Written by G Streat
Collectively, we, the diaspora are the most creative people on the planet. It’s not new news, but is worth stating here and now. Individually, we are capable of great things. It’s a whole ‘nother game entirely when we pool our creative energy. The Harlem Renaissance. The Big Band Sound. Black Wall Street. The Blues. Soul Music. Dancehall. Blaxploitation films. The ABA. The NBA. Hip-Hop. The Civil Rights Movement. Each of these efforts has and, in some cases, continues to flourish culturally and economically because of US-our blood, sweat, tears; and most importantly, our soul.
These things, these movements, these phenomena didn’t just happen. Each began with a simple idea. OnyxCon, created and organized by Joseph Wheeler III, is one of those ideas. Although it might be under the radar for now, it is destined to blow.
Joseph notes, “OnyxCon celebrates the impact, contributions and presence of the African diaspora in realms of imagination. We celebrate diversity, but with a focus on the African diaspora in things like science fiction, fantasy, action, horror, thrillers and other related genres. I’ve been doing that now for a decade.”
Before we dive into Joseph and OnyxCon, it’s only right that we get into his origin story.
Although Joseph currently dedicates most of his time to film, acting wasn’t always his passion. Sequential art and recognition drove him in his earlier days as a visual artist.
“I was born to be an artist. And I love that path. I’m proud to be an artist. I grew up mostly doing drawing and painting. Visual art was always my first love. My first influences were science fiction films and cartoons and just all of those different realms and genres combined, highly influenced my work at an early age.”
It doesn’t take much to engage Joseph or better yet, his deep seeded appreciation for the arts. There was just something about the comic books. As he recollects nostalgia sweeps the room. The unfiltered enthusiasm that animates stories of his formative years is infectious. Not only is the journey to his past a welcomed escape from the reality of the stories 2018 has inundated us with, but also a testament to childlike wonder. When properly nurtured, the unexpected twists and turns can lead to experiences once deemed impossible.
“As a little kid, I was more into movies. I loved Star Wars. I was born in Star Wars. My inspiration trinity was Star Wars, G.I. Joe, and Transformers. Everything else was a side-love to those, Thundercats, RoboTech or anything else that was on TV after school that I was loving. Growing up with all of that was a foundation, in addition to having two parents that really, truly supported me and my sister. Anything we wanted to do with our talents [that they recognized early] they would push them. I was very blessed in that regard. It wasn’t until college that I realized how blessed I was-Universe blessed as I say.”
How we project what’s inside to the world around us, our language, reveals who we are at the time. Uncommon, yet intentional, and sometime peculiar, Joseph’s phrasing is worth noting. “Universe blessed” for example. When’s the last time you heard that? Those two simple words speak volumes about how he experiences the world.
“I was always that dude in class who could draw. Everybody wanted to see what I was drawing every day. That was very influential. That was very motivating at a young age to make you want to get better and come back with something new that you discovered, or somebody else’s style that you were emulating until you get your own. All of those are things that we do as visual artists.”
Throughout college, Joseph continued to find his voice. Eager to make his mark, the city that raised him would continue to strengthen his resolve. “When I came out of college I thought I was going to be able to get directly into that whole scene in Atlanta. But, it was very closed off at the time, especially for the type of work that I was doing.”
Talk to Joseph for a few minutes about any of his passions, and you quickly realize that quitting isn’t in this brother’s DNA.
“Eventually I did find my niche and realized that if you want it, you’ve got to build it sometimes. It’s not going to be easy or given to you.
Clarity is a gift. Instead of being frustrated by his experiences, Joseph accepted the revelation he had as a young artist and never looked back.
They say your network, is your net worth. Cliché? Maybe. Valid? Yup. The power of connection and of conversation should not be underestimated. Who knows where they can lead. After being referred to the Tubman Museum in Macon, Georgia, Joseph would meet the Director of Exhibitions, Jeffrey Bruce.
