A Woman Who Paints Women: How Portrait Artist Taylor Smalls Celebrates Women Through Art

Graphic: W+G Creative
Taylor Smalls, a woman of color who paints women of color, left her job as an architectural designer last year to focus full-time on palette-knife painting, a space in which she’s been creating since 2012. Specifically, she focuses on painting mixed Black women—a subject niche that wasn’t intentional at the outset but now holds value for her.

“I just realized, like, Okay, I'm painting specifically mixed Black women, and I'm a mixed Black woman,” she tells me during a recent visit I took to her Oakland, California, studio. “There's something about seeing yourself in another person—that's what you're gravitating toward. You're grasping at bits of them that you want to explore and elaborate on probably within yourself.”

“There's something about seeing yourself in another person. You're grasping at bits of them that you want to explore and elaborate on probably within yourself.” —Taylor Smalls, artist

I’m an admirer of Smalls’s work (something I share with Oprah Winfrey, who owns a painting of hers, and wrote her a note about it). And having the opportunity to recently spend time with Smalls in her studio—a natural-light-soaked work of art in its own right with floor-to-ceiling windows with perfectly placed skylights—was inspiring for me.

Leaving her job to invest in herself and her art, uplifting her subjects along the way, is something I admire. And ahead of her painting me later this year, we recently sat down to talk about what inspires her.

Dr. Akilah Cadet: Who is Taylor Smalls?

Taylor Smalls: I’m a friendly person who is just sitting in front of you, wanting to have a conversation. I want to sit with anybody, honestly, and get to know them and talk to them.

I'm a friend to a lot of people, but I'm also a recluse in a lot of ways. I love to be solo, which I discovered about myself through the pandemic. Even though my whole life, I have practiced and loved being with people and being social, I found that I'm a little more clear-headed and happy alone.

AC: Has becoming a full-time artist created any shifts in your life?

TS: There have been big shifts in terms of how I see myself moving through a day, definitely in terms of habit, outlook, and grace. That's been a really big point of understanding. I am now diving into a full-time career that I am solely curating. Beyond the art itself, that includes marketing, finances, advertising—everything.

I'm wearing many hats, most for the first time, so I've needed to learn how to have more grace for myself. If I have a day where I don't feel well and I just want to take a minute and chill and not try and push, I can do that. That's been a big shift because previously I just had to show up. It's been this amazing transition where I’m cognizant of whether I can afford to not push too hard if that would be more beneficial for me holistically. Taking care of myself right now actually looks different in a great way.

AC: Does being a former architectural designer influence your art?

TS: Being in architectural work professionally without being a licensed architect is fairly creatively stifling. So in that way, it influenced my work in painting by being a propelling me to maintain my creative practice. It was very necessary for me, for all of my career in architecture, to maintain my artistic practice and do shows and continue to paint and have agency over my mind and what I feel like I need to show.

AC: Is it intentional that you paint only women of color? What is it about women of color that interests you as your main subject?

TS: It hasn't always been intentional; I started to just create work, honestly, and women, in particular, physically struck me. If you ever look at a body of your work—writing, poetry, photographs, whatever—you can see a through line. You can see a commonality, and I just realized, maybe four years ago, that all of my subjects I was drawn to were mixed women. Not just strictly Black women, but it was mixed women.

If you ever look at a body of your work—writing, poetry, photographs, whatever—you can see a through line. I realized all of my subjects I was drawn to were mixed women. —Smalls

AC: Your work has shifted visually, from a time a few years ago when you used darker black backgrounds, acrylic paint, and thick strokes. Now, I’m seeing lighter backgrounds of more fluid colors, and a more watered-down use of acrylic paint, almost mimicking water colors. What was the reason for that shift?

TS: The entire black-background series, She and I, Then and Us was created during the protests during George Floyd. This was all 2020 and 2021 work that was my first series where we were home during the pandemic. I was in my studio every day and was inspired by the fact that I had time to be around my paints and create more frequently. There was also a dichotomy between black and white, this really simple reduction between Black and white judgments people hold.

