “Parsons was a great experience because coming from Detroit, coming from the hood, was not. I wasn’t poor like I had nothing; we were okay.  But being in that environment where there was no access, it was so amazing being at Parsons because all of a sudden there was just any machine you needed. There was a sea of Macs and AV.”

“They only teach artists to strive for the white wall gallery. But then what? What does that mean? You have to sell the work. They don’t talk about any of that stuff or residencies and what that really is.  What does [a real career] look like and what can it look like?”

With resources available to her, Patton tapped into her hustling spirit to make the most out of her education. “I would say [to professors], ‘Hey, your class is full, but I’m going to come to this class every time. I’m not going to dropout. Here’s my portfolio.’ I had three different jobs created for me when I was still a student, just because I showed up.”  A sure-fire recipe for success, Patton was consistent with showing up and made it known what she wanted it. But more than that, she wanted to expand beyond what was traditionally available for artists. “They only teach artists to strive for the white wall gallery. But then what? What does that mean? You have to sell the work. They don’t talk about any of that stuff or residencies and what that really is.  What does [a real career] look like and what can it look like?”

The SoHo Renaissance Factory

A glowing spirit, adventurous and freewheeling, journaling the chronicles of Konstance Patton’s doesn’t fit neatly into a linear narrative. With street art, Patton always knew it was what she wanted to do, and SoHo was calling. She got her first real taste with Sharpies, drawing characters in bathroom stalls, eventually advancing to wheatpaste and stencils. While in Cologne, Germany, in her early-twenties, Patton got to experiment in the public realm, working with the CityLeaks Urban Art Festival. “There was a real freedom there for street art. In Cologne, they didn’t give a fuck. I have never seen anyone get in trouble. It was something that was really respected. So that’s when I really started focusing on it.”

When Patton returned to the New York, she was “always looking for walls. Always. I did some in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the mobile murals I was already doing. I wanted my work to be with the people. Everyone doesn’t go to galleries, you know. People want authenticity…” Few things match the authentic grit of street painting.

“It was like dead quiet, no traffic, and just eerie. I got paint and just started. That day, people were giving me gloves and someone gave me a hundred-dollar bill – someone gave me a bottle of wine.  It was neighbors supporting the artists, and artists supporting each other.

Soon after, she got involved with teaching mural-making in various areas of New York City.  “I was trying to create something that people can also do together, because what I noticed, when painting murals, people want to watch. They want to help.”  That sense of community is why these days she loves painting with her collective, The SoHo Renaissance Factory.

Shortly before the pandemic, Patton was going to head out to California, but decided to stay instead. “I basically decided my city needs me. If you want to leave, then you can leave and have the luxury and you’re blessed enough to go do that, by all means. But I felt like, I need to hunker down. So, I moved in with my sister in Bushwick.” Like many of us, Patton was adjusting to our new lives of sheltering in place, social distancing, and daily death tolls. And I did not want to paint. I had a couple of graphic design jobs that I was fighting through. I painted out of spite a couple times, just throwing watercolors in water. I had a podcast called Fucking Rejects, it’s an oral history podcast about the art of rejection. That’s how I kind of started.”

However, everything else was put on pause when a friend called one day asking if she wanted to paint in Soho. “I was like, “What do you mean? I’ve been trying to paint in SoHo for years!”  She was upstate with friends at the time of the call, taking a couple of days off the grid. When she got back on the grid and back to the city, she reached out to her friend. “He thought I was crazy because I texted him fifteen times, I literally did.”  True to her style, she made it known that she wanted it.

Street art in SoHo really started to pick up around mid-June. Patton would show up at 10:00am and there were hundreds of pieces on Broadway. “It was like dead quiet, no traffic, and just eerie. I got paint and just started. That day, people were giving me gloves and someone gave me a hundred-dollar bill – someone gave me a bottle of wine.  It was neighbors supporting the artists, and artists supporting each other. That’s when I met Amir [Diop], he walked by like, ‘Oh that’s fire.’” Patton had painted her a piece on Howard Street, and just across the street was Diop’s mural. Diop had already been out since March, so he knew a lot of the people that were in the area. “He’s very boisterous, he talks to everyone,” Patton described, chuckling.

Patton and Diop are two of the founding members of the Soho Renaissance Factory. “That’s the crew. I was bringing my cooler with some beers and Red Bulls, and mad water for people on the street. On the 4th of July, I saw Sule across the street from me. Trevor [Croop aka Light Noise] had made a piece down the street and I already knew Amir [Diop]. That was the first time that we met each other, but we had recognized each other’s work.” Patton explained. “They left all their brushes, rollers, everything out. They literally were just sharing. I thought that they were already a crew, but they had just met.”

