Lisa Whittington lives in Georgia but is a progeny of Harlem, NY. New York instilled in her a rich sense of art, culture, experience, and drive and taught her to dream and hustle to make them a reality. Growing up in poverty, she learned firsthand how to use what she had. Tenacity was a daily meal. Curiosity quenched her thirst. High up on the rooftop or the windows of the 6thfloor tenement, her eyes would often scan the city far and wide. She could feel the vibrations of the city and it made her soul dance.
Growing up, the music her mother played was always soulful and told the stories of her life and the people in her environment.The birth of Hip Hop, gave her words of expression to fill spaces in her heart that she didn’t understand. Their rhythm and beats would later find their way into her art.
Riding the subway she would watch the expressions of people and that gave her narratives beyond her own struggles. She met humanity on their faces. The graffiti on the street and subway walls were her first museum experience with no admission ticket. She always gave pause to the colors and techniques of street artists because they colored her world and nurtured her love for words. Lisa lived in a tenement home full of people, conflict and trials. When she wasn’t looking out the window she would often find a corner to sit by herself and read, write, and make art out of any little thing she could find.
Far Rockaway High School recognized that Lisa was a Renaissance child and placed her in a Humanities Arts program where her curiosities and skills began to bud and thrive and she began to make connections between art and society. Recognized for her potential, she received a full scholarship to CW Post College.
Her New York education challenged her to spend time in museums and think critically about what she observes.
Lisa is influenced by several artists including Frida Kahlo, Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Picasso, and Romare Bearden. But Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting became the ultimate fore bearer of her will to paint. She stood in front of that painting amazed that wind had color and rhythm. The painting broke the rules of traditional art. Starry Night allowed her to time travel and she loved the feeling staring into the painting gave her. In learning the history of the artist, she remains intrigued how he was overlooked when he was alive.
Her collegiate studies in the Humanities and Art History greatly helped her to see the value in documenting life, culture, history, and experience on canvas. She took a cue from Steven Spielberg who documented and packaged the history of his people in a creative film called Schindler’s List. As an artist and a African American, she felt it was important to document the narratives and history of her own culture and have them preserved on museum walls for generations to come so the stories of Black people as well as her own life are told.
Lisa’s work is historic, emotional, political, and symbolic and embedded with autobiographical and spiritual references. She has evolved into a collagist storytelling painter.
She is a muse to several artists and photographers.
In 2017, Lisa was sought out by NBC News to give her conjecture on Dana Shultz’ Open Casket painting of Emmett Till and
the protest that took place at the Whitney Museum at the Whitney Biennial and to discuss her own process of painting Emmett Till. The Reece Museum in Tennessee also hosted Lisa to discuss racism and social justice in the arts.
Always keeping in mind the power of art education in her life, Lisa chose to make a masterpiece of teaching art. Disturbed by the conditions of Art Education in inner city schools, Lisa Whittington earned her doctorate at the University of Georgia in 2014 and conducted research that would improve the quality of art education for children living in impoverished communities around the nation. Dr. Whittington has also taught Humanities Arts at several universities, including courses such as Feminists Arts, Giants of the Arts, Visual and Media Literacy.
Lisa is also a speaker and delivered an inspiring TED talk entitled “What Does Art Want With You?” Dr. Lisa Whittington is a unique and passionate artist and is currently searching for the right gallery to represent her work.
Hello Lisa! How did it all start for you?
