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Interview by Jenna Elizabeth all artwork courtesy of Lauryn Levette

“This work has the juice! Beautiful and intimate and urgent. It is an honor to select Lauryn for the ILYSM artist grant.” - ILYSM4Artists Judge, Dustin Yellin

♡:Lauryn! First and foremost congratulations.

LL: Thank you so much 😊

♡:Your work challenges the concept of time and space with the “portal” motif. You’ve created your own dimension which is really exciting to me. It’s very distinctive. COVID and police brutality disproportionally affect Black lives by substantial margins. Your work explores the idea of, “Elsewhere” - a safe place. “Each of these works contains some sort of a portal for the figure to escape in, ready to vanish from the viewers' eyes at any moment.” Can you elaborate on the significance of this theme?

LL: As I’ve developed my practice, I think themes of intimacy and care have really stood out to me, especially when handling Black figures in my work. Throughout art history, there has been a repeated pattern of objectifying Black/Brown bodies while excluding our voices. With this theme I’d like to give the Black folx in my paintings more agency to push back on this archaic motif

♡: I find your use of color to be really interesting, can you talk about your choice of color as it relates to narrative?

Particularly the use of negative space in relation to highlights that often appear in vibrant colors...

LL: Personally, I’m very attracted to color and the way it draws me into a piece. I like to play experiment with my palette and see how it creates a surreal viewing experience

♡: I was really drawn to one of your pieces, “Public v. Private Self” - and was thinking more about that theme as it relates to your work at large as a young artist exploring offline and online identity. I’d love your thoughts on that piece of work and also your relationship with technology?

LL: *to the last question : Lately I’ve been interested in how a black surface enhances the colors and light I use on top of it. Color is also another way I use to define space and guide the viewer’s eye around the piece. I add highlights to parts of a painting I want the viewer to focus on.

♡: Your technique is quite effective, I feel like I’m being guided with your attention in mind 

LL: Thank you! To your last question I’ve been thinking about how society is becoming more digitalized, especially now that we live in a socially distanced world. There’s something intriguing about virtual presence and agency the way we can control how our lives appear to people who interact with our profiles. At the same time algorithms craft our online experience based on our specific interactions with them.

♡: The algorithm is an important note I’m glad you brought that up. Online curated experiences is super fascinating, and conceptually something I’d like to explore more in this interview with some other questions I have...

The titles of your work are compelling, like journal entries of phrases. For example, “either you coming in or staying outside, it’s cold,” or “Each day feels a little more surreal than the last, but I guess that’s a part of adjustment” What is the titling process like for you? Is it an intent you start with or something that’s formulated after you finish constructing your artwork?

LL: I see my artwork as an extension of my thoughts. Sometimes the work may stem from a song, memory, or dream. The titles hint at the origin of the work and sometimes change as I work through the piece

♡: Another aspect of your artist statement I want to rest on is, “With my work I want to emphasize the beauty and chaos of Black ordinary life.” Earlier, I interviewed artist Corey Pemberton and we discussed how “ordinary feel[s] like a luxury.” What does ordinary mean to you?

LL: To me, ordinary is something relatable, something that appears in everyday life. When I talk about the Black ordinary, it’s almost oxymoronic because Black is not considered the standard. I think that’s where the beauty and chaos come from since our version of ordinary is not the status quo by Western society

♡: Questioning what the “standard” is I think relates well with my next point. I think the Black Lives Matter movement is exposing the necessary work needed to move forward in the art world. For instance, in the past 136 years, The Met Opera has never performed the work of a Black Composer (they are scheduling Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” for sometime in 2021-2022). The Guggenheim’s first Black curator, Chaédria LaBouvier wasn’t invited to the panel of her own curated show, "Basquiat’s 'Defacement': The Untold Story.” I think it’s very convenient for many of these institutions to issue a blanket statement saying they are opposed to racism without doing the work and having the necessary conversations about how privilege and exclusion are forms of racism. Or, in the case of the Guggenheim, wanting the work of a Black curator for show, and additionally benefiting from the optics from a PR standpoint, but they did not want her voice amplified or heard. It’s vital to separate PR stunts versus actualization.

But even before an artist has a chance to have their work exhibited at that level, conversations need to be had much earlier. You recently confronted RISD about being silent on racist occurrences with students. I’d like to hear your thoughts about the school’s practices, and use this moment to shed a light on the concerns you have.

LL: I think now is the time to address the school again about the way they’ve continued to mistreat the students that they’ve tokenized over and over again. In March the school urgently shut down campus due to COVID-19 leaving students on their own to figure out where to go. It was up to the students to create a relief fund for the community. RISD dispersed very little funds to students while raising tuition.

Before I came to RISD, there was a movement started by Black students called Not Your Token which emphasized the same concerns I brought up

♡: I appreciate you sharing. Unfortunately, heard similar things from other schools across the country...

LL: Because of Not Your Token there have been more Black/Brown students and faculty brought into RISD but changes are only just beginning to be made.

I think the initial silence from these art institutions is very telling of how much they value Black lives, but I’m not surprised

♡: When looking at the art-world, from an economic perspective, and an expressive outlet it’s fascinating because in many ways it blatantly exposes what white institutions value culturally. At its simplest, curating inherently implies, “LOOK AT THIS, this is worthy of your attention,” this is X artist’s mode of expression, and then generates a monetary value system behind the work. I read an article on Medium that stated in a recent study by Artnet, African American Art accounts for 1.2% of the global auction market, Women 2% ... Additionally, 80% of people represented by NY galleries are white men. I’m curious if the market is something that was ever addressed in your studies in art school?

