Tenbeete Solomon is as bold as her art. Dressed black with a pair of florescent green sneakers, she stands out against even her most colorful pieces. For the last month Solomon (who also goes by Trap Bob) has been working out of A Creative DC‘s studio in Brookland, churning out relatable gifs for Giphy, working on her first installation and hanging work from her “Girls in Power” series. Her art can’t help but grab your eye. With its technicolor tones and clean lines, it evokes more than pop art, there’s an otherworldliness to her arrangements. You just want to hop inside and live there for a while.
Surrounded by the serene, almost saint-like faces of Michelle Obama, Serena Williams and Diana Ross, we chat about everything from her business degree, her love for The Office and her skincare routine, but nothing ignites her passion more than talking about art. As she tells me about her search for a studio and her self-taught animation work, there’s a knock on the door. A woman pokes her head in and wants to know where she can find Solomon’s shoes. Like her art, Trap Bob draws you in.
When did you start getting into art?
I’ve been interested in art my whole life. My dad is actually an artist. He came from Ethiopia and then he went to Parsons in New York and LA. He’s always raised me with a creative mentality. I didn’t really know that it was a different way of thinking about things until I got older. I was always drawing or interested in art class, but then… who is telling you to go be an artist? Or take it seriously? I kind of fell off of it.
I was at University of Maryland studying business for undergrad. I was only in business because I couldn’t figure out anything else I was interested in. I was like, at least I’ll be able to sell whatever I come up with. It’s a useful skill. By my junior year, I still felt like I didn’t know what I was going to do with my future, or even know what it felt like to want to do something. So I started drawing again just for relief and therapy. I took one [art] class. I was like, wow, I didn’t know I could feel like this about doing anything. Luckily it was kind of around the time when creatives were starting to come back, resurface and were able to be full time. After taking that one class, I was so hooked on it. There was literally nothing else I could do with my life. I just started drawing a lot, painting. I taught myself Illustrator. I started getting into graphics. It’s crazy. That was maybe four years ago and now it’s my full time everything. There is literally nothing else I could do. I would be miserable.
What does your dad think? Is he pleased you’re following in his footsteps?
He loves it. Both of my parents are Ethiopian. I’m first generation here, so that was never really their idea, go work for yourself, be an artist. It was hard at first, but now that I’ve been doing it for so long and they know how committed I am, they’re very supportive and excited for me. It’s been great. They even came to my first show.
Business school makes a lot of sense. Going through your website, you’re obviously very creative, but you clearly have such a mind for business. Especially with the collaborations you do and the projects you take on. What makes you want to say yes to a job?
Because of going to business school, I understood the importance of the exposure that you get with that, the resources they have… But I felt so out of place whenever I would talk to an accounting firms or whatever. I also felt like there should be a place for me, I shouldn’t be the one to adapt to them. When I get to work with larger companies, one, it helps me bring this area to a higher level, which I always want to do. It also helps them to understand how we think and it helps me to be a better business person too. I really enjoy different projects. If anyone comes to me with a cool idea or something innovative, I’m basically always down to do it.
What is your dream client or collaboration?
I think music artists are my favorite because I’m so into music and live concerts and all that. Sometimes I get stuck in between wanting to be a fan versus working with them… You can ruin relationships like that. Sometimes I don’t want to know that you’re so much [laughs].
My favorite artists, rapper of all time is Gucci Mane. If I could work with him, I wouldn’t need to do anything after that.
Yeah, do an album cover, design some merch!
Oh my god. Even if he just had one of my works in his home. That’s enough for me. I’ll work with his wife even! She’s amazing too. I don’t care who it is. People who I look up to, working with them is a big deal.
How do you balance the business aspect of yourself and the artistic aspect? How do you keep those two in line?
It’s really a balance. It took time to get there. Before I was full time freelancing I was working at an interior design firm, but it was only me and my boss who worked there. She had her own business. She’s been doing it for over 30 years and did a lot of large office buildings in the area. It was stressful, but working with her really showed me what it was like to do your own thing in business and find out how to do LLCs and certifications and maintain relationships, professionalism and just be self sufficient. If I’m not working for someone, no one is going to tell me, “Make sure you’re keeping files and make sure your finances are together.” That really helped me take that step.
After I left that job, I was able to go and work for myself. Now it’s a balancing act. Half the time I’m rushing to get work done and create stuff and then I’m like, I need to take time and create something for me, not just for work. Then I’m like, let me go get ready for tax season. There’s always something going on, but I love doing it.
How did you and Morgan (founder of A Creative DC) meet? How did the residency come about?
I actually started my relationship with Morgan when I first started my art. When she was starting aCreativeDC is when I started sharing my work on Instagram. I randomly came across the hashtag and I was like, oh let me try and throw this on. Since then, she’s been one of my biggest supporters. She really helped me get exposure, she highlighted my work, she supports me, that’s been through every single thing I’ve done.
When I heard about the residency here… I always wanted to do a residency, but I’m also all over the place with my work. I’m not as structured, so I felt like I don’t want to go into a program where they need this, this and that when that’s not how I work. But Morgan knows how I work and she trusts me. So I was like, if I go and talk to her I’m sure we’ll work something out. It was perfect. She was happy to have me and I never want to leave, but I know I have to! It was just the perfect scenario.
A lot of your art has a message behind it, it’s political or tied to a cause. How do you take what’s important to you and interlace it with your art?
Politics has been a big theme in the last couple of years because of all the craziness and what’s his name in the White House. It’s so ridiculous, I feel like there’s no other way to deal with it. I really feel like art is the only thing that will change the world, as simple as it sounds. People can talk as much as they want, people have different languages, people can see different things on the news, but art is something across the board that people can take in, translate it their own way and take in a message without being told what to think.
