The Black Women I Look to For Guidance on Race

Monday, July 6, 2020

As the conversation about race continues, I want to call attention to the black women who have had a significant impact on my perspective about race and the systemic oppression that people of color face in America.  Ignorance is no longer an option for this world.  We are all aware of the injustice, and if we refuse to accept and refuse to act, this moment will have been for nothing.  As I am not a black woman, my experiences with race are secondary, and I acknowledge that by sharing these resources and asking you to go explore and be educated by these incredibly strong, integral women that I look up to.

Portrait of Rachel Cargle by Dena Cooper


Rachel Cargle is an activist, lecturer, writer, thinker, and intellectual.  Her commitment to educating the world about racial injustice is endlessly courageous, and empowering.  

"The point of anti racism work isn’t a practice in white self improvement; The point of anti racism work is to upend the systems of grave injustice that have been braided into the 'normalcy' of this country’s fabric, into it’s morals, into it’s institutions, into the air we are all breathing."

- Rachel Cargle


Rachel has a column about race in Harper’s Bazaar, lectures called, Dear White Women, and Unpacking White Feminism, and a platform for unlearning American history as white imperialists have taught it to us, called, The Great Unlearn.  She also runs a therapy fund for Black women and girls through the Loveland Foundation.


Instagram @rachel.cargle

Twitter @RachelCargle


Portrait of Ijeoma Oluo by Dena Cooper


Ijeoma Oluo is a critical thinker, writer, speaker, and activist centered around feminism and social justice.  Her bestselling book, So You Want to Talk About Race, is essential reading for understanding white privilege and how to dismantle it through tough conversations.

“The problem isn’t just that a white personality might think black people are lazy and that hurts people’s feelings; It’s that the belief that black people are lazy reinforces and is reinforced by general dialogue that believes the same, and uses that belief to justify not hiring black people for jobs, denying black people housing, and discriminating against black people in schools.”

- Ijeoma Oluo


Ijeoma has written for The GuardianJezebelThe StrangerMedium and The Establishment.  So You Want to Talk About Race, is her contribution to the collective conversation about race relations worldwide.  Her message to us is that conversations surrounding race are difficult, but necessary because white comfort is not more important than black safety.


Instagram @ijeomaoluo

Twitter @IjeomaOluo


Portrait of Tarana Burke by Dena Cooper


Tarana Burke is a women’s rights activist and the founder of the Me Too movement.  She has worked as an activist and social justice advocate for over 25 years.  

"There has to be a shift in culture. We have to have conversations about systems that are in place that allow sexual violence and racism to flourish."

- Tarana Burke 


Tarana started Just Be in 2006 as a youth organization focused on the health and well being of young women of color.  Just Be gave rise to the Me Too movement which continues to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly Black women and girls from low income communities, find pathways to healing.  Her latest organization, Girls for Gender Equality, is dedicated to providing resources for females to help close the gender-equality gap.  While most of Tarana’s work has been centered in gender equality, she consistently holds a special space for black and brown girls who exist at the intersectionality of many issues that plague our society in regards to race.  She has used her platform to share stories about race and how women of color are effected by sexual violence disproportionately, making the issue about sexual abuse a race issue.  


Instagram @taranajaneen

Twitter @TaranaBurke

Please feel free to add any resources you've found particularly helpful or any suggestions you have that you'd like to share.  And thank you for having the courage to educate yourself.  

My Abortion Story and How I'm Using my Art to Support Women's Civil Liberties

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

I don’t feel bad that I’ve had an abortion;  I feel bad that women are being shamed for basic healthcare, and that their right to make choices based on their own individual set of circumstances is being dictated by old white men with little to no understanding of the female reproductive system.  I’ve quietly kept my abortion a secret from most of my acquaintances for years, under the notion that many people in my circle may have the wrong idea about why I chose to have an abortion.  I didn’t want people to see me as a murderer, a woman with no control over her own body, or one that would take a human life to better her own.  In the end, anyone who would judge someone’s circumstance without empathy should kindly keep their opinions to themselves.  No one can know what they ‘would’ do in a situation they have never had to face.

