Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Center for Public Integrity’s third season of The Heist podcast, about the government’s long history undermining Black farmers, has powerful illustrations for each episode.

Artist Amanda Howell Whitehurst created them. A painter and illustrator whose work often explores the “beauty, confidence, and strength” of Black women, she sat down with Public Integrity to provide insight into her creative process. 

‘I really want to make the story come to life’

Amanda looks straight to the viewer. She is wearing a polka dot top with hoop earrings.
Amanda Howell Whitehurst (Courtesy of Amanda Howell Whitehurst)

Howell Whitehurst started each illustration by reading the script of the specific episode. 

“It’s easy for me when I’m reading something, I can really imagine what I’m reading. I can see the visions in my head,” she said. “You know when you read a book or a story and you kind of picture what you’re reading? … I felt that that was better for me to really fully understand how I wanted to illustrate this.”

After she picked the few words or phrases that stuck with her about the episode, Howell Whitehurst would sketch for hours until she rendered the vision in her head just right. 

“I really want to make the story come to life,” she said. “I want them to see what I could see.”

Howell Whitehurst designed the art for each podcast episode to reflect everything the episode represented. This included her choice of colors, specific details in the landscapes and special attention to getting natural hair just right. 

‘Doing what he was supposed to do’

Howell Whitehurst’s favorite episode was No. 2, “Dancing with the Devil.” It details efforts by the farmer the podcast focused on, Nate Bradford Jr., to improve his farm finances and the ways he saw the USDA’s Farm Service Agency making it harder for him to succeed.

“He was doing what he was supposed to do,” Howell Whitehurst said. “He was doing his part and keeping track of everything. It was almost like the USDA was just giving him the runaround and that really stuck with me.”

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One takeaway she had from the entirety of the podcast was how many hoops the government has made Black farmers jump through.   

“It was almost like the USDA doesn’t really care about African American farmers and what they’re trying to do and what they’re trying to accomplish,” she said. “It just really touched me because they’re doing their best, they’re doing everything they can, they’re trying to survive. Their farm is their lifeline, and they’re trying to keep it in the family.”

‘Get out of my comfort zone’

Drawing animals is not Howell Whitehurst’s specialty. She did not grow fond of it after this project, either.

“I had to draw cows,” she said. “I had to get out of my comfort zone and just do it. I knew that I could do it, I just don’t care for drawing animals.”

An illustration of cows in a barn. There is snow falling outside the barn. Some of the cows have ice cycles hanging from their noses and ears. A farmer wearing a cowboy hat is in the background looking away from the cows.
Use the slider to see the sketch and final illustration from Amanda Howell Whitehurst for episode 2 of The Heist.

She said she keeps working on her illustrations until there’s no objection her perfectionist tendencies can raise.

“I know it’s not the case, but I always feel like when I’m making a piece, the person that’s looking will notice every detail that’s missing or know it’s not correct, so that drives me to be more detailed,” she said. “Otherwise, I’m not satisfied.” 

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Katherine Hapgood is the 2023-24 Charles Lewis American University Fellow. She is currently pursuing...