UWindsor alumnus Robert Small can claim many vocations in his life.
He is an artist, father, author, entrepreneur, educator, mentor, and sought-after guest speaker.
And he can now add Officer of the Order of Canada to the list.
Small is one of 38 Canadians on whom Governor General Mary Simon recently bestowed this title. One of the highest honours that can be granted to a civilian in the country, Small’s recognition is for “his long-standing commitment to highlighting the contributions of Black people in all sectors of Canadian society.”
Small joins the ranks of Anne Murray — his mother’s favourite singer — and icons of the local Black community such as Howard McCurdy and Bryan Walls, both UWindsor alumni, in being named to the Order of Canada.
“I look at all these famous Canadians I grew up admiring,” Small said. “I never would have thought I would get recognized along with them.”
Small, 52, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a certificate in criminology from the University of Windsor in 1993, is best known as the creator of The Legacy Collexion, an assortment of posters, prints, T-shirts, and bookmarks derived from his original artwork. His depictions celebrating the accomplishments of Blacks in Canada have become a mainstay of Black History Month celebrations and offers role models for Black children everywhere his posters are displayed.
While he also paints landscapes and seascapes, portraits are his bread and butter. Once a year, he combines several portraits into one work and makes it into a poster, adding text that chronicles the achievements of the people portrayed. In addition to posters for Black History Month, he has created posters for International Women’s Day and Asian Heritage Month.
Over the past 28 years since his Legacy poster project began, Small has sold more than 100,000 copies. They grace schools and BMO banks across Canada, and subway stations in Toronto. One has been transformed into a mural on the downtown Toronto headquarters of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union.
As Black History Month approaches in February each year, Small’s inbox overflows with media requests for interviews and bookings for speaking engagements. In the coming weeks, he will be omnipresent on television, radio, and social media.
“If I went back and told my 25-year-old self that I’d be doing this, I wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
Small’s artistic pursuits began when he was a child, drawing the characters he saw in his favourite comic books. He recalls struggling with race when drawing his first Black comic book character.
“I was drawing the Falcon, but I was drawing him like other characters, with a small nose and thin lips… I think the deeper conflict was appreciating my own features,” he recalls. “It took practice to learn to draw him with a nose like mine and lips like mine.”
Small had his first artwork published in a newspaper at age 16. He soon abandoned his art for post-secondary studies in sociology, criminology, law, and education, but found it a persistent calling.
“I was always drawing on the side of my papers when I was taking notes.”
He chose to attend the University of Windsor, drawn to its proximity to Detroit and being the “perfect” distance from his home in Toronto.
“Some of the best times of my life were at the University of Windsor,” he said.
Lauding his former professor Tom Fleming with whom he still keeps in touch, Small said his UWindsor education gave him the opportunity to explore topics such as racism, colonization, and the impact of media on Black people.
“Really, the University of Windsor positioned me very well for what I do now.”
He went on to earn a Bachelor of Education from York University.
Small worked for seven years as social worker, then later as a counsellor and a director of a mentorship program for Black youth.
Teacher training was “valuable experience,” Small said. “It makes me think of my products from an educational standpoint.”
This month, Small launches Afrostatic, a collection of learning materials that can infuse Black history into everyday curriculum.
His latest poster is out and he’s already thinking about succession planning for the Legacy Collexion.
“This year’s poster features the artwork of another person, Nigerian afrofuturist artist Komi Olaf,” Small said. The poster is Small’s first to feature QR codes that link to websites with more information about each person portrayed.
“I’ve used it as a platform to showcase the work of a young graphic artist who represents where this project can go in the future.”
Small hopes his daughters — Sade, 16, and Soulé, 20 — will someday continue his legacy. Sade is an artist and Soulé is studying business in college.
“As a father and a community member, I hope that they can take this over and this will still have an impact far into the future.
“I’m trying to create things that will last forever.”