Synthia St. James is truly one of the luminaries of the art world. Since St. James’ career as an artist began in 1969 she has completed more than 40 commissioned works for individuals and organizations ranging from The Los Angeles Women’s Foundation to prominent attorney Johnnie Cochran. Her art has been utilized in a number of promotional campaigns for major corporations including Royal Caribbean International, Liberty Mutual and Seagram’s.
Known for her bold and colorful style, St. James’ artwork has appeared on the covers of many books, including works by Alice Walker, Terry McMillan and Julia Boyd. In 1997, she was chosen by the United States Postal Service to create the first Kwanzaa stamp.
St. James also has written more than a dozen children’s books. Her pieces have been featured in galleries worldwide, and she has received numerous awards, including a 1997 Coretta Scott King Honor and a Parent’s Choice Silver Honor for her children’s book Sunday.
Ms. St. James’ art deals extensively with historical figures and cultures around the world. Diversity MBA Magazine thought she would be perfect for our Art & Culture digital issue, especially as it is coming out during Black History Month. She was gracious enough to send us images of several of her paintings and to submit to a Q&A with us.
Q. We are focusing on Black history (this being Black History Month) and it’s clear that history had been an important focus of your work. For instance, you have done works depicting Black historical figures such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. What do you see as the relationship between art and history?
A. So interesting that you should ask. Within the past few years I realized that the term “visual historian” could be added to the adjectives used to describe me, without my conscious intention. In most cases an inspiration impels me to create a painting – with Dr. King and Obama – excitement and the desire to celebrate their accomplishments or legacy.
With Nelson Mandela – creating a painting for his Lifetime Achievement Award from Africare, an honor.
Visual artists essentially record history through their paintings, mural designs, stained glass and other mediums, and have since the beginning of time.
Q. In this collection you sent us, you also have paintings with historical references – e.g. Madame C.J. Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. Please explain why it was important to pay homage to these historical figures in your art.
A. I was initially intrigued with Madam C.J. Walker’s life story after reading “The Black Rose” by Tananarive Due nearly 20 years ago. The inspiration lingered and urgently resurfaced while watching “Self Made.” So I paused the series I was working on and paid tribute.
With Zora Neale Hurston, a similar impetus. Seeing the brilliant play “Letters From Zora” by Gabrielle Pina, in which Vanessa Bell Calloway captured Zora’s spirit magnificently. After the play I asked and received photos from Vanessa and commenced work on the painting the next day.
I felt compelled to create both paintings with the hope that the visual homage would help to secure their places in herstory – in time – and that our young ladies and girls would be inspired to learn more about them. My hope: that our youth would be inspired to listen to that little voice inside – and pursue their dreams and aspirations.
Q. Besides history, you also portray culture around the world with your art. The collection you sent us, for instance, reflect the culture of Trinidad, Haiti and China. Does art contribute to cultural understanding? How so?
A. I’ve been drawn to the various cultures that make up our world since childhood. That intrigue easily translated into a focus in many of my paintings.
Yes, art does contribute to cultural understanding. In learning about other cultures, we would be easily fascinated by our differences and genuinely amazed by our similarities.
Q. What else do you want viewers to understand about this collection and about your art?
A. In my selection of paintings I sought to share the multicultural aspect of my art – with an emphasis on Black historical figures in celebration of Black History Month.
Experiencing a positive emotion – such as joy, excitement, pride, serenity or emotional healing – my hope for the viewers.
For more visit her website: https://www.AtelierSynthiaSAINTJAMES.com