Artist Cleo Wade Claims Space with Poetry

Kimberly Drew

Cleo Wade for Cultured Mag by Liza Voloshin 6
Cleo Wade. Photography by Liza Voloshin.

The poet and artist Cleo Wade has carved out a unique space for herself within the worlds of literature, art and fashion. She’s taken hold of how we perceive the role of the “influencer” and transported it from filtered photographs of avocado toast to provocative messages of empowerment.

Her short, but poignant poems on Instagram have catapulted her in the minds and spirits of a generation of people seeking words to live by. Messages such as,“Just trying. Still learning. That’s all.” are simple, but provide a much-needed respite in online spaces that are increasingly caustic. In an era of fake news, Wade’s writing is here to inspire a new way of reading the web.

The personal is political for Wade and she’s taking us all on her journey. I recently sat down with the New York-based, New Orleans-born artist to discuss her influences, her artwork and her hopes for the future of fashion, art and activism.

Cleo Wade

Wade wearing Edun‘s Shweshwe smock dress.

I read that you’ve been writing poetry since you were four years old. How do you remain committed to the craft? And, what advice do have for people who are interested in exploring the medium? Since I was very little, the place I always felt the safest and most empowered was inside of my imagination. Before poetry was my craft, it was the place I could go where nothing had to make sense. It was the place where I could dream on paper. Nothing was impossible; I think that is my favorite thing about making words and making art. My best advice would be: If you are a writer then write. You may have a million other jobs or roles that have nothing to do with writing in your lifetime, but it is so important that you stay connected to your writing. And, if you are currently disconnected, then get connected again. Grab a napkin and write something down right now!

You’ve been quoted as saying, “Activism is organized storytelling.” What role did oral history play in how you’ve learned about your role as an activist? It’s interesting, I never call myself an activist, I just firmly believe that if you have any privilege whatsoever, you sure as hell better be tired. I reference storytelling often when people ask me how to be more active citizens because every single person knows how to tell a story, listen to a story and every person has been moved by a story. I just try to remind people that their stories have the power to not only change hearts, but also change laws.

What does your writing process look like? Has it evolved as you’ve changed genres within the past few years? I lean toward mantra and affirmation based writing because I am kind of addicted to creating tools. My work usually starts with an idea that helped me, I then start drafting it until it is as simple as possible. The thing I love about tools is that they are universal. Anyone can use a hammer. And a lot of the times, it is the simple tools that make it possible for us to build our homes.

Cleo Wade

Wade in a Edun‘s denim belted bustier dress

Do you ever feel anxious about sharing your thoughts online or in the media? I just try to tell the truth. The truth about an emotion. The truth about all of the bullshit that holds us back from being better to ourselves and each other. I have anxiety sometimes about sharing my thoughts with the world but if that thought is helping even one person then it is worth the fear.

As a writer and public figure, what do you hope your impact will be? As black women, I think you and I share a very similar passion to live our lives in a way that makes it possible for the next generation of black and brown girls to not have to wonder if what they want out of life is possible. They will know it is possible because they have seen it. I try to focus my intentions on doing what I can and sharing my story so that the next generation does not have to jump through the same hoops I did. Especially the emotional hoops like self-love, self-worth and self- doubt.

Do you see your installation work as separate from the work you do on Instagram? I have an installation up in Los Angeles through the end of the year, which was interesting to create because it is in the middle of a busy intersection. Since it is not in a public park or space, where people are meant to sit and look at it for very long, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what type of message I would want to create if I knew I could only steal a single moment of someone’s day. I’m also finishing another collaboration with my friend Bmike Odums in New Orleans. I think everything I make is connected to each other. Honestly, I just like to make words. Sometimes they are on paper, sometimes on a wall, sometimes on a screen. I just try to get the words right and then I have fun figuring out where they will live.