Lauryn (she/her) creates surrealist, dream-like worlds that her subjects can peacefully exist in. She uses her practice to envision spaces where white supremacy and patriarchy are eradicated, allowing Black people to flourish and prosper. A rising senior at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, Lauryn wants institutions to broaden the canon of Black artists they deem significant and worthy of discussing critically. She’s passionate about displaying the varying dimensions of Blackness and reflects these nuances throughout her paintings.
What medium(s) do you work in?
I work in a variety of mediums. I really like oil and watercolor just because of how opposite they are in texture, range, and color.
How long have you been painting and how did you get started?
I’ve been painting my whole life. I like to make things with my hands, but eventually, I became interested in animation and digital art, so I was exploring that for a while. I came back to painting in high school, and I was interested in how immediate the medium was and how I could create marks, colors, and scenes with my hands.
I see your work as being otherworldly, as if the scenes and subjects you’re depicting aren’t rooted in our reality. Your use of saturated colors and skewed angles are also ways that you’ve established this otherworldly experience for your viewers. What do you want us to experience through your work?
I’m really inspired by surrealism, so I’m interested in working with creating a surreal like, dreamy, either very cluttered or very spacious experience. I think a lot of my work comes from a thought or memory or dream—something very ethereal, and I like to expand on a certain moment with the use of surrealism. I can use that absurd quality to emphasize a mood or feeling, so lately, a lot of my work is inspired by Afro-Surrealism and Afrofuturism, which expands on this idea of exaggerating to make a point about what’s going on in society and its effects on us.
(L) Each day feels a bit more surreal than the last but I guess that’s a part of adjustment (2020); Watercolor, stencil, colored pencil, acrylic, ink and gel pen on paper
(R) Either you coming in or staying outside, it’s cold (2020); Acrylic, black gesso and colored pencil on board
Are there any Afrofuturist references that you’ve looked towards?
Yeah, I definitely think Octavia Butler stands out to me. She introduced me to that whole realm of Afrofuturism, and she herself was a trailblazer in literary science fiction. She made the Parable of the Sower series which blew up, and this whole concept of hyper empathy really stood out to me in my work, and that sense of seeing something and feeling something coming from it is an experience I would like to evoke in my own work. Another influence would be Parliament-Funkadelic. I’m inspired by the music I listen to, and have always admired how Parliament and George Clinton create this other world and still connect it to what’s happening on Earth. When you go to a Parliament concert or if you’ve ever seen one, it’s another experience of having spaceships flying, having all of these characters on stage, seeing bright colors and signs— it’s so loud and very prideful. I think Afrofuturism also encompasses and allows for queer culture to exist within it as well, which I really appreciate about it.
What inspires your practice?
I guess my daily life. I also think a lot about how blackness isn’t a monolith and that there’s not enough black art out there. I know that when we can each tell our individual stories and see more Black artists, we can all learn more about each other and show that blackness exists in different ways and different nuances— it’s super important for people to know that. What else inspires it is music. I like listening to music, especially trap and hip-hop, because I feel like it’s also Afrofuturist, and I’ve been discussing this with my friends a lot. There’s also a bunch of Afrofuturist aspects that have trickled down from Parliament into Hip-Hop culture, and I’m super interested in learning about that and finding a way to figure out how to visualize what I’m hearing.
In an Instagram caption you mentioned: “I really enjoy envisioning these scenes where Black folx can live our best lives on another planet or sum.” If this vision were to come true, what would it look like to you?
I like to use my works as a way to imagine the future, and that’s where the Afrofuturism concept comes from. Just being able to see black joy is a radical act, and I envision these spaces where black people can exist without having to worry about white supremacists or patriarchal-like infrastructures that oppress us and keep us from being who we want to be.
I think of what the world would look like if we didn’t have these standards coded into us, and it’s a distant future to me or a future when we begin to understand empathy and begin to unlearn, which is also really important right now. Hopefully, this movement can start to bring about that change, and I think these works are just me responding to how hopeful I am and also trying to help me keep going.
Yes, we definitely need work like yours at this time. I often think about the toll that white supremacy has had on us and what life would be if we could go back in time 400-500 years ago and tweak a few things. But it’s really powerful that people are envisioning new futures and putting them out there, almost like a manifestation. You recently shared that you’ve been thinking about Carrie Mae Weems’ “Kitchen Table Series” (1990) and how it connects to intimacy and domestic space. How have these themes grown in importance for you during the global pandemic and even our contemporary civil rights movement?
