Louis Delsarte '77 didn’t start by painting his 130-foot mural of Martin Luther King Jr. He began sketching what he saw on the streets of New York. “Have a sketchbook with you at all times,” he advises young artists. “Draw what you see: trees, flowers, a person on a park bench. Even to this day, I carry a sketchbook with me. It allows me to refer to my ideas later as I create a body of work.” 

Delsarte, who has a master's degree in studio art from the University of Arizona, knows it can be difficult to sell your work and make a living. After all, art is subjective, he says. But this daily practice and refinement of your craft can better prepare you for the tough market that lies ahead.

Another way to combat the realities of making a living as an artist is by teaching. “I encourage my students to get a master’s degree to teach at the college level,” Delsarte says. “Teaching and being an artist go hand in hand.”

Today, Delsarte’s work is exhibited at galleries and museums all over the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He found success by listening to and absorbing the teachings of others, beginning from an early age.

Learning from Others

Delsarte came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, and he credits the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s as a major influence in his work. This rebirth of African-American arts made its way into Delsarte’s life at an early age. His parents were friends with people connected to the movement. Performers such as Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Count Basie frequented his home, which led to his realization in forging a career in creative expression: Learn as much as you can from others.

“Mentors are important to your growth as an artist,” Delsarte says.

Delsarte’s immense talent, especially for figurative drawing, were nourished and encouraged by family, teachers and other artists. “One of the first people I showed my work to was my art teacher in elementary school,” he says. “She took a great deal of interest in me. My mother, Llewellyn, was also very supportive.”

“Draw, Draw, Draw”

Delsarte’s supportive surroundings and “draw, draw, draw” mentality helped him develop his signature style early — a style that is surrealistic, illusionistic and boldly powerful. From an early age, Delsarte would walk the 10 blocks from his house to the Brooklyn Museum. “I took classes there,” he says. “I took a drawing class and a mixed-media class. I became interested in everything from ancient art to contemporary art.”

He also took classes at the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts. New York City served as both a backdrop and a muse for his work.  

“I would draw people on the subway, in the park, in cars, at festivals, on buses,” he recalls. “I was constantly drawing. The repetition of drawing, that fluidity, made me less self-conscious as an artist.”

Bringing It All Together

After years of practicing and refining his craft, Delsarte’s 130-foot Martin Luther King Jr. mural titled “Dreams, Vision and Change” was commissioned by Atlanta to celebrate King’s life and work. Delsarte’s 2006 “Spirit of Harlem” mural on 125th Street in New York employs glass mosaics in a striking 10-by-10-foot piece. Figurative representations of people like Billie Holiday and Gregory Hines combine with abstract elements to form a colorful kaleidoscope that stands as a beloved symbol of, and for, the Harlem community.   

Looking to mentors for guidance, finding inspiration in the everyday and approaching art with a work ethic that’s about doing the work have been the road map to Delsarte’s success. With a BFA from New York’s Pratt Institute, an MFA from Arizona and a teaching career that spans 50 years (his current position is assistant professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta), Delsarte exemplifies what it means to be a working artist.

“Art is an abstract field, and it’s difficult to make a living,” he says. “But I’m here to encourage people to be artists and pursue your interests in whatever art form you desire.”