Terrell Villiers on creating a space for Black and queer bodies within cartoons
Miami-based creative Terrell Villiers talks us through his successful comic book concept for artist and cellist Kelsey Lu, and more on his process.
- Joey Levenson
- 22 June 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
“I think for the longest time I called myself an illustrator or a cartoonist, but as of recently, I’ve been identifying with all of the different creative outlets of mine, not just pigeon-holing myself to one,” Terrell Villiers tells It’s Nice That. Terrell’s work, primarily based in illustration and cartoons, has been steadily growing – and it’s easy to see why Terrell is now eager to broaden his creative prospects. He’s a multi-talented, detail-orientated artist who has ambitions as strong as the characters he creates on the page. “Drawing was my way to stay occupied as a kid because I didn’t have many friends growing up,” he says. “I was such a queer and weird kid.” Terrell’s queer sensibilities are what fuelled him to conceptualise and create powerful character-driven drawings, and more often than not they became “my solace and my escape,” he tells us. In fact, the endless possibility within escapism is what drives Terrell. “The ability to create one’s own fantasy world and manifest it into reality in the form of a drawing is the true excitement of visual art.”
With such a careful and passionate approach to his characters, it is no wonder that Terrell’s characters are so unmistakably his. “My style is very distinct and has a signature component to it,” he describes. “I only draw Black and queer cartoons.” It’s something that’s very important to Terrell – who is Black and queer himself – as he’s become increasingly aware of the lack of representation in the cartoon realm. It’s a distinction nobody could miss, with the most visible bodies in these spheres often being white and heteronormative. “Throughout the history of cartoons we’ve seen Black characters be depicted either negatively or as the minority of the cast,” says Terrell. “I’m working diligently to change that.” It’s a feat we know isn’t easy, but if anyone is able to steer the reins, it’s surely Terrell and his army of unassailable characters.
He explains to us how refining small details in the portrayal of Black characters in illustration and cartoons makes all the difference in bettering their representation: “On the skin of my cartoon characters, I place highlight bubbles that signify the melanin on the bodies.” All of Terrell’s characters glow in ways that read as both fantastically cartoonish and astonishingly glorious, and it’s something close to Terrell’s heart. “Growing up I struggled with my own understanding of beauty politics around skin,” he explains. “I often thought I was ‘too sweaty’ or ‘too oily,’ so I would often run away from the sun or any form of perspiring work to avoid looking ‘too shiny’. But, illuminating my characters in this way helped me accept the beauty and power in melanated skin.” It’s a powerful sentiment that carries through in all of Terrell’s work. By taking something painful and transmuting it into something iridescent, Terrell has created a trademark for himself.
Yet, it’s not just introspection that Terrell draws inspiration from. He proudly calls his characters “fan art” of his friends, pointing to how each of them is in some way alluding to those he knows in real life. “For as long as I can remember, my friends have always served as my muses to my work,” he says. One friend, in particular, is the talented experimental artist and cellist Kelsey Lu, who Terrell closely befriended when working on a comic book project for her debut album Blood. Titled Myristica, the comic was published in Italian publication Kaleidoscope Magazine, with partnership from Gucci. “I found out that I was hand-picked by Lu through an ocean of talented illustrators for the project,” says Terrell, recalling how he first met Kelsey Lu on the project. “Kaleidoscope flew me out to the Cayman islands to meet Lu and acquire more information about them for the comic, and it was an absolute dream.” The two found themselves as kindred spirits, which lent itself well to Terrell’s conceptualisation of the comic. He speaks fondly of Lu’s “immeasurable” energy and humour which helped breathe life into his illustrations for them. “We were really able to connect on a very spiritual, energetic, almost ancestral level,” he tells us.
The two discussed everything and anything, and Terrell particularly highlights their conversation on “carrying that shame of being the ‘delinquents’ of the family throughout our adolescence, which really propelled us into our queer alternative liberation,” he says. These discussions eventually fed into the narrative of the comic, as did the narrative of the comic begin to feed into their discussions. It was a rewarding process for Terrell, who says they now consider Kelsey Lu family. “I’m so honoured to share such a pivotal moment in my career with them.” As for what’s next for Terrell, he tells he not only hopes to have his own animation series eventually, but has also begun to incorporate photography into his illustrations. We’ll be staying tuned.
Terrell Villiers: Femme Gang (Copyright © Terrell Villiers, 2018)