I Like to Paint Stories: An Afternoon with Laura James

This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer issue of The VOICE, the magazine of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

By Tim Palmer Curl

Laura James’ studio in the Bronx is what you would expect, maybe hope, that an artist’s space would be. On the top floor of a venerable wood-frame house—a witness to quieter times in what is now a mixed-use urban neighborhood—the studio’s expansive windows permit generous amounts of natural light, even on this overcast afternoon. 

Canvasses cover three walls from floor to ceiling. An unfinished portrait sits on the small easel at the center of the room, a tray of brushes and paint tubes to the side. Along one wall are James’ desk, monitor and dozens of votive candles. Along another, shelves and standing stacks of art books, sacred texts and copies of the published works that feature James’ paintings.

As I survey the room, James is busy carrying in canvas after completed canvas, each a possibility for the exhibition of religious paintings she is preparing for Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. “I plan to have four parables completed in time,” she says, pointing to three pieces on the wall and the portrait on the easel. “We can use some of these other pieces to fill out the show, depending on what you want.”

By the time The VOICE went to print, the Arts & Our Faith Committee was still making its choices from the rich menu that James had to offer—illustrations of the Creation and other Bible stories, Stations of the Cross, and sacred images from non-Christian religions, such as Yemaya, a female deity from the Yoruba tradition. 

The Stations (six of them are now part of the FAPC exhibition) were commissioned for a rural church in Haiti. The inscriptions on each painting are in Haitian Creole.

As James and I sat down to talk, my first question arose from the canvasses surrounding us: Where did all this religious inspiration come from?

“We were in church a lot,” James says of her childhood in Brooklyn. “My parents gave my sister and me an illustrated children’s Bible to keep us quiet. That’s how I learned the Bible stories.”

She loved the stories. The illustrations, not so much. Turning to her monitor, she pulls up an example from that childhood Bible. A light-skinned Jesus (with bright yellow hair) is surrounded by light-skinned disciples. In the background is a lone African figure, a servant. 

YemayaWhen James herself became an artist, she forged her own path. Her work quickly found a market among publishers looking for multicultural depictions of sacred stories. Among the hundreds of books where her work appears, my eye fell on a commentary by the eminent British theologian N.T. Wright, translated into Chinese for the Taiwanese market. James’ art graces the cover.

“I was lucky to paint and sell my work very early on,” she says. “I had a style that met a need in the market for non-traditional religious images. But the art came first.”

You know a Laura James painting when you see it: the rich colors, the fluid human figures with dark, piercing eyes, every person and object etched in black. An excellent example is hanging in Kirkland Chapel. Last fall FAPC added James’ Sermon on the Mount to our growing collection of Jesus images.

James was just 19 when she came across an influential book, Ethiopian Magic Scrolls by Jacques Mercier (George Braziller, 1979). Mercier documented an ancient form of indigenous art that draws from Christian and Muslim traditions. Although James has also been inspired by the Italian masters and Eastern Orthodox iconography, the magic scrolls have had the strongest influence on her work.

“People say I made up this distinctive style, but I didn’t make it up at all,” she says. “It’s been around for centuries.”

James no longer identifies as a Christian, but she has an abiding love for the Bible and the centuries of art it has inspired. “I like to paint stories, and the Bible is full of stories,” she says. “It is the perfect subject matter for me.”

She names two challenges in executing any religious painting—telling the story accurately (“with a sacred text it’s important not to add anything”) and getting the color right. Her most recent work, The Parables of Jesus (FaithWords, 2017) is a coloring book devotional. “I always ask people to send me what they color,” she says. “I’m fascinated to know the colors they choose.”

The ultimate challenge is giving expression to matters of the spirit—or as James puts it, “making visible things that are invisible.” Even finding the right name for her upcoming exhibit proved to be a test. As opening day drew closer, James and I traded emails about the title of the show. She suggested “Selah,” a word found frequently in the Psalms. It appears as sort of a refrain, although scholars have never determined its precise meaning. 

“I believe it to mean ‘a pause.’” James wrote. “So it’s sort of like viewing the exhibition is a pause from everything else that is going on! It’s an obscure term. I don’t know if everyone will like it.”

I replied that I like it a lot. “It’s a call to reflect, on words, on images—I think it is perfect.”

"Then let's stick with it. I'm glad you get it."

SELAH: Paintings by Laura James is now on view in the Gallery of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. The exhibition has been extended through Aug. 18. Learn more about Laura James, and see more of her art, at laurajamesart.com.

Tim Palmer Curl is director of communications and development at FAPC.

Tags: arts and our faith

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