I was on birth control when I became pregnant; I had no idea why I was feeling so nauseous and sickly.  I was on a medication for my developing adrenal issues at the time and was made to sign paperwork stating that I would abort any unplanned pregnancy while on this medication due to the serious birth defects that would effect both mother and child.  Once I realized I was pregnant, I was of course scared but nevertheless knew that I would absolutely abort, given my physician’s clear warning.  The baby had no chance of a normal birth, and complications (possibly fatal) were expected if I forged ahead with this pregnancy.  I could see no other option; I would terminate the pregnancy and choose to live. 

My experience with abortion does not match the guilt and regret I see in society’s portrayal of how a woman feels about terminating a pregnancy.  I felt no such thing - I never once cried about it.  I didn’t even tell my parents until it was over.  The procedure took place three days before my wedding and that was extremely difficult.  It should have been a happy time of planning and excitement (which it still was) but something very heavy had just transpired, and even though I was not regretful, I was emotionally wrecked and struggling to let go of what had just happened.  

My husband was nothing but complete support and a very logical backbone who would mimic my own thoughts that this was the right thing to do.  There was no other option as far as we were both concerned and I am forever grateful for his love and unconditional support.  How much harder would it have been without him by my side?  I had a tiny glimpse into what it looks like with no husband, no support system, no options:  Upon entering the clinic, the collective room full of women waiting to begin their procedure stared at me - I was the only woman with a man in-tow.  Every last woman was on her own, sitting by herself, scared.  Many were crying, some already mourning, others with complete void in their eyes.  I felt for every single one of them, and this scene says so much about our societal attitude toward abortion:  That It’s a woman’s problem.  However, it takes two to start a pregnancy and it should take two to see it through in whatever capacity that may be.  

In the exam room, I was made to look at an ultrasound of my unborn baby, as if possibly I had misunderstood what it meant that I was 8 weeks pregnant.  I can still see the little form of my baby on that screen.  I’m happy that I didn’t cause this tiny being to suffer in pain for however long their short life would take to break our hearts.  I’m happy that I’m strong enough to withstand that obvious grab for emotion and I’m sorry for every single woman that it devastates.  I completed my procedure and picked myself up off the floor to celebrate my wedding.  I’m not sorry that I took my life into my own hands.  I’m not sorry because I know I did the right thing.  I would do it again today, given the same situation and I hope my story helps another woman in knowing she is not alone.  Your health is just as important as any unborn child.

In support of all women who face the same challenges that I have personally experienced, I have created illustrated tote bags to benefit The Yellowhammer Fund and Planned Parenthood to aid in protecting our civil liberties as women. Each bag is $35 (which includes shipping) and $17 of that will be split between the two organizations. My goal is to donate $1000 and with your help, I know we can reach this goal. It is no longer an option to ban women from taking care of their bodies and their futures. Please help me make a difference for women in states that do not have proper healthcare facilities for women by purchasing a tote bag or donating to our group fund.

Please email me with any bag inquiries:
or DM me on Instagram: @denacooperillustration

Progress:  We've raised $1000.81 in profits so far!  We reached our goal in 4 days!  Thank you to everyone who contributed and everyone who helped spread this story and fundraiser.  

Black Orchid: When Women Empower Women

Friday, March 16, 2018

Rihanna illustration for women's day collaboration by Kei Meguro, Alex Saba and Dena Cooper

Over the last few years I’ve had so many amazing opportunities come my way through Instagram.  By far the best has been the community of artists and illustrators I’ve connected with, many of which I’m lucky enough to call my friends.  Alex Saba of Lusid Art is one of those artists who has provided me with endless support, advice, laughs and all around positive vibes over the last year.  This last month she put me in contact with one of my all time biggest girl crushes and creative favorites, Kei Meguro.  Kei turned out to be absolutely lovely and incredibly humble about her amazing talent and gigantic following.  I was shocked and head over heels when Kei asked Alex and I to join her in a collaboration for International Women’s Day.  I couldn’t believe that I’d be working with one of my heroes to create artwork for a cause so close to my heart.

