“I gesso the material black, whether its canvas or wood, I gesso it all black to prepare the surface. It’s a conscious political act for me to work on a black surface … All black. All black everything.”
“My greatest inspiration is without a doubt the Almighty God. He is the one who gifted me my talent and I consider myself a co-creator with Him. All the ideas I have are the ones that come from Him. All the visions I have for things that need to be created come from Him.”
Sophia arrived for our interview past our scheduled meeting time. She was rushing from the car with a bright and open smile just visible under the oversized, African-print hat she wore. She juggled a stack of binders, envelopes and papers and a half-full cup of tea (for me) in her arms. I awaited her speedy navigation of the parking lot from my position near to the backdoor. Two of the spacious galleries behind me were filled with her paintings, as well as an unexpected installation of suspended paper airplanes, from her I Am Free show. The captivating portraits take form and depth from a melting of jewel-toned paint, layers of newsprint and photographs, and sparkling textured surfaces. The faces are all political prisoners and former political prisoners. Some of them have died without ever tasting freedom after being incarcerated in their youth.
Sophia is a whirlwind of energy, a part of that generation that can carry out multiple tasks on several devices and a few scraps of paper simultaneously, without missing a beat. She answered my questions in her deep, raspy voice with frankness and good humor even when recounting the most difficult moments of her journey. Her words belied generosity, and a wisdom and strength well beyond her fresh-faced appearance.
Sophia Dawson paints to bring awareness to the very tangible human cost of the government-sanctioned repression of the Black Panther Party and other political movements from the ’60s and ’70s. The individuals featured in her paintings are part of a group that has collectively served over 800 years of prison time. Her mentors exist in a variety of fields and include Emory Douglas, the former Creative Art Director of the Black Panther Party newspaper; and Dequi Sadiki, an organizer and activist who has been campaigning on behalf of political prisoners for decades.
In spite of its real-world ties, Sophia defines her practice as a deeply spiritual one. A skilled and experienced painter who has been at this since she was 16, Sophia is comfortable with her chosen medium. The content and process, therefore, take precedence when she begins to work.
“I feel like creating is … a spiritual act for me. I really do feel like I’m co-creating.”
She is conscious of conveying the message in her work as efficiently as possible. She describes her process as one of “work, stop, listen, go” and she is listening for the thoughts that are her own as well as those sent to her from God.
“It’s really experimental, it’s like cooking,” she says. “There’s no perfect way to make a meal. You just have to play, taste it.”
Before Sophia sits in her studio in that state of meditative creation, her collaboration is with the people who are depicted in her paintings.
“[A]ll of the individuals in those paintings are people that I’m actively writing and trying to figure out, through them, how they want their stories told through the art.”
She describes the lengthy process of uncovering the many layers involved in each story. Her respectfulness, love, humility and patience are evident in every stage of the process – her willingness to wait out the erratic delays of the prison mailing system; track down family members that may have pictures; and put in the necessary hours in library archives.
The recently deceased brother, Mondo We Langa, inspired two of the paintings currently on display. “He came to me in a vision,” Sophia recalled. Initially, a dream prompted her to make his portrait a top priority. Shortly thereafter, between sleep and wakefulness one night, a hand flashed before her eyes. “It was clear as day, to the point where I opened my eyes but I thought that my eyes were open when I saw it. I said, “okay, I’m getting up.” And I went down [to the studio] and that’s the hand that was painted.” Sophia sent both he and his brother images of the paintings, yet had no way of knowing if We Langa had seen those images before he succumbed to health complications. The end of 2016 is her self-imposed deadline for the completion of this project.
Late at night, when no one is around, Sophia can be found in the studio. “That’s the only time it’s quiet in my mind and I really appreciate it.” Sam Cooke, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu provide the only soundtrack she has needed for the past 12 years. Lately, however, Leon Bridges (who reminds her of Sam Cooke), and Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam have been on repeat.
Each painting is completed in three ‘approaches,’ the young artist says. She may sit for three 2-hour sessions, or three 5-hour sessions – the duration doesn’t matter. Typically a given painting is completed by the third visit. Her surface of preference is canvas but due to budgetary or time constraints (she stretches her own canvases), Sophia paints what she describes as ‘urgent work’ directly onto wood.
“I gesso the material black, whether its canvas or wood, I gesso it all black to prepare the surface. It’s a conscious political act for me to work on a black surface. But I never knew you could start on black … I’ve been working on black gesso since 2010. All black. All black, everything.”
When paint just isn’t enough, feels too flat for her, Sophia collages – gold leaf, black glitter, diamond dust, obsidian. She is enamored of substances that feel like hair texture.
Sophia aims to have her paintings stand out as enticing and unforgettable to viewers who are inundated with images every single day. In her mind, her audience is divvied up between those who will recognize the people in the paintings and those – the majority – who will not. The former, she hopes, will be moved and inspired, while the latter should begin to ask questions.
Who is this person?
Why are they being celebrated/ honored/ recreated in this moment?
Ultimately, once she can overcome the legal hurdles involved in audio communication with prisoners, the artist would like to have the sound of their voices fill the galleries that contain their images. They could then state who they are and share what they want people to know. In the midst of her own self-expression Sophia has charted the course to give those who have been incarcerated for their political beliefs the ultimate freedom and power, that of self-definition within the society they have been cut off from.
“Motherhood is madness, straight up madness … It’s so crazy! I cannot wrap my head around it!”
“My son is…a great child. He’s brilliant. He’s kind. He’s intellectual. But he’s still a piece of work!”