LL: Ehhh... not enough. Unless you ask your professor about it. I think the only time I’ve discussed it with my class was when we watched the Mona Lisa Curse my sophomore year. I try to do my own research so I can be prepared by the time I graduate

♡: It also made me think of your earlier point relating to the internet - how does the concept of curation translate on social media - directing our attention, and at times increasing biases with algorithm structures... Especially now that a lot of Art is moving online due to COVID response measures, I think it’s even more imperative for leadership in this space. Museums especially have a role in terms of history, and framing narratives - what gets omitted versus literally showcased.

I’ve also been thinking about the luxury of white artists appropriating Black history and work across art mediums. Additionally thinking about privilege as it relates to being able to dip in and out of history when it’s convenient, how we are influenced by Black art, cherry picking references without crediting Black artists. It’s gotten so deep systemically, and the lack of awareness is damaging, it’s erasing culture... What are your thoughts on appropriation?

LL: It’s significant for other cultures and backgrounds to acknowledge each other, but it should be done with respect. In a society structured upon white supremacy, many POC cultures serve as something that can be tried on by their white counterparts and tossed aside when it is no longer convenient. This is also leads to dominant groups reaping the benefits off the backs of marginalized people. Cultural appropriation without respectful boundaries also leads to erasure when one group is bashed for embracing their culture while another is consistently praised for “discovering” it.

♡: Praised for discovery is choice phrasing, in many ways America in a nut shell

LL: Haha I’m glad you caught that

♡: Brilliant

I’d like to circle back to your earlier comment - about exploring “intimacy and care” - something I appreciate about your work is this idea of how art can be tied to wellness both for the person creating and the person viewing the work. How has the theme evolved for you in your work?

LL: Making art is healing to me. I draw as a way to process my emotions and cope with what’s going on in life. But it wasn’t until last year that I asked myself what I really wanted to say with my work or who it was for, besides me. I realized that it’s healing and empowering to see Black folx treated with clear care, thought and intention in artwork. I’d like to instill that in my art for carefree Blackness is another act radicalism

♡:That last sentence is powerful, appreciate that perspective

Through the course of these artist interviews I’ve really enjoyed learning about people’s stories and relationship to art, different awakenings in various stages of life... I’d love to hear more about your background and how you came into your particular choice of medium.

LL: For as long I can remember, I’ve always loved making things and knew I’d be some sort of creative when I grow up. My parents used to take my sister and I to exhibits at the Philadelphia Art Museum which prompted my interest in art history. As I got older I spent a lot of time in downtown Philly taking art classes or wandering around looking at galleries and murals. I intended to become an animator and hopefully create my own cartoon, but there was something about the immediate, physical process of painting that really pulled me in. I hope to be able to combine painting and animation with my works one day, though

♡:That’s cool, I’d love to see your work with a combined animation

That’s great that a love of the arts was championed in your home too. I’m also grateful to come from a home that made an effort to expose me to different art early on

Especially now that so many art programs are cut in schools, to have additional exposure from family and friends is important

In your bio you mentioned you’re graduating next year. A lot of students are rightfully concerned about their future. What have you found to be most helpful in terms of navigating the start of your career, were there any mentors or programs that you have found constructive?

LL: This may be corny lol but believing in myself enough to put my work out there has taken me farther than I expected. I have to thank my high school art teacher Ms Carraciolo for instilling the courage in me to apply to RISD in the first place. While I don’t have many mentors at RISD, my sophomore year professor Jennifer Packer stands out. There aren’t any other black professors in the painting department at my school, so it was very refreshing to be taught by someone who understood me. She really encouraged me to keep pushing with my practice. Despite the uncertainty of what will happen in the fall, I’d like to graduate asap. Still, I’m researching my options for what to do after RISD. I plan on attending a residency that got pushed back to next summer so now I’m wondering where I’ll go after that.

♡: Not corny at all. It’s an integral part to the process, recognizing what you bring to the table versus anyone else and also recognizing one’s own passion. Passion is also key to drive - and then to have the talent matched with deeper encouragement is also vital. As artists I think we have a tendency to go in high and lows in terms of occasionally feeling a sense of doubt. Not necessarily in terms of one’s own talent but in terms of the confidence to keep moving forward and feeling recognized. Mentorship for me, was critical to bounce perspective and feel heard, and continue the process even when it feels overwhelming.

On that note, how can people support you online?

LL: Yup, I’m most active on Tumblr and Instagram and will be taking commissions all summer

♡: Last question, what are three organizations or accounts our readers can join/follow or donate to - that you would like to shed a light on right now?

LL: There are sooo many ways people can help from home! I could name a bunch of organizations lol but the National Bail Fund, Black Visions Collective, and BTFA Black Trans Protestors Emergency Fund

♡: I also urge our readers to do their own additional research!

Lauryn, thank you for your voice and your time. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your work. ❤️

LL: Thank you so much! I really appreciate this opportunity ❤️

Lauryn Levette is a painting student at Rhode Island School of Design, planning to graduate in 2021. Her artwork stems from her interest in Afrosurrealism and the idea of an "Elsewhere" for Black people to freely exist in.