EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced as part of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s South Jersey Information Equity Project fellowship and supported with funding from the Independence Public Media Foundation.
By Sade Osuji | For AC JosepH Media
WILLINGBORO — Lavett Ballard uses her impactful artwork to tell stories about Black women and Black people within a historical context, creating re-imaged visual narratives of people of African descent that has been highly acknowledged by celebrities and other influencers.
As she prepares a new art installation at the Philadelphia International Airport next month, Ballard’s work takes on additional meaning during the annual Women’s History Month celebration around the country.
Women’s History Month means highlighting and recognizing women for their impactful contribution towards societal concerns and issues. Ballard and other female artists around the world like her have used art to ignite taboo conversations and bring awareness to stories that have not been accurately told.
“The stories of the people I’m telling have been through stuff,” said Ballard firmly, pointing to a recently finished picture of a little Black girl who survived the horrific 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963 where four school-aged girls died. The bombing by a white supremacy helped galvanize the Civil Rights Movement.
“These ain’t your regular pretty pictures,” she said. “People don’t know there were five little girls in the church bombing of Birmingham. Two were sisters. She lost her sister.”
Ballard’s work has captured the eyes of people all over the world. Graduated from the University of the Art in Philadelphia with her master’s in fine arts degree in studio art and a two-time Time magazine cover artist, she has been making strides in the art world.
Artwork Catches Eyes of Celebrities
She has customers like celebrities Cedric the Entertainer, Queen Latifah and Queen’s mother, the late Rita Owens. She described a moment at a Los Angeles pop up show hosted by Art Melanated when Cedric the Entertainment was admiring one of her pieces titled, “It is, What it Is,” in honor of her late father. She said Cedric was her father’s favorite entertainer, and him purchasing one of her pieces was a full circle moment.
An East Orange native, and current Willingboro local, Ballard has found her studio space in the borough’s John F. Kennedy Center. From a previous science lab to an artistic wonderland, she has transformed her studio into a space she can spend all day in.
Vibrant colors and finished and unfinished art all around the room. Black and White photograph cutouts of Black women and men, bright-colored flowers, wooden fences, paper collages dangling from a string, and a comfy white couch with a round coffee table with piles of Black artist books, she curated her own gallery. Her friendly and welcoming personality parallels her studio, and now the lounge area of the Kennedy Center has the same artistic touch.
“When you go into a museum and you’re looking at a hundred pieces of art, it’s always that one you keep going back to that you never forget,” Ballard said. “That’s what I try to do with my work. That’s why it’s so layered because I purposely layer it because I want you to pull in art.
“Take your time with it. You know, find the images underneath. I say all the time my work is like my babies, and some of them come out the womb like ‘Hey I’m here, I don’t need no background,’ and some of them are like, ‘I want to hide and I want you to find me and find out who I am,’ you know.”
The Queen’s Mother
Ballard shared how she got the couch and coffee table idea from Owens and her previous art teacher from her years attending Irvington High School.
“Ms. Rita was an incredible artist. She would have her art classroom and people would show up and walk in the back door and sit on the coach she had in the back of the classroom filled with art books. She was the one that recommended me into Parsons School of Designs Pre-College Art Program. Even now that I teach, I try to teach like Ms. Rita.”
As time went by, Ballard, Queen Latifah and Owens ran into each other at an art gallery.
“She saw my work and Dana (Latifah) ended up buying one of my pieces for her,” she said happily as she reminisced.
With an impressive list of awards, honors, features and solo and group exhibitions, Ballard finds time to teach art classes at Rutgers University-Camden campus and Rowan College of South Jersey. Selling in the art world can be a rollercoaster, so teaching is great for the slower months. The flexibility in her schedule allows for time to work on personal projects.
Her upcoming installation at the Philadelphia International Airport will be themed “The Green Book and Black Travel.” She plans to have props, like a suitcase and dresser, to enhance the concept.
“Art is supposed to talk to you, it’s not a decorative thing,” Ballard said. “It’s something that’s supposed to increase in value and it’s supposed to move your soul. I say all the time my work is like my babies, and some of them come out the womb like ‘Hey I’m here, I don’t need no background,’ and some of them are like, ‘I want to hide and I want you to find me and find out who I am,’ you know.”
Recently, Ballard was awarded the Individual Art Fellowship by the New Jersey Art Council for $10,000. The council designs and carries out a dynamic program of financial and technical support services for New Jersey artists and nonprofit organizations.
The award is highly competitive and given to artists in 12 different art disciplines solely on independent peer panel assessment of work samples submitted. It may be used to help artists produce new work and advance their careers.
“This art thing is not for the weak,” Ballard said. “I tell people this. This mess is hard. Most of the time I’m here (her studio) making work, getting connections, finding museums that are looking to buy work, trying to get grant money and fellowships.”
She has a great support system behind her. Other women in the art world have been confidants and helpful friends. She even shared a lovely art piece by one of her close friends, Bisa Butler.
She takes her art seriously. Researching, finding the right images, and choosing the right base to paint on. There is a rhythm to the creation.
“Pieces I feel are historical or monumental pieces, I want museums or by an institution or university to purchase them,” Ballard said. “I want people to see them.”
When she isn’t cultivating visual art pieces, she is collecting limited edition Black Barbies for her granddaughter, watching television, writing books, or playing computer game Sims. She is always creating, balancing, empowering, supporting and living.
And so shall her art.
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