I’ve always been fascinated by that series, and I’ve wanted to make works inspired by them. I think what’s interesting to me is also the influences that the series has had outside of photography. There are also references to it in Jay-Z’s Smile music video, where he loosely references his mother. A lot of Carrie Mae Weems’ work centers on the lives of black femmes, and what’s emphasized are black femmes being the people who tend to do the most emotional and domestic labor—they’re considered the caregivers of their communities. I think that stands out to me in the time of COVID-19 and these protests because a lot of black people are expected to be essential workers, and a lot of black people are being affected by COVID because of class inequality. Black women and femmes are also expected to be the faces of this movement right now, and are supposed to be the ones doing the most efficient work, so I think it’s [Kitchen Table Series] really important right now.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Theresa Chromati for sure! I really love the way that she pays attention to the gaze and also creates these very surreal depictions of black women and black womanhood. Her shapes, her colors, her marks make you really stop…I’m just so inspired by that. I enjoy Betye Saar’s work because she also has this Afro-Surrealist vision. She also talks about everyday blackness by using found objects, collaging them together, and finding new meanings out of them. I enjoy Janiva Ellis‘ work too.
What support systems do you wish were in place for black artists?
First and foremost, I was very lucky to have a family that encouraged me to go into the arts, especially the fine arts. They really believed in me, but I know there are a lot of Black children who really want to go into the arts, and oftentimes, Black people aren’t presented with many options. There are a plethora of options within the art world for black people, and we need more black people here! Schools also need to hire more black art professors and art history professors because, at least for me, I learned about black artists outside of the education I was receiving in school. I think the one time that I had a black painting professor at RISD was when we could talk about artists of color and read black authors. Now and then, a professor will sprinkle in Kerry James Marshall, or a classmate will mention Kehinde Wiley, artists that are very well known, but we don’t hear about artists outside of the five that are constantly mentioned because it’s not taught here. If we could see more black artists, that representation would be important because you can see somebody who pursued the same career path as you have.
It’s true, and we usually hear the same narrative of Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, etc. Of course, I’m not going to discredit their contributions, but I really had to go out of my way to find more contemporary black artists who are currently working because their work is significant. I always thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t find classical art history to be so interesting—I always felt bored by it.
At RISD, I would sit in Crit and think, “am I not smart enough to like this?” We’ve spent so much time talking, delving into, and analyzing the same classical paintings over and over. Why can’t we do the same with more contemporary works so artists can be more prepared to enter the art world once they leave these institutions? It’s also important to have more black people in higher positions in museums and galleries. There needs to be more black gallerists and curators so we can be properly represented in these spaces, and our own spaces.
Even when black people are represented, it’s a very limited representation. I was obsessed with Kehinde Wiley in early college, and I still like his work, but the fact that he’s placing us in these traditional European settings is something I’ve thought differently about. Why do we have to be in that setting when we can imagine new worlds? His work definitely makes me think of respectability politics. His technique is amazing, but I’ve been expecting more from us lately. I want all black artists to create what they want to see, but we need to place more thought into the kinds of narratives we’re upholding.
Black artists shouldn’t have to adopt a European or Western aesthetic to be appreciated. It definitely plays into this respectability politics of making their work palatable for white viewers considering the gallery space and who can afford to come into these institutions. Being able to increase the representation of black artists that range outside of that aesthetic is so important—the more, the merrier!
Where do you see yourself and your practice in the future?
I see myself making bigger works, and hopefully, I’ll be able to have a bigger studio space. Things switched up for me recently, because I didn’t think painting would become a source of income for me, but it’s starting to become that. I’m really grateful for it.
Have you encountered any obstacles as an artist?
I think a lot of the time, I’ve been met with very silent critiques where people didn’t know how to talk about my work conceptually. Usually, people resorted to solely talking about the material rather than digesting what they’re looking at. There’s a discomfort with looking at black bodies in a lot of art spaces, and a lot of black artists internalize that as their art not being good enough, especially if they’re not receiving feedback. Sometimes it takes going outside of your classmates or your school to get that.
Provide a few tips that may be helpful for young artists
Find a network of artists or other like-minded artists. They don’t even have to be visual artists, because it’s important to listen to different perspectives when it comes to creating.
Look at painters that inspire you, analyze their work, and factor that into your practice.
Write about your work. It’s really interesting to write about it and then visualize those thoughts. It’s also helpful to have it later when you start putting your work out there and sharing what it’s about. Doing this has helped me focus on what I want to say with my work as a whole.
Keep believing in yourself and what you are doing! It’s super important to know that you are supposed to be here, and you’re supposed to be creating your work.