A lot of my art has been really loud, I would say. Calling to action, making people get inspired and really think about what they’re looking at, even through the use of color. Making things bold so you don’t forget about it. When I do work like that… It’s still fully me, but I definitely make sure it’s based on the message and not just what I feel like drawing at the time.
What is your work process like? What do you listen to? What times of the day do you like to work?
I’m really big on balance, like I said earlier, and self care. So as busy as I get I still spend time eating well, I cook all my meals, I work out everyday. I’m very into skin care, hair care and all that. I think those are the things that help me do well with my art because I’m already at a place to handle whatever comes along. I like to spend the beginning of my day taking care of myself so that I’m ready for the rest. If something comes up later when I’m busy working, I don’t want to have to go back and do laundry or make lunch.
I like to meditate. I’m obsessed with my diffusers. There are so many ways to make your life better, I want to make sure I spend time doing that. I’m vegan now, I think it’s been over a year. I’ve been learning a lot of recipes and figuring out what fruits and vegetables will make me feel good and keep my mind in a good place.
I like to watch trash TV on my iPad while I’m working. I know a lot of people listen to music, but I can’t focus. If I’m listening to music I’m thinking about the lyrics too much. It gets me distracted… but I like The Office. Oh my god. I know every word. My brother will come over sometimes and he’ll be like, “I’m sick of hearing the theme song.” I always have it on. I’m obsessed. I’ll watch that, Love & Hip-Hop, Vanderpump Rules. I’ll find whatever is on and play it in the background. Somehow that helps me tune out at the same time. I can’t really look at the screen, but every so often I’ll get a laugh out of it. Sometimes people say something that inspires me to make something. That’s usually how I get a lot of my ideas. I like to keep my ears open and have something funny on.
What’s your favorite episode of The Office?
That’s so hard… Either “Survivor Man” or the one with the fire alarm… “Safety Training.” When Dwight cuts out the mannequin’s face… I literally can’t get enough of that episode. I can’t even talk when I’m watching that episode because it’s so funny.
I also want to backpedal… I’m really getting into skincare, personally. What are your favorite products?
Actually, when I got into skincare I stopped using products. I started going into the natural ways. I’ve dealt with skin issues. I went to dermatologists and got products and then I was like, I’m supposed to put this chemical on my face every day? I started oil cleansing to clean my skin. It was definitely a transition, it takes a month to get used to. Then I made my own apple cider vinegar astringents, coffee and honey scrubs. I just kept trying different things. I’m so into aloe. I use that every day.
At first I was really overwhelmed and then I was like, let me just find what works for me and slowly add things. My favorite product I use would probably be rosehip oil. It helps with discoloration, but it also brightens and moisturizes without being heavy.
What is your dream studio? Do you think it exists in D.C.?
It does not exist. I’ve been looking for studios to move into after this one and there’s not even options. It’s not even a cost thing. I know the people here aren’t going to leave, why would you leave this perfect location? The perfect studio for me… I love how this space is, the only thing is that I love privacy too. I do kind of live where I work and I just like to fully be comfortable. That’s the only thing, but the whole open window, open floor layout, I really like. This is the perfect studio, there’s wi-fi, a bathroom, that’s all I need. It’s just enough space.
You’re maybe the second artists I’ve ever interviewed who is into animation, specifically making gifs. What is your process for animating and when can you tell a piece is going to work well in movement?
I got into animating a year ago, maybe. I taught myself that after I finished teaching myself Illustrator and I was really comfortable. I get bored pretty quickly with mediums, and even subjects. I just started doing really basic animations. I saw what Giphy was doing and I don’t even remember exactly how we got into working with each other, but it was right when I was comfortable animating short, fun gifs. I just thought it was so cool to take my illustrations to the next level. A lot of times now, I see the animation before I see the piece. I’ll be like, there’s no way I can draw this if it doesn’t move. It looks like it’s supposed to do something. I start the piece wanting to animate it.
With Giphy, they are so open to me coming up with my own concepts and they basically approve any design I send over. They’re really supportive, they’re really inclusive, they like highlighting specific themes like people of color during Black History Month, women’s history and just fun stuff. I think it’s so cool that you can just go on Instagram and use my sticker to express something, not just look at it. It’s really cool that I get to use my work as a communication tool.
I think that’s the ultimate power move, to send someone else a gif of your own art.
I’m like, am I conceited? Because I just think about what I want to use! What I want to talk about on Instagram or what do I want to have in my pictures? I’m not really into words or writing or talking… That’s why I’m an artist, really. If I can use a gif or a meme, that’s the perfect way for me to communicate.
What would you change about D.C.’s art scene?
I would want it to expand. It’s grown a lot and I’m glad that I could be a part of it. Creatively there’s a lot going on, but specifically with visual arts. I don’t think it’s highlighted as much as much as it could be. My personal goal would to have it be highlighted like music is. To be at the same level. Sadly, I don’t feel like there’s a lot of people like me, who have come as far professionally or are able to do it full time and put their all into it. I think that’s what helps you be successful, committing to it, but everyone’s lifestyle is different and when you’re in an area like this, it’s kind of make or break. You have to push yourself to keep that position or it might not be sustainable.
I want to help the community build up. Just like we have recording studios, I want to have artist studios that people can come and work in. Even just have studio spaces and options. I don’t know even know where everybody works. I was looking everywhere and I’m like, if I can’t go on Google, where can I find a space?
Also artist housing. It’s great that they have it, but it’s also not as accessible because waitlists are four or five years. I think it’s going to be between the city getting there and the community making the work so that it can evolve.