Sophia recounted how the shock, joy and challenges of motherhood have shaped her approach to life, art and her precious time. During her pregnancy Sophia was a student at SVA and she admitted that it was almost impossible to stay awake during her classes. Supportive faculty permitted her to continue her education while her body underwent the dramatic changes demanded by pregnancy. Sophia is convinced that the knowledge shared in classes before he was born is embedded in her son, Pharaoh’s subconscious – forever a part of him. Within a week of Pharaoh’s birth, despite the trauma that her body underwent via a C-section delivery, Sophia was back at school determined that she would not drop out. A few months later, one of her instructors, Dr. Rosalind Jeffries, played a Black Panther documentary, propelling Sophia towards political awakening and transformation.
“I realized I had a responsibility … now I’m learning about this system … and now I’ve brought this child into this world… It’s already a struggle. Why bring another child into these circumstances?
I … felt a responsibility to fix things or try to … make his world better; or just prepare him for all the things that he may face; and teach him how to overcome challenges; teach him how to struggle if he has to.
I want to teach him all that but at this age, he’s just watching me. So now I have to fix myself and make sure I’m doing all the things that I would like him to do.”
During her school days, Sophia placed a playpen in her studio. She would bring her baby to school and use the intermittent hours of his sleep time to paint. “[T]hat’s how I started painting fast. That’s when I started using the projector, in 2010 when he was born. ’Cause there was no time to perfect a nose or a hand … The work had to get done. I had to learn to how to make art in two hours and that’s why, even to this day, two hours in the studio is usually enough.”
Sophia admitted that parenting has become easier with time as her son grows in his independence. She enjoys being able to collaborate with Pharaoh, who according to her is “a sculptor by heart.” During her residency at Snug Harbor, whenever Pharaoh would join her, their indoor time would include the construction of paper planes. Eventually they found books that taught them the science of making paper crafts that could fly. Sophia spent hours alongside her son, folding hundreds of these planes. They began folding photocopies of her letters to and from the imprisoned men depicted in her artwork, until this mother-son venture became a part of the exhibition.
I met Sophia’s son when I entered one of the galleries and saw two small children who, amidst images of incarcerated American citizens, were setting airplanes, covered in thoughts of freedom, into flight.
“I would have all of the political prisoners out of jail and touring with me and my work; getting paid to talk about their lives; getting the opportunity to travel the world and live out their last years … sharing their story…”
There is no denying that Sophia Dawson’s vision is large. She is not afraid of taking risks, ‘stepping out in faith’ as she calls it, and putting in the hard work to ensure that her dreams are realized. With every stride forward that Sophia makes, she looks around to see how many others can benefit from her progress. Her ambitions include the establishment of a school that promotes social justice advocacy through the arts, and educates artists on the negotiation of fair contracts; building a retreat home in the Caribbean for hard working artists and activists; and opening a roller-rink in Brooklyn that will provide her community’s teens with a much needed outlet for wholesome fun.
She has used her surprising passion and talent for roller-skating to create an anti police brutality performance piece with other skaters. Their routine debuted at a Brooklyn Museum ‘First Saturday’ event.
“We just brought our skates to the ‘First Saturday’ and we skated and we prayed we didn’t get kicked out by security … we didn’t. I don’t think they saw what we were doing because there were so many people, but that was the first time popping up and it was scary as hell, but it felt so good!
The goal is to do this video-piece and send it out so it can go viral.”
This team hopes to release the final video of their performance piece on Mother’s Day as a tribute to all of the mothers who have lost their children to police brutality.
Her painting skills have earned Sophia numerous commissions. I asked her if there was any kind of commission that she would decline. “Definitely!” was her emphatic response. 2015 served as a period of development during which her priorities crystallized – to produce work that is aligned with her personal values; undertake ventures that support the work she is already committed to; only do work that won’t stamp out the share joy of making art. If a commission can’t meet these requirements, regardless of the remuneration, she will not accept it. She recommends colleagues for any job that she declines, reminding potential clients of her inclusive philosophy:
“We are all capable of producing great work.”
“I almost flung myself out a window. Because I just wanted out. I was hungry, I was broke and I was like how the fuck am I going to feed this child when he’s in my stomach and my stomach is growling? And being hungry as a pregnant person is unlike any hunger I think you could ever experience… If I would have let that fear take over me, it would have been a wrap.”
Sophia says that her intentionally positive social-media image is meant to inspire. But she pulls no punches when it comes to her personal challenges. She is open about the two babies she lost before Pharaoh, through abortion, and then miscarriage and she has had to be frank with her son when confronted with his questions. The strength that she projects, she acknowledges, has been earned over time and by battling her way through the toughest and least certain moments of her life. She doesn’t hide the difficulties she has faced because she believes that someone who may be silently experiencing some of the things that she did, could be empowered by her willingness to share.
Her faith and relationship to God give Sophia the courage to try things without knowing what the outcome might be. Having her child, or using her art to address topics that have gotten people penalized, killed and incarcerated in the past, they are both acts of faith.
Abandoning individualism has also unlocked many doors for this artist.
“I find that through service to His people lots of blessings have come. Sometimes we get caught up in “I want to make it! Me! Me! Me!” and that was me before… [A]s soon as I put me aside and I said I’m going to do this project … things … started to happen.”
Essential to her creative process is the balance of mental, physical and emotional health. Inspired by the book, The Artist’s Way, Sophia has developed her own interpretation of the acronym, PEMDAS:
M Morning pages/ daily journaling.
“I want to inspire people but I think that people need to know the truth too. That it was not an easy journey. That’s why I’m saying don’t be afraid of challenges, just step out. After you go through things like that, when other things come, you’re like “Oh, I’ve seen this before. This is light work.”