Ryan Oakley, 28, Artist
Ryan Oakley thought she might be a doctor one day.
But here she is, with a burgeoning art career garnering interest from national brands and advocacy campaigns, and new dreams of her work gracing the cover of comic books.
She was California born and Greensboro raised. She was a fresh air kid who loved sports and excelled in the sciences.
Still her artist instincts were there from the beginning.
“During the summer I would spend most of my time with my dad. I remember watching cartoons and trying to draw and sketch the cartoons I was watching,” Ryan said. “Summers were when I got to draw the most. I used to get in trouble for drawing in school.”
She perfected the cartoon avatar of Disney’s “Lizzy McGuire.” A tennis player herself, she sketched portraits of Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams while watching Wimbledon. She dabbled in comic book charters, a lover of the 90s super hero series like “Spider-Man: The Animated Series.” As a high school violist, “The Umbrella Academy” comic book series – with its violin-playing protagonist – inspired her to create her own band of super heroes that play instruments. She loved the X-Men series as well.
“My favorite super heroes are X-Men because they have all this power. Even though they are outcasts and treated badly, they never use it to hurt anyone. Comics are a way to tell stories about humans,” she says. “You can drop knowledge through them without it being so on the nose.”
A family friend who was a retired art teacher, Doris (Sue) Linanne, gave her some important advice: keep a sketch book. By the time she was ready to finish Grimsley, she had an impressive portfolio.
She thought she might go into an art school, but her parents were a bit wary about that.
“I did want to be a doctor. That was my thinking in high school. I was good at math and chemistry and biology.”
And Spanish. She had so many options. She ultimately headed to Wake Forest University, studying pre-Med, then Spanish and Studio Art. Later she went to Washington University in St. Louis to build her resume for medical school.
It was in St. Louis where she got her started on political art. She designed some statement hoodies and tees as Trump rose to power (one even made a Mashable’s list of gifts to give the feminist in your life).
On a whim, she created a design for a nonpartisan voting advocacy poster contest by Amplify Art and the Women’s March. Her work – a portrait of Black female boxer wrapping her hand in an American flag with the message “FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS – VOTE” – was chosen as one of 50 pieces for the project. It was part of a traveling exhibit that went around the country.
The work got her noticed by a California-based agency, who has been hooking her up with commissioned work for commercial and nonprofit clients ever since. She has set her medical career ambitions aside and is working on her craft.
She keeps busy (and well-supplied) working at Jerry’s Art Supply and Wholesale while picking up commission work.
“I am taking these one off commissions and still working my day job. There are times I have to work on the art late at night and still get up for work in the morning. That is how it is for me now,” she says.
Ryan’s produced custom art for the California Endowment for the Arts, the television network Lifetime and the Black teen girl magazine “Sesi.” Her work has been exhibited across the country.
Much of the work is portraiture of women of color, gazing straight into the eyes of the viewer. The series for Lifetime, for instance, featured actress Sandra Oh and labor and Civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. Her work for “Sesi” includes horoscope illustrations, each of a different Black girl.
“I do like to depict strong female characters. It’s important to me. It’s how I was raised,” she says. “I try to draw Black women in positive lights because media doesn’t always depict Black characters in a positive light.”
For Sesi, “I try and depict young Black girls of all shades — especially darker shade young women. Hopefully that young girl who flips through, they see a person who looks like them….I just want to create images that make women feel good, especially underrepresented women and underrepresented individuals.”
She’s also diving deep into comic art. She did a series of her favorite white characters reimagined as women of color. She dreams of seeing her work on the cover of a comic book one day. She’s already dipping her toe into that world, having recently attended Heroes Con in Charlotte to sell her work and network with professionals in the field.
Her art practice has evolved from her own exploration. She went from created pieces in colored pencil to pencil plus digital coloring to full digital for her illustrations.
Recently, Ryan has been exploring water color as well.
“I like to do the water color pieces. That was something I wanted to master. Some of my favorite artists they, do traditional work for the (comic book conventions). I have noticed the fans and the patrons of comic art they love to have a hard copy traditional piece, especially if they are buying it from you.”
See or purchase some of Ryan’s work online.