“GUESS WHO JUST COMPLETED THEIR LIFE GOAL AT 18?” Cliffanie Forrester ecstatically tweeted at 3:40 p.m. on June 14. She was celebrating the fact that one of her paintings, a portrait of a young girl staring off into the horizon titled “Uganda,” had just been put on display at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of an exhibition of student work. (You can read more about the painting and the P.S. Art 2016 exhibition in here.) Forrester snapped a photo of the painting, tweeted it to her followers, and went back to enjoying the exhibition’s opening reception.
It wasn’t until Forrester returned home to Brooklyn that she realized just how many people were celebrating her accomplishment. “It started going viral within, like, eight hours,” the 18-year-old graduating senior at Manhattan’s High School of Art & Design told me. “I tweeted it as soon as I got to the Met, and by the time I was out it had gotten to at least 500 retweets. When I got home, it was next level.”
In the eight days since Forrester posted her self-congratulatory tweet, the photo of her painting has been retweeted over 38,000 times and received more than 85,000 likes. Perhaps more mind-blowing is the fact that her art, by way of Twitter, has been viewed by at least 2.9 million people worldwide, according to her Twitter stats on Friday. That’s nearly half the number of people who hit up the Met in an entire year.
Forrester’s success story brings up a lot of important conversations taking place in the art world and other creative industries about the value of exposure, finding success outside the mainstream art world’s traditional institutions, and the ways in which those institutions (i.e., museums, MFA programs, residencies, etc.) can better serve young artists—particularly young artists of color. How do 38,000 retweets stack up to having your painting displayed at one of the most prestigious art museums in the world? I spoke with Forrester to find out—not to mention to see what’s next for the emerging talent.
So, how did you feel when you found out that your painting was going to be on display at the Met?
It was shocking. When my teacher [Maria Jimenez] told me about the competition, I was kind of worried about not getting in. But I decided that I should just go for it instead of worrying.
Have you seen your painting at the museum?
Oh, yeah. I went to the opening night reception on the 14th. They invited all the students whose paintings they chose including the 11 seniors—[including] me—who got the $1,000 scholarship.
Getting your painting in the Met is obviously a huge deal, but I was wondering how that compared to getting your painting retweeted 20,000-something times in less than 24 hours. How did it feel to have your work—and your accomplishment—go viral and be seen by people all over the world almost instantly?
It made me feel really good to get noticed on social media, especially as a person of color. It felt really good to hear people telling me that they felt inspired by me, that I made them feel like they could accomplish anything, that they’re going to set bigger goals. It felt good to know that other African-Americans and people of color were inspired by me and that I helped them feel like they could accomplish anything they put their minds to.
Which painters are you most inspired by?
My ultimate favorite is Degas. He’s probably been the most influential on me. So, we all have different concentrations at school. My concentration is portraiture, so over my senior year I was only doing these 12 portraits of people so everyone would understand that this is my main focus. I started to feel confused because I wasn’t sure if that’s all I wanted to do. Then I stumbled on Degas, who did many different concentrations in his lifetime. He went from ballerinas to still life—that helped me relax and see how I could try different things and change focus later on.
Are you still in school now?
I finished last week. Right now I’m just waiting for graduation on the 22nd.
Congratulations, by the way! Do you have any plans locked down for the fall?
Not as of now. I ended up not getting into SVA or the Savannah College of Art and Design, which really discouraged me. I was really confident I could get in, but finding out I didn’t brought me down to a depressed place where I didn’t want to paint anymore. But since my painting got into the Met, I’ve felt really encouraged. It doesn’t end here. I just can’t give up.
Yeah, and, I mean, you might not get to be Class of 2020, but how many people can say they have a painting at the Met? Is there anything you’d like to say to other young artists out there, particularly young artists of color, who might be feeling unsure about pursuing their art?
Well, the only thing I could really say is don’t be discouraged. And when you’re discouraged, always stay true to who you are. Also, don’t compare yourself to other artists—I used to do that when I was a junior or sophomore. I would spend time comparing myself, like, “Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I do this?” But it just takes determination to achieve those goals you want. You can do and be anything you want to.
This interview has been edited and condensed.