Nova Scotia·Video

N.S. artist's gold-adorned photos of Black achievers aim to inspire, educate

Nova Scotia artist Donica Willis creates gold-adorned photos of Black community members both famous and unsung, including Viola Desmond and Lauryn Hill.

What began as an experiment morphed into a showcase called Blaqk Gold

How the Blaqk Gold project showcases Black achievers

1 year ago
Duration 3:07
An artist's vision and a father's loving tribute to his school aged son. Learn the story behind the Blaqk Gold project.

In 2014, Nova Scotian artist Donica Willis was in a creative rut.

The native of North Preston and East Preston, N.S., tried to shake off her artist's block by toying around with a photograph of R&B star Lauryn Hill, adding gold accents to the singer's ebony features.

What started as an experiment has since morphed into Blaqk Gold, which uses traditional and social media to showcase Black achievers both famous and unsung.

Willis said the positive reaction to the portrait of Hill prompted her to challenge herself to create similar gold-themed transformations every Black History Month.

"I thought to myself, 'What if I did this to a bunch of different people and kind of challenge myself creatively for each day of the month?'" said Willis, an art student now based in Toronto.

"From there ... I created an Instagram account. And I began posting."

Project moved from celebrities to important local faces

At first, her campaign featured high-profile Black faces such as Will Smith, Barack Obama and Spike Lee, but Willis quickly felt the tug of her African Nova Scotian roots.

Viola Desmond is among those featured in the Blaqk Gold art series that showcases Black community members both famous and unsung. (Donica Willis)

More recent portraits feature African Nova Scotian figures such as Halifax city councillor Lindell Smith, activist Kate MacDonald and civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond.

By 2019, Blaqk Gold had become widely known in the African Nova Scotian community, with one local businessman requesting Willis create one of her custom portraits of his son. She said the commissioned work was the strongest sign yet of the impact that the art series was having in her hometown.

"[It was] a Christmas gift," Willis said. "They came back to me, like, months later after gifting it to their son, sharing with me the impact that it had on their son."

The boy's name is Corvae Clayton, who lives in the same North Preston neighbourhood where Willis grew up.

Framed portrait inscribed with poem

CBC caught up with Corvae and his father, Corvell, and together they held up the framed portrait that is inscribed with a poem the father wrote for his son.

"To my son, I want you to believe deep in your heart that you are capable of achieving anything you put your mind to. That you will never lose. You either win or learn. Just go forth and aim for the skies. I can't promise to be here for the rest of your life, but I can promise to love you for the rest of mine. Love, Dad."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



Kyah Sparks


Kyah Sparks is a reporter/editor with CBC Nova Scotia. Born and raised in East Preston, N.S., she has worked in television and digital news in Halifax.