Portrait of Ayana Mack at her home studio in Mattapan. Photo by Cassandra Rodriguez.
Whether it’s the walking silhouette of a woman draped in gauzy fabric in the dream-like Freedom, a face lifted up to the heavens bathed in orange and gold in Transformation, or a mocha-skinned woman with smiling eyes surrounded by growing green vines in Nurture, artist Ayana Mack’s pieces are explosions of color intended to evoke emotion and inspire others to pursue their passions.
Mack is a full-time graphic designer and entrepreneur who launched her business, Ayana Mack Design, nearly ten years ago. She sells prints along with journals, bags, glassware, and other items that feature her sketches and paintings. For several years Mack’s been balancing her day job with furthering her career as an artist, selling her wares at fairs, pop-ups, and open studios around the Greater Boston area and beyond. Her work can be found on the walls of private homes, local businesses, and public spaces.
Portraits of various Black women with luminescent skin rocking top-knotted dreadlocks, buzz cuts, or free-flow-ing, untamed kinks are just some of the pieces that fill Mack’s portfolio. Her iconic headwrap pieces, which are sketches of featureless faces beneath colorful patterned fabric, seem to create space for viewers to connect with and imagine themselves within the work.
That’s part of what makes Mack’s art so special. When Sheena Collier, consummate connector and founder of Boston While Black (BWB), came across one of Mack’s paintings that she recently purchased, she thought, “Is this a replica of me?” she says. That feeling is part of the reason Collier admired the work. Years ago, Catherine Morris, founder of the Boston Art & Music Soul (BAMS) Fest, met Mack at a holiday event where Mack was selling her work. “We talked a little bit and I fell in love with her [and] her art,” Morris says. “At the time it always seemed to just represent the many dimensions of what it means to be a Black woman. And I appreciated that. And to see that locally was such a powerful connection that I loved about it.”
Mack’s work often starts inside her sketchbook before ending up on one of her products.
Mack has considered adding more diversity to her portfolio, but she enjoys the work she’s doing. “It’s important for us to see ourselves the way we want to see ourselves,” Mack shares. “I enjoy painting Black women. I’m comfortable in this space. It makes me feel good. So why not? I just really think it’s important that we see ourselves in a beautiful light.”
In addition to her paintings of Black women, Mack also spends time creating beautiful foliage- and nature- centered scenes like her plant-covered and elephant-print journals. For the holidays, Mack has an online shop with hand-painted ornaments and glasses featuring abstract patterns of black, gold, and red. White ceramic mugs with colorful details and greetings cards are also on offer.
Outside of her visual artwork, Ayana Mack Design offers graphic design, branding, social media strategy, and more. Mack’s been making a name for herself collecting clients across various industries, from food to politics to music. She’s worked with clients—including Collier and Morris—in New York, Denver, San Francisco, and more. But locally, if you’ve purchased Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s merchandise emblazoned with empowering messages, dined at one of Food & Folklore’s non-European diasporic feasts, or hung out with friends at BAMS Fest, then you’ve seen Mack’s designs. Mack’s also nabbed BWB as a social media strategy client.
Mack presenting at Shana Bryant Consulting in 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Tamika Francis, owner of Food & Folklore, met Mack a few years ago through a mutual friend. She remembered seeing the creative’s artwork at Dudley Café in Roxbury years ago and wanted to collaborate with her. Francis reached out about design work for her company, but Mack didn’t have the capacity initially. “I may have been stalking her for a minute,” Francis shares lightheartedly. Her persistence paid off. Francis and Mack were later able to work on some branding elements for Francis’s pop-up dinners, including some beautifully designed menus. Francis talks of Mack’s innate ability to grasp her organization’s mission and interpret it visually. Mack’s design treatments helped each event in the series feel distinct while keeping the overall look and feel of the dinners cohesive.
Mack’s sharp business acumen has been cultivated through hard work and perseverance. And, lately, it seems she’s hitting her stride. The Suffolk University grad was named a Creative Entrepreneur Fellow by the Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston in 2015, which provided the opportunity to attend workshops and classes while learning how to market her business. Mack also took a free ten-week business planning class through the Center for Women & Enterprise. The class centered on “making a business plan, identifying your why, [and] going through worksheets,” Mack says. It helped her learn her numbers, utilize spreadsheets, and calculate profits and expenses. Also, Mack was recently honored by “Black Excellence on the Hill,” a celebration of Black culture and achievement in the Commonwealth. Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz nominated Mack for the award.
Mack inside her home studio, which doubles as business headquarters. Photo by Cassandra Rodriguez.
Mack moves at a dizzying pace, but somehow, the wellness-focused creative who loves vegan cooking, cycling, and surrounding herself with candles, art, good music, and plants tries to find harmony in everything she does, including her art. She prioritizes joy and self-care and doesn’t mind unplugging from social media—except for Pinterest, where she has an intense private board for inspiration—to take time for herself. She doesn’t force herself to create; she waits until she’s ready to funnel her energy into a piece that will go out to the world.
Mack says her work “comes from the most authentic parts of myself. It’s really uncomfortable. It’s really hard.” But she hopes, “It’s something that people can feel.”
Jacquinn Sinclair is a Boston-based freelance journalist whose work seeks to highlight creatives, organizations, and initiatives at the intersection of art and activism. Her work has appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune, DigBoston, WBUR’s The ARTery, and Boston.com.
This story was originally published in Issue 06: Timestamp in January 2021.