What Janet Jackson taught me about representation, the importance of being prepared, and overcoming physical limitations.

5 panel collage of various Janet Jackson illustrations by Aimee Stevland
Drawing Janet Jackson since 1995.

I’ve enjoyed a successful career in the creative field for over 20 years. I’ve done dozens of projects for global brands seen by millions, but these personal Janet Jackson illustrations hold a special place in my heart. Let me share why.

From Outrage To Inspiration

Let’s go back to 1995 – The internet is just now becoming available in the average home and I am a big time Janet Jackson fan looking for info!⁣ ⁣ As I (slowly) navigate my way through various online publications, chat boards, and early websites, I noticed a significant anti-black bias in how some superstars were depicted in artwork and illustrations – if they were even included at all. These portrayals were often unflattering and arguably racist, with distorted, monkey-like features.

Janet Jackson was an extraordinary artist that I admired so much, and seeing those images made me angry and sad.

⁣Meanwhile, I had learned from various interviews that Janet enjoyed watching her brothers on their popular cartoon show when she was a kid. It was one way she could connect with them while they were on the road. So I wondered what it might be like if I put Janet into that cartoon world. These concepts were the catalyst for the first “Janetoons.” ⁣

Janet Connected With Her Fans Online Long Before Social Media

Janet and her then-husband, Rene, would occasionally visit fan forums and chat rooms to hang out with us. She had a fan club and was one of the few major artists to have an active online presence at that time.

I created the first “Janetoon” for a fan club contest and it was chosen as one of the winners to receive an autographed copy of her first greatest hits package, ‘Design of a Decade.’

After that, I was further motivated to showcase my favorite artist in a more positive and flattering manner, so I shared the cartoons on my first AOL website with a small but dedicated following of fans. To my surprise, they even caught the interest of Janet herself.

How Janet Helped Encourage My Career

As a kid, I was greatly inspired by, and had always wanted to create album covers. Then in 1997, I was asked to submit an album cover concept drawing for what would become “The Velvet Rope.” I was amazed just to be considered, but unfortunately, I was just too green at the time and I couldn’t execute the piece the way I saw it in my head. Janet went in another direction to give us the iconic cover we know today.  That experience really pushed me to build my skills so that I would always be ready for that next big project.

Fast forward to the early 2000’s; album covers had become tiny digital thumbnails, so the next largest canvas was the concert t-shirt. I worked my way up to Creative Director for the leading company in music merchandising where I designed successful product lines for some of entertainment’s biggest names.

2 Janet Jackson images side-by side. Left side is an unreleased photo of Janet. Right side is a cartoon sketch based on that photo.

The Power of Music

Then, at the height of my career, I sustained a serious injury which left me unable to use my dominant drawing hand. It was a devastating and scary time for me.  Over the next decade I would have to retrain my hand, my body, my brain and my whole artistic process. That’s when I transitioned primarily to digital illustration. Due to an incurable, neuromuscular disorder called focal dystonia (finally diagnosed in 2019), my hand still does not work as it once did, but it was Janet’s music and messages of love and positivity that were instrumental in my initial healing process.

Living everyday like it’s my last. I refuse to be stuck in the past. People actin’ like machines. Cause they’re scared to live their dreams. No not me…

A collage of 7 Janet Jackson cartoon portraits as she appeared in various music videos and appearances during the Rhythm Nation era. (1989 - 1991). Each colored square includes a portrait from the chest up, similar to a grecian bust.
Rhythm Nation 30 Portrait Series

A Tribute To 30 Years Of Rhythm Nation, One Shape At A Time

In 2019,  I started a six-portrait tribute in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the “Rhythm Nation 1814” album, but quickly grew to 30+ portraits as Janet has so many iconic looks! Inspired by some friends who specialize in wood-cut artwork, I started playing with the concept of building with “digital shapes” to develop this particular style.

25+ years, and 100+ portraits later, (does that make me crazy?) I’m really proud to have created a flood of positive, complimentary images of Janet that fans have embraced as their desktop/phone wallpapers, permanent tattoos, custom fashion pieces, and more!

Looking at Google, Instagram, etc. I’m even more excited to see that other artists have joined in creating a beautiful legacy of artwork for Janet. She deserves only the best for all the artistry and inspiration she’s given to the world. ⁣ #janetslegacymatters

See selections from the entire collection here.

Edited April 2023