L.A. Based Artist February James Wants Her Art To Encourage Black Women To 'Take Up Space'
June 16, 2022
Independent art curators Racquel Chevremont and Mickalene Thomas opened their third exhibition to the public, titled Set It Off, at the Parrish Art Museum. The showing features 50 artistic pieces by six female artists that feature readymade painting, photography, language, sculpture, and installation combinations.
The theme centered around the concept of doing something extraordinary and meaningful with intensity to change a space for the better. All six featured artists are "setting it off" by creating works that subvert traditional notions of how society views them and pushes the boundaries of their respective mediums.
"We wanted to bring together a group of women who work in a range of media and styles, and whose subject matter spans the personal, historical, and cultural," Chevremont and Thomas said in a press release. "Each was chosen for their unique artistic language—for forging their own path and creating work that transcends traditional formal and art historical structures. These artists have distinct styles that completely set them apart within the artworld."
The duo is committed to shedding light on marginalized voices and their modes of expression, "In light of this, we want to enable artists to conduct sustainable business practices, to have the resources to move confidently through their careers, and to experience a sense of community."
Understanding the challenges women of color face in finding spaces that welcome their perspectives with institutions dominated by white male artists, Chevremont and Mickalene set to forge their path. The women mastered negotiating with galleries, securing funding, organizing exhibitions, and providing career-focused mentorships to artists.
One of the artists they feature in their exhibition is February James, who transitioned from Hollywood makeup artist for the likes of Vivica A. Fox, Kelly Clarkson, Flo Rida, and Justin Timberlake to a prospering multimedia artist.
"I've been painting and drawing forever. Even as a makeup artist, I always kept a sketchbook with my kid and me for downtime on set. The transition to [artist] was really easy once I became pregnant with my son, I knew that I did not want to be on set for 16 to 18 hours anymore," James explains. "I had checked all the boxes I wanted to do for myself goal-wise with a makeup career. So it was just a perfect time to focus on myself; my practice is quite cathartic. So at the same time, as I was becoming a mother, I lost my mother, too; it was a moment to sit down and figure out what was happening with myself in this new role and that segue to paint became very natural."
James started painting when she was a child but became an artist within the last nine years. She uses various mediums to compose her art, but watercolor is her favorite because it reminds her to submit whenever she comes into her studio.
"As a single mom, I have to be in control of schedules and times, and I don't want to carry that into the studio. So when I work with water, I have no control over what happens; it's like I have to allow the thinking to go back and submit to the process and be present," says the L.A.-based artist.
James often delves deeper into the Black identity throughout most of her work, "For me, it's the identity-forming behaviors. That's always where I start at, what happens in the home, within the four walls [and whatever] has been passed down from generations to generations through history and traditions," she says, further explaining that if she is cannot effectively communicate her message through watercolor, she utilizes oils, clay, and sculpture.
"I also work with installations a lot with my shows. The last few shows have always had some type of installation piece. I think it's almost when I think of language and speaking, how one may change the tone of their voice, to get a point across, I've moved through mediums and materials in that way through my practice," she says.
For her installation piece displayed in the Set It Off exhibition, it is intriguingly named These Are My Ghost To Sit With. James says the faces of her subjects lift off the page or canvas and steer her on how to characterize her depictions. For her recent installations, she became reflective while investigating her family structure and the historical context of her ancestors, questioning how her relatives and herself navigate the world. James said she uses her art as a springboard toward healing.
"I'm sitting with them, we're having a conversation, it's in front of me, everything's out on the table, and then I get to redirect how I want things to go in the future," she describes.
Her work also draws upon the concepts of motherhood and the ingenuity of South African artist Marlene Dumas by employing homogeneous techniques to create deeply soul-stirring, emotional, impactful Black figures that captures an aspect of Black continuation.
"I was attracted to Dumas' work just because of the way that she was able to communicate effectively, emotion with so little movement. Looking at her watercolors to get that much emotion that quick, it's almost like a book, a poem, a movie, and a short story. You have so little time to get the effect across; I feel like she does so beautifully," James admirably remarks.
She is ecstatic when asked how she feels about being a part of the exhibition and what it means for Black female artists coming behind her.
"We're taking up space; that was it for me, the way that we are all taken up space, and where we're taking up space that is profound to me."