We don’t have to tell black women about the importance of representation—it’s evident in every “yaas” that follows news of a brown face appearing in a largely white space like television, magazines, and books. But if it’s something that we as adults are hungry for, imagine what it’s like for children of color to not see themselves reflected in the world around them.
Illustrator Sharee Miller knows—and that’s why her watercolor drawings of happy, smiling young girls and women with big, natural hair and varying shades of brown skin have found a fawning fan base across the Internet.
Though she’s now well-known for her Coily and Cute characters, she was initially worried about how people would respond when she started in 2014.
“In the beginning, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed by just drawing black people,” Miller explains. “[But] my friend said to me, ‘Everyone is doing things for other people. Who’s going to do things for us?’ It was then that I realized this isn’t the only thing I should draw, but I no longer shy away from it. I couldn’t just ignore my own experiences. I had to let them influence my art as well.”
Much of Miller’s life experience is reflected in her work. Growing up in the Caribbean lavished a young Miller with an abundance of gorgeous hues—think tangerine sunrises and turquoise oceans—she would later tap into as an illustrator. “In the Virgin Islands I was surrounded by the colors of the outfits, plants, and sunsets,” Miller recalls.
She was also surrounded by a loving and supportive family—“My sisters and I would always draw together and my mom would sew clothes for [us]”—which may explain the abundance of daughters and moms hugging and best friends playing in her work. And her drawings almost exclusively feature curly- and kinky-haired subjects because “my personal experience has made me realize the importance of showcasing natural hair,” she says. “I received my first relaxer in the 6th grade and a year later my ends broke off. I went natural in 2012 during my last year of college while the natural hair movement was happening.”
Though her work has caught the attention of singer Chrisette Michelle and Dark & Lovely hair products, it was a long process to feeling confident in her work, Miller admits.
“I started out drawing every day and would share it online,” she says. “I would get discouraged because it wasn’t getting much attention, but my roommate at the time [encouraged] me to keep at it. I realized my desire to make art shouldn’t be fueled by how many people see it, but by how much I wanted to create it. The more I drew what I loved, the more others loved it. So it feels great when people see themselves or their children in my art because I see myself and the people I love in them as well.”
Miller is now working on a coloring book for little girls, as well as more storybooks for young readers.
“I want people to walk into a bookstore and discover my work,” she says. “I want my books to be circulated in libraries.”
With the great work that she has accomplished so far, it is hard to believe that the young artist will not accomplish this and more.