Jowarnise Caston is a figurative artist based in Richmond, Virginia. Fusing graphic design with representational painting, her work is a celebration of colour, pattern and empowered women. In this interview Jowarnise shares her thoughts about making work for herself and for others, her responsibilities as an artist, and her approaches to works on canvas and mural works.
Lisa: When did you decide to be an artist and can you describe your artistic journey so far?
Jowarnise: I didn’t really decide to be an artist until after art helped me find peace of mind after an unfulfilling attempt to conform to the idea that I was supposed to work a traditional job.
I’ve had a rather non-contiguous artistic journey because I never actually believed I could become an artist until I became one. Growing up, I never gave much thought about art except for making animal-shaped beaded keychains and crochet rugs. In high school, I focused my studies on accounting and I sort of majored in mass communications which sparked my interest in graphic design. However, in college, I initially pursued accounting before changing my major to visual art.
After earning my Bachelor of Fine Arts from Virginia State University, I became a banker for several years, then a Program Director for an adult facility before making a real effort at building an artistic career.
Lisa: You are known to paint on walls as well as canvas. Which do you prefer and what are the biggest charms of each?
I prefer to paint on canvas because I have the pleasure of working in the comforts of a controlled environment. However, I appreciate the large scale of painting art on walls and the interconnection between the art and the people of a community.
Lisa: Your paintings often depict strong, feminine black women. Do you feel a responsibility to represent black women in art, to make up for the times when black women have not been represented?
Jowarnise: No. While I acknowledge the underrepresentation of black women, it’s not my responsibility to make up for the times when black women have not been represented any more than it is the responsibility for a non-black portrait artist who paints people of their race and culture.
I am inspired by the strong presence of black women throughout my life whose influence has shaped me into the woman I am today. Such as my own mother, who subconsciously instilled an appreciation of the natural brown woman in me. Growing up, I would often look with great admiration at a high school senior photograph of my mom traditionally draped in black, proudly donning an Afro in 1976 like afro-crowns that often adorn the head of the women I paint. That photo is one of my favourite pictures because I believe it captured a moment in my family history in which one of the most important women in my life embodies the lovely, strength and resilience I try to emanate through the women I currently paint. You can see it for yourself in the photos on my social media accounts where I am holding the actual photo of my mom and a painting I made in the likeness of her.
I paint from a place of great appreciation in my heart because I admire these amazing women who overcome imposed obstacles such as the belief that black women inherently are not beautiful and have little worth simply because of genetic attributes that are historically considered undesirable by society and mainstream media.
I believe black women are an enduring vessel for exploring the human condition, and I paint them as a means to introspectively navigate aspects of my own identity. I appreciate the many shades of brown skin and women of all shapes and sizes. I place a high personal value on reflecting the women I admire so they can see themselves when they see my art.
Lisa: How much do you think that each of your paintings is, to some level, a self portrait?
Jowarnise: I am from a family that is mostly made up of women. It is the presence of these beautiful and strong women, that I find inspiration which invokes my creativity. Each of my paintings is a self-portrait, to some level, because I see my reflection in each of them. We are similar and many of our experiences are the same.
I paint the darker complexions of these women and I see my own dark, lovely complexion. Their textured hair grows up towards the sun in an afro like mine, and in painting the feminine curves of their body, I come to appreciate my own.
Lisa: It’s clear that working with the community is important to you. Can you describe the exchange that you experience when working with the community, i.e. what it feels to give and what you get back as a result?
While working with the community is always a rewarding exchange, the experience always differ based on the work I’m doing. At times I use art to address a community’s need for empowerment, especially within the inner city. Other times, art serves as a life-changing tool to inspire the community through relatable representation because seeing a reflection of themselves incites faith in themselves to manifest their dreams.
Sometimes, the reward is knowing that I provoked inspiration in the rising generation of leaders within an urban community. For example, when I have taken part in painting two community murals commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which empowered participating students to uplift their own community. Also, when I partnered with TurnAround Arts: Richmond to create an educational program for students at Woodville Elementary School to paint a mural of children in their own cultural likeness while emphasizing literacy empowerment. Each of these initiatives helped to teach the students about our history and also reminds our community from whence we came as we trudge towards future progress and successes.
It’s especially humbling to serve as a living representation and reminder that people can achieve their personal dreams by living my own dream and disproving the popular misconception that it’s impossible to sustain a career as a working artist. There need to be relatable representations of every profession and hobby where they can see themselves. Through community engagement and art, I encourage people to dream, work, and make things happen. Not just think of an idea, but act upon it, which is important to the survival of communities in America.
When working with the community through workshops, I get a renewed sense of community unity by using art to strengthen ties between like-minded individuals or build new connections for those given a new perspective.
Lisa: How much pre-planning goes on when you paint either a work on canvas, or a spray on a wall? Do you do a lot of sketching beforehand, to work out the patterns and composition that you will use?
Jowarnise: When I paint on canvas, I generally only have a loose vision in my mind based on an overall feeling I need to express, and I begin the work before I decide how the patterns will complement the composition. However, when painting a wall, I like to sketch out ideas first while allowing myself to reposition, add, or remove elements because the art on paper doesn’t always translate to the structure of a wall.
Lisa: I’ve noticed a few Montana spray paints in photos on your Instagram feed! Are they your favourite acrylic spray to work with, and if so why?
Jowarnise: I primarily use latex acrylic paint for murals. However, when I do need to spray paint, I use Montana because that is what one of my artist mentors used when he introduced me to spray paint, and their quality and their immense variety of shades are so great.
Lisa: I always like to ask about colour – how do you go about choosing colours for each work – is it a decision led by the heart, or do you think about colour theories that you have learned?
Jowarnise: A little of both. I choose colours led by the heart first, then I consider colour theories that complement and set the tone I’m going for.
I find that I’m particularly inclined to blue hues. Blue encompasses so many meanings and invokes prominent cultural references and sentiments. It is a peaceful colour, cool, calming, and focused but also the colour of sadness. Culturally, it’s the colour of insult. Growing up, I would hear negative remarks about undesirable blue-black skin based on centuries-old societal imposition that imbues the belief in African descendants that darker skin is unattractive.
I paint blue figures in contrast to the cultural derogations such as “you’re pretty for a black or dark-skinned girl” or “you’re so black you’re blue” in hopes that people recognize the fallacies of those derogatory implications and embrace the beauty of various shades of melanated skin when they see my painting.
I am normally drawn to bright warm tones to infuse a lighter, uplifting sentiment to enliven to the subject of my art.
Lisa: For someone that works a lot with others, being in lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic must be hard. How have recent events impacted upon your creativity?
Jowarnise: The restrictions for public safety severely limited my creativity and quickly resulted in the loss of community engagement projects. Creating was really difficult at first because my art is a direct reflection of my personal experiences for which I process and navigate my interactions with others. However after the kindness of supporters, a bit of art journaling both alone and through virtual workshops, and some from creative inspiration from artistic peers, my proclivity towards creating is rising again.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
In the flesh, my murals are currently all located throughout the downtown area of my home city, Richmond, VA. Right now, you can find public art that I collaborated on with other artists for the ongoing public art project that came about in response to recent uprisings against racial injustices, Mending Walls, at the Poe Museum.
I’m currently updating my website but in the near future, you can find me at Jowarnise.com
Header Image: There’s Hope, 2020 by Jowarnise Caston, 35.6 x 27.9 cm, acrylic on canvas.