Rihanna illustration for women's day collaboration by Kei Meguro, Alex Saba and Dena Cooper

I had never collaborated with other artists on one piece and was definitely interested in how the process would unfold.  For three artists throwing around ideas, it was an incredibly smooth process.  There was a lot of trust in our collaborative strength that helped each of us shine where we needed to.  To say the experience was seamless would be a serious understatement.  We decided that the best way to move forward with a final piece would be to each illustrate our inspiration image in our different styles and combine them together as one.  

We were all inspired by strong women and quickly settled on Rihanna for her feminine ingenuity and philanthropic spirit.  In our final work her hat is a nod to the pink pussy hat from the 2017 Women’s March and the black orchids imitate the delicate forms of female anatomy.  The light pink background gives the piece a soft feminine touch and ties into the mauve-y purples in the flowers and makeup details.  We wanted Black Orchid to be a reminder of what is possible when women come together to support each other instead of tearing each other down with constant comparison and competition.

Rihanna illustration for women's day collaboration by Kei Meguro, Alex Saba and Dena Cooper

The three of us had such a fantastic experience sharing ideas and coming together as one that we didn’t want the positivity to end there.  We decided to release the artwork as a limited edition print with 100% of the proceeds donated to Womankind, a women’s charity based in New York City.  At the end of April we also hope to donate a print of Black Orchid to a special Denim Day auction supporting women who have been raped or sexually assaulted.  

For the rest of the month of March, 11x14 archival quality prints of Black Orchid will be sold in my shop.  Please join us in supporting women to overcome gender-based violence by purchasing one of our prints and donating to the cause.

A huge thank you to Alex and Kei who are both such talented and driven women that I am proud to call friends.

Behind the Scenes of my Illustrated Silk Scarf

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

floral silk scarf illustrated by Dena Cooper

I love a good scarf.  After my recent fight with Hashimoto’s Disease, I came out the loser weighing several more pounds and tragically had to (temporarily) bid adieu to many of my closet favorites.  HOWEVER, a girl can still accessorize and this might be what’s saved my sanity for the past few years while I’m working through my health issues.  Bags, scarves and shoes are very much still in the mix and it’s through key accessories that I’ve been able to keep my fashion-dignity intact. 

It was one night scrolling for the perfect scarf that I came across the idea to make one of my own using my illustrations as the print.  I thought about what the perfect scarf might look like and the colors I wanted to include and the Noir Scarf was born.  I started with a skull and floral concept inspired by my Grandmother’s flower bushes in her back yard.  She had so many flowers in just the right shades including a rose bush that she was particularly proud of.  I wanted to capture the femininity of her floral palette as well as something to give it a little edge which reminded me of my all time favorite Alexander McQueen scarf that I wear again and again.  

Dena Cooper's grandma and her favorite rose bush

So, I painted every species of flower known to man (almost) and a respectable skull and got to work arranging them in what I thought to be the scarf of a generation.  As soon as my artwork was ready, I set out to find a factory that printed scarves on 100% silk.  I have a lot of experience communicating with factories overseas from my humble beginnings as a womenswear designer, so choosing a factory out of the country was an option I was open to.  I finally landed a contact at a great silk factory in China and started the long laborious project of back-and-forth emails and missed connections with my factory rep.

50 emails and a month later, I received a package with my first prototype and I was pumped to say the least.  After ripping the package into shreds and holding up my prize, I was less than impressed.  The silk was beautiful, the hems expertly sewn but my artwork looked drab and I knew I had to re-design.  There weren’t nearly enough flowers and the artwork was so big that when wearing the scarf, the skull looked like a weird gross mushroom in the middle.  Needless to say that would not do.  

