We’ve heard it countless times in our Q+As: Lakeland has a way of calling you back home. That call is at work again in the life of artist Ahmad H. Taylor. While this Lakeland native now lives in Atlanta, you can see his fingerprints all over town — including in a new exhibit at the Polk Museum of Art. Read on to learn more about his local roots and how this city keeps drawing him back.
Q: Tell us about your and your family’s connection to Lakeland.
A: I was born and raised in Lakeland. I come from a long line of creatives and educators who have helped shape Lakeland’s landscape for over 100 years. My grandfather, James Nathaniel Taylor, arrived in Lakeland during the summer of 1955 with his wife (my grandmother) Ruby, along with their three young children (including my father, Everette). As an educator, he eventually became the last principal of the “all African American” Rochelle High.
My grandmother Ruby was a busy lady in her own right. After graduating from Florida A&M University, she taught early education for 42 years. An active member of numerous Lakeland organizations, including the Polk Museum of Art, Friends of the Library, the Lakeland Beautification Board, and VISTE, she truly had a service heart and it showed.
Q: Your grandmother was part of the Polk Museum of Art and now your art is there. How does that feel?
A: It’s wonderful. As a child, you don’t really know what your parents and your grandparents do. But for it to all come full circle and to be a blessing, it’s something I would have never imagined.
Q: What inspired you to become an artist?
A: My mother says that I have been drawing since I was two, and I can’t think back to a time when I wasn’t creating. From coloring pages, cartoons, and flip books, my youth in the 1980s was full of wide-eyed wonder.
It was during this time that my Aunt Kate invited me to participate in my first exhibition as a youth at the renowned Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts. This experience eventually led me to Rochelle School of the Arts, the same building where my grandfather James was principal back in the 1960s, and ultimately to Harrison School of the Arts, which helped round out my art education and set me on a path that I am still enjoying to this day.
Q: One of your latest projects is the book you illustrated. How did the book grow from an idea to a finished product?
A: “El’s Mirror” is a wonderful story about an inquisitive, vibrant young child named El who manages to overcome a few school-age trials with the help of some noteworthy historical figures. This was a collaboration project with a visionary author [Bavu Blakes] from Texas who, with the help of his own son Ellison, created an enduring story that is relatable to all.
Q: Since you now live in Atlanta, what keeps you returning to Lakeland?
A: My mother still lives here, so I come back to visit her. And opportunity. I see plenty of opportunities to give back to the community that helped raise me. In 2017, I was approached by Lakeland’s Community Redevelopment Agency to complete a 90-ft mural for the urban community garden that was named after my late patriarch, Everette R. Taylor. To this day, this project always holds a special place in my heart.
Q: How often do you and your family come back?
A: This year, we’ve been back doing a lot of work for the city. I want to say we come back at least three times a year. It’s really good to touch base with my roots and see the revitalization, and just to relax. Atlanta is a completely different animal — very busy, very fast-paced. When you come back to Lakeland, it gives you a chance to just breathe and settle in.
Q: What’s your perfect way to spend a day when you visit?
A: When you wake up, you’ve got to start out with Born and Bread — only on Wednesdays though. I love taking the girls out to the lakes and allowing them to feed the ducks. We like walking around some of the parks and then ending with some ice cream at the end of the day. Nothing too taxing, just kicking back and getting some of that good Florida sunshine.
Q: You painted the “Greetings from Lakeland,” “Roaring 20s,” and “DixieLand Now!” murals found across Lakeland. What’s your dream location to paint a mural?
A: I know the CRA is doing a lot down the South Florida Avenue corridor, but I envision the whole corridor streamlined with some consistency. I would love to have all the buildings uniform with something that represents Lakeland. I just want to paint the town, I guess you could say.
Q: We know you’re passionate about building the arts here. What do you think Lakeland needs to do to support the arts?
A: Lakeland is a gem — you know it, I know it — we all feel it’s truly something special. What Lakeland needs most is a singular, unified vision for the arts. In reality, we would need to incentivize the community’s creative talent by offering stable job opportunities that allow for workforce and talent development — in essence, a “closed-loop” funnel that offers agile education, real-world application, and ultimately retains its own by granting job placement with local businesses.
Q: Where can Lakelanders view your work?
A: My work is currently on exhibit at the Polk Museum of Art. “Illustrations From The Mirror: The Art of Ahmad Taylor” is an illustrated journey into the effort behind my children’s picture book collaboration, “El’s Mirror.” Not only can you read the actual story, but you can begin to uncover the process and brainstorming that it takes to bring such a masterpiece to life, all the way down to my sticky notes! The exhibition will be open until Feb. 4, 2024, so be sure and stop by for a visit.