Before Christmas, I was lamenting how hard it is to find sacred art — or secular art, for that matter — that is both inclusive and tasteful. As parents to two Ethiopian girls, it’s especially important to my husband and me to surround our family with art that expresses diversity and inclusivity.
A SlowMama reader pointed me to artist Laura James’s work — and I’m so grateful she did. Laura is a Brooklyn-based artist using her talents, vision, and experience to create sacred and secular modern art that is both beautiful and inclusive. I’m so thrilled to be able to share some of Laura’s story and work here at SlowMama. Enjoy!
Zoe Saint-Paul: It’s so interesting to me that you’ve chosen the Ethiopian Christian art style to express much of your religious work — and you are Antiguan, not Ethiopian. How did you decide on this style, and how did you learn it?
Laura James: I have a Caribbean heritage and consider myself to be Caribbean; my parents raised us with the culture and customs, the food…growing up in Bed-Stuy, it was all there. But I’m definitely American — born and raised in Brooklyn. I’ve never been to Ethiopia, but I’m a child of the African diaspora and America, so it is all mine to play with.
When I was around 18 years old, I was walking in my neighborhood and came upon a book — Ethiopian Magic Scrolls — in a botanica window. I was attracted to the faces — the eyes especially — and the red, gold, and green colors. The details and the simplicity of the art really stood out. I decided to make a painting of nine guardian angels using pieces of images I saw there, and this is the first painting I did in that style.
Guardian Angels by Laura James
I went in search of more Ethiopian Art, and there wasn’t much, but I came across an old catalog from an exhibit in Germany and a photography book called African Ark, where I got to see a wide range of the style.
When it comes to sacred art, I’m amazed — and frustrated — that inclusive images of saints and biblical figures are still so hard to find — especially given the multicultural landscape of our society. Why is this, do you think?
Well, unfortunately, I think it’s the belief in white supremacy that some people of all races have — the idea that it’s just better to be white. It’s still prevalent, and kind of funny to say “still,” considering the history of caste and class systems, slavery, apartheid, etc., but the acceptance of these systems went on for so long that it’s naive for us to think that in 100 years (or less) those attitudes would completely disappear. It’s up to those of us who realize that white supremacy is not true to show other images and rally on the side of equality for all people.
In your secular art, are there themes you stick to, or you feel drawn to exploring?
I enjoy making paintings that, on the surface, might not appear to have a deep meaning, like Mother and Daughter, where I just work with the design, color, and lines. But I also like to make paintings about race and class issues, slavery, nannies, and domestic workers — which is really part of my story growing up, since my mother was both of those latter things. We paint what we know about, right? Painting is a good way for an artist to resolve internal conflicts, to “get it out.”
Mother and Daughter by Laura James
What do you hope your art will bring to those who encounter it?
This is a hard question, because I work with different themes, but ultimately, I want people to see something beautiful, even if it’s a hard subject. Beyond that, I love when a viewer personally identifies with something they see in my work; human beings share so many of the same experiences, no matter the long list of “differences” we’re supposed to have.
Grandmother by Laura James
Do you have any personal favorites among your pieces, or paintings that hold special meaning for you?
I have many pieces that are dear, but Grandmother definitely stands out. I saw a statuette in Puerto Rico of a very black woman with seven little girls clinging to her skirt, all identical, and they looked just like her. It occurred to me that you can find every race of people in the Caribbean, so I painted the grandmother with little girls representing different races. To me it shows that we’re all connected, and that it’s a natural thing — after all, mankind started in Africa, so we can assume that the first grandmother was African.
Also, I just completed 18 paintings for my first children’s book, Anna Carries Water, written by Olive Senior and published by Tradewinds Books. It was a lot of work, but I’m so pleased with the way the pictures turned out. It will be released in September, so I haven’t seen the completed project yet, but I’m really looking forward to it! Olive Senior is a Jamaican-Canadian author, and the story is set in Jamaica.
Tell me a little bit about the Stations for Sassier Project in Haiti.
A Haitian donor wanted to sponsor an art project in Haiti, so I was asked to come up with an idea. I thought a rendition of the 14 Stations of the Cross would have the most impact, as all Catholic churches are supposed to have the Stations, and they would be something all parishioners would have access to and be able to use. In Haiti (like many places in the world), black images of biblical figures are not popular, but the parishioners want to see something different, to be able to identify more closely with these religious figures, and I was happy to help.
Ultimately, the donor fell through, but since we already engaged the parishioners in Sassier and knew they were excited about it, my partner (Patricia Brintle of From Here to Haiti) suggested we do an Indiegogo campaign to raise the funds necessary to complete the project. I resisted the idea for a while — I didn’t think fundraising would be fun — but we did it, and we raised over $13,000. I’m currently working on the 14 paintings, which we hope to have in Haiti this fall. The plan is to have the Stations paraded through the town. We still need money to have the work transported and installed in Haiti, so we’re still accepting donations!
How has your work as an artist changed over the years?
As far as the sacred work, I’ve started to paint images of stories from other religious traditions, like Buddhism and Islam. As the years roll on, more people see my work; it’s great when you don’t have to try quite as hard to be noticed!
The Ascension of the Prophet Muhammed Into Heaven by Laura James
What’s the bravest thing you’ve done as an artist?
The bravest thing is probably just being crazy enough to continue doing my art full-time all these years. It’s not an easy thing to do; the images you make are constantly judged by viewers and prospective collectors, and you can think, “Will people like this? Oh, I hope they like this!” — but at some point, usually midway through making the painting, you think, “I like it, so that will have to do!”
It’s brave to have the confidence to do your own thing, and go against the grain, and this is not something I say smugly. Many people have that confidence, and it’s the only thing that will keep the world alive!
Thank you, Laura, for being brave enough to be who you are and to share it with the rest of us in your gorgeous art. Can’t wait for your children’s book to come out!
Friends, if you’re interested in viewing or buying any of Laura’s work, please visit her website and send her an email — she’ll forward a list of her available work. Her limited-edition prints are for sale at art.com.
Images supplied by Laura James; photo of Laura by Gordon Neville
Note from Zoe: In case you didn’t catch the first interview in my “What Big Girls Do” series, here’s the history behind it: Whenever I’m about to do something that scares the pants off me, I whisper a prayer and say to myself, “Zoe, this is what big girls do.” And then I step off the ledge. I don’t know why, but it always helps. That’s the spirit I hope to capture with this series. There are women out there doing creative, courageous, inspiring things, and I hope their stories will ignite your own dreams and help you find greater meaning right where you are.