The nascent collective looked out for one another when it came to open boards and proved to be incredibly influential in the growing street museum. “Seriously, it was like the whole block. We just hung out that night.” From that day on, the Soho Renaissance Factory began to expand. Patton continued, “We decided to organize around the end of July. Some of the businesses started to notice the work and started supporting us, asking, ‘Hey, what do you guys need?’ That’s when we started to think, ‘Well what DO we need?’ No one ever asks artists that.”

The theme of art and community is consistent in the work they create. “We just knew that as long as we stay together that we would be able to push our agenda, which is just beautification and spreading positivity. That’s the best part. We’re just homies and stuff, we get to make stuff together.”  Patton described the benefits of having a group that works together well. “It was meant to happen. I ended up meeting these guys and we decided that we would work on building out something like a tool of ours, which is connecting with these businesses, starting with this hotel and then showing the city what can happen if you infuse and invest back into the arts with either housing or space. I didn’t want a check or something because that goes fast.”

They connected with Brian, the General Manager of NoMo SoHo, at an opening and were unknowingly the special guests of the event. “There were about a hundred people there and it was for Israeli TV. We were like, ‘Okay we need to call this something. We were thinking about SoHo and its history with artists and collectives, and then the Harlem Renaissance. All the creators that came out of there and then the factories.” Thus, the name was born. As an entrepreneurial creative myself, I especially appreciate that they’re not just about the check, and that they’re paving the way for future artists to come up through collaborations and partnerships with large and local businesses.

“Any time any of us get into some negative shit, we’re really good about putting it in perspective and calming each other down. We just have to keep what we have and protect it because working within a group is not easy. It requires a lot of communication, especially with dudes.”

With the SoHo Renaissance Factory, Patton feels like she’s found her purpose, despite not knowing in the beginning this is where things would lead. Describing what it’s like having a supportive team to work with, and how they squash any negativity that comes their way, Patton told me, “Any time any of us get into some negative shit, we’re really good about putting it in perspective and calming each other down. We just have to keep what we have and protect it because working within a group is not easy. It requires a lot of communication, especially with dudes.”  As the only woman in the group, Patton provides the feminine balance by helping them talk through their feelings and reminding them to present themselves well.

Goddezzes

We took a moment to reflect on all of the events of the past year, as two driven and intelligent black women. I thanked Patton for giving these streets so much beauty to look at. With so many murals and pieces that were going up around Black Lives Matter, there were a couple of moments when I questioned if it was another moment, fueled by a trend, rather than sincerity.  Was Black Lives Matter becoming a trend that would gain easy access to extra publicity? Or did people really feel strongly about black lives?

Patton specifically didn’t mark her work with any names or affiliations to Black Lives Matter, because she felt the need to give something to positive to the community, rather than reflecting on the many injustices. “I was practicing actually my technique in color theory making the streets more vibrant because right now we need good vibes, you know.” Patton elaborated, “There was one piece that was going to be about police reform and incarceration. That was the only piece that I made where I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this (Goddezz)’ because I didn’t want to do that [police reform and incarceration]. I just want to do what I want to do. It doesn’t even feel like it’s for me. I know it’s super cliché, but it’s true. I’m a vessel. I decide on the composition based on the space and then what colors I have, and then that’s where it goes and she becomes alive.”

“There was one piece that was going to be about police reform and incarceration. That was the only piece that I made where I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this (Goddezz)’ because I didn’t want to do that [police reform and incarceration]. I just want to do what I want to do. It doesn’t even feel like it’s for me. I know it’s super cliché, but it’s true. I’m a vessel. I decide on the composition based on the space and then what colors I have, and then that’s where it goes and she becomes alive.”

The Goddezzes are personal projections of the women who’ve impacted her, the young girls and women she wants beautifully portrayed, guardians of the areas they’re painted in. Patton is deliberate with both their placement and color schemes. “I’m using a lot of gold now,” she explained.  “It’s classic. They have the veil over them to be godly.”

We got into the details and differences within the Goddezz Project; who they are and what they represent. “They’re different. There’s my sister’s (Keira) piece. I use one of Michi, which is my representation for myself. I gave myself that name.  My great grandfather’s name was Little Rabbit. My grandmother, they call her Tootsie, and I’m Michi like Michigan. I use her and I use my sister’s pretty repeatedly. But other than that, it depends on the location and the vibe of her.”