Lisa: I was a child growing up in NYC and could not go outside so I used to look out the window or go onto the roof to walk my dog. My senses were very aware. I was intrigued with observing what I would see from my point of view from the window, the fire escapes, and the roof. Walking the streets and riding the subway was always an experience. My eyes were always on tour. What kind of graffiti will I see? What kind of textures, colors, shapes and patterns will I see on the streets and the faces of the people? The subway trains, busses, and streets of NYC became my first museum experience as a viewer. There was a lot of culture to take in and in that I still was discovering who I was. When I would get home I always felt misunderstood and I didn’t know how to express myself because expression was not taught in my household, but I always felt so at home and at peace with art. Whether I was reading about it in a book, in class or making something, in the presence of art is where I always felt I belonged. I could communicate with my materials and what was going on in my heart and my head. I went through a lot of downs and ups and whatever I went through, I turned around and art was always there, giving me a vehicle for expression whether I was viewing art or making it. Each occurrence strengthened me and pointed me in the direction of self discovery. At one point I didn’t know what traditional art materials were. I would just use whatever I had at home to make things. I learned to make art out of whatever I had in my heart and in my hands. My mind was always open to learn more about art and do different things with it.
Describe a typical day in the life of Lisa Whittington.
Lisa: I wake up in the morning deciding what I want to get accomplished and make a pact not to get back in the bed until it’s done. A typical day for me includes teaching art and encouraging young people. Teaching art to me is just as important as making art. The more I teach, the better I become as an artist. The more you teach, the more you learn. I also have a passion for people and helping people get on track. I remember how important art was to me as a child and how it saved my life. I was fortunate. So I spend a lot of time talking about art with young people and coaching them to be great creators and expressionists. It is important to me to feed their minds and enhance their skills because I know the challenges that life can bring them. I want them to feel empowered when they do face any challenge. By late afternoon, I’m switching studios. I go to my personal studio and analyze the art on my walls and the art in progress and jump in to developing my own work. I also spend time researching, looking through books, looking at documentaries and the news. I have to know and understand what is going on in the world. Sometimes things jump out at me and move me and I start developing ideas towards an issue. When things are going bad in the world and there is news of another tragic event in the Black community I may get agitated and consumed with the story. When that happens I will work on some abstract painting to bring my mind down and level out my emotions. My mind is always going and always on. Art is the great equalizer. On the weekends, it’s not unusual for me to be up 24 hours in the studio. When I enter that “Art Zone” which usually hits in the middle of the night, I give in to the moment.
Can you tell me more about your working methods? You say your work mainly narrates the history, attitude, spirit, and mood of African Americans. Please tell me more about that.
Lisa: I’m methodical. I do abstracts then figurative then abstract. I work on several artworks at a time but I always start with abstracts and finish with abstracts and the figurative work/collaging work/narrative work is done in between. Abstract artwork is like a drug. It calms me down and massages my thinking. It levels out my mind and gets me on track. Art is like going to a therapist. I have a canvas where I dump everything on my mind devoid of rules and processes and just go. This prepares me for the other projects I am working on.
When I get ready to work, all of my colors are categorically lined up waiting for me to begin so that in the process of creation, I don’t have to break my mindset to look for a color I need. When I leave my studio, I wash and line up my brushes and organize my paint colors because I know when I come back to the studio I’m ready to jump in.
The music has to be right. Lots of rhythm and pattern and soul in the air. Sometimes on occasion it’s complete silence. So either I am dancing with the art or in conference with the art. It is definitely a relationship.
My heart of my work and my job as an artist is to narrate the history, attitude, spirit and mood of African Americans. I understand what it is like to be a Black person. I know what we think and how we feel as a whole. I also have a terminal degree in art and skills as an artist. W.E.B Dubois refers to people like me as the talented tenth. The Talented Tenth is a term that designates a leadership class of African Americans. I have a responsibility to my culture to know what is going on and document our truths the best way I can.
