Alumni Stories: “Where Are They Now?”

Edition 20 — Aristotle Forrester

In Real Time

Aristotle Forrester has been surrounded by art all his life; his mother is a visual artist and he began painting in the first grade. “I was making paintings in school instead of learning how to do math,” he laughed.

Forrester grew up in the South Side of Chicago, which he recalled as a richly diverse environment. But when he was a teenager, he moved with his mother to Needham, Massachusetts, which was very different from the South Side. “There’s a real isolation that comes with being one of the very few Black people in your grade. I don’t recommend it,” he said.

This made his discovery of Artists For Humanity all the more exciting. “Not only was it a creative environment, but everyone looked a lot more like me,” he said. He was envious of the kids sitting at their easels and painting, especially because high-quality art classes were not available at his school. He was immediately motivated to work for AFH.

Forrester quickly joined the Painting Studio, where he spent two years as an apprentice. Additionally, he worked part-time as a prep cook for an Italian restaurant and as a golf caddy. With the addition of classes, he was incredibly busy. His commute to AFH from Needham was an hour and a half each way, but he said it was well worth it.

Forrester always looked forward to arriving at AFH, sitting down at his easel, and pulling his brushes out. “I didn’t have to think about anything else that was going on in my life,” he said. It also didn’t feel like work.

He explained, “They’d give me the paychecks, and I’d be like, this is silly. They’re paying me money to do what I love!”

The organization showed him that he could build a career as a working artist, and provided him with the support he needed. “AFH helped me realize that there is a path for young Black men as creatives. Not only is it possible, but we almost have a cheat code because there’s this entire tribe of people behind you telling you that you can make it, which is very different from what the world tells you.”

Especially crucial to this realization were AFH co-founders Rob Gibbs and Jason Talbot. “I had never seen an employed Black man as a fine artist,” Forrester said.

He was also deeply impacted by the way Gibbs and Talbot formed relationships with every single AFH teen. “They know everybody’s name, they have inside jokes with everyone. Rob knows a thousand handshakes! I don’t know how he does that,” he said.

The staff at AFH also played a significant role in Forrester attending college. He was initially apprehensive about pursuing higher education because as a young Black man, he didn’t feel as if there was a place for him in academia. However, he said, AFH gave him the opposite message.

“It was kind of scary sometimes, being like, oh my god, [the world] wants me to be a bus boy and a prep cook, but I’m going to be a fine artist!” he explained.

Education Director Lesley Kantlehner pushed him to complete his college applications, which he initially dragged his feet on. “It was like pulling teeth,” he remembered. “I’d have my essay written but I didn’t want to submit it and Lesley would make me do it in front of her. Shoutout Lesley. That woman is a college wizard.”

Forrester attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design where he studied painting. He was required to focus on classical, representational art for the first two years, which was a real departure from the surrealist work he had been creating at AFH. While he didn’t enjoy representational art, he said it was crucial to helping him understand his craft. After two years, he gained his own studio space and refocused on abstract art.

Soon after graduating, Forrester returned to AFH as a Mentor in the Painting Studio. He relished the opportunity to work with young artists, saying, “I had my own little gang of crazy awesome painters.”

He was intent on teaching his mentees the same lesson he had learned as a teen at AFH: that there was a place for them in the art world. He saw this lesson come to life when the art consulting firm Boston Art asked AFH teens to present a pop-up show at their professional showroom.

Many of Forrester’s mentees had never been to a gallery outside of the times he had brought them to one. He wanted to ensure that all of his teens, especially the shy ones, talked to potential clients and buyers at the pop-up show. On the day of the event, he was amazed by what he saw. “All of my kids, 15 minutes in, had four or five prospective buyers talking to them. They were engaging them,” he said. It was especially meaningful to Forrester, because like him, his mentees did not come from the type of wealth that dominates the art world. And he knows that this disparity has the potential to disempower young artists.

However, when Forrester was an AFH teen, he had always felt comfortable talking to buyers because he knew AFH supported him. Suddenly, he saw a new generation of artists experiencing the same dynamic. “I got to watch that happen in front of me, in real time. Some of the kids sold paintings!”

As AFH celebrates its 30 year anniversary, Forrester notes his excitement. “It marks a generational completion that opens the door to future younger generations to take the torch.” He believes that in a time of technological fervor and a growing neglect of the natural world, AFH will work to keep the tradition of fine art alive for the coming generations.

Forrester reminisces fondly on his time at AFH, noting that teens were continually exposed to STEM/STEAM principles through their studio work. “Showing up ready to learn in the studio (and extending this thinking to our school work) was part of the job. The best thing AFH has ever done was prepared me and other people like me to be avid hungry learners. Ready for knowledge, but more importantly, ready to watch the world and see how we can move humanity forward through creativity.”

Forrester expresses that he has great hopes for the future of AFH. “As most American urban youth share similar experiences dealing with systemic racism and fighting to thrive, there is the potential for a national scale of AFH.” Forrester believes that AFH has the power to help this country heal and, more importantly, to continue to lift up young people of color by showing them their potential.

Today, Forrester works full-time as a painter and spends ten to thirteen hours a day creating large-scale abstract expressionist work. He is represented by two different galleries and regularly shows art across Massachusetts. Currently, he is working on his next body of work for a solo show slated for October 2022.

His art bursts with color and crazy textures; his paintings are the type you can lose yourself in. And that may be the point. “People can animate the paintings how they want when they look at them,” he said.

Forrester creates the vast majority of his art with oil paint on canvas. He explained, “There is nothing as beautiful as oil paint. They got it right in the Renaissance, you know what I mean? It just keeps challenging me.”

See more of Forrester’s work at www.ariforrester.com.

Written by Lena Novins-Montague and Casey Chiang.

CREATIVE JOBS FOR CREATIVE TEENS