Artist Derrick Adams on How One of His Paintings Became a Central Plot Point in the TV Show ‘Empire’

The painting is wrapped in the drama as the show's fifth season draws to a close.

Derrick Adams made this portrait of characters Lucious and Cookie Lyon for the show Empire. Courtesy of FOX.

As the fifth season of the hit FOX show Empire approaches its dramatic conclusion, the fate of the Lyon family remains a mystery. Viewers are waiting to learn which of the main characters lies dead in the casket—a scene that has been teased in flash forwards since the season premiere—but also what will become of Lucious and Cookie Lyon’s prized painting by Derrick Adams.

Ousted from the Empire record company, music industry moguls Lucious and Cookie are broke and being forced to sell much of their art collection—which has included works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley, Ebony G. Patterson, Barkley L. Hendricks, Toyin Odutola, Gustav Klimt, and Claude Monet—to make ends meet. Cookie (played by Taraji P. Henson), however, makes it clear that the Adams painting, a wedding present from her husband, is off limits.

But Lucious (Terrence Howard) ends up needing to use it as collateral in order to take part in a high-stakes poker game as part of a last-ditch effort to jumpstart his new business. The game is a success, but the painting winds up with Damon Cross (Wood Harris), a man who has taken a somewhat sinister romantic interest in Cookie.

Lucious initially hides the loss with a hastily whipped up copy, but ends up revealing the truth to Cookie and slashing the fake in a fit of anger. On last week’s episode, the pair finally got the original back from Cross, who tells the couple they “deserve this symbol of their enduring love.” (The painting is a dual portrait of Cookie and Lucious, staring off in opposite directions as a sign of their independence.)

How the artwork will play into the drama in the season’s final two episodes, airing tomorrow and next Wednesday, remains to be seen. Given that Lucious is already suspicious of how Cross got the painting, it is all but certain that we’ll see the canvas again before the finale ends.

The work has also inspired a limited-edition collection of home goods, the Empire x Derrick Adams collection, which is being sold to support Turnaround Arts, an arts-based school improvement program from the Kennedy Center.

We spoke to Adams about getting the call to work on the show last May, what inspired the painting, and how he feels about having his work on TV.

A painting from Derrick Adams's "Deconstruction Worker" series. Courtesy of Derrick Adams.

A painting from Derrick Adams’s “Deconstruction Worker” series. Courtesy of Derrick Adams.

Do you watch Empire? Are you following along this season?
I did watch most of the first season when it premiered, but had to stop. It made me too anxious to watch another family’s drama. Friends have played for me the scenes containing the painting on Hulu from the fall season, but I’m not fully caught up yet.

Do you have a favorite character from the show?
Having a lot of strong women in my family, and loving the work of Taraji P. Henson and the complexity she brings to her character, definitely Cookie Lyon.

Why was it important for you to participate in the show?
Actually, I didn’t know the work was going to be in the show in the beginning. I was commissioned to make the work for the ad campaign promoting the new season. At some point the work itself was written into the story line, which was a nice surprise. I found out that it was part of the plot when people would tag me on posts of clips of the show.

How much direction were you given about how the painting should look?
The production team was extremely generous. I was given access to photos of the [Lyons] and asked to include them both in the work. If I recall correctly, the only specific direction was midway in the project: where I originally had a sleeve, I was informed that Cookie’s fans would prefer a bare arm. Who was I to disappoint? [The final portrait ended up stopping at the shoulders.]

Cookie Lyon and Damon Cross. Photo by Chuck Hodes courtesy of Fox.

The characters Cookie Lyon and Damon Cross. Photo by Chuck Hodes courtesy of FOX.

How different was the process from your normal work?
Not very different at all. I often use reference images to lay out compositions in my work, and the final figures are either based on my imagination or on friends and family members. So, having watched the show and using their source images, it felt very natural to create this work.

Do you typically paint based on commission? And do you often use portraits of specific individuals in your figurative works?
I’ve only done a handful of commissions, so typically, no. My figures are mostly from imagination but do often include friends and family members.

How did you develop the geometric style seen in the painting?
It was a natural progression from my collage works where I used various wood-grained shelf liner, cut with a blade and ruler, to make up the figure.

Your paintings have also appeared on the HBO comedy series Insecure. How does it feel to have your work represented in television?
That was also a surprise. I had a show at the California African American Museum (and I’ve since found out that actress and writer Issa Rae is a former employee). The production contacted me to see if they could film a scene in the museum, but it was a surprise to see how much of the work was shown in the episode. I’ve been asked since by a few more productions to include my work, but I think Empire and Insecure is enough representation.

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