Art was Robert Moore’s ‘saving grace.’ Now his work graces T-shirts, walls and buildings in Iowa and beyond

Robert B. Moore with his painting from the Kith collab, courtesy of Robert B. Moore

A boy with a hidden talent fell into the wrong group of people, leading him down a scary path. His job in corporate IT and project management left him feeling empty. It took Robert Moore going to the hospital in 2019 after a night of too much drinking for him to turn his life around and find a positive outlet: art.

“When I walked out, I told myself, ‘I ain’t letting this happen again. I’m not doing this again.’ I just told myself I’m not doing this shit no more,” Moore said.

“I had to literally go to the hospital because I made a bad choice. That’s crazy to me.”

Alcohol and drug abuse were Moore’s home remedy for unhappiness, he said, but they ultimately left him more empty. Once he figured out the cause of his negative feelings were the very things that his life had become, he made a decision.

“I was kind of able to more so understand why I was using, and then I could focus on how to stop. And I didn’t know that stopping using is what I needed to do,” he said, “I just felt like there was something we needed to change.”

Moore describes his mentality while working at his IT job as “chasing the bag,” climbing the corporate ladder. “It just drove me crazy,” he said. “It was not for me.”

“The old me wasn’t authentic. I had a boss one time tell me that I wasn’t authentic and that I say I was a lot. Even though I don’t appreciate the way she delivered that feedback, it made me really question about why I wasn’t being seen as authentic.”

Courtesy of Robert B. Moore

He never did receive an answer to his question, but he says he didn’t need one. “What she told me was everything right there. There was everything that I didn’t want to hear but needed to hear,” Moore said.

When changing huge parts of your lifestyle, others may not always have the wanted reaction. But that was no worry for Moore. He had a supportive family who agreed that something had to change, including his now ex-wife. Some friends did have to be replaced to align with his new way of life.

In addition to refocusing on his family and mental health, Moore began exploring hobbies and exercise. “An idle mind always keeps me distracted by things I think aren’t healthy, so I try to keep myself busy all the time,” he said.

“I tried a lot of other things, but painting was always the ultimate thing for me. It always seemed to be the thing that brought me back to childhood and what I really like to do.”

“Art was my saving grace.”

He particularly enjoyed painting classic cartoon characters — the Jetsens, the Flintstones, Scooby-Doo’s crew, but especially Charlie Brown and the Peanuts — with Black and brown skin. He searched online one day to see if another artist was selling paintings in this style, thinking he might purchase them to decorate his children’s rooms. When he found no results, he dove into the project himself.

In addition to recontextualizing instantly recognizable (and white) American cartoon characters as African American, Moore uses recreations to promote mental health awareness and healthy living. Mental illness isn’t something to be consumed by, Moore asserts, but managed or overcome.

He posted his work to an Instagram account, Blackity Brown.

Art is an outlet for Moore, but he believes his work has something to say to the world as well.

“I just know that [my art] is extremely, vulnerably honest. And there’s where you can be a great painter but if you don’t have a narrative that’s vulnerable that people can feel, you only will go so far. Your connection will be flat,” he said.

Many people — especially men and especially Black men — have been raised to avoid vulnerability and discussions of mental health, he said.

“We were told by people who were also told and never taught about mental health and suppressing their feelings that we need to suppress our feelings by people who were told to suppress their feelings. So, it’s like a compounded suppression,” Moore explained.

Vulnerability isn’t a canvas that Moore had ever painted on before, but he found it refreshing.

“It’s a sense of freedom. It’s scary, though. It’s like anything — riding a new ride, trying new food, going to a new state or new country. You may not love it but you got to try it just to see if you’re a better version of yourself after.”

“Just being true to yourself is a form of freedom, especially as a Black American … being free emotionally, moving how we want to emotionally, physically, spiritually, there’s freedom.”

Moore has participated in many activist projects throughout his hometown of Des Moines, such as Harvesting Humanity, a projection of lost Black lives for a silent protest. Moore is hoping for more work to organically and authentically come his way so he can spread his art around the city.

Robert Moore’s Harvesting Humanity project is superimposed on top of the mural he created with Dana Harrison, The Reciprocal of Humanity. — Genevieve Trainor/Little Village

In July 2020, amid protests against police brutality across the state and nation, Moore and Dana Harrison finished a new mural in Iowa City’s Northside neighborhood titled “The Reciprocal of Humanity.”

“This mural, this painting … those two women who are raised and painted on this wall: They represent what I see in Iowa City,” Moore told the crowd at the mural’s unveiling. “There’s a strong Sudanese and Ethiopian and Black presence … I’ve seen that, from University Heights all the way to City High … and I wanted to really put that as the highest mural in Iowa City right now. Two Black women.”

Moore has collaborated with out-of-state artists and entrepreneurs as well, including the New York clothing brand Kith and UNKNWN, Lebron James’s store in Atlanta. He also teamed up with an artist out of D.C., Esteban Whiteside, on a series reimaging the board game Monopoly to shed light on gentrification.

Kith collaboration with Robert B. Moore

“To be in Des Moines, Iowa and have the trajectory that I’ve had in such a short period of time, I can say this authentically looking in the mirror, it is so rare and I’m so grateful for it,” Moore said.

Despite Moore’s success, he would like to tell more of his own story through his art, “less for me and being in the spotlight and more for a younger version of me to see it’s possible,” he explained. “I wish I would’ve been introduced to painting as an artform younger versus basketball or hustling or a white-collar job. But now I have this, so I cherish it.”

Moore returned to the idea of freedom. “You’ll hear me say that word a lot. Nobody can tell me what to do. It’s a mastery. It’s linear but it also is continuous. There’s a beginning, but I don’t see an end. So, I’m never boxed in to feeling like I have to hit something. I’m just doing the best work possible and challenging myself.”

Currently, Moore is challenging himself to paint faces and work on a smaller scale. During his interview with Little Village, he painted on his smallest canvas yet.

“It’s something that I’ve never done and something I’m scared to do, but I’m doing it,” Moore said as he painted. “Right now, I’m loving it ’cause I’m real loose with it and I don’t have to be so tight. And I can see from far back how it looks.” He pushed his chair back further to get different view.

Moore is a self-taught artist, inspired by the likes of Kerry James Marshall. “He’s one of the more well-known Black American artists of our time. The reason why I love him so much is ’cause he just doesn’t give a fuck and he just paints what he wants. And he’s always kind of been free like that.”

“I just found art later in life so it’s kind of one of those interesting situations where I can’t actually say when exactly I ‘found’ art. Art just kind of found me, and it found me at the right time.”

Moore has teased a collaboration with a Des Moines photographer for a Juneteenth project, and promises more project announcements soon. Visit his website for more information or to enjoy more of his art.

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