"I'll Just Have to Make My Own," an Interview with Ashleigh Brady and Juliette Bazurto
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ashleigh Brady, a young visual artist at the end of her career at Dartmouth College. I asked her about the visual inspiration and message behind her favorite art pieces, her journey toward studying architecture, and using her art to share the beauty of Black women’s features for a greater purpose.
- Juliette Bazurto
Juliette Bazurto: Being the artist behind your work, why does diversity matter?
I noticed your art is centered around Black women. What is the visual message/what stories do you want to tell with your art?
Ashleigh Brady: Let’s see, I’ve been an artist--in very loose terms--since I was a kid. I grew up in a predominantly white area so my art has sort of reflected that up until maybe college, because I think a lot of artists draw what they know. Then I got to college and I was like, "Oh I’ve been painting and drawing white people and that's not really what I know, that’s just what I’ve seen and what’s been around me." That’s when I started to really focus on Black women’s features, like painting and drawing my friends, doing portraits of my friends just like for fun and I realized that this was artwork that I connected more to and it had more meaning automatically.
As an art historian, the entire department at Dartmouth is white. Except for a few Asian and Eastern European teachers. Every year I go to the department and I’m like, “We should have some courses on African art," because our track is mostly Western art and you have to take one Eastern course, so it’s a very Western-centric curriculum. Nothing really came of it though, and nothing really happened, so I was like okay, I guess I’ll just have to make my own and do my own research.
And so, the field is just not very diversified. In contemporary art, it is a little bit more diversified, but for the history of art, there’s really not much. It’s a very predominately white field which is interesting, because art, in my view, is supposed to reflect the times and speak for people who typically can’t speak for themselves, and it’s just interesting that marginalized groups have not been at the forefront of art movements. A lot of people can’t think of any Black art movements past the Harlem Renaissance, which was important, but there have been many more, and we don’t know much about them!
I have an upcoming gallery [exhibit] at the Delaware Contemporary Art Museum where the theme is Black hair nonconformity, and I went into this gallery because the curator and I have a similar experience seeing how Black women’s hair is treated. We’re trying to push it to be more mainstream. It’s trying to make Blackness more mainstream in an accepted way rather than just a “trendy” way.
JB: How did you get started in art expression? I wonder--did your parents encourage it growing up, did you take classes? How did you get started on the path you’re on?
AB: Neither of my parents are artists, they are science people! I know my mom would draw with me sometimes and then I guess I just liked it. I didn’t take real art classes, but I did go to this art camp every summer from the ages of seven to thirteen at this same place every summer. I kept going back to it! I went to a private school in Delaware that had very bougie elective classes you could take, so I would take advanced art as a free seminar and would bond with our teachers who were real retired artists doing their own thing. They encouraged me [to see] that art was a real thing that I could pursue, that I could mix it with math and do architecture or I could study it and teach art history. A lot of my teachers in private school encouraged me to take it further and explore it more in college.
Dartmouth didn’t have a specific architecture field. They just had architecture classes, so I did art history, studio art, and added on geography because I like the social justice aspect and learning how our world was created and is still functioning. My art has really grown. At Dartmouth I’ve been around more Black people, and I’ve been able to focus and ask myself what I want to emphasize with my art. Now, I’m much less focused on aesthetics and more focused on asking, "Who am I representing and what is the message being shown?"
JB: Tell me about where you hope to be after college with your artistic endeavors?
AB: It’s a lot! I’m planning to go to graduate school for architecture and design next year, but until then, I have a plan just to do a lot of work for a local, sort-of grassroots organization in Delaware. I have no idea how I even got involved in that, but it happened one summer and I like it because it teaches me a lot.
The main issues I’ve been focused on are with Delaware public schools in urban environments. Funding is one of the problems. But even further, there’s a record where schools that have majority Black and Brown students are struggling with more police activity within the schools, more dropouts, low grades and graduation rates. In the neighborhoods where the schools are, [there are] food deserts, there’s no childcare, and many other issues exist. We’re trying to make people realize that the problem isn't funding; you have to fix the neighborhoods where these schools are. There’s a lot of pushback from white liberals in the area who believe that there should be more school resource officers, who are like security, in schools instead of addressing the fundamental root problems. I work with a lot of Black mothers who know what’s going on and want to talk about this stuff so we can figure it out together.
You can learn a lot through academia, but when you’re hearing from someone who knows what it’s like to live in an urban environment where you’ve been told that the government should work for you, but it doesn’t and there is still a lot going wrong, you learn a lot that you can’t learn in a school setting. I really appreciate that experience and hope to do more of that work. Most of the time, nothing much will come of grassroots work, because politics tends to stay “in committee” and you just get a pat on the back, but nothing really changes. It’s definitely not something I want to end up in, because politics is a mess. This work does help me mold my artwork message, however, into something more, since I like trying to depict these experiences.
JB: I’d love to know the story behind the two paintings that you’ve shared. They're both so beautiful and I wonder what inspired them?
AB: Thank you! I did six paintings originally for my painting final. Because classes were virtual, we had to go out and get our own models. I got all of my home friends to model for close ups, so I could take pictures and then paint from high quality photos. Just out of my friends, I figured, well, I know them intimately and so I can intimately paint their features. They’re all Black, some of them mixed or Afro-Latina, and one is Guinean, but I wanted to capture the diverse Black features on Black women. People paint us as a monolith, and the same goes for all kinds of marginalized people as well.
I was in the middle of painting this when George Floyd happened, and it was the biggest event in Black Lives Matter history to happen. It got me thinking about doing more with my art. Even though I was focused on aesthetics for the class, I started selling this art and donating the proceeds to grassroots organizations. My favorite was Loveland, a mental health organization giving free therapy to Black women. Mental health is something that I really care about, so once people started buying them, I kept painting them. Gabi (top of page) and Alexis III (above) came out of that, and they had more of a purpose besides just my painting final, supporting people for a cause I care about during a rough time.
I really took my time working on them so that I could sell them and give money to causes I care about, because ultimately, I’m just trying to help the people out!
Check out more of Ashleigh’s work at https://www.ashleighbrady.com.