Of all the joyful Black and Brown faces filling the frames of Mieyoshi Ragernoir’s vibrant paintings, only one is a self-portrait, but then again, she says, “all artwork is a self-portrait.”
Ragernoir’s lone “official” self-portrait stands out in her long list of Instagram posts — she’s radiant there, grinning broadly against a canary yellow background. But as the artist glances through her posts, she notices that unlike her other works, she’s cropped this one down. She considers for a moment, and then, “The one self-portrait I do have, it’s cropped; I don’t know... it probably might be a psychological thing — I just wasn’t comfortable, fully, right?”
It’s hard to believe Ragernoir ever feels less than comfortable in her own skin, chatting with her over Zoom on a quiet Thursday morning. She’s one of those people whose passion for her work — for
— is practically contagious. Her art has the same effect.
Lately, she says, she’s getting better at “honing in on joy and art; it really soaks into my psyche.” Still, it’s not as though joy just drips effortlessly from Ragernoir’s paintbrush. Finding (and channeling) her joy has been a deliberate choice, one that requires work and commitment.
Ragernoir describes a childhood touched by trauma that she’s still working through. She’s learned how to wield her talent in a way that serves as catharsis and connection, borne out of a deep sense of self-love and healing. “It’s really monumental for me to create what I create,” she says, “because I noticed that it just helps me to treat myself kindly, and because I treat myself kindly, I know that I treat everybody around me with kindness and softness and compassion.”
Self-compassion was at the heart of what drove Ragernoir to finish her MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills at a time when she wasn’t sure how she might will herself into the studio to complete her capstone project, “Joy Ride.”
The painting is trademark Ragernoir: joyful, alive and so of the moment. And on the surface, that’s completely true. She says the piece reflects a shared moment with two grad school friends, Morgan Bouldes and Deja Milany, though she says the painting is a work of imagination. It’s about the three friends and a real-life, shared moment earlier this year, but it’s not a direct likeness.
“Joy Ride” symbolizes several aspects of Ragernoir’s life, including a nod to her city of birth — as her website proclaims, she was “made in Harlem” and is now “based in Detroit." Hence, the taxi cabs and NYC-esque cityscape.
It also reflects an everyday slice of life. A shared, electric moment with her friends as they made their way home from picking up takeout from Detroit’s Island Spice Caribbean — a welcome break from finals. “We got excited, and it was just like, ‘Let’s just get like hundreds of dollars of takeout from my favorite place,’ and that’s what we did,” she recalls. “We were just happy. I just remember I was talking about all the food: ‘This plantain’s going to be so good; it’s all going to be so good!’ It was like this eagerness...”
“...and then boom.”
The car Ragernoir was riding in was involved in a serious crash that propelled her into the front compartment of the vehicle, resulting in painful injuries she’s still recovering from. “For two weeks, I could not paint — I couldn’t really even move — and I was just so emotional, lots of crying... but after the third week, I was just like, ‘I have to paint,’” she remembers.
When she finally made it back to the studio, Ragernoir says she became focused on that moment before the crash, filled with “laughter and joy and excitement in the backseat,” mixed with a feeling of homesickness and the isolation of her recovery. “I was thinking a lot about New York and about how we were feeling before the crash — it was the first thing I sketched after the car crash.”
Ultimately, “Joy Ride” emerged as a piece that seems to be attracting a level of attention Ragernoir didn’t necessarily expect. It may even tie into how she landed in Detroit on a more permanent basis. “I’m very headstrong on what I want to make and what I want to create, but I didn’t get a lot of support or feedback within my school experience,” she explains. “I painted ‘Joy Ride’ when I was in school, and when I had critiques, it was crickets. Like, literally, it was so quiet — it wasn’t smiles in the room. So, this is all new to me.”
Ragernoir’s decision to move to Detroit on a permanent basis after grad school is due in part to Mighty Real Queer Detroit curator Patrick Burton, who approached Ragernoir about getting involved with the project alongside 150 other queer artists (Ragernoir identifies as a “bisexual who dates all humans”). Burton liked her work so much that she is featured at several of the 17 gallery locations taking part in the city-wide queer art project throughout June, Pride Month. “I thought it was just a regular art show — that’s what I came here for, to make art and to show art,” she says. “But when I spoke to Patrick, I didn’t know that it would be so big; I didn’t know how monumental the show was when I signed up for it.”
Now that she’s been able to spend time in the local area in the post-pandemic era, Ragenoir seems to have taken a shine to the city like a local. “It’s a community,” she says. “It’s been a beautiful experience, working with artists every day, biking, meeting new people. It’s why I decided to stay here.” She’s even taking advantage of the renewed local interest in old-school roller skating, “dancing on air” at classic local rinks like Northland and Bonaventure.
Detroit is, of course, not New York City, but for Ragenoir, that’s a plus in some ways. “I’ve been in New York my whole life, and the city has its perks,” she explains. “But I was just so exhausted from it. Detroit is so homey, and it feels like a city, but also there’s this Southern hospitality — you can really feel the Southern migration of its past. That energy is still here.”
This fall, the artist will head back to her native New York to participate in a residency that she says will have her working alongside prominent artists she has admired for years. For now, she’ll keep “riding in the sun and eating good food” — that is, when she’s not creating art, the thing that brings her the most happiness.
“Art, for me, is going through a journey; painting is like alchemy,” she muses. “And in a time where racism, bigotry, anger and pain are everywhere in our society, I highlight joy and radiance. It’s always been a healing journey, a big part of me becoming my real self, a happier version of myself.”
“Art,” she says, “saved my life.”
Mieyoshi Ragenoir’s Mighty Real Queer Detroit artwork is featured at Anton Art Center, Cass Cafe, Galerie Camille, N’Namdi Center For Contemporary Art, Norwest Gallery and Playground Detroit. Learn more about the artist at mieyoshiragernoir.com and on Instagram @Painting2Exhale.