Brandon Breaux at his work station//photo by Hadas

The hallway of the Chicago Arts Department is hollow and quiet, save for the faint voices leaking from studio 100.

Inside, a set of oil paintings featuring the distinctly well-known faces of Chicago creatives grace the studio walls: Fake Shore Drive’s Andrew Barber, Save Money-turned-Roc Nation soldier Vic Mensa, Zero Fatigue’s first lady Ravyn Lenae, Drill-scene originator G Herbo and model Imani Amos.

Art virtuoso Brandon Breaux debuted the paintings on Nov. 27 as part of Red Bull’s “30 Days in Chicago,” a month-long concert series celebrating the city’s buzzing music scene.

Breaux felt the need to profile these particular creatives because he considers them to be tastemakers in Chicago and beyond. Each person has individually inspired his work and ambition to grow as an influential artist.

“This conversation around artists and acknowledgement of artists is part of a longer term conversation where we’ll get into mental health and what it [means] to be an artist,” Breaux explains. “[We] have a lot of secret addictions and private things that go on in our lives. I think we deal with a lot of stuff that we mask in several different ways.”

A portrait of rapper G Herbo from Brandon Breaux's “Open Studio Portrait Showcase”

Breaux is more than just the visionary behind the iconic covers for Chance The Rapper’s 10 Day, Acid Rap and Coloring Book mixtapes, the latter taking his notorious comic book-style illustrations from underground fame to international acclaim.

He’s now focused on using his craft to open doors on a more crucial conversation: mental health and wellness. In the Black community, there is a painfully dismissive attitude around mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Black households typically turn to religion, family and hope instead of relying on health care professionals for treatment.

“It’s silently the single most important thing that we aren’t told to address until it boils over,” Breaux says.

The Chatham-bred painter knows this first hand. Just two days before Breaux was born, his father – an artist and musician himself – was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Watching the pain and turmoil his father suffered on the daily led Breaux to ask uncomfortable questions about how to cope with mental illness.

“[If] there’s a problem, I like to ask, poke, question and investigate shit ‘til people get annoyed,” says Breaux. As a resident at the Chicago Art Department, he’s using oil painting and digital mediums to explore the subconscious mind and fragility of the human psyche.

“We need to start having conversations a lot earlier for these traumatic events before people’s experiences develop into these other things,” he adds.

A portrait of model Imani Amos from Brandon Breaux's "Open Studio Portrait Showcase"

Though each portrait in his “Open Studio Portrait Showcase” doesn’t directly address mental illness, the ones that do are very blatant. As he speaks to me about his art, I think about the portrait of Vic Mensa in the back of the studio. Etched in pencil on the painting is “We Could Be Free,” the 13th track off the rapper’s Roc Nation debut, The Autobiography.   

“We could be free, If we only knew we were slaves to the pains of each other,” Mensa croons on the song’s chorus. Breaux personally identifies with Mensa’s lyrics as they unearth a stoic machismo. There’s a conventional expectation among Black men that emotions such as fear, sadness and love are comparable to weakness.

Breaux is using his platform, just like Mensa and other artists, to unpack this flawed notion. Through his art, Breaux aims to get to the root of the issues triggering mental illness in the Black community – addiction, poverty, violence and disenfranchisement, just to name a few.

“I try to create work that speaks to the individual experience and speaks in a way I see this life and the way I interact with what’s going on in society,” Breaux says. “It’s very personal on some levels which, I guess, it’s supposed to be right?”

A portrait of Vic Mensa from Brandon Breaux's "Open Studio Portrait Showcase"