Though Ange Hillz has spent more than a decade making a name for himself as a speed painter in the Bayou City, he never dreamed this entertaining skill would take him all the way to the cover of TIME magazine. But that’s exactly what happened last month when the national publication tapped him to digitally paint a portrait of George Floyd for a story revolving around the verdicts in the Derek Chauvin trial.
“It feels like I just checked off something on a bucket list, definitely,” the artist tells Houstonia.
Hillz’s artistic passions date back to his early days in Rwanda, where he recalls facing the wrath of schoolteachers for doodling in his notebooks. His skill at speed painting, which he discovered at age 9 when he received compliments on a painting he’d thrown together after being left alone in his brother’s studio, is almost as old.
Even so, it wasn’t until Hillz, 38 (he immigrated to the U.S. in 1999 and moved to Houston around 2008), lost his photo-editing job during the Great Recession that he decided to turn his artistically breakneck talent into a career. Work started with live shows at weddings and birthday parties, but soon he was painting at HBO premiere events and the NFL’s Super Bowl LI Experience in 2017. After that, celebrity clients came calling for both his speedy works of art and his more detailed, time-consuming series.
The secret to speed painting, Hillz says, comes down to practice, but his flair for the dramatic—moving about the stage, painting with both hands, and, most crucially, painting upside down—doesn’t hurt his performances either.
“You always want to make people guess,” he notes, “and even if they think they know what it is that you're about to paint, it ends up turning into something totally different. And when I flip it, that’s when the crowd gets up and starts clapping.”
All that preparation was put to the test last year when Hillz famously speed painted at George Floyd’s funeral, a performance that was captured on film and has since garnered thousands of views on YouTube and worldwide attention. He painted the Houston native in three minutes to match pace with a gospel singer onstage.
“I was so emotional. I wanted to deliver, to make sure the family gets closure through the artwork,” he explains, “because, unfortunately, you can’t bring that person back.”
Since then, Hillz, who completed a more public tribute to Floyd in the Third Ward last fall, has painted visual tributes during the memorial service of Vanessa Guillen last August and last month’s funeral of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop just miles from where Floyd was murdered.
In fact, he was in the air on his way to Wright’s funeral in Minneapolis when he painted his colorful TIME cover. And in true fashion, Hillz painted it speed-style, completing it in just five hours.
“We had to change flights, and … I would only do it on the plane,” he adds quickly, explaining that secrecy was part of contract. “So, when you think about it, the artwork took less than five hours.”
Hillz originally had two days to complete his cover, but as the verdicts in the Chauvin came in, TIME truncated the timeframe to just 24 hours, he says. Despite the truncation, Hillz’s cover seemingly combining the broader brushstrokes of his speed paintings with the colorful shading and highlights he brings to his Life Inside Colors pieces.
While color has always played an important role in Hillz’s work ("color means joy for me,” he replies when asked about his palette), its highly noticeable inclusion on and around Floyd was an intentional choice, meant to reflect all the individuals who came together in the wake of Floyd’s death, he says.
“When you hear about George Floyd, and you hear about people that are trying to make change in this world, it’s not just one race. I wanted to use a lot of colors to represent everybody.”