Fresh off the heels of his “To Die For” exhibit, caught up with artist Naturel, who’s sold some of his most recent work to heavy hitters in the hip-hop game, from Swizz Beatz to Spike Lee to LL Cool J. Naturel gave us a bit of his time to talk art, life, and why everyone should “obey themselves” when it comes to their personal style.

EBONY: I know you probably get asked this question all the time, but seriously: why the name Naturel?

Naturel: To be honest, it started off as a Napster name (this is going way back). I just thought if you put your real name on there, you would get in trouble. First, I thought about the name Natur. My real name is Lawrence, so I put the hyphen in it and it became Natur – el. And after that it just stuck with me.

EBONY: How did you get involved in art?

Naturel: I actually grew up in a musical household; my father was in a band. He played the bass, drums and guitar. Our living room was pretty much his studio. He would come in after work and play records. So I grew up listening to acts like the Ohio Players, Earth, Wind and Fire and Santana.

But what really drew me in were the illustrative album covers from those bands. For me, the art was the music, and the music was the art. I didn’t know the difference, I just thought the people who created the music also created the cover art. I eventually realized there was a difference, and I wanted to learn more about making album art. I remember thinking, “I’m going to go to school for that!”

I then learned that “that” was called graphic design, which I majored in when I enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Then after graduation, I jumped into the clothing industry.

EBONY: So before you delved into the art world, you designed clothing. How long did you stay in the clothing industry?  

Naturel: I did clothing for about eight years. I was straight out of college, and I got the opportunity to work with brands such as Triple 5 Soul, Rocawear, Ecko and Akademiks. I would have my daytime grind at Rocawear, then I would pop out and work on side projects for brands like Marc Ecko and G-Unit. In the beginning, pretty much anything I could possibly get my hands on, I would do.

Being a young designer, you don’t get paid that much, so the side projects helped. I mean, it was a little about the money, but it was honestly more about trying to get to the things I wanted achieved. It was about overcoming benchmarks. It was about achieving the things that the people I looked up to were achieving.

EBONY: Your artwork is incredibly detailed. How long do these pieces normally take to create?

Naturel: The bigger, more involved pieces can take up to a day or two. My longest piece I did took a week. I couldn’t stand it after I was done. I got to the point where I couldn’t look at it.

EBONY: When did you decide that you wanted to branch out from designing clothes and make your personal art?  

Naturel: You know, for a good part of my career as a graphic designer, I would push off my own ideas, like bury them deep inside of me so they’d never bother me again.

I would always be like, “One day I’m going to do this, and one day I’m going to do that.” Then, finally, I got tired of doing “client work,” making other people’s ideas to come life. I was so drained, and I felt like it was time to give my own ideas a shot. And that’s how this evolved.

EBONY: How long did it take you to hone in on your skills?

Naturel: I would say it’s a lifetime of acquired knowledge. I mean, it’s everything to the discipline it takes to sit down in the chair and do the work.

EBONY: How do you feel you’ve changed art?

Naturel: The thing is: there aren’t too many artists from our side of the fence that get exposure. So I think it’s important to put ourselves out there in a great light. I grew up in PG County, Maryland, where there was no real creative outlet for anyone, especially someone interested in the arts. There’s one high school that’s available to kids that want to be artists. And there’s only like 60 students, I believe, that get to attend every year. That’s really limiting if you think about it.

Now when it comes down to the art I create, I try to focus on the visual language that I grew up with. Like for example, when we see a Hennessey bottle, or a 40 [-ounce beer bottle], we know what that means. I just want my art to connect with our people. I feel like I’m one of the few people that are exposing our cultural visual language.

EBONY: This has been a big year for you thus far. What’s next on your radar?

Naturel: I’ve been so blessed to have the opportunity to meet so many different people and acquire relationships with people who have different crafts and different resources. So I think this upcoming year will be more about learning. I’m going to reach out to anyone who’s ever given me a business card and learn what they do, from furniture making to rug-making, to clothes, to pottery, to metal working, to jewelry. Anything I could possibly apply my vision to.

As far as the art, you’ll definitely be seeing more sculptures—more mixed media, some painting, murals, print stuff and a lot of motion work. I’m also getting into some 3-D stuff.

EBONY: What advice would you give to up and coming African-American artists?

Naturel: Keep pushing. It’s tough though. The world will try to paint you in a certain corner and you will get typecast every day for everything you do. But embrace the journey. Throughout history, walls and barriers have been broken for us, so now it’s our turn to find the current barriers and break them down and build an even better foundation for the next generation. It’s funny because I’ll often get hit up on Instagram or thru e-mail, and young people are like, “One day I want to be like you.” And I’m like “Man, you can be better than me!”

—Corey Chalumeau