The past 12 months have been high-profile ones for Roanoke artist Bryce Cobbs.
Maybe you’ve seen the recently unveiled mural on 11th Avenue Northwest, with hip-hop legend Nipsey Hussle at its center. Cobbs painted that. You’ve surely driven Campbell Avenue Southwest, where the 200 block features the public art street piece, “End Racism Now.” Cobbs, one of 14 artists enlisted to paint it, did the letter “R.”
He’s got a national profile, too. Did you pick up rapper Wale’s late 2019 album, “Wow ... That’s Crazy”? Wale’s profile on the cover is Cobbs’ work, too.
The Virginia Commonwealth University senior has plenty of valley connections where public art is concerned. And his brother, Rayshon “808-Ray” Cobbs Jr., is a Grammy-recognized beatmaker whose work has appeared on platinum albums.
But that family connection is not how Bryce Cobbs, 23, got his work on a nationally distributed Billboard Top 10 record.
Turns out, Wale simply followed him on Twitter.
“It was the most blessed thing to happen,” Bryce Cobbs said in a recent interview.
It’s a lot for someone who didn’t begin seriously studying art till his junior year at Patrick Henry High School.
Not that he wasn’t into art. The Spiderman fan was trying to replicate comic book panels since fifth grade, and was the go-to kid when classmates gathered in groups to do projects that needed art.
Fletcher Nichols, who retired from Roanoke schools in 2018, noticed Cobbs’ ability, and persuaded him to take his class. Nichols would become his mentor.
“He got me out of my comfort zone and showed me the avenues that art could take me in,” Cobbs said. “Going through that class, and taking his class the very next year really showed me all the possibilities of art-making.”
Next was VCU, where he once again had to leave his comfort zone. It led the communication art major (“It’s a fancy way of saying ‘illustration,’” he noted) to painting, particularly oil painting.
“They pretty much put you through boot camp, learning all these different materials, sparking your interest in different things,” Cobbs said. “Something about painting intimidated me, scared me. But being forced to do it put me in that zone — if I’m going to be forced to do this, I’m going to give it my all, give it my best.
“Now that’s all I do, is paint. I do a mural every now and then. But now I really just love to take brush to the canvas. That’s all I really want to do.”
Cobbs had showed a lot of his work on his Twitter account, and Wale began following him, even retweeting him and tagging his friends in it, “which was really, really, really cool,” Cobbs said.
Then came a direct message from the man himself, in late 2019.
“I was like, no. Wale doesn’t DM people. People DM him,” Cobbs recalled thinking.
With the DM came a request: Could Cobbs do an oil painting of Wale in a week? Cobbs was hesitant, as he was relatively new to oil and worked slowly. He offered a digital replication of an oil painting, instead. Wale, born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, declined.
“I thought it was a lost cause at that point, but later than night, he DM’d me, [saying] let’s try it with the digital,” Cobbs said.
He stayed up the next two days, sleepless, digitally painting on his iPad, then sending it to his new client. A few edits later, Wale sent a final DM about the work: “Perfect,” Cobbs said.
Next, he heard from Wale’s manager, who had formalities to go over. It was only then that Cobbs found out that his digitally simulated oil painting would be part of the album cover.
“My mom came in, and I busted out crying,” Cobbs said. “I was like, ‘Ma, I did it. I finally got an album cover placement.’”
While the profile painting is Cobbs’ work, another artist, Amber Park, did the 3D graphic of hands holding the frame. Neither artist knew it was a collaboration, but got in contact later.
“We gave each other praise and everything,” he said.
Since then, Cobbs and Wale have lost touch. They had only corresponded via Twitter DMs, and Cobbs’ account was suspended.
Cobbs said he had been making videos of his art, with 20 seconds of what turned out to be copyrighted music accompanying them. A publisher reported it to Twitter, which then blew up his spot.
“Before I could even take the videos down, they kicked my account off,” he said. “I lost everything. I emailed them for months. I did not know. I would take the videos down ... if y’all would unsuspend me, I could take my videos down.
“But it’s all good. I’m trying to work my way back up there.”
His new page features a pinned tweet — a combo of Wale’s original DM and the finished product.
Cobbs is taking a break from VCU before finishing his undergraduate work. Meanwhile, he’s back in Roanoke, working a day job and picking up as much freelance work as he can.
The goal might be to join an animation studio.
“I still have my comic book feel to me, as far as professionalism goes,” he said.
Then again, there are more comfort zones to stretch.
“I’m trying to find different things I’m good at and different avenues to take the art. So I’m not 100% sure what I want to do professionally, but I know I don’t want to do [just] one thing for a long time.”
See more of his work on Nov. 15 at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture. Cobbs and six other artists will be featured in a new exhibit, “Black Fatherhood & The Arts.” The Harrison Museum will live-stream the opening at 2 p.m., via facebook.com/HarrisonMuseum. Cobbs’ mentor and high school art teacher, Nichols, will speak.
And hey @Wale, if you need any more art, @Bryce_Cobbs is now @BryceCobbs. The Roanoker who goes by BJ The Art Kid is even better at it than the first time you reached out.
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