10.14.2013

A Conversation About "The Dream" SAINT JAMES' Newest Painting

By Contributing Writer Michael Coleman

SAINT JAMES’ work has graced the covers of a few very high profile best-sellers, including projects by Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, and Iyanla Vanzant. She’s created artwork for corporations, including Coca Cola USA, Maybelline, Essence Communications, and Barnes & Noble. Her most celebrated personal collectors include the late Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., actor Glynn Turman, and singer/songwriter Brenda Russell.

Most recently, “The Dream,” SAINT JAMES’ newest painting that brilliantly commemorates the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic March on Washington, was unveiled at the California State Capital in Sacramento. The Hub got to visit with SAINT JAMES recently, and got an inside peek into the mind and spirit of one of the 21st Century’s more brilliant artists. Here are a few excerpts from that conversation.

THE HUB: You describe yourself as a self-taught artist, having sold your first painting when you were 20 years old. Tell me the story of that first sale and what it meant to you.
Saint James: I was working at a mortgage insurance company. Whenever I wasn’t working and was home, I’d paint. One of the lawyers that worked at the firm went out on a limb and commissioned me to do a piece for his apartment. To actually be paid for something you love to do, it’s such an odd feeling. We’re taught that we’re not going to like our jobs, so to actually get paid for something you love to do, you almost feel guilty for accepting money for it. To let you know how long ago that was, the monthly rent for my apartment in the Bronx was $120. To get paid $75 for that first painting was enormous! I was able to buy art supplies, a Polaroid camera, and a nice new outfit for my boyfriend—all with that $75 (laughs). It inspired me to say I could possibly make a living doing something I love. That colleague shared the story of the sale to friends of his, and others started asking me to paint something for them, and that’s how my career started.

THE HUB:  That had to have been a very exciting time for you, and you were so young. Around the same time, you were the first black homecoming queen at Los Angeles High School. What was that like?
Saint James: You were really doing some research! (Laughs.) I did not expect to win. I didn’t even want to run! My family and close friends wanted me to run. I was in total shock when I won! It was so much attention—too much, I didn’t like it. As a part of the prize, I got tickets to the Coconut Grove to hear Robert Goulet! The other thing that happened not quite a year later—I was 18—we were having a lot of demonstrations and protests [against segregation and racial discrimination], and there were threats to boycott [Los Angelesʼ legendary] Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Before they could get to the boycott, through a friend of mine, the Theatre contacted me and hired me as the first black employee of Grauman’s.

THE HUB: It sounds like you were in the right place at the right time. You credit The Creator and your ancestry (African American, Native American, Haitian, and German Jewish) for your artistic gifts. Would you expound on that?
Saint James: The combination—and most outstandingly the African American, Cherokee, and Haitian—are where all of my colors come from, my DNA. I never actually took art or majored in art. I had a drawing class in middle school, but that’s it. I feel that my art is definitely a gift from The Creator—a gift and a responsibility to share. When people look at my work, they see different things. I’m often thought of as being a Caribbean artist, but it depends on what you’re looking for when you look at my work.

THE HUB: Tell me about “The Dream.” It’s very powerful.
Saint James: Thank you! Of all the paintings I’ve done, this particular one because of the celebration and all that it means, this one means a lot to me. I sat down and watched [footage from] the March on Washington. In addition to that, I generally walk in the morning and get to see dawn every morning. I don’t live by the beach but I drive to the beach [in the morning] to clear my head and do my affirmations and prayers, and have been doing that for 10 years now. One of the mornings, I took a picture of that morning’s sunrise, and the sunrise in “The Dream” is based on that picture. I thought the sunrise [should be] a very important aspect of the painting because of the dreamlike quality of the speech. You know … it’s so beautiful … I wanted to bring nature into it. What I found to be most powerful was that children were included, along with different ethnic groups, I decided that the best way to reflect that would be to depict everyone as a choir, a multicultural choir. As I was working on the beginning parts, I struggled with how to convey that on a canvas. I decided to start with the sky, and then incorporate the people, the children … interacting but not holding hands.

THE HUB: I’d never really made a connection between a literal sunrise and the dawn that Dr. King spoke of.
Saint James: Yeah, he spoke of a new day! I was commissioned to do a similar piece for [President] Clinton’s inauguration based on Maya Angelus “On the Pulse of Morning.” The name of the piece is “A Rock, A River, A Tree.” That was the first time I did something based on poetry, on what someone had said. The inspiration for “The Dream” was very similar, but I wasn’t commissioned to do it. I just did it because I wanted to. It’s always nice to get a check (laughs) but that wasn’t my inspiration for it … down the line, we’ll see what happens. Reproductions are available, so I’m happy that many people will be able to have it and experience it.

THE HUB: Well it’s obvious in looking at “The Dream” that you were deeply moved by the speech.
Saint James: I would say I absolutely took it in on a spiritual level.

THE HUB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Saint James: Well, just that I hope “The Dream” will be made available to schools, elementary schools so that kids can see it. I hope the [“I Have a Dream”] speech will be played in schools so that children can hear it. I don’t believe most of the children—even high school and college students—have heard the entire speech or have a good idea of its impact.

THE HUB: I think you’re probably right. …
Saint James: It’s so important … that’s the thing that working on “The Dream” conjured up for me. Sometimes you’re in the middle of life and you forget. But it was absolutely a powerful time in our history. And I hope everyone takes a second as we commemorate the March’s 50th anniversary to REMEMBER. n

Synthia SAINT JAMES is booking her 2013 / 2014 College & University Lecture Tour. More information on Synthia SAINT JAMES, including samples of her art and booking information, is available through her website at www.synthiasaintjames.com.