ABOVE: Jaylin Stewart at Sheherazade during her installation and performance of God Rest America Photos courtesy of the artist
SPEAKING: Jaylin Stewart
with Mary Clore
At the age of twenty-four, Jaylin Stewart is already the founder of a non-profit, an educator, a community role model recognized with awards and accolades, and a prolific artist. Her work ranges from painting and mixed media to installation and performance, through which she examines the effects of gun violence, drugs, wealth disparity, and capitalist greed. In August of 2019, her installation God Rest America converted the white-walled garage space at Sheherazade into a growing memorial, modeled after the kind of street-side memorials often created by community members at sites of violence. Mary Clore joined Stewart in her studio on 42nd Street to discuss her work as a source of healing, as well as a means of activism.
MC: I like to start my interviews by asking what it means to be an artist here in Louisville. What does that mean to you, Jaylin?
JS: I think that being an artist here in Louisville may be a little bit different to me than to other artists. I almost feel like a local hero or a neighborhood hero, especially with the topic that I choose to share with my city. It's important to be an artist here in Louisville, Kentucky, especially as a young black woman. There are not many black female artists here, especially in their early twenties. It's very important for young people to see young artists, to see people who look like them or may have come from a background like theirs. I also feel like being an artist in Louisville is being a leader. I'm able to have a voice, I'm able to have opinions that people really value and listen to. It's an important title that I carry.
MC: Can you describe your practice?
JS: My practice is unique. I like to call my artwork “healing art” and “pain and healing.” I know what I do is therapeutic. As far as my activism, or my portraits of victims of violence, I do consider it healing. I consider my practice to be realism, not just because of the style of painting, but because of the topic and the reasoning.
I haven't met many people that choose to talk about what I discuss through art. I do a lot of research, I do a lot of studying. Most of all my practice is filled with love and genuine energy. I'm very big on kindness and being humble and being relatable to people—to families and the public. Staying in tune with myself and the world around me helps my practice a lot because it’s about reality. If I'm in a fantasy land, or if I'm somewhere else, then my art wouldn't be complete. It wouldn't fit.
MC: How do you see the relationship between art and activism?
JS: When I first started sharing my art, I never thought that I would be considered an activist. But activism means creating something, to stand up for a certain policy or certain change, or making a difference in something that's going on, like advocating against gun violence.
I consider human life art and I love human life just as much as I do art. It’s all equal to me. I use my art to create awareness, to enlighten people that may not come from where I come from, or see the things that I have seen, or experienced some of the things that these people have experienced. I know that is considered activism. It’s powerful that my art says so many things and creates so many conversations and discussions without me really having to use words. I think that's beautiful.
MC: In your recent installation at Sheherazade, God Rest America, you used a stark line down the middle of the gallery—red on one side, blue on the other—to refer to the divisiveness in American politics and culture. How do you hope viewers from different backgrounds respond to your work?
JS: I really hope that people respond with empathy. I want them to have feelings about what it is that they're viewing, whether they're happy, sad, angry, mad. In God Rest America, the most obvious thing that you notice is that it is divided by color—red and blue. Those colors have a controlling effect on American citizens. They get caught up in these colors as far as cultural and political meaning. It can represent gangs, it can represent Democrats and Republicans, it can represent a lot of different things.
It’s unusual to see division in a memorial, because when you memorialize people, usually we're honoring. You don't talk about the negative things, you don't talk about the bad things, you don't really see the things that have caused an issue. Creating the division was very important and it was a read-in-between-the-lines kind of thing. There's a problem here, and we need to do something about it.
Most of all, I really would like to see viewers respond with action—the courage to change things, or just the courage to speak up. The realization that people are living a different life than you are. You may not see this every day, but other people do. I want people to learn. I want them to grow, and I want them to try and make a difference.
MC: There's a tendency to romanticize art as something that always brings people together. At the same time, art has just as much power to provoke. In your work, I see a strong sense of community and empathy, but there's still a feeling of urgency around these issues. How do you balance those forces?
JS: Balance is the biggest thing in my life right now. I’m having to balance my life and my trauma and my own wounds that I'm trying to heal, and also trying to teach, trying to enlighten, and trying to help other people heal from the same wounds. It’s important for me to stay in tune with what's going on with this outside world and what's going on with me mentally and physically. If I don't have a balance, it would create chaos within me and I wouldn't be able to share the message in my art.
The topic that I choose to talk about is extremely heavy. When you look at these portraits, they're beautiful. You see gold, you see glitter, you see a lot of colors. You see smiling faces, and very positive images. But the actual subject of the painting is not as pretty as it looks. I try to make it appealing to our eyes so we want to know more about it. If I was just to paint a picture of someone getting shot in the head, someone may turn their eye from that. What I try to do is make things appealing to us. Then the viewers dig deep in and they realize that this is something else. I think life kind of works that way. We try to hold onto the things that we like, and we ignore what’s really going on. So I do that very intentionally, to pull people in.
I've seen my artwork get pretty much every response it possibly can get. I’ve seen the need and the urgency of my people. We are still starving. We are still hungry, we are still hurting. We have issues at hand that needs to be dealt with. In God Rest America for example, it was a lot of drugs, a lot of money, things we have issues with every day in cities and communities all over the country. In my statement I talked about how people spend their lives trying to get rich, that's just this capitalist country. What I'm doing is so realistic and so powerful that God Rest America actually was broken into. Someone shattered the garage door with a brick, crawled into the exhibition, and tried to steal all the hundred dollar bills. They were fake, of course. That was just my art doing the work itself, spreading the message that we have an issue. There are people that need things so badly that they are willing to destroy things and hurt other people to get things that they need.
MC: What are some areas where you're getting the support you need as an artist, and what are the areas where our city and our community can do better?
JS: I definitely could say I'm supported by the people that I serve. I really do feel like I have a strong following and genuine love from those people. That means everything to me, because I could be considered a voice of the streets or the voice for the underserved. More than anything I'm understood by those people that I’m trying to help. I do feel like bigger organizations, more powerful people, people that are more experienced than me, that have been in the field longer—they could stand behind me, because my story and what I’m doing is so needed all over. They could support me and push me, to help me get to a different level. If I go farther, it will benefit the city of Louisville, not just me, my family and friends.
I was watching a documentary about Muhammad Ali. When he was this new young athlete in Louisville, all of the major businesses and organizations supporting him created a team. They stood behind him because they knew he was going to be the next big thing coming out of Louisville, Kentucky. He was going to be able to impact the entire world. I want to have that confidence and that power.
I'm not afraid to say that’s what I need from my city, because I'm giving everything that I have to help my city and to help my people. I really feel like I was put on this earth to do so. If I'm asking for help in order to help other people, why wouldn't you? I have the power to relate to people, to help people through my art, through my healing and through my activism. I know that I have changed things in the art community in Louisville, Kentucky, especially for a young black woman. I'm on this marathon, and I need my team.
Follow Stewart’s art and community action on Instagram (@adahart) and Facebook (@AdahArtCreations).
Development & Outreach Editor
Jaylin Stewart at Sheherazade during her installation and performance of God Rest America
God Rest America, detail
God Rest America, detail