As I walk through museums I don’t see much artwork at all that narrates the stories of African Americans. That bothers me to know these stories are being suppressed in history books as well as the walls of the museums. It’s disturbing. So I have taken on that responsibility to do what I can in my lifetime. Sometimes I get frustrated and overwhelmed because it seems that I can’t create fast enough for all that is happening and has happened. Sometimes as I am researching, watching documentaries, looking at books and newspapers, I come across pictures of Black people. I look at them and I think about them being somebody. A real human being. So many of my African American ancestors did not have a voice. So many died unknown and died not even sure of what day or year they were born. But when I see pictures of them, I know they were somebody. And sometimes their picture stares back at me compelling me to show the world that they too were somebody. My ancestors were beaten, raped, lynched, forced to work and live like animals. But through it all, Black people still found joy, reasons to live and to keep going. There is something bigger at work driving Black people. The resilience of African American people is amazing to me. And to be born into such an amazing culture of people is an honor. It’s not easy, but I take honor and pride into documenting these narratives and histories of my people. I just keep thinking that somebody did not value their life because of the color of their skin. How did they die? What happened to them? What did they endure? What was their life like? So many Black people were laid in unmarked graves, were taken from their families, forced to do things that were inhuman. Lynched from trees before crowds of hateful jeering people. Did they feel love? Did they feel like God could hear them? Were they scared. Did they feel like their life mattered? My art gives them dignity. My art tells the world that their life meant something.
As an African American, to see people that look like me on a daily basis being shot, killed, lynched and facing injustice affects my day. It affects my art. It affects my heart. I don’t feel like I have the leisure or the luxury to paint basic things. The art world is one of the vehicles used in society to pass stories and history on to the next generation. Our stories are not on the walls very much. I have to help to tell those stories and help to change that.
I love you painting titled “The Day that George Floyd Died”. How did you feel when painting it? Did you just decide to paint, or was it something else?
Lisa: I needed to respond emotionally and mentally to the death of George Floyd. There were so many emotions going on. The energy in the air felt different. I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I know I had to do something. I was angry. I was frustrated. I was sad. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t want to just paint a portrait of George. There was something deeper going on. Protests were taking place all over the country. I could go to the protest or I could document something about that day. I wrestled with myself and decided to stay home and paint. James Baldwin said “artists are here to disturb the peace.” I’m an artist and I have to do my job. I was angry. Everybody around me was angry. What could I do with that energy besides pacing the house? Stuck in the house in quarantine and I needed to do something. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about George Floyd. I couldn’t stop thinking about the look in Derek Chauvin’s eye as he had his knee on George Floyd neck as George transitioned from life to death. George cried out. People on the streets were crying out for George’s life. While all this was going on–what was Heaven doing? I felt antsy. I started looking for ideas and I started sketching, and transferred the sketch to canvas. I started looking through an art book on Gustav Klimt and became inspired. It was just what I needed to direct me. I developed ideas based on his composition and style that would help me to tell the story I needed to tell.
I believe that there was a bigger cloud of witnesses in every shade and color crying out in song as they also witnessed what happened from a heavenly realm. The whole world and all of heaven paused that day that George Floyd died.
Do you have any favorite artists?
Lisa: I do. You might see their influence on my work. My favorite artists are Van Gogh, Basquiat, Keith Haring, Pablo Picasso, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Frida Kahlo. Each of these artists’ histories and art influence my work in different ways. Frida Kahlo reminds me to write my autobiography in paint. Pablo Picasso encourages me to experiment with different styles and remain confident. Jacob Lawrence reminds me of the importance of documenting the history of Black people as it is witnessed. Romare Bearden shapes the way I approach collage and gives me another vehicle for expression. Basquiat guides my brush language and the way I use paint to communicate. Keith Haring influences my system of symbols in my work. Van Gogh is my ultimate favorite and encourages me to keep going, break the rules and that even though other artists may be selling more work than me to stay my course and not give up when other people don’t believe in you because sometimes you are ahead of your own time. Sometimes my work winds up being a fusion of their influence.
How did you first begin to develop your unique style?
