Interview By Tia Williams
InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer and trans community—everyone from artists to activists. Each month ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This month ELIXHER spotlights Philly-based artist C.A. Nelson.
ELIXHER: Tell us about yourself.
C.A.: I am 30 years young, born and raised in Chicago to a Black [American] woman and African man. I am a painter, lover of words, and all things art. I recently moved to Philadelphia to obtain my MFA in studio art from the University of the Arts. I’m obsessed with honey and bananas.
ELIXHER: As a child, what did you dream of being when you grew up?
C.A.: [Laughs.] Well, when I was a child I originally wanted to be a clown because I loved seeing people smile but I could find no solution to the conflict those dreams had with my then crippling fear of clowns. I eventually changed it to a cop. I had an obsession with guns and well…cops could carry guns. That didn’t last long. Around the age of 9 or 10 all I wanted to do was draw, paint, and play my recorder (the musical instrument) and decided that’s pretty much what life should be like all the time.
ELIXHER: We imagine art played a major part in your upbringing. With the disappearance of music and the arts in schools, how would you say this affects today’s youth? How do you think we can integrate art back into the curriculum?
C.A.: Yes, it did. Both of my parents are artistic and crafty. My mother is officially “Mom Villa” or “Mama Stewart” depending on the project.
Youth today who don’t get the experience of having an art and/ or music class while in school are being deprived of developmental opportunities that will aid them throughout life. Art and music help with decision-making, dexterity, development of language, visual-spatial skills, academics; I could give you an entire list of the benefits. I think re-integrating art back into the curriculum isn’t difficult. The difficult part is convincing the powers that be who make the decisions regarding program funding in schools that art and music is just as important/beneficial to their development as math and science.
ELIXHER: Where did your walk with art begin?
C.A.: [Smiles.] I always tell this story. It started when I was two. I was potty-training at the time. My mother said that I called her into my room to show her my picture. She gave me a strange look because she knew that all my drawing utensils were in a box in the kitchen. In she walked and there was my masterpiece drawn all over the walls as far and wide as my arms would allow. “See Mah, see!” I was so proud! I had the urge to draw/paint so I used my potty donations as a source of pigment. She proclaims that was the moment when she knew I would be an artist.
ELIXHER: You choose to create pieces that create strong uncomfortable emotions. You focus on various social issues that affect women. Why do you feel this is important?
C.A.: I do this to induce an emotional dialogue with the viewer. It is the actual lived experience of those issues that propels me to explore those ideas in my pieces.
ELIXHER: Tell us about the most significant response you’ve received about your art. What has stuck with you the most?
C.A.: Before moving to Philly, I volunteered as a teaching artist for children at an art center in the North Lawndale area of Chicago. There I had the opportunity to work with one of the most intelligent and talented 4-year-olds I’ve ever met. Christian. He asked to see a painting I “pictured.” I pulled out my phone and showed him a self-portrait. His eyes widened and said, “That looks like you! That’s you! I wanna to draw myself like a mirror. I wanna draw mirror pictures like you. Imma draw like you by the time I get this [him motioning as tall as his little arms would stretch] big.”
An art teacher in undergrad told me once to “be the artist now that I want to be in 10 years.” I return to that statement whenever I feel stagnant or doubt my abilities.
ELIXHER: What medium do you enjoy most to create in? Why?
C.A.: Oil. I love tactile and textural imagery. With oil, I can capture the energy and emotion I had the moment I made each mark on the canvas/surface.
ELIXHER: Does your art imitate your life?
C.A.: It does. My paintings are my visual responses to things in life that negatively affect me (and those like me).
ELIXHER: Tell us about an elder that has touched your life.
C.A.: She wouldn’t like me referring to her as an “elder” but it would honestly have to be my mother. She is my favorite person. She has been an unlimited source of encouragement my entire life. If I had an interest to do anything, she never questioned “Why?” She only asked, “How soon do you want to start?” and “How often do you want to do it?”
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
C.A.: Growing up, I used to feel like that shirt on the clearance rack that looks awesome but never fits correctly and is always priced 90% below the original price, because of a design mistake. When I discovered that being Black and queer was okay and there was a community of folks like me, I flipped. I think I heard hymnal music and I could’ve sworn some clouds opened up in the ceiling.
I am proud to be a part of a community that has made it possible for me to walk comfortably in my own skin and not feel like a design flaw.
Also, have you seen the plethora of beautiful, intelligent, talented folks in our community; how can you not be proud to be a part of that?
ELIXHER: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
C.A.: Finishing graduate school is the current goal. Hopefully the collective, T.I.T.S: Transcending Individual Thoughts of Self, I am apart of will have shown in at least 10 shows by then. And working on opening my own art center. The center would provide free art/art history and music theory courses to children and gallery spaces, instruments, and performance stages where they can display their work as well as showcase their musical talents.
To learn more about C.A. Nelson and view her art portfolio, visit www.rootsofjoy.com.
Tia N. Williams is the woman behind The Buddha In Me, an agency of artists, speakers, poets, and activists based in Atlanta. The Buddha In Me specializes in providing quality programs to educate, enlighten, and entertain. Tia recently received her M.Ed. from the University of Georgia in College Student Affairs Administration.