“This is for them,” Patton stated, “This is for black girls. It’s for you.  I want to see us out here looking glorious as goddesses and other worldly.”

When finishing a piece, Patton likes to step back and think of the women in her life and how they have come through in her art. “The one Goddezz on the cover of a book, Imani, was inspired by my friend, Imani Mixon. She had that ‘fro with the part. I call it ‘Imani, Goddezz of Beauty and Information, because she’s a journalist in Detroit and she’s gorgeous. Imani is all about the written word and sharing information, like passing down stories.”

Often I had wondered: where are the black women in street art? As a black woman, I constantly look for and gravitate to pieces that I can relate to, pieces with women who look like me, and Patton takes pride in sharing beautiful pieces with people that look like her too. It’s nice to see something different, something from a black woman, and something that portrays black women in a beautiful way. “This is for them,” Patton stated, “This is for black girls. It’s for you.  I want to see us out here looking glorious as goddesses and other worldly.” This sentiment resonated strongly for me. “Last summer, those works were from the heart. We’re like mothers. We create culture. The styles – think about pop culture and the stuff you see, it comes from us. Creating these beautiful things that bring people together. If I can make people stop for a few minutes and have a nice moment… That’s really important to me.  I think of my art like altars, like the Goddezzes bless that space.”

Her creation process adds a personal touch to each Goddezz, imbuing her art with spirituality.  Patton has a prayer that she says every day, focusing on what she’d like to create, and letting the work speak through her without thinking about it too. “My spiritual practice is creating these pieces and sharing them.  I want you to focus on that third eye and tap into yourself. It was very important for me to pay homage to that. I love symbolism. My piece has a choker with a gun shooting a heart, like Bugs Bunny because I used to draw cartoons back in the day. That’s the fucking thing in our country: guns.  I want to use some of those symbols to counter that. If you have bullets, let them be hearts.”

“My spiritual practice is creating these pieces and sharing them.  I want you to focus on that third eye and tap into yourself. It was very important for me to pay homage to that. I love symbolism. My piece has a choker with a gun shooting a heart, like Bugs Bunny because I used to draw cartoons back in the day. That’s the fucking thing in our country: guns.  I want to use some of those symbols to counter that. If you have bullets, let them be hearts.”

For Konstance Patton, witnessing all the hate and racial injustice gave her a mandate to act. “I felt a call to come out and create – to do something important. In the beginning of the pandemic, when things shut down, it became clear that this shit was really going down.  Who knows what’s about to happen?” Reflecting on her growth, she said, “Now we’re essential workers. We’re giving hope because people need hope. They need to think or feel and know that it’s going to be okay. It’s going to look different and we’ve got work to do. What we’re doing, we know our life matters, right?  Because we’ve been over here living and minding our business forever. We create culture.”

Now that things are picking up speed for Patton and the Factory, with new projects and opportunities manifesting around them, we talked about how she keeps herself grounded and balanced. The crew meets every morning at 11:00am to update the group on what’s going to happen for them individually and collectively. “It keeps us all on track.  It keeps me on track too.  I wanted to have a collective for so long. Once we formed and really honed in on what we’re doing, it felt so natural.”

She never imagined in her wildest dreams that she would be where she is today, but she knew something was going to happen, just as she knew she had to make art from an early age. “I’m four generations in of artists, from my great grandfather, Joseph, and my grandmother and his grandfather. I knew that I had something to offer to the world.  Now I feel like I am mastering my craft. Being welcomed by the community and welcomed by my fellow artists and being able to work alongside some of my favorite artists and new artists that are just committed to making the world more beautiful, this is where I’m supposed to be – in the army of beauty warriors. I come from a long tradition of healers. I’m using my work to heal the city. That’s what it is especially right now, we need healing.”

I know she’s right, after the wrath of 2020 and all its turmoil. Konstance Patton and her Goddezzes remind us there’s still beauty in this world despite the chaos.

Jeanelle Folkes is an NJ based love and lifestyle photographer, and owner of Jeanesque Photography.  Born in NY and raised in NJ, she was always drawn to graffiti, but started consistently shooting street when she discovered her love of wandering city streets locally and internationally.  She currently writes for ThirdRailArt and UP Magazine, and contributes photos for Shooters Street Art. When she’s not shooting, she loves baking her delicious soft baked cookies.

IG: @streetartdesire / @jeanesquephotography

Email:  streetartdesire@gmail.com

Website:  www.jeanesquephotography.com