Courtesy of Vermont Studio Center
When Grace Lynne Haynes was an art student, her portrait teacher gave her a simple project: Painting a Friend. As she worked on her subject’s skin – a color similar to hers – Haynes came to a startling realization. She didn’t know how.
“I could paint [white] skin beautifully, nailing down all the different undertones, “Haynes told ELLE.com over the phone.” But I haven’t learned to paint skin black with the same complexities.
In an act of rebellion, as she recounts, Haynes began experimenting with flat female figures in a single shade of black. The result was a series of abstract works celebrating black beauty, while exposing an educational system it had lacked.
Portraits became his signature, launching Haynes headfirst into the art world. The 27-year-old has already conceived two New Yorker covers this year, including a much-loved rendition of Sojourner Truth wrapped in millennial pink and mint green to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. She is now preparing an exhibition at the famous Luce Gallery in Turin and a solo booth at the Armory Show in New York next spring.
It’s a whirlwind moment for Haynes, who has reservations about his meteoric rise to the top. “Black women in the art world can be symbolized”, she says. “Art has a habit of becoming fashionable, whether it’s black art or female art, and the industry likes to jump on bandwagons. Then, when the trend is over, the artist suffers.
Below, Haynes talks about what it means to be a black artist in 2020 and takes us through her creative process.
You said your style developed out of necessity. How are you working to change the standards in arts education?
I am very grateful to the artists who came before me, like Carrie Mae Weems, Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker and Elizabeth Catlett. They all helped pave the way. These artists are all extremely talented and so present, but I have never heard of them in my art history classes. There are actually quite a few black female artists who are not seen as artists that institutions can learn from. I have a real problem with this exclusion. Often they are placed in a separate category, not seen as a full-fledged artistic being whose work is not limited to race.
You have chosen to focus on the undertones of black femininity. What do you think about when you paint?
I’ve always had a passionate interest in feminism and how women of color are excluded from this conversation. There is a linear model used to express black femininity in mainstream media that I love to challenge. I want to break it and create a new reality. When I put the brush on the canvas I think of things like: Who are black women when we are in safe spaces? What Kind of Protection Do Black Women Need? And what does feminism mean to black women?
How has your perspective on art and beauty changed in 2020?
Nina Simone once said: “It is the artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.” I agree. It’s my job as an artist to reflect what’s going on in our world right now, so I’m constantly thinking about what my work will mean in years to come. I hope people will understand the times I was creating. Black femininity is constantly taking new forms. We are also in a time when, for the first time in history, women are empowered to pursue their passions and pursue careers that were not available to us before. I want the black woman’s perspective to be part of this conversation.
You use colors to tell stories and to send messages. What do you hope people see in your portraits?
In Western society, dark and light are often at odds. Light generally represents good and pure in nature, while darkness is sinister and evil. I challenge this notion by showing that darkness and light can exist together coherently in a single image. The black in the picture is not bad, but it is the central tone of my work. My dark female figures represent elegance, beauty and tranquility. The light colors surrounding the figure create a contrast that elevates it. From a young age I have noticed that the darker you are, the less feminine you are seen. I show a safe haven for the darkness and unspoiled purity of the world.
Women in your paintings are often depicted in safe spaces, such as lying on beds or sitting by windows. Is it on purpose?
It is taken for granted that black women are strong, independent and intelligent, but we are also feminine, nurturing and gentle. This side of our femininity is often erased, and I want to show the world that the black woman can represent femininity and sensuality. My own journey as a black woman centers around embracing my sweetness and vulnerability, and not feeling like a great woman all the time.
Where do you find inspiration?
Nature, people-watching in New York, and high-end fashion shows. I particularly admire the work of Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino de Valentino, who made history last year with his haute couture show. [featuring more than 30 models of color, most of whom were Black]. It made me feel something, because it was so authentic.
You work in a small studio in Newark, New Jersey. Can you explain your creation process to us?
I put on my favorite dark jeans and my lucky paint sweater – it’s gray, but you can’t really tell because of all the paint splatter. I’m listening to either a Toni Morrison audiobook or the 1960 Miles Davis album “Sketches of Spain”. We can’t travel right now, of course, because of the coronavirus, but songs like “Concierto De Aranjuez” make me dream of being far away. I usually start by looking for the perfect pose for the figure I will be painting. For that, I look at fashion magazines for inspiration. I also look at social media posts. Once I decide on my character’s pose, I start to think about the environment she would work in best. I play with composition and color before starting to work on the painting. This way I have an idea of what I’m aiming for.
The eyes of my paintings are pasted from magazines. I love to take a material object out of context and apply it to my paintings. It excites my creativity, as I can push the boundaries of my work with new layers. The elements of surprise are such a fun way to interact with people.
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