I couldn't tell you how many times I was reached out to in that time because I was a “Black artist,” but people did not ever take to consider that I'm also white—50 percent white. And it's just like a really interesting thing. I was like the color in between that. So I did all of the hair in this entire series white and all the backgrounds black, and what is colored is the skin—and not brown whatsoever. It's a hyper-pigmented, extremely exaggerated, layered skin tone between a very flat black and a very sheen-y white. I wanted to show that there's so much richness in between those two. That people are just not considering and thinking even in conversation with me about, “Oh you're Black artist, you know, like tell me about what you're doing with these women of color…”

It's not actually about strictly Black art. I'm not just a Black artist. —Smalls

It's not actually about strictly Black art. I'm not just a Black artist. So that's why the skin that I paint is extremely colorful and not a direct hue. Moving into summertime, I physically needed some levity and I just started to paint these pieces in really bright hues because it just physically made me feel like I could breathe. I needed to get things off my chest and went radically in the opposite direction, and there wasn't too much thought put into it. It was just like an actual reaction to the show that I had previously done and spent so much time on.

The transition to thinning out my acrylic paint to almost a watercolor consistency was born out of a period of extreme heaviness in my life where I realized I was almost using every color in the crayon box on one single piece. This was reflective of overcompensation, not being able to make clear and stable choices, just mental clutter in general.

I decided to completely strip my palette back by creating monochromatic pieces with thin washes that afforded me a bit more mental breathing room and clarity. I found pleasure in the way water decides its own route. It was a very obvious physical representation of me not being able to control everything around me. Working with water ended up feeling like a meditative practice in that way.

AC: Regarding your intersectional identity of being both Black and white, would you say the way in which you use color to highlight pigmentation is how people can understand you and the color that you have? The identity that you have?

TS: I surely hope so. With my work, there are many layers, which is why I've recently been working with water. There are layers of people that you cannot control. The application of the paint is something I cannot control. Water does whatever the hell it wants. And to let it dry, add another color, let it dry, add another—it creates this richness that is a person that is the paint.

AC: How did it feel when you learned that Oprah has one of your pieces?

TS: The actor who played George Washington in a production of Hamilton, Isaiah Johnson, happened to be a neighbor of my previous principal in my architecture firm. They saw him perform in San Francisco when the show was on tour and went to a beautiful jazz club called Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio where I had work displayed. Johnson saw the work, mentioned he was doing a show with Oprah, and was like, “I have to have this artist make a piece for her.”

So he commissioned me for a piece for Oprah and for Tarell Alvin McCraney, the screenwriter of Moonlight. I did two different pieces for them both and delivered them to OWN (The Oprah Winfrey Network) in Los Angeles.

When Oprah then sent me a beautiful letter about the piece, I was just beside myself. I put the letter in my baby book. There are moments when you look at yourself, look at your life, and you're just like, All right, things are fine if they stay as is. And that was definitely one of those moments.

AC: What’s up next for you, art-wise?

TS: The Throughline Project is my current baby, and it’s projected to debut in the summer. It’s what I've been thinking about since I left my firm. We have specific subjects as the theme and they are honored through many different art forms, like photography, painting, music, poetry, and food.

This project is in honor of 12 different women who are making these underground waves in Oakland, highlighting them in a collective way that amplifies everyone. We don't always see each other's work. But if we're in a space where you're like seeing people who you wouldn’t typically, it creates this beautiful synergy.

AC: I end every conversation with a directive for folks to keep being amazing—it’s my email signoff, too. What does it mean to you to keep being amazing?

TS: I’m trying to just be present with people. That's what makes me feel the best, and I think that's my strongest asset. If we looked at my phone right now, I probably have 300 unread text messages because I haven’t looked since we’ve been together. I'd just like to spend time one-on-one, in person with somebody and be fully present.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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