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story.lead_photo.caption Local artist Alex Chavez is working on a project celebrating important Black figures through his art. (Submitted photo)

TEXARKANA — This past week of stay-at-home weather has provided local artist and graphic designer Alex Chavez with more time for a February project celebrating important Black figures through his art.

Daily, Chavez has depicted such people as musicians Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters and Rosetta Tharpe, athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick and renowned fashion designer Daniel "Dapper Dan" Day with his unique blend of lettering and cartoon art.

Chavez has developed a distinctive, colorful style inspired by a variety of cultural influences, such as hip hop and graffiti art.

Some of the figures are less well known, such as McKinley Thompson Jr., the first African American automotive designer to work for Ford Motor Co., the artist said. Or there's Gaspar Yanga, who led a slave revolt and settled in Mexico.

Chavez's project coincides with Black History Month, and he's been sharing photos and videos online. This year, many events and celebrations to honor African Americans have gone virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I wanted to be proactive in celebrating Black History Month, and so I decided to do an illustration a day, Monday through Friday," Chavez said.

The project has introduced him to figures like Yanga, who created a settlement in Veracruz, Mexico. "His story is really, really fascinating, and my family is close to that state. It's nice to have Black people in Mexico it's been a really cool learning experience," the artist said.

A portrait by local artist Alex Chavez honors Yasuke, a Black samurai. (Submitted photo)

There's a city named after Yanga in Mexico. Then there's a unique figure like the African-born Yasuke — "maybe one of the only Black samurais. He was a slave, sold to the Jesuits," Chavez said. Yasuke served in Japan.

Dapper Dan, who is still alive, is another figure who intrigued Chavez. "New York City guy, hustler through and through. I listened to his audiobook, 'Dapper Dan,' and he used to be a hustler. He sold clothes, obviously designed clothes later," Chavez said, adding, "A very smart guy, really smart, knows how to read people really well."

And about the groundbreaking singer and songwriter Tharpe, he says, "I always say that she invented rock-and-roll. Other people were just influenced by it."

Chavez sees a clear purpose in this artistic focus at a time when divisions so readily come between us — not just as political parties, but also as people.

"I think it's necessary for us as Americans to recognize and celebrate our culture," Chavez said. It's a way to discover the ways people from other cultures contribute to the general culture, he believes. It's apparent in such areas as the blues and hip hop.

Artistically, his influences arise from Black and Latino culture, such as graffiti art and music, plus street artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat.

"I'm influenced by graffiti culture," Chavez said. It's '60s inspired but also pre-Columbian in style. He doesn't typically combine cartoon characters with his lettering art, but he wanted to express something different here with these drawings, which are done on card stock.

"For this series, I thought it would be better to show faces," said Chavez, who was working on Usain Bolt earlier this week. Gymnast Simone Biles is another figure he aims to depict.

It's important to celebrate them and share this knowledge about people we may not know about otherwise.

"Especially for the African American community," Chavez said, noting that for him as an immigrant, as Latino and first generation, seeing anyone who is successful in this way fills him with pride. "I'm thinking it would be the same for, I guess, other minorities."

His method to make this unique art? Pencil, ink and markers on thicker paper. He also intends to do similar series on Latino and Native American cultures. Meanwhile, look for this series to continue through the end of the month.

(Find Alex Chavez's art at both Facebook and Instagram under the name axcz20.)

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