“I approached him about the show and mentioned how much I was impressed with it and asked him if he had contact information for the artists involved. People don’t just give you contacts unless they can tell that you’re serious. I think Jeffrey took a liking to me. At the time, I had what was called an ashcan in the business, it’s like a demo, something you shop around to show people what you can do. I gave him a copy of it and he was impressed.”
Jeffery was so impressed that Joseph was rewarded with the contact information of everyone in the show. Without hesitation, Joseph reached out to everyone on that list. Before he knew it, Joseph found himself on a plane to Philly, on his way to a convention featuring the work of black sequential artists. ECBACC, or The East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention allows hundreds of artists from the diaspora to show their work.
Professor Turtel Onli, the creator of the Black Age of Comics genre and Onli Studios debuted the first ever Black Age of Comics Convention in 1993. In turn, this sparked other gatherings such as ECBACC.
“As people say, sometimes the foundation is laid before you get there,” Joseph recounts when speaking about Professor Onli and ECBACC founder, Yumy Odom, an award-winning educator and author with more than 35 years of experience in the sequential art game.
Initially, these names were just that, names. The more Joseph speaks, the more his reverence for these pioneers who paved the way for him becomes apparent. Now, more than just names, it’s clear that these are just a few of the people that every melanated comic book fan should know. “I’m big on dropping names because we should always shout out the people who got us there.” True.
Back to the power of networking and making connections though. ECBACC founder Yumy Odom, took Joseph under this wing and showed him how to organize and curate this type of event. Yumy’s tutelage, along with the influence of countless others, set Joseph up for the win. In 2009 at the Southwest Arts Center in Atlanta, Ga, Joseph launched the first annual OnyxCon. About 500 people came out to support the one-day event. Now 10 years strong, OnyxCon has blossomed into a weekend long event with representation from artists all over the country.
“All art’s connected. My definition of art is any and every creative expression that appeals to your senses.”
Without question, this is what wakes him up each day. Another 24 hours to create, reflect on and experience all modes of creative expression. At first glance, one could mistake his fervor for arrogance and his self-assured disposition as vanity. But nah. That right there is what happens when the love takes over. When reverence radiates from the very core of an artist, they’re inspired and energetic. With each minute, it becomes clearer that Joseph’s humility for his process, the creative process and his community is momentous. It’s not ego, it’s appreciation.
“For me, being a visual artist first, I saw film as the ultimate medium because it encompasses everything else. For example, the culinary arts, you see those with craft services, you have the setting of food in scenes sometimes. You have smell onset, which effects the environment an actor or actress has to act in. The folks who build the set, who build the props, who score the film, all of these different art forms culminate into film.”
After reaching out to a friend in the film industry, Joseph got a gig. Once he got the acting bug he never looked back. Since then he’s been acting and writing. Don’t get it twisted though. Just because most of his time is spent acting doesn’t mean that his love of fantasy is gone.
“I especially like fantasy work. Nothing fantasy is based on nothing. Everything is based on something real, so you’re always pulling from real experiences and real environments. If you come up with some creature you’re basing that on every animal and plant that you’ve ever seen in your life.”
His early days as a sequential artist continue to serve him well. The resolve he’s built seems to be serving him well as he sets out for stardom.
“That is how I do my thing. I get deep into the research. I look at the words and what they mean. One friend taught me that you say the words in your head and walk in a circle until it’s like a song that you know back and forth. The best thing about dialogue is when you get so comfortable with it that you can play with it, almost like a mantra. But there’s a big difference when you’re doing it on your own and there’s a camera in your face. There’s a difference between a controlled environment, like your home and a set where there’s a lot of equipment and a lot of bodies moving around and a lot of energy. There’s just a lot to it.”
They say experience is the best teacher. So, what has Joseph learned in his pursuits as an artist?
“You hear those people talking about life is short? Life ain’t short. Life is long if you know to live it. If you stay healthy and stick to your purpose, life is a long journey. And, you always have a choice. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you’re supposed to do this. It’s your life.”
What have the past ten years shown and taught you? How are you putting that into practice? That’s something to marinate on, isn’t it?