Job description: Painter, illustrator, curator & Executive Director at BX200.com
In addition to painting sacred images from various sacred traditions, Laura James
portrays women, families, and scenes of everyday life. Represented by Bridgeman
Images for more than a decade, her work has been published in hundreds of
publications and media. She lives and works in the Bronx, NY, and is the co-creator of
BX200 Bronx Visual Artist Directory, a website featuring portfolios by 200 professional
Describe your work.
I make paintings of people, mostly women. I also make icons of
sacred images from different traditions in the Ethiopian Christian Art style. I paint on
canvas and wood, I like to make and paint my frames sometimes. I’m a self-taught
artist, the work is figurative. I like design, patterns and lots of details.
What are you currently working on?
I work mostly on commission, right now I am finishing up a piece that will be presented as a special gift in a few weeks and it’s a surprise so I can’t say what organization it was painted for! I am also working on illustrations for my second children’s book, Boonoonoos Hair, written by Olive Senior and published by Tradewinds Books (I’m working on it Mike!). I recently finished a commission for Hatchette Books, illustrating the 46 Parables of Jesus for an adult coloring book, available January 3, 2017.
I understand you curate as well. What are some of the shows you have put together in the past? Any plans for future shows?
Yes, the last show I co-curated was Bronx Now with Eileen Walsh at Temporary
Storage Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was an exhibition of the work of thirty artists
with portfolios on the BX200 website. BX200, Bronx Visual Artist Directory is a site that I co-founded and run, it’s a curated collection of portfolios from 200 professional visual artists living or working in the Bronx. I’ve curated many exhibits in the past, including an installment of Guerillas in the Midst, the show that’s up now at Rush Arts Philly. The next exhibition I’ll be co-curating, again with Eileen, will be a retrospective of New York graffiti artists TATS CRU at BronxArtSpace in May 2017.
What kind of creative patterns, routines or rituals do you have?
Well, when I make sacred images I like to research the subject as much as possible. I
like to tell the story as closely as described in a sacred text as possible, I don’t like to
put my own spin on things because I know that people revere their holy figures, and I
have respect for that. Sacred stories tend to have fantastic imagery, so there’s usually a
lot of elements I can choose from to include in a piece. I like to look at pictures of how
other people have rendered sacred figures, and I try not to repeat things that I’ve seen, I
like to do it differently.
I try to make paintings that have meaning. I think for a long time about what I want the
image to convey, and most often come up with the title first, it helps to keep me focused
on telling the story. I have a lot of different books: books of photography, books with
paintings, auction catalogs from the Strand. I like to look at pictures, it helps me to feel
connected to a larger continuum of art making.
What’s your art background?
Well, I was accepted at LaGuardia High School for instrumental, vocal music and visual
art, and went for vocal music my freshman year. Singing every day got boring pretty
quickly, and I changed to visual art my sophomore year. Really I wasn’t into school at
all, and ended going to City-As-School, a high school where students earn credits by
working ‘in the real world.’ I interned with a couple of professional photographers and
photography labs. After high school I worked at A Photographer’s Place bookstore in
SoHo for a year, and then my last regular job was with a private art gallery in Chelsea. I
learned a lot from all of these experiences. Beyond that, I am self-taught, I fell into
making art professionally sort of by accident. I was originally inspired by a book,
Ethiopian Magic Scrolls, tried my hand at painting, and was good at it and able to sell
my work early on, and just kept at it. And I was an artist in a past life, so I brought some
of my talent from that time.
I was lucky to have my work available through Bridgman Images early on in my career.
Basically they sold image rights for my existing paintings, so my work is used to
illustrate different things without me having to paint something particular for a publisher.
Working with Bridgeman Images and licensing images for
publication also got my work in front of an international audience.
What’s inspiring you?
I’m inspired by young people. I’m in my forties and have 3 children in their early 20s
who think they can do anything. I love that. I like to feel like I can do anything too.
What are you trying to communicate with your art?
I like to make images that are pleasing to the eye, but have a deeper meaning. Like
Property (From the Collection) Of a Gentleman from my ongoing series Nannies and
Other Mothers. It’s a painting showing a maid who’s thinking about her daughter while
she’s cleaning the overpriced possessions of her employer. I want my work to be
thoughtful, but also something you can look at all the time. I’m not into beating people
over the head with my ideas, I like to be subtle about it.
What is one of the biggest challenges you face as an artist?
Time to do everything I want to do. I love painting, and frankly I have to paint, and work
in my studio to make a living, because that’s the only paying job I have! But over the
past couple of years I’ve been developing other art projects, and working with different
artists to help promote their work. I need a few more hours in the day to get everything
What do you dislike about your work?
I don’t like that it takes so long for me to complete a piece! It’s a bit easier with the sacred work, but I use tiny brushes, and there are many layers of paint, so it takes a lot of time.
What is your dream project?
Honestly, I can’t think of anything fantastic, or extraordinary I would call a ‘dream
project.’ After years of working on commission, I would just like a chance to make a
painting for the hell of it. The last two paintings I did just because I wanted to were
Coal Goddess, and then Self-Portrait as Frida Khalo. I am very gratefully to work on
commission, but I would like some time to even think about my next painting project.
What are a few favorite spots in your area?
I live nearby the New York Botanical Garden, it’s a beautiful and peaceful place to visit
all year round. The Bronx River Art Center is three blocks away, they’re an organization
that has been under renovation for what seems like forever but it’s almost done, I am
looking forward to going there to see exhibitions. I am really looking forward to seeing
them come back bigger and better.
What are you reading?
Right now I’m reading The Pain Tree, a book of short stories by Olive Senior. She gave me a copy last month when I met her for the first time in New York. It’s a book of short stories, mostly set in Jamaica, and it is an excellent book.
Favorite authors, fiction:
I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. The idea of sitting in my house and reading a book seems so weird. I’ve started to read again though, on the subway. Growing up the library was the only place my parents would let us go on our own. Thankfully the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Eastern Parkway was our library, so we read a lot. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Anne Petry, everyone’s favorites, I know, but Song of Solomon, Another Country and The Street still the best books I’ve ever read.
Favorite authors, nonfiction:
I’m still loving the History of White People by Nell Painter, I think everyone should read this book, there’s a lot we take for granted as fact that is simply not true, it’s not even our fault because we’re not taught certain things by design; but the beauty of reading books is that we can find out all the stuff we’re not supposed to know.
What are you listening to these days?
Still listening to old favorites, Miriam Makeba, Olatunji for good energy. I have Playlists that I’ve been listening to for years, my music. Everything from Joni Mitchell to Drake. My daughter tells me I need to check out the new Solange album, going to get on that.
What was the last show you attended?
Actually the last concert I went to, I helped to present. It was the Mi Gente! Latinx Music Festival, this past August here in the Bronx. I heard the Afro-Columbian group Bulla en el Barrio perform for the first time and I’m obsessed. Patiently waiting for their first album.
What was the last exhibit you attended?
The last show I saw was In the South Bronx of America, an exhibition of photographs by Mel Rosenthal taken between the mid-70s and early 80s. I’ve lived in the Bronx for 13 years, but grew up in Bed-Stuy, and Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. I saw the show with two of my sisters, the photos in the exhibit reminded us all of our childhood, they were beautiful.
What was the first piece of artwork you bought? Do you buy a lot of artwork?
I think the first piece of artwork I bought was from an artist friend, Beatrice Coron, she
cuts paper. A beautiful piece at a great price. I like to buy work on paper, photographs
and prints whenever I can. If you’re able, it’s important to buy art.