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User spotlight: How Art of Collab supports Orlando artists

Art of Collab members AJ Barbel, Mariah Román, Kierra Branker, and Lafayette Stokely standing at a desk, surrounded by artwork.

The best part about serving small businesses is seeing the active part they play in building and benefiting the communities around them. One such business is Art of Collab, an artist collective working locally in Orlando, Florida.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with four Art of Collab members to learn more about their vision. The collective is focused on marginalized groups and is working day and night to bring art to audiences that don’t necessarily have galleries or museums in their neighborhoods.

Part of Art of Collab’s Parramore mural.
Part of Art of Collab’s Parramore mural.

Mariah Román, one of the collective’s founders and an artist herself, explains its purpose as twofold: “To create access through murals and public art, so that people can see their stories being told, and the artists are able to express themselves.”

A museum without walls

Art of Collab was founded in 2018 with the intent to help not only young local artists in the city—which is far from better-known artistic centers like New York or San Francisco—but also to create a bridge between the artists and the community. This connection is done through public events, workshops, public art, and direct collaborations with other community organizers and collectives. 

Part of Art of Collab’s mission is to open doors for artists of color or ones that are coming from other marginalized groups. “Whether you’re Latinx, Black, African American, disabled, or LGBT,” Mariah said, “a lot of artists that are within those communities, don’t always have the mentors or the access to know how to reach higher, and really elevate themselves as artists in this space.”

That’s where Art of Collab comes in. The collective has so far completed two large-scale outdoor mural projects in predominantly Black areas. The first was done in Eatonville, one of the first self-governing all-black municipalities in the U.S. and was inspired by poet, author, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who operated in the area. The second is in Parramore, a west Orlando neighborhood. Both murals celebrate Black cultural icons and creativity. 

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston as part of Art of Collab's Eatonville mural.
Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston as part of the Eatonville mural.

“We started just with a small family of artists and now we have grown to over 30, and it continues growing,” Mariah said. “There needs to be a safe space for us, so why not create it for each other?”

Art of Collab functions as a museum without walls telling the stories that are relevant to the communities it lives in. It also gives artists an opportunity to express themselves and their heritage without relying on outside recognition. “Wherever there’s a wall, there’s a canvas for us.”

There for the little guy

In addition to murals, Art of Collab hosts online workshops for the general public and offers artworks and prints created by its members, both within and outside the collective, for sale on its website. It also hosts various community art events led by local artists of various media. 

Behind the scenes, the collective also serves as a support system for its member artists. Artists live in their own little world, explained Lafayette Stokely, who co-founded the collective with Mariah. Art of Collab, is about tearing down these self-made barriers, he said. “You don’t really have to do everything by yourself, you can lean on the community that you build around you to make better art. It doesn’t all have to stay in your head. Let it live. Let it be a part of the world and see how people receive it.”

The collective aims to share knowledge and resources between members. When artists, who are not always savvy in the business aspects of life, get together, they are also able to share what’s required to be sustainable, Mariah explained. “We have to have the tools, the resources, the supplies, and the equipment to keep telling our stories.” 

The collective’s goal, said Lafayette, is to be the shoulder younger artists who are still building their reputation can lean on for support. “The little guy sometimes gets looked over. We have great ideas, but we just don’t have the resume to show it, so we’re building out that resume.”

Orlando is bigger than Disney World

According to Lafayette, who is a hip-hop artist, photographer, and graphic designer, being local gives Art of Collab an edge when dealing with the community and creating public artwork. “They understand that we have our city’s best interest in mind,” he said. “We’re really from west Orlando and the Eatonville area, and we want to let you know that this side of town is beautiful, too. Orlando is bigger than Disney World.”

Kierra Branker joined the collective about two years ago when she came back home to Orlando, after studying photography in New York. At first, she had a hard time finding her place in the local scene, but then she stumbled upon Art of Collab. “We’re going to make our own platform, we’re not going to wait for larger institutions to please let us in,” Kierra said. It’s really extraordinary to witness in real time how the culture in Orlando is changing, she added, “you feel like you have more of an impact and you’re able to really make your voice heard.” 

When people think about the art scene, they think about New York, California, or Chicago, Lafayette explained, but he believes the infrastructure exists in Orlando, and wherever artists choose to be. “You don’t necessarily have to leave home to meet like-minded individuals within the art scene or to take your art to the level that you want to take it. We’re here to support you and we’re not gonna let you down.”

Not just making the city pretty

When AJ Barbel, an interdisciplinary artist, worked on his first mural for Art of Collab, he saw how much the community is hungry for change. “I learned that I’m not just there to make the city look pretty,” he said. “I’m here to better this whole community and I want to make a bigger impact.”

Part of Art of Collab's Eatonville mural.
Part of the Eatonville mural.

What AJ saw around him were members of the community, some younger than him, who are without homes, doing drugs, or just asking for money on the street. He believes art can help some of them find a way out. “It’s just a form of trying to solve problems,” he said.

“There are a lot of people in that community who have lost people who haven’t even started life yet or even graduated from high school. I was in that situation. So I understand. If you just take advice, or collaborate, or step out, and try something new, that might be the missing step that will change your life.”

It takes money to create

Artists need a lot of support to continue working. “It takes money to create, it takes a lot of resources,” Mariah said. That’s why Art of Collab works to create monetization opportunities for members in the form of online art sales or workshops.

Getting paid is always nice, but timing can also be crucial, especially for artists who need cash to create their next work. “As an artist myself,” Mariah said, “I’ve definitely been in that position where I was waiting for checks to come and to be paid for projects.” That’s why it was so important for Art of Collab to find an easy way to pay artists quickly. So, they turned to Melio, an online business-to-business (B2B) payment platform built for small businesses.

Artists don’t typically have a background in accounting or the means to hire an accountant, Mariah said, explaining that Melio helped fill that gap. “It became so easy to do our bookkeeping, and keep track of what was coming in and what was coming out.” Now, instead of using Excel spreadsheets, writing checks, and paying through various peer-to-peer platforms, they can take care of all their payments, incoming and outgoing, on one platform.

What’s next?

Art of Collab is a very local enterprise but its members are hoping to expand in the future.

Lafayette said he would like to see the collective creating murals in other states and even around the world.

Starting as just a collective of friends, Art of Collab had grown into a small business, he said. “As a startup, you want to grow, but you want to keep your core values. We always want to stay true to ourselves.”

Want to learn more about Art of Collab and support local artists in Florida? Visit their website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram

*This blog post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as financial advice.
**Melio does not provide legal, tax or accounting advice, and you should consult with a professional advisor before making any financial decisions.