Is there anything more impactful than community? For Tony Whlgn, creating art has always been influenced by the historic richness of their native Detroit and galvanized by a desire to connect with others.
A multi-hyphenate artist with a deep commitment to telling untold stories and fostering empathy, their work is born from a personal place, yet blossoms into a larger narrative that touches folks from all walks of life.
Join curator Kate Kelly in conversation with the artist, where they discuss the importance of relatability, using personal experiences to cultivate authenticity, and taking the road less traveled – even in art.
Kate Kelly: First, let’s start from the beginning. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Tony Whlgn: My name is Antonio – professionally, I go by Tony Whlgn. I was born and raised in Detroit, MI, and I am a multi-hyphenate artist. My focus is in painting and design with a background in both digital and fine art. I practice unconventional ways to innovate my work so it can be experienced authentically. After realizing art school wasn’t for me, I pioneered a path for my career that was essentially unorthodox, but true to myself and my peers. That was the foundation for Whlgn, a mindset of relentlessly being ourselves and doing what we love while working with others that love what they do, too.
KK: Were there any experiences, either in childhood or later in life, that let you know you wanted to be an artist? How has your lived experience influenced your work?
TW: There were several experiences in my life that let me know that I wanted to be an artist. The earliest would have to be in kindergarten, when I witnessed a teacher create an image of a minotaur arm. I asked my mom about what art was, and from there she ended up nurturing my fascination. My mother made sure I was involved in different programs that allowed me to continuously learn and grow.
My lived experiences have shown up in my work in various ways. Who I am, where I come from, and how that environment shapes my thinking influences how I create, no matter what the project or medium is. Living in different cities has allowed me to experience so many different cultures and perspectives that I’m able to go into all collaborations with an open mind. Taking that and being an ever-evolving product of my environment means everything is possible.
KK: I’m curious about how you hope to connect with your audience. How do you aim to teach or touch them? What do you want them to take away from your art?
TW: I connect with my audience by staying true to the narrative of my community. I aim to teach a strong sense of connection and relatability; representation matters, and I hope sharing the stories of my community through art sparks a dialogue.
I also hope to provide some insight or understanding for groups that may or may lack awareness or familiarity. I want to connect with others on a deeper level to help cultivate a sense of compassion and empathy. As a Black man, I’m constantly learning a sense of self and how to navigate this world with what I discover, and I want to provide powerful storytelling that creates immersive experiences. My artwork is meant to engage others spiritually and emotionally – its purpose is to authentically share the narrative of me and my community while inspiring others to reflect on their own paths in the world.
KK: When generating concepts for your work, are there ideas that don’t make the cut? How do you land on your final imagery, and why?
TW: Usually ideas that don’t make the cut are ideas I feel are overused or cliché. I also think about execution; I don’t want the project to feel too easy, so I discard ideas that don’t challenge me. I land on the final imagery by taking some time to step back from my work, making sure that it not only resonates with myself and my community, but that it can also be engaging for others.
KK: Your work is steeped in love for your local community, and you tapped into that beautifully in your recent project with Nieman Marcus. Can you tell us about how your environment influenced that project?
TW: I’m from the Eastside of Detroit, and Detroit is overflowing with so much culture. Being from a place with so much history that goes untold, it’s rewarding to immortalize the history in the making that I experience in the everyday – from my peers to the actual beauty of the city. I believe we are products of our environment; the style of the people, the sound of our movement, and the magnitude of our hustle pushes me to constantly innovate and create art that will inspire my peers/community to do the same. My environment drives my desire to challenge myself to grow, innovate, and do what I love.
KK: How has Artrepreneur helped your business? Do you have any tips on how to best utilize our platform?
TW: Working with Artreprenuer has helped to open and connect with a wider audience. Having people I may have otherwise never been introduced to, being aware of my art, allows me to naturally showcase my work and journey, as well participate in the Artrepreneur community – engaging with other artists and possibly finding ways to collaborate.
I’m still relatively new to the platform, but I hope to take advantage of the educational resources that are available and some of the professional development opportunities that I’ve seen based around the events and workshops that are offered.
KK: What’s next for you? What are some dream projects you’d love to manifest?
TW: I’m locked in for a few murals in and around Detroit, MI. I also have some design projects, including an upcoming installation for Design Core’s Month of Design in downtown Detroit this September.
Thinking of the future, my dream is really to scale up and begin more global collaborations. I’d love to take on even more projects with social impact initiatives; I want my work to make a positive impact and change in different communities. Working with brands that seek to make an impact that’s in alignment with good core values of the Whlgn is always the dream.
To view more of Tonys work please visit his Artrepreneur profile.