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LOCAL-ish: Meet artist Ya La’Ford

Jenee Priebe

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St. Petersburg is brimming with local creatives. We love local: artists, restaurants, businesses, dive bars. We have an entire festival celebrating all things local. But in a boundless digital world, what does it really mean to be local? This three-part series aims to explore that question while highlighting St. Petersburg-based artists whose work has propelled them beyond the boundaries of our city limits. These artists proudly call St. Pete home while simultaneously acquiring an impressive portfolio of work outside the ‘Burg.

Part two of Local-ish features visual artist Ya La’Ford. She’s a muralist, installation artist, painter and professor. Her work is immediately recognizable for its sharp, geometric lines and bold contrasting colors, often adorning the entryways to businesses throughout St. Petersburg. From gallery exhibitions to community mural projects, she’s a staple in the local art world. But her artwork also spans the globe from Dubai to South Africa. La’Ford takes a moment to share what she’s been working on lately and why she continues to choose the Tampa Bay area as her home.

When did your art career begin?

As a kid, I had a very robust imagination and so my artistic journey soon began after receiving my first pack of crayons. While they were surely intended for paper and coloring books, I for some unknown reason favored the clean white surfaces of my parents’ walls. I suppose it was destiny – or call it fate – that led me to eventually paint murals and create art experiences as a career. It was actually during a secluded art residency, where I was challenged to explore new possibilities in my work. My canvas and materials somehow got lost in delivery and I had several weeks to present a new body of work, absent any canvas or materials. On a whim, I transferred my canvas-intended patterns to the studio wall and hence it became a curious discovery. That moment was defining for me and gave me the confidence to explore the dynamics of painting large scale murals, transforming places and spaces, ultimately serving to demonstrate to communities how art can play an active role in expressing the artistic identity of St. Petersburg.

How long have you been in the St. Pete area?

I am originally from New York. So, I’m what you call a Bronx girl …Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in Washington, D.C., Houston, South Florida and Boston. Shortly after completing my masters work in fine art, I wanted to explore a new part of Florida that really focused on art and creativity in a transformative way. I soon gravitated toward Historic Kenwood which boasts an eclectic assembly of 1930-1950s bungalows, many of which are part of the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the homes offered detached in-law suites, which in my case presented the best option to paint and fabricate work. It really feels like a family, as a great many artists live and work within the neighborhood and are able to collaborate in great ways. So, presently, I have lived in the Tampa Bay area for almost a decade, I also keep studio space in the Bronx and Jamaica and we have a beautiful property in Maine, that overlooks Canada and inspires me in the summer – where I am building my largest immersive public artwork on over 30 acres.

Why do you choose this area as your home base?

The ocean, warmth, history, charm and many transplants are what makes this place remain my home. Also, a lot of art. The Dali Museum, Museum of Fine Arts (of which I sit on the board of Trustees), Studio@620, Tampa Museum of Fine Arts, The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, to mention a few. I am delighted that I could also share my gifts in this area, contributing parts of my soul and connecting with the community all around our lived spaces. With a focus on an entrances and pathways you can find some of these strategic placements at the entrance of the Hyatt, the back entrance of the Morean Art Center, the entryway of the Rowdies, inside of the Rays entryway to the stadium, and inside Nike. With works of equal significance at the entryway of the James Weldon Johnson Public Library, many local schools and at the entryway of the Warehouse Arts District (to mention some, but not all). All the installations are hard at work reverberating and aestheticizing our human experience. I think doors and entryways are paths that bridge and connect us to divine intervention to preserve our destinies.

Tell me about any significant projects you’ve done outside the Tampa Bay area.

To mention a few because most of my work is outside of this area, I am working on over 100 works presently. I just completed the Toronto Blue Jays 2 Installation. For this one, my lines redefined and recreated the connections of the space and the other that spoke to the significance of equality. You will soon find my artwork across the country with all National Football League Owners as part of the Super Bowl collection. I have large scale public art sculptures/installations in Orlando, Gainesville, Pompano Beach, Hawaii and New Jersey. I have an exhibition in Dubai right now and an upcoming exhibition at the Ringing, this summer where I will do another full-environmental immersive installation, similar to the solo-show, distance, I just closed at Gallery 221, HCC Gallery. I am also working on about six public artwork sculpture projects all over the country and one in South Africa.

What does being local mean to you?

I find that 2020 seemed to challenge our notions of what it means to be local in very interesting ways. I discovered the idea of location was something that rapidly evolved how the product of creativity, skills and talent expressed through art, required geographic diversification. It simply meant that artists were better able to connect with new audiences who wanted to experience art to help them cope with separating from people, in a way that was new and frightening and challenging. So, for me, I think local is the sum total of the people, routines, places, spaces and cultural repetitive patterns that create your usual experiences. It means that you belong to an ecosystem that as a unit seeks to better the block, neighborhood, district and city that surrounds you. And it also represents what it means to be an ambassador for your community as the work you do, reflects the creation of its value system, ideas and identity.

No matter where I am or where we are, I always look for the opportunity to bridge humanity through the metaphysics of space. I am only as local as your mind will allow you to envision my possibilities. Reconfiguring what local means I think is to think about this idea that we are stronger as a group than an individual. To think in cooperative and communal ways, thus always finding interconnections and spaces whereby I can grow communities, promote forces of good and love; while doing my part to participate in open dialogue among all branches of national, regional and local government for our children; bridging the power of art and community. This includes the private sector and civil society and especially the most vulnerable, poor and marginalized. I have looked around me and tried to be innovative; adapting local circumstances and thinking about building sustainable ideas to be a light to the children that are our future. 

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