Artist on the Move: Lavett Ballard on Her Work

By Shantay Robinson 

Lavett Ballard has always been a creative person. Her mother thought she would do something in the arts because of the beautiful mess on her high chair table. She’s been creating art for about twenty years now. But it wasn’t until she met a professional artist, Annie Lee, who encouraged her proclivities, that she made art more than just a hobby. 

She received a dual Bachelor of Arts in Studio Art and Art History from Rutgers University in New Jersey. And then she went on to obtain a Master of Fine Arts from University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Going to school showed her how big the art world is. She realized it’s more than the little corner of the world she occupied. She says, “[Going to school] was mind blowing most of the time. When I went into my undergrad program, I had already been selling quite a bit of art and I had a lot of experience showing in local galleries and I kind of went in with a big head. And they were like okay, your art is good, but it can be great.” And she found out that someone out there can really appreciate her work even if they aren’t of the same experience. Although Ballard’s work is based in the female African American experience, even someone of Hispanic heritage or white women can empathize with her.

Ballard’s work is about female identity. She’s currently obsessed with the women in Nina Simone’s song, “Four Women.” Peaches, Saphronia, Sweet Thing, and Aunt Sarah have found a place in her work. She sees how the identities of these four women represent the women of the African Diaspora. Aunt Sarah, the former slave, has seen it all, and is trying to help those coming up behind her. She likens this woman to the women of the Civil Rights Movement who are still alive. Saphronia, a woman of a biracial breeding has a distinct experience coming of age in America, as she has to find out where she fits in the world. “The Loving Generation” explains the stress related to being biracial. Sweet Thing is reminiscent of the jezebel narrative inflicted on the black female body. But we see her in the Instagram models and video vixens of today. Peaches is a revolutionary. We see Peaches represented by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, the creators of the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

While most artists are interested in expressing a narrative through their artwork, Ballard’s end goal is to get the viewer to connect with the personages in her collages. She wants you to identify with the gaze of the subject by identifying by seeing your mother and father or aunt and uncle, noticing the look of longing they have in their eyes when they see each other. She wants people of other ethnic backgrounds to understand the concept of colorism in their own communities. Or she would like women of any race to relate to the sexism they experience despite their privilege. 

Bone Black by Lavett Ballard

Although some viewers may think her art is simply the scaling of images affixed to wooden fences, it took Ballard some time to think about how she would make the best use of this idea. Her decoupage fences are the result of research at the Schomburg for images. In the beginning, she attempted to keep the images before the 1970s, but now she’s starting to edge a little past that. She had to think about the composition. Deciding whether to tear her image makes a difference. She takes the images through Photoshop to clean them up. She paints on them. She blows them up to scale. And she might burn them to look weathered and worn.

Ballard’s recent work decoupaging images of historical images to fences was influenced by August Wilson’s play Fences.  She says, “I was looking at August Wilson’s Fences. I had seen the play years ago when I was in junior high school. I think. And when I saw it on Broadway, it was James Earl Jones in it and Courtney Vance. But the idea. That whole monologue where he talks about how fences hold people in, but keep others out is really where the fence was the perfect substrate.” 

When she decided to start doing collage work, she received recommendations from some people who were creating collages, but they didn’t represent the same background. When she mentioned Black Art in America founder, Najee Dorsey, her colleagues didn’t know who he was. But when she showed them what he does, they said, if you like him, we love him, go for it. And she’s looked at Dorsey as one of her “Fairy Godfathers” since then. He was one of the people who after she finished her MFA thesis, encouraged her. 

Of another “Fairy Godfather,” artist, Danny Simmons, she says, “You see the Kara Walkers and you read about the Romare Beardens and the Jacob Lawrences, but this was a person who was doing what I always aspired to do and I knew him personally. And he wasn’t living over the top and he was doing what he wanted to do. He was giving back and he really was one of the real game changers for me,” Ballard says. Developing a relationship with a professional artist, as a mentor and friend, spearheaded her career. While she doesn’t always agree with his opinion, she concedes that 90% of the time, he’s right. Having him as a friend changed the trajectory of her career. She could go to him and ask questions about her path and expect him to support her. 

She Is by Lavett Ballard

In the past couple of months, she’s been creating work that really represents her as an artist. While in graduate school, she had people over her shoulder asking questions about her work. But in the time since she graduated, she’s become more confident with using color and it worked. There have been more shapes, more spheres, and more galaxies in her work. Her work is a lot more vibrant.  While the fences she’s created, which are five feet by four feet, she’s been thinking about creating photographs of the images in sacred spaces.

The community of Timbuctoo was an historically black neighborhood of freed and escaped slaves.  There were about 50 houses there at one point. And black people inhabited those houses up until the 1930s. There is a military cemetery of Civil War soldiers there. Ballard plans to take pictures of the decoupaged fences of images of the family members who lived there into the fields that remain, allowing for those of us without the means to own one of her fence artworks to own a piece of important history.