Creative Roots Badge

This month-long inspiration series celebrating Black icons and influences features teachers we admire highlighting the creatives who sparked their own journeys. They’ll share their personal projects inspired by these icons, and invite you to create along with them.   

Meet Gia Graham: hand letterer, designer, illustrator, and Skillshare teacher. Hailing from Atlanta by way of Barbados, Gia has made a name for herself through her colorful and evocative illustrations, which she shares across her Instagram as well as her Skillshare Staff Pick classes.

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Gia Graham’s Inspiration: James Hemings, World-Class Chef to Presidents

James Hemings, and first American chef trained in France.
James Hemings, and first American chef trained in France.

When we asked Gia about where she finds inspiration, her answer caught us by surprise: James Hemings. Not an illustrator, not a designer, not even an artist, but a chef. Namely, the chef that brought French cuisine to America, and largely a figure erased from American History books. We tapped Gia to learn more about James Hemings, how he inspired her piece of artwork, and a creative prompt to get you inspired to make something of your own.

Tell us about your chosen creative icon. How has their creative work influenced your process or style?

James Hemings is the most influential American chef you’ve probably never heard of. A slave to Thomas Jefferson and his personal attendant, Hemings accompanied Jefferson to Paris in 1784 because Jefferson wanted him to learn “the art of French cookery”, as Jefferson called it. As a Minister to France, Jefferson needed an in-house cook with enough skill to impress those he entertained. For almost two years, Hemings trained under French restaurateurs and pastry chefs, excelling at his studies and eventually becoming Jefferson’s head chef. 

Hemings became the first American of any race to train as a chef in France and introduced the American palette to crème brulée, meringues, whipped cream, macaroni and cheese, ice cream, and our most beloved French fries. He also brought back the technology for the “Potage” stew stove, which is essentially the great-grandfather of the modern stove we know today.

“I was immensely inspired by his ability to not just succeed but to flourish and excel when thrust out of his comfort zone.”

I’m no chef so Hemings and I don’t share the same creative medium and his work hasn’t directly influenced my own creative process, however, when I learned of his story I was immensely inspired by his ability to not just succeed but to flourish and excel when thrust out of his comfort zone. Learning a new skill and a new language in a new country at the age of 19 is quite a feat. It is this tenacity and quest for excellence that I aspire to when approaching new endeavors… creative and otherwise.


What did you want your piece to capture?

I wanted this piece to be fun and eye-catching so that it might draw the viewer in to find out a little more. Just about everyone loves fries – they’re practically a staple in American cuisine. From fast food to fine dining, there’s a good chance you’ll find fries on the menu – but how often have we ever wondered how they became such a mainstay? Aside from being a lighthearted play on the phrase “eyes on the prize”, the aim of this piece is also to urge us all to LOOK closer. To focus on this food we’ve always taken for granted and to open our eyes to its history.

What do you want readers to take away about your chosen creative icon?

My biggest desire is for readers to simply know his name and acknowledge his contributions to American food culture. I have seen several articles crediting Thomas Jefferson for being the first to bring these foods to America when, in fact, it was Hemings whose culinary skills brought new and elevated dishes to Jefferson’s dinner table. It is time for his light to shine.

“It is time for his light to shine.”

What do you want our readers and community to reflect on when looking at your piece of art? 

My hope is that this piece will encourage us all to acknowledge the gifts and accomplishments of the voiceless.

Lastly, what’s one thing you’re doing this month (February) to bring you joy?

Well, eating good food brings me joy so I’m doing lots of that. 🙂


Week 1 Creative Prompt

For this week’s prompt, Gia invites you to consider inspiration in your everyday. Hand letter and illustrate one of these five subjects, and learn more about their erased origins below.


Thanks for hanging out with us during Week One of My Creative Roots. Watch this space and follow along on our Instagram for more spotlights on Skillshare teachers and the incredible Black icons who inspired them. Better yet – sign up for our email list to receive weekly creative challenges from our teachers in honor of their icons.


To learn more about James Hemings, check out the James Hemings Society, or this article Gia recommends from Black Past.

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