Garden Art: Letting it Do What it Do
by D. Amari Jackson
Najee Dorsey nostalgically recalls that fateful day he almost ‘threw away’ a significant part of his current success. Upon purchasing his Columbus, GA home three years back, the prominent artist and entrepreneur looked in a storage unit and rediscovered some two-and-a-half-foot artwork he once printed to PVC, the durable plastic of outdoor signs.
“It was actually in a garbage container along with some other unused materials,” recounts Dorsey, CEO and founder of Black Art In America, the top site in the nation focused on African-American visual art. “Man, I ought to do something with this,” he thought, gazing at the vivid images of Black women planting and picking flowers. “I just decided to stick it out in the yard. And the more I looked at it, I was like, man, I think this would appeal to other people as well.”
It has. Today, what ultimately became the Garden Art for the Soul collection is consistently Dorsey’s top selling item each month at Black Art In America, with orders from around the country. While generating considerable revenue its first year after a viral video post and its debut at a May 2017 art show in Washington DC, Garden Art for the Soul—despite the global quarantine and market woes of 2020—is on pace to dwarf the total revenues of its previous two years. The popular collection boasts powerful images of African American culture including Harriet Tubman and Muhammad Ali along with the proud, everyday-folk who embody the Movement for Black Lives and our community’s ongoing quest for equity and representation.
“It’s a garden product that was manufactured using art imagery—initially my artwork for the first two years, and then works licensed by other artists—that is reproduced, printed, packaged, and shipped around the country,” explains Dorsey, clarifying “but it’s so much more than that. It gives visible representation to our aesthetic, our culture, generally speaking for Black people, which is what I didn’t see in the marketplace as an option when I initially started to look for things to put out into the yard.”
Dorsey’s current success with Garden Art for the Soul did not come without its lessons. Like a garden that quickly blooms, the inspirational product still had to be tended to. Though year one was a big success highlighted by a video promoting the collection that garnered over half a million views in three days, it was followed by a different energy. “Year two comes around and things slow down a bit,” acknowledges Dorsey. “There’s a dip, but I attribute it to me focusing on other areas of the company because where you find success is going to be where you put your energy. I was focused on doing shows, creating art and selling art, so I simply got away from marketing it.” By the end of the second year, “it wasn’t really jumping like before and it wasn’t the growth we had hoped for. But I still felt like the product was special, that it had more legs.”
In January 2020, Dorsey recommitted to marketing Garden Art for the Soul by promoting fresh images of the collection and licensing the work of artist and colleague, Deborah Shedrick. “And then Covid hit,” he says, noting how they still “did really well.” Despite the chaos and market instability, business picked up even more when they made a similar licensing deal with celebrated artist, Charly Palmer.
“Next thing I know, we’re staying up to like one, two o’clock in the morning fulfilling orders,” excitedly recalls Dorsey. “It was just crazy, I mean, it took over the kitchen, it took over the living room. Some days we had to take two trips to the shipper, and we’re still trying to navigate this whole thing.” Despite acknowledging the difficulty of servicing so many orders, Dorsey introduced more images to the popular collection while expanding its marketing and advertising. “I didn’t want it to end even though it was difficult in terms of managing the fulfillment,” he admits, clarifying customer service as a high priority and the recent upgrading of systems, facilities, and human resources to meet the demand. “We want people to know who we are and that we care about the experience they have and the product they are getting,” continues Dorsey. “It’s been a tremendous blessing, but also a lot of work to try and navigate the success of Garden Art doing Covid.”
Such success is also a result of Dorsey’s licensing of additional artists’ work over the past few months including the culturally-affirming offerings of graphic artist, Poncho Brown; the colorful, ancestral-based renderings of painter Frank Frazier; the rich imagery of fifth generation quilt maker, Phyllis Stephens; the moment-capturing watercolors of painter, Stacey Brown; and the vibrant, Gullah-influenced depictions of mix media artist, Sonja Griffin Evans.
“Being an artist with Garden Art for the Soul allows me to further share and expand my art and Gullah culture into everyday life,” says Evans, whose Gullah Geechee female figurines, Faith and Hope, recently joined the collection. “A garden can be a great place to showcase your favorite artists and encourage interaction with your beautiful surroundings,” visually enhancing it while making “a statement.”
“Garden art is a collection of colorful and diverse urban images encompassing flowing colors and abstract designs,” echoes Stacey Brown. With his Garden Art musical collection, “You can imagine the eloquent sounds of jazz from your garden,” or you can “express your need for social justice with the powerful Black Lives Matter Garden Art image. Strong representation of our heritage with these images gives us a voice to beautify our sanctuary, our home.”
“People get a chance to see themselves, their culture, or their political views reflected via Garden Art,” confirms Dorsey, noting “for those that want to let people know where they stand, in terms of Black Lives Matter, we got that. Or they might want to post the Ali image with his protest sign saying, ‘Sorry for the inconvenience. We are trying to change the world.”
So is Dorsey. His company, Black Art In America—currently celebrating its 10th anniversary—was created at a time when few, if any, online platforms championed, documented, or served the African-American visual arts community. Dorsey has since grown the company into an internationally recognized digital destination with monthly site visitors from over 100 countries and a half a million to its social media. Promoting and representing the works of hundreds of top Black visual artists across the country, Black Art In America offers a full roster of functions and services including timely commentary on today’s visual arts news, gallery meet-ups, market trends analysis, artist profiles, free original content and educational tools, member workshops, curatorial services, art consulting, marketing and promotions, social media management, and art appraisal.
Given the vibrant online space he has built, Dorsey views Garden Art for the Soul as a wonderful way for consumers to support a community-based, Black-owned business while being welcomed into the African American visual arts community. “I see it as a great introductory item to seed their interest in culture, in a visual aesthetic, while also allowing people to start to collect art.” However, he stresses, “it all starts with getting them engaged and I think that’s the beauty of the product because it’s easy to appreciate, and it’s functional too. It goes out into the yard and makes a statement in terms of this is what I value, this is who I am.”
For Dorsey, such value, given our current state of affairs, is critical.
“I think you could find whatever you’re looking for, in terms of the product, whether you want something that speaks to the times or that’s going to take you away from the madness of the times,” he acknowledges. “If you want to support a Black-owned company that’s doing great work, or if you want to give a gift to somebody to uplift their spirits, Garden Art does that as well. So, I think people can find whatever they’re looking for on many different levels. And I wouldn’t want to limit it, because people are gonna let the product do what it do for them.”
“And that’s why they connect with it.”