Peace, love and joy are three themes central to the artwork and life of 2011 Coral Reef High School graduate and South Beach resident Reyna Noriega.
Whether it’s spending time with her Cuban father and Bahamian mother, three siblings or pet schnauzer Pepper, the 2015 Florida International University alumna takes pride in her Miami roots and her family’s Caribbean lineage.
The visual artist and entrepreneur’s latest collaboration with hair care company Goody is emblematic of that. For the project, Reyna designed 60 hair accessories, such as scrunchies, bows and combs, that can be found in about 3,000 Walmart stores locally and nationwide. Her full name is on the packaging making it easy to spot her product collection in stores.
Noriega, 30, took time to discuss her heritage as an Afro-Caribbean Latina, the importance of representation and how she balances her creative skills and routine as an entrepreneur.
Why was it important for you as an artist to stay in Miami?
It speaks to a lot of things I like. I’m a very balanced person and like to be able to observe chaos from a distance. I like my peace and I’m from a Caribbean family, so I’m drawn to the beach and to the tropics. I just feel like Miami has a lot of diversity and different areas with different feelings, and those bring out different sides of my creativity.
I’ve gone to other places and love them. In New York, it’s very fast and makes you feel very ambitious, but I didn’t get the sense of peace that I do from the ocean. A lot of my friends in the art world tend to leave for Los Angeles or New York to find success. I always wanted to make it here.
How has being an art teacher led to your career as a visual artist and entrepreneur?
I was a substitute teacher and the Everglades Preparatory Academy administration knew I loved art, so when the art teacher quit at the last minute a week before school started, they asked me to cover as a sub. I loved it so much that they didn’t end up hiring someone and I stayed. I implemented a bunch of clubs and it was a lot of fun.
Aside from that, as an artist, I started to create through the lens of my students. They were creating more carefree and were doing it for fun, whereas I was putting so much pressure on myself before that. It allowed me to enjoy making art and I was making it for them. Everything I made they loved. It was like having a built-in audience because they were cheering me on.
I was bringing in a lot of my friends that were full-time artists to talk to my students. It was a school where a lot of my students came from migrant worker families, so I wanted them to know that education wasn’t one-size-fits-all and that success isn’t that way, either. If they enjoy creating, if they enjoy sports, all of these different things, there is an avenue for them to be successful as well. So in order to help them take what I was teaching seriously, I would bring in my friends that were full-time designers and photographers. At some point, I felt like I needed to lead by example and show my students.
How does entrepreneurship differ from having a 9-to-5 job?
I had to really bet on myself when freelancing. I did and set goals for myself around how many clients I’d need to sustain my lifestyle and how much I’d need to charge. Little by little, I began to figure it out.
From the internet you’re going to need to run your business to the subscription plans you’ll need for your design tools, you have to take all of that into account and price it out. That gave me a goal at least that was attainable. I wasn’t directionless and when being an artist or entrepreneur, it can be very directionless. Structure really helped me come this far because I learned from teaching there’s a time to do different tasks, there’s a time for free time and rest time. Really structuring my days like that really helped me take it to the next level.
How did the Goody collaboration come about? What is the significance of you being able to design hair pieces that resonate with people like you?
Once I developed my artistic style, it basically came from me trying to tell my own story and me trying to create representation for myself. At the time, I was decorating an apartment and tried to buy a lot of wall art and art pieces. There was nothing that looked like me. I also wanted to bring some color into my space and wanted to create a style that was colorful and had a lot of representation for women of color. From there, telling that story consistently online allowed a community of people that were looking for that to find me. Over time, I kept doing that, kept building my platform, and it created an avenue for these major brands to find me and work with me.
The way you position yourself online, it tells people where they can use you. If you’re not telling your story, if you’re not telling what you’re passionate about, it can be hard for them to know. Sometimes, they’re not going to put the pieces together so you have to show them, this is the value that I bring and this is the perspective that I bring. When it came to the collaboration with Goody, this was a long-term collaboration that took two years to develop and will be in stores for probably two years. They gave me a voice to say as an artist this is what I think, but as a woman of color with curly, textured hair, these are the products I would use on a day-to-day basis. These are the products I am looking for that I can’t find, especially not marketed the way that we did it.
What message do you want your art and collaborations like this to send to people that see it?
I think of my students going into stores and thinking, yes, she was right, it is possible. I’m thinking of little girls that are using the hair products, but also thinking that they can design something like that. That there’s space for that. We’re taking up real space. We’re not just shoved on a shelf somewhere. You can take up space in a major retailer and you deserve to. That’s the biggest takeaway I want people to have.
Growing up, I dealt with not feeling I was Latin enough or I didn’t fit the mold because I didn’t speak Spanish enough or my skin or my hair was different than the typical Latina. As I grew, I also saw that just living in Miami and having my Caribbean background and my Cuban background and being able to mingle with all these groups, I definitely have a privilege. I try to use it to give a voice to the underrepresented and uplift them. Positive representation and taking up space shows that you have value and that you can take up space and that you matter. It’s not just one look or shape or style that is valid. We all deserve to be celebrated.