“Vashti Harrison is an award winning director who specializes in experimental cinema … Vashti is not only a passionate filmographer, she is also an extremely talented artist and illustrator …”
~ Carolyn Hinds, writer, Black Girl Nerds
Born in 1988 in Onley, Virginia, Vashti Harrison was talented and industrious as a child and young adult. From early on, she was passionate about drawing and storytelling. She graduated from the University of Virginia in 2010, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts. Majoring in both Media Studies as well as Studio Art, Harrison’s foci were Cinematography and Film. After graduating, she visited Trinidad for the first time. This experience greatly informed and inspired her vision in filmmaking.
Returning to the United States, Harrison later relocated to the West Coast for graduate studies. She matriculated the California Institute of Arts, a private art university in Santa Clarita. Founded by Walt Disney, his older brother, Roy O. Disney, and Nelbert Chouinard, CalArts, as the institution, is called for short, is commonly referenced as the “Disney School of Animation”. According to her biography at her website, vashtiharrison.com, she “snuck into the Animation Department to learn from Disney and DreamWorks legends. There she rekindled a love for drawing and painting.”
In “The Interview: Vashti Harrison” by writer Carolyn Hinds at blackgirlnerds.com, Harrison shared, “When I went to college, I floundered a lot trying to find my place, but it was a chance encounter with a film class that turned everything around for me … When I started making films, everything clicked because I felt like that when I was drawing I wasn’t really saying anything with my art, I was just replicating things, but cinema really helped me to understand how to express myself. It was during my final year at CalArts, while I was working on my thesis film, that I took a bunch of animation classes, and it was this that rekindled my love for drawing.”
Earning her Master of Arts in Film and Video in 2014, Vashti Harrison began creating works that were rooted in her cultural heritages. Her father, who is of the United States, is African-American and her mother, who hails from Trinidad and Tobago, is Indian. Her films include Field Notes (2014), Sixteen (2015) and Forged from the Love of Liberty (2016). These speak to her Caribbean ancestry, including curses, folklore, healing and superstitions. For instance, Field Notes is described by the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) website as “an experimental portrait of ghosts embedded in the culture of Trinidad and Tobago. The film is structured as a visual and aural field guide to the ghosts, spirits and jumbies throughout the island: from personal tales about shape-shifters and bloodsuckers, to the ghosts of Trinidad’s past.”
Harrison’s films have played at acclaimed festivals including the IFFR, the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (ttff). Field Notes was nominated for “Best Short Film” at Edinburgh in 2015. At the ttff, Field Notes won “Best Local Short Film” in 2014 and Sixteen was nominated for its “Best Short Film” in 2015.
While working in film, Vashti Harrison continued to draw and paint. She used both of these skills as well as storytelling to begin creating her own books in the field of children’s literature. These stories come to life via traditional and digital media.
Attending conferences, entering competitions and using social media platforms, such as Instagram, Harrison soon signed with publishing giant, Simon & Schuster. She, as an illustrator, has also collaborated with several others such as best-selling author and Grammy Award-winning Kabir Sehgal and Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. With Nyong’o, Vashti Harrison won an Image Award for “Outstanding Literary Work – Children” from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2020 for Sulwe (2019).
Most recently, Vashti Harrison illustrated Hair Love (2019), which was based upon the 2019 animated film short written, co-produced and directed by retired National Football League (NFL) wide receiver Matthew A. Cherry. It is the beautiful story of an African-American family. For the first time, the father, Stephen, is doing the hair of his seven-year old daughter, Zuri, as the mother is away. The film was made possible from a 2017 Kickstarter campaign which garnered more than four times the amount Cherry sought. In 2020, it won an Academy Award for “Best Animated Short Film” and a Black Reel Award for “Outstanding Independent Short Film”.
Cherry developed this project because he wanted to dispel the negative stereotypes surrounding Black men as parents and Black hair in its natural state. Harrison spoke on these two issues with Hines, emphasizing, “The idea of not being comfortable with your own skin or your own hair specifically, is something that I definitely grew up with, and when I see these videos on Instagram of these little girls showing their moms how to do their hair, or they know exactly which products to use, it’s so normalized for them. They’ve never experienced this shame, frustration or stigma, so I really like the idea of Zuri, specifically that she is completely confidant in who she is. It makes the conflict within the story just about dad and daughter, and not about how good her hair is or how it should be. My dad has done my hair before, I remember he did braids and thinking, ‘Oh, my dad is really good at doing braids’ … It was just about this intimate moment when my mom was away and my dad did my hair, so that’s why I’m interested in the love aspect of this story.”
Meanwhile, Vashti Harrison continues to produce her best-selling Little Leaders series. These include Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History (2017), Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World (2018); and Little Legends: Exceptional Men in Black History (2019). Published by Little Brown Books, persons highlighted by Harrison include athlete and activist Arthur Ashe; pioneer aviatrix Bessie Coleman; artist Aaron Douglas; architect Zaha Hadid; artist Frida Kahlo; environmental activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Wangari Maathai; author and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux; filmmaker and photographer Gordon Parks, Sr.; activist and investigative journalist Ida B. Wells; and physicist Chien-Shiung Wu. In 2020, Harrison also released Leaders & Dreams: A Collection of Prints.
“I often draw Black children in nature because I want to be a part of making a hopeful and healthy future for them.”
~ Vashti Harrison
For greater enlightenment...
Vashti Harrison - Sharing the Triumphs of “Little Leaders” in Black History | The Daily Show
The Art of Little Leaders
Drawing With Vashti 01: Little Leaders & Dreamers p1
Drawing With Vashti 03: Hair!
Hair Love | Meet author Matthew Cherry & illustrator Vashti Harrison
Paper Craft Tutorial: Paper People