Design before and after for illustrated scarf by Dena Cooper

50 more emails and another month later and I finally had the second package.  I was almost afraid to open it for fear of this project never coming to an end, but this time my vision had finally come to fruition and I was very happy with the finished product.  I placed my order for a big batch and called my photographer, Michi Rezin to do a mini photoshoot of the scarf in action.

Michi might be a genius.  I absolutely love working with her and have never seen a photographer so able to capture a client’s exact thoughts with a camera.  We rented an adorable vintage loft in Manhattan for two hours for our shoot and my friend, Chel, (from Chel Loves Wine) came to model for me.  I wanted the scarf to look like it was floating through the air, which turns out is nearly impossible to do.  With my husband, Zac, and Michi’s assistant both teetering on ladders, and dropping it on the count of three (on three, not after) Michi captured exactly what I was looking for.  

Behind the scenes of scarf photoshoot for Dena Cooper's silk scarf

I had so much fun working on my scarf and seeing one of my dreams come to life through a lot of work and little razzle dazzle.  Today the scarf goes live on my new site!  AND as a gift to all of you who stuck around till the end of this post, below is a free phone wallpaper download with my skull and floral artwork.  All you have to do is click the link, which will take you to Dropbox, click the three dots at the top right, and then download.  I hope you enjoy!

Why I Closed My Etsy Shop

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The reason why I closed my Etsy shop for fashion illustration

Since I was just a kid I’ve always had a very strong entrepreneurial spirit.  I can’t even count on both hands my various schemes to make money before I was of legal age to work: like a true young capitalist I was hungry for my next dollar.  I once made a deal with my parents that I would be paid 5 cents for every cigarette butt I picked up from their construction site (no shame in this game). 

This ambitious character followed me through college and beyond.  I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing in 2011 when I heard about Etsy for the first time - within months my first shop was open for business and I was ready to cash in!  As a fashion design student, my first shop was a way for me to sell the things I was sewing in my free time and make a little cash on the side: win/win.  

Etsy was a different creature in those days - wide eyed and innocent.  Being featured on the front page could send your shop into a viral frenzy: a veritable wealth of Etsy fame and fortune.  There was a sense of community between customer and creator.  Treasuries were a creative way to group your favorite complimentary products for others to explore and it all served as a great way to promote hand-made products within the Etsy community.

As time has passed, Etsy has implemented many changes: new layouts, new algorithms, custom website options, and the latest: “Etsy Payments”.  Many of these changes have served to upset sellers in the Etsy community as with any forced changes on a social platform but in the end, people adapt and become accustomed to a new way of doing things.  That is, until Etsy crossed a line last spring, force closing shops that did not comply with their new “Etsy Payments” interface.

“Etsy Payments” is a way for Etsy to run payments into a stand-alone account controlled by Etsy themselves.  Many sellers prefer Paypal, as money from sales are directly deposited into the seller’s account, avoiding any third party handling their money and any wait time to transfer funds from one account to another.  Many sellers rely on this automatic payment to pay for materials used for any commissioned products.  

Etsy describes “Etsy Payments” as “a simplified way to receive payments" and states that "you can get paid daily, weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Request additional deposits anytime.”  However, my experience with the platform was much different.  My account was automatically suspended when I did not opt into “Etsy Payments” in May.  Once I connected a bank account to my shop, sales began depositing into my "Etsy Payments" account and I was not able to transfer those funds automatically.  Last month, a rather large sale was tied up in that third-party account for two weeks - I was told I needed to add a credit card to my account in order to access those funds.  My question is: WHY?  Call me old fashioned but why does Etsy need every shred of my financial information to deposit money that is already mine?

Etsy’s new payment program will serve to increase their revenue by capitalizing on payment processing fees that Paypal would have charged on those sales. They have stated that they will be phasing out Paypal completely within the next few months.  Apparently I’m not the only one who finds this upsetting.  Etsy reportedly lost tens of thousands of sellers within a few days following this transition, not counting accounts that were suspended from non-compliance.

The most upsetting problem about Etsy taking full control over payments through their site is their lack of customer care - they don’t offer even a fraction of Paypal’s reliability and over-the-phone customer service.   Currently the only way to reach out to Etsy’s customer service is through email which is notorious for going unanswered; a worrisome matter when finances are involved.  

All of these issues (and more) have weighed on my soul for the last few weeks and I have decided to take matters into my own hands.  My work is far too valuable to sit on a site where I have such little influence on how sales are made.  It feels refreshing to have opened a shop on my own site that I have full financial and creative control over.  I am now focusing my attention on my own marketplace where listings are free and no fees are collected based on my sales and earnings.  Free at at last...

4 Tips to Make Your Portraits More Realistic

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

fashion portrait of iris apfel by Dena Cooper

Drawing and painting realistic subject matter can feel like a daunting task but no one starts out with perfect technique.  Everyone has a style and process that works best for them but there are some tricks that have helped me considerably in creating work that looks and feels realistic.  Some of these tips may seem obvious but can be harder to actually put into practice.  Whenever I start to struggle with a piece or feel that burning urge to rip my painting in half and start over, I think about these four helpful tips I’ve learned in art school and beyond as a freelancer in the eleventh hour.

1. Draw what you see, not what you know

This one seems like a no brainer but turns out to be the mantra that I have churning in my head ALL. DAY. LONG.  It’s easy to jump into a routine of painting an eye the way you think it should look based on the countless other eyes you’ve painted in the past but it can be quite rewarding to separate yourself from your subject matter and replicate exactly what you’re seeing instead of the shapes you think are there.  A classic trick of the trade when struggling to get something exactly right is turning your whole painting and reference photo upside down so you are less likely to rely on your own imagination and more likely to stick to what’s actually there.  

2. Contrast is key

Contrast is the difference between the darkest darks and the lightest lights in a composition.  It’s no surprise that the correct amount of shading can make or break a portrait.  Many beginner artists that I’ve worked with are afraid of dark shading and often don’t leave white highlights in their portraits which I see as a huge missed opportunity to create drama and add that pop of realism in their work.  A great trick for correctly establishing your lights and darks in a reference photo is squinting.  You can see all of the highest contrasts by squinting at your reference photo and it can also be a great way to compare your work to your reference side by side.

3. Think of your subject in terms of shapes instead of lines

No one pulls a Michelangelo in the first grade.  We learn to draw using lines and are encouraged to draw even humans in a basic “stick-figure” form as children.  So, when taking higher level art classes, the first habit you have to break is thinking of the world as a series of lines.  Thinking about any object in terms of shape and form can help you see where shading needs to go and how the object is interacting with its light source.  Many artists will start a large composition with a light sketch of the shapes that make up larger objects.  Studying the placement of these shapes within the larger picture can really help lay the foundations for a proportionally correct composition.

4. Complementary tones breed neutrals

Probably the most offensive thing I see other artists do (unknowingly) is use color “straight from the tube”.  Mixing the perfect skin tone is something people ask me about a lot and I have to say it’s easier than you may think.  As a general rule, I mix all of my own colors with the exception of black (even using black from the tube is a huge “don’t” according to many artists - oh well).  For skin tone in watercolor, it’s simple:  Use a base tone of red or a terra-cotta and add water to dilute the hue.  Add the complement of your base tone (green) which will neutralize the red and give you a much more dull peachy tone.  I like to add purple or blue to that mixture to create shadows and I always add color with a very soft hand.  You can always add color but it’s harder to take color away.

Creating realistic artwork takes practice, patience and dedication.  Sometimes it’s necessary to paint one piece three times before getting it exactly right.  Persistence and a critical eye will advance the skill of any artist - I’m a firm believer that art can be a learned skill for those who invest their time and effort into bettering their technique.  I would love to answer any questions you may have about creating realistic portraits - shoot me an email or leave me a comment down below.

by mlekoshi