Lisa: Education and experience. I read, study, and observe other artists and their history and experiences. They taught me how to be free and not be afraid to experiment and break the rules. They taught me to give people something to think about, not just something to look at. So I am forever evolving. Learning and pushing myself. Experimenting. Henri Matisse said that “Art takes courage.” I had to find my courage and know that some people may not like my art and some people may love my art. My Emmett Till painting, which is now sitting in a museum collection, was once called ugly. I loved the painting but she called it ugly. She was a “curator.” But I knew she didn’t know much about art. Art is not supposed to always be about a thing of beauty. Emmett Till was a beautiful boy that had something ugly happen to him. His mother wanted his story told. Who was I not to oblige? But I kept my work to myself. For years I painted in the shadows and did not show anyone my work because I was not painting like everyone else. I felt so misunderstood but still felt comfortable in the face of my work. It wasn’t about the money. But one day I felt the urge to go to Paris and see Van Gogh and spend time in front of his art. I did that. I flew to Paris and went to every museum and sat in the middle of the floor just staring at the artwork. I walked to the places where Van Gogh painted and lived and just soaked in the energy. That trip was life changing for me. I came back with my artistic license and that was when I decided I would start to show my work. I knew it would be a harder road because I’m black and I’m female, but…. I forged ahead. I felt that I had all of the artists that came before me cheering me on. Cheering me on to be myself but to lean on their art when I needed to. It was a very different feeling that I can’t explain. But I came back to the United States from Paris with my artistic license prepared to be who I am as an artist. When I got back I took all of my artwork and put it in one room and just stared at it. I saw that I did have a voice and I did have a style and a passion. I saw things I didn’t see before. Then I began painting with more purpose and meaning. I don’t create art that pleases people. I create art that pleases my soul.
Abstract art evokes a lot of emotions through color and composition. Can you tell us how you use color and composition to evoke emotion in your pieces?
Lisa: There are always little substories in the bigger story. Most of my abstract work is not planned it is developed along the way. It starts by dumping a thought onto the canvas and it grows from there. I take all the actions in my mind–the thoughts, the prayers, the affirmations, the songs, the worries, the feelings, the things that were said, responses, the things I saw, my self talk—- and it comes out on the canvas into what I call a brew. It develops in layers organically. It’s not until I have everything out of my mind before the composition starts to form. It might take a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, or a few months. When I see the brew start to form from my ‘mind dump’ then I start to shape and form it into a composition. I have an artwork called “Bitches Brew” which is an example of that approach. I also use a lot of symbolism in my work. Symbolism happens in color as well as shape. Even though I don’t mean to, when I look at my work I have made the choice to use complementary color relationships in certain areas so the thought does not get lost in translation. Every thought and every stroke has value.
Pthalo blue is one of my favorite colors to use because it is such a strong color and is so versatile in the thought process.
What is the most challenging part about creating abstract art?
Abstraction is the purest form creativity. It’s like a bird. Birds don’t land unless the environment and the energy is right. You can’t have elements in the environment that will scare the bird off. The hardest part is getting your environment and your energy right so that bird will land. When the bird does land, the purpose of the bird’s arrival is an invitation for the artist to take off and fly. Abstraction requires you to trust yourself and get from under structure and rules and what everyone else is doing. It requires you to let go so you can fly. Birds are easily scared off and will fly away if the environment and energy is not right. Abstraction requires you to fly with your very own wings.
What are your future goals and ambitions as an artist?
Lisa: My goals and ambitions include putting my art to work permanently on the walls of museums and galleries. Each artwork I create is born with an assignment. To tell a story and to enlighten the world. Understanding can help bring the world together. When we understand each other and respect each other we can get on a path of healing. My artwork is here to bring understanding. My goal is to get that artwork to places where it can make an impact and into the hands of people who also have the same goal.
I have my sights set on world class shows like the Venice Biennale, and the NY Armory Show.
Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask?
Lisa: Artists in museums are 87% white and 85% female. Less than 1% of artwork on museum walls represent Black women. Black women are at the bottom of the barrel. That’s frustrating. It’s an issue. It’s frustrating to know that my work will be overlooked and not considered most of the time. But I have use resilience and determination to keep going and stay hopeful that those kind of things will change.
To find out more about Lisa and her art, please make sure to check: