For more than 20 years, Corey Barksdale has worked as a professional artist, exploring and excelling at different artistic mediums. He has painted murals, illustrated books, and designed artwork for movies like Get Out and Superfly, and television shows such as Atlanta, the hit series set in his hometown. Many of his dazzling creations have centered on aspects of African American history.
Barksdale’s passion for art was sparked early. His grandmother created images and took scraps of clothes to make new clothing and quilts that many people adored. “She instilled in me a love for storytelling, culture, and heritage,” he says in a recent interview. “Her stories, wisdom, and support encouraged me to incorporate elements of my family’s history into my artistic expression.”
Barksdale, a member of the Gwinnett Harbingers Toastmasters Club, in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and the Gwinnett-Tucker Toastmasters Club, in Tucker, Georgia, graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Atlanta College of Art in 1994. His works have been exhibited in an art museum in Marietta, Georgia, and are currently on display at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Inspired by African American artists like Romare Bearden, John Biggers, Aaron Douglas, and William Tolliver, he is strongly committed to his heritage, and his art often represents his experiences and how he identifies himself.
“Throughout my life, I’ve been an unorthodox, creative, and free thinker regarding religion, race, fashion, and art,” he says. “They say unconventional thinking is the lifeblood of innovation.”
With International Artist Day being celebrated this month—October 25—it’s a fitting time to learn more about this standout artist.
What type of art do you specialize in and where is your artwork shown?
I work in the fine arts, including as a muralist, illustrator, and live painter. As an illustrator, I recently completed 40 illustrations for the book The Night Before Freedom, published by Random House. As a muralist, I created a large mural and sculpture in Dublin, Georgia, to recognize a historical event many years ago: when Martin Luther King Jr. won an essay competition at one of the local churches in downtown Dublin and then presented it as a speech at a young age  on April 17, 1944.
Your art often feels like it’s moving
and alive. Can you share more about your work process?
I create with themes of music, rhythm, and diversity to enliven Atlanta streets and highlight life’s richness, beauty, and expression. My art, which is centered on my experiences and community, embraces life and culture and reflects love, inclusion, and diversity. My love of colors—generously expressed with bold strokes—represents the richness and vivid expressions of all cultures. Life would be pretty plain without color.
My art celebrates the local Atlanta community, music, and culture, promoting love and acceptance for the things that bring us together and the differences that make us unique. I try to produce a rich drumbeat through dynamic creative expression.
How did The Night Before Freedom book project come about?
The Night Before Freedom came about through a collaboration with the talented writer Glenda Armand. Random House contacted me and expressed interested in me illustrating approximately 40 pages for this inspirational book. The Night Before Freedom is a children’s book told from the perspective of a child named Bess. Before emancipation [the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War], she dreams about what emancipation means to her—she dreams of angels flying through the sky and glory forever after. I was so excited to work with such a significant topic as emancipation.
Why did you join Toastmasters?
To increase my communication and public speaking skills and overcome my fear of public speaking. I understood that by giving speeches and working through the Pathways program, I would increase my confidence in the public speaking and presentation arena.
Following the release of The Night Before Freedom, I had more opportunities for public speaking engagements. I participated in my first major book signing at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, which also has large mural-size images of my artwork displayed in the food court. I had a great time connecting with the event’s travelers and supporters. Connecting with the community through my art creations is a significant mission of mine.
“I’m an introvert, so Toastmasters is helping me move outside of my comfort zone.”—Corey Barksdale
In the future, I plan to speak at book fairs, literary festivals, and community events, where I will share insights about the book and discuss its themes. My experience as a member of Toastmasters helped me feel more comfortable and articulate during the first book signing.
Do you give speeches about your artwork in your Toastmasters clubs or community?
I regularly give presentations about my art in my Toastmasters clubs and other local Toastmasters clubs that I visit. I receive valuable feedback and hone my presentation skills in the clubs. Additionally, I have been invited to speak at several local schools, which, once my schedule allows, I plan to do.
I also had the honor of speaking in 2012 as the official artist for the esteemed Atlanta Jazz Festival [one of the largest free jazz festivals in the United States]. I had the opportunity to create the official poster art and other elements for this spectacular event. It was a moment of great pride and recognition when, during the jazz festival kick-off event celebration, I had the privilege of being presented alongside the mayor of Atlanta and other influential public figures.
How is Toastmasters helping you personally and as an artist?
I’m an introvert, so Toastmasters is helping me move outside of my comfort zone. I enjoy getting into my art studio and creating art to the sounds of jazz, blues, and house music. Still, over the years, I realized that I needed to sharpen other business and social skills to survive as a visual artist. Developing my skills as a public speaker through Toastmasters will benefit me to go to a different and higher level of speaking, and art-wise, to build networking relationships with clients and fellow artists, and promote my artwork.
After joining Toastmasters, I find myself engaging people in public or social spaces more often, whereas, in the past, I wouldn’t be so interested in communicating with strangers. I get to practice and develop social and business skills through Toastmasters.
My mentor Susie Corbett has been a crucial part of positive reinforcement in Toastmasters, telling me to keep going and improving.
Editor’s Note: You can view Corey Barksdale’s art on his website.
Marian Barilone, DTM was the 2022–2023 District 14 Director, and is a member of the CVS EnterpriseMasters Toastmasters Club and the Gwinnett Harbingers Toastmasters Club, both in Lawrenceville, Georgia. She is a senior paralegal in the legal department of the CVS Health pharmacy chain.