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The Creative World of Synthia SAINT JAMES - NEWS

The Creative World of Synthia SAINT JAMES By Shirley Hawkins | OW Staff Writer | Los Angeles artist is acclaimed internationally Los Angeles, CA -- The vibrant colors leap from the canvas in a breathtaking array of hues that capture the strong, proud portraits of the African American experience and the many cultures of the world. The joyful, compelling paintings that exhibit clear lines and an intense use of color are the work of Los Angeles based artist Synthia Saint James, who has garnered global acclaim with her striking artwork that is displayed at corporations, schools, universities, museums, and organizations. The petite, modest woman paints from a sun dappled old Spanish duplex in Los Feliz. “One of the back bedrooms has been converted into a studio where I work. There’s a sliding door window where I can let all the light in. It’s very peaceful,” said Saint James. But Saint James possesses an incredible work ethic that is almost unmatched. She has emerged as a global brand that could be compared to the Oprah Winfrey of the art world. Not only is Saint James a painter, but she is also a children’s book illustrator and author, commissioned artist and architectural designer. Saint James’ paintings are regularly commissioned and snapped up by corporations and private homes around the world. Among her many accomplishments, the tireless Saint James has, to date, written and or illustrated 22 books, and was the selected cover artist for over 60 books. On the national scene, the artist was chosen to create the first Kwanzaa stamp for the United States Postal Service. “That was an incredible honor,” said Saint James. “I was overwhelmed.” And her unique style has attracted a coterie of celebrity clients, including the late Richard Pryor, who purchased five of her paintings for his Bel Air home. Her work also hangs in the collections of such high-profile personalities as Alice Walker, Tavis Smiley, Glynn Turman, Randy Crawford, Terry McMillan, Danny Glover and Earl Graves, Jr. Admirers have always remarked on the artist’s bold use of color. “When I go to art supply stores, those are the colors I gravitate to,” revealed Saint James. It’s been a long road for the world-renowned artist, who revealed that despite obstacles in her way, she never gave up on her dream to paint. “I wanted to become an artist since the age of five.” Saint James not only celebrated her 60th birthday this year, but reached a 40 year milestone as a professional artist. The artist was honored in 2008 with the “Woman of the Year” award from California’s 26th Senate District, and was delighted and overwhelmed when she received an early birthday present—Barnes and Noble, the largest bookselling chain in the country, tapped Saint James’ artwork to be featured in 800 stores and on their website in honor of Black History Month. One of Saint James’ latest inspirations was the election of president Barack Obama. In honor of the country’s first Black president, Saint James created a work entitled “Fire Rainbow Obama.” The artist said she was incredibly moved and overwhelmed when Obama was elected to the highest office in the land. “The most inspiring Obama moment for me was when I saw the reaction to Obama’s election all over the world,” Saint James reflects. “Just watching and experiencing those tears of joy, the yells and screams of people from all around the globe. There has never been a president who elicited that kind of global response. So when I was painting Fire Rainbow Obama, I was feeling blissful, joyful, and relieved.” Weaving together universal themes of family, harmony and unity, Saint James’ strong, faceless images capture the regal dignity of African Americans. “My paintings depict pride,” explained Saint James. “If you look at the paintings, the head and face are always uplifted and looking up. They exhibit wonderful self-esteem. It’s something that comes out of a place within me spiritually,” said the artist. “People tell me that when they look at my paintings, they see themselves and members of their family. That’s a wonderful feeling.” Saint James has also captured current events with her brush. Civil rights, the women’s movement, discrimination, and religion are often themes. When planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York killing thousands of people on Sept. 11, 2001, Saint James was commissioned to paint a portrait commemorating the 12 Black firefighters who perished in the disaster. The painting was unveiled at a church in Brooklyn and now hangs in the Vulcan Fire Station in Brooklyn. “All the women and children related to the firefighters were there in the audience when I unveiled the portrait,” recalls Saint James. “The entire church gave me a standing ovation. I was shaken, but I was trying to be strong. I just wanted to get in the car and go to my hotel and let the tears flow.” And Saint James shared that she is inspired by the French impressionists, particularly Van Gogh and Monet. Her favorite contemporary artists are Varnette Honeywood, Charles Bibbs, Ernie Barnes, and Larry “Poncho” Brown. Like most individuals starting out in the creative arts, Saint James said that forging a path as a visual artist was not easy. “Coming up as an African American woman, it didn’t seem possible that I could have a career as a visual artist.” Saint James started painting in earnest in her 20s. Her father, William James, liked to draw, but did so as a hobby and stopped when he reached his early 20s. Saint James came from a working class family. Her father had a trucking business and her mother, Hattie, was a housewife. “My parents thought it would be safer for an African American woman to become a teacher or a secretary. My mother always told me, ‘Why don’t you major in art in college and become an art teacher?’ It was a good idea, but I never completely pursued it because that’s not what I wanted to do.” The artist related that her creative journey started when she moved to New York in the early 70s. To support herself, she became an accounts receivable clerk for a mortgage insurance company. “I started to teach myself the medium of painting,” said Saint James, who revealed that she has never taken art lessons. “I went to the nearest art store closest to my job and came home with an armful of paints and started experimenting.” Before long every wall in her apartment was filled with art. “I did a lot of abstract and landscape type painting,” she recalled. Soon her art was drawing an audience. A lawyer at the company loved her vibrant use of color and commissioned her to do an abstract painting. “I was amazed that I could make money at something I enjoyed doing,” reflected Saint James. “From that point on, other co-workers commissioned me to do art for their apartments and other offices.” Moving back to her birthplace, Los Angeles, Saint James pursued her art in earnest. Her first art show was held at the now defunct Inner City Cultural Center in 1977. Along the way, she met artist Ernie Barnes, who became a mentor by example. “Ernie taught me a very important lesson,” said Saint James. “In a lecture presented to local black artists in 1980 he told us, ‘Make a place for your art.’ Although Ernie was a football player, Ernie also considered himself an artist. He approached the NFL and presented his art and pretty soon he got commissions. Ernie made a place for his art. That taught me don’t sit back and let someone try to find you. You let them know that you are available.” Along the way, Saint James strove to develop her colorful style with featureless figures. “I traveled to Martinique and I just drank in the crowd and market scenes,” said Saint James. “That’s when I challenged myself to paint people without features. You can look at a Monet and you know his style and you can look at a Picasso and you know his style. Or you can look at an Ernie Barnes and know that’s his style. Painting featureless characters became my signature style.” An early breakthrough for the young artist occurred in the early 80s. “Isadore Duncan’s family owned a small gallery in Manhattan and one in Paris. I was in a jury show in Manhattan, then I was invited to exhibit at their gallery in a group show in Paris. To my surprise, I won the Prix de Paris award.” The prestigious award put Saint James on the map as an emerging international artist. “Winning that award got my art seen internationally and that was the jumping off part.” Despite the prestigious honor, Saint James said she still met her share of rejection. Many critics felt her work was too simplistic and that she would never emerge as a professional artist. “Right after I came back from Paris, I had an appointment with the curator of the city of Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery. I had lined up my work for the curator so when she walked in, it would be ready to see. She walked through the door and barely glanced at my paintings. She seemed to be resentful that she was supposed to look at my art and turned out to be extremely rude. Then she turned to me and said, ‘When you get your Cadillac, come back to take me to lunch.’ I was stunned, and her comment initially made me very angry. I’m sure she hurt and crippled several other artist’s creativity. Her attitude shook me, but I went back to my office and just let it go. I wasn’t going to fight her.” Despite the doubters, Saint James’ vibrant artwork slowly began to capture the attention of the art world. Her bold and vibrant paintings were chosen to grace the cover of author Terry McMillan’s blockbuster best seller, Waiting to Exhale. “That was my first international book cover,” recalls Saint James. “I drew a painting called ‘Ensemble’ that featured a group of African American women for her Waiting to Exhale book. I also was commissioned for her books Disappearing Acts and Mama. Saint James’ artwork is also featured on motivational speaker Iyanla Vanzant’s books Acts of Faith, Faith in the Valley and The Big Book of Faith as well as books by Alice Walker and Julia Boyd. Since then, the in-demand artist has completed over 50 commissions for major organizations and individual collectors who read like a who’s who in business including the Los Angeles Women’s Foundation, UNICEF, The House of Segram’s, the Mark Taper Forum, The American Library Association, Coca Cola, the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, Crystal Stairs, the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, and many other nonprofit organizations. Saint James is also an architectural designer whose work includes a 150 foot ceramic tile mural for Ontario, California’s international airport, elevator doors for one of the buildings in California’s State Capitol East End complex, and stained glass windows for the West Tampa Library in Tampa, Fla. Among the 60 books that her artwork graces, she currently has 13 children’s picture books, three of which she wrote, The Gifts of Kwanzaa, Sunday and It’s Kwanzaa Time. Saint James has also penned two books of poetry and prose, Girlfriends and Can I Touch You: Love Poems and Affirmations, an audio book. And, the artist–author is a good cook and has penned the multicultural cookbook Creative Fixings from the Kitchen. When asked what spurs her creativity, Saint James said she draws from a myriad of influences and that she receives one of her biggest inspirations from the water. “I walk on the beach every morning,” said the artist. “I get my best ideas early in the morning. I like to meet sunrise on the beach. There’s something about the water that’s calming. I like the cleansing air. That’s when I do my affirmations and clear my head. That helps me open up channels for inspiration.” There are other sources of inspiration, as well. “It can be music, or a particular song. It can be books, a play, a film or even walking.” The singer Sade has inspired me a lot. Recently, I was inspired by the movie “LaVie en Rose,” about the life of Edith Piaf, and I did a painting of the French singer.” Another inspiration is travel. Saint James who recently returned from a trip to Tuscany, Italy, said she loves to hop on a plane and travel to some far flung corner of the world. “I’ve been to St. Lucia, St. Martin, Barbados and Martinique. I’ve been to Tahiti five times. And I’m getting ready to start a whole painting series on the Turks and Caicos islands, which I love.” Passing on the beauty of art to children is one of Saint James’ biggest loves. She often visits schools to share her artwork with young fans. “I feel that when I am invited to schools to speak and do book signings for children’s books, I am inspiring children.” Judge Allen Webster, who has collected eight or nine of the artist’s limited edition prints and recently purchased a print of Fire Rainbow Obama, said he has always been struck by Saint James’ use of color and form. “Her art just connected with me,” said Webster, who met Saint James in the early 80s. “Her work is warm, bold, colorful and inspirational. Synthia has an innate and uncanny ability to incorporate current events and issues with natural phenomena such as rainbows, forests, sunrises and sunsets. Her art connects with me and always delivers a message. It’s something about her paintings that resonate with me and impacts with me emotionally.” And as for the artist herself, Webster said that Saint James is as accessible as her art. “She’s warm, genuine, down to earth, sincere and has a pleasant, easygoing manner. She is an engaging person. I think her art is an extension of her personality.” “My art is a very special gift that I humbly accept and deeply respect,” Saint James reflected. “I could never have imagined all the joy I have been able to share with people all over the world because of this blessing.”