In third grade, Ashley Bellinger, a scrawny 8-year-old with a head too big for her body, was running around the playground at recess when a group of four classmates stopped her in her tracks. ”What’s wrong with you?” they asked, surrounding her. “Why are you black and your grandma and mom are white? Why are you so dark?”
It wasn’t until later that evening, after speaking with her dad, that Bellinger realized she was “different.” Now, at the age of 18, she has harnessed years of bullying into a fashion line for young black and minority girls called Amber Ash. She produces graphic T-shirts, jeans, bookbags, and other items displaying her custom drawings of black girls going about their daily activities, such as taking selfies or chewing gum.
Founded October 12, 2014, “Amber Ash just came out of nowhere,” Bellinger says. “It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing to do for my sister.” She was shopping with her mom when they spotted a T-shirt with a ballerina on it for her younger sister, Amber, who was 4 years old at the time. But her mom turned to her and said, “The ballerina shirt would be really cute if only she were brown.” Bellinger, who shares her father’s artistic talent, had long since sought refuge from bullying through drawing. So she made her own version of the ballerina and gave it to her mom, who asked, “What would happen if you start putting your cartoons on T-shirts?”
Now, more than 100 orders later, Bellinger still draws each design by hand and then uses software to digitize and vector the image. She then sends it to a manufacturer in Texas and distributes the products to her customers once she receives them. Most customers hear of her work through word of mouth or Instagram. That seems like a big responsibility for a recent Coral Gables Senior High School grad and rising freshman at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. But Bellinger says all of those times she stayed home drawing when friends were at football games or parties were worth it.
Recently, she was wearing one of her Amber Ash creations at Dadeland Mall when a little girl came up to her and stared quietly at the shirt. When the mother of the ogling child arrived and pulled her away, the girl said, “Mommy, look. The girl on her shirt looks like me. I want a shirt like that. Why don't my shirts look like me?” Even at the perfect sales opportunity, all Bellinger could think was, “That's validation that I need to keep making these shirts,” she says.
What began as simply a way for Bellinger to help her younger sister embrace the African-American identity she had been ostracized for by classmates and art teachers, snowballed into an award-winning idea. She’s won a slew of awards for Amber Ash, including the Silver Knight for art and first place in the startup challenge at EMerge partnered with Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, collecting a prize of $2,500. Now she’s attending a business camp, where she will have Amber Ash incorporated by the end of the summer. Aside from her dedication to Amber Ash, Bellinger has had her African-American art displayed at the Kroma art gallery in Coconut Grove, the community she hopes to be making proud.
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“West Grove is a very close-knit community, so I have people telling my parents: ‘Your daughter is helping the Grove get put back on the map,’” she says. “Your daughter is helping to show people that the Grove isn't just a place of violence. Your daughter is helping people to see that the 11 blocks that make West Grove cultivate people who make a difference.”
Bellinger never forgets where she came from and the community of black women and girls she hopes to bolster through her art. “The older I got, the more I realized Amber Ash isn't just for me and my sister anymore,” she says. She hopes to expand her line to include art depicting a diverse group of girls, including Hispanic, Indian, and Asian.
“All you're supposed to do in the world is make sure that you reach out and leave an imprint of yourself on somebody else,” Bellinger says. “I like being able to touch other people and empowering them and giving them the knowledge of tough love, because that's something I had to learn about on my own. It took a very long time to get there. I don't want any little girl to ever go through that.”