“Art is culture,” said Les Floyd, an artist from Somerset. “And people who lose their culture lose everything.”
Floyd, who with artist J. Casseia Lewis is featured in an exhibit at the New Jersey Law Center that celebrates Black History Month, was lamenting cuts to school arts programs. But he was also commenting on the importance of representation of the richness of African American culture in the arts.
“We’ve done so much to be proud of. I think I put that message out there” with my paintings, he said.
Floyd’s work captures aspects of the rich tapestry of African American culture. It includes portraits of leading figures in the arts, such as writer Maya Angelou and numerous musicians, including Duke Ellington, Nina Simone and Lee Morgan.
“I always like to tell the story within a painting,” said Floyd, who describes his style as traditional Realism with a slight Impressionist influence.
“I see things differently,” he said, “from a crack in the floor to the light in a window.”
With Angelou’s portrait, he tried to capture “the grittiness of her life” with gray tones, monochromatic colors and dramatic darks and lights.
A trained artist who grew up in Somerville and studied fine art at Montclair State University, duCret School of the Arts and other schools, Floyd has worked as a professional artist since the 1970s. His work has been exhibited in numerous galleries, including those in New York, Philadelphia, Yale University and the Somerset County Courthouse.
This is the first show for Lewis, a self-taught artist who grew up in Jersey City. She creates textural mixed-media pieces, largely using acrylic and vibrant colors in a style that evokes elements of Abstract Expressionism, portraiture and African art.
“There’s a need for increased representation,” in the arts, Lewis said. “When people think about artists in the medium of painting, they rarely think about women or people of color. It’s not because they don’t exist. It’s because of lack of education around it or exposure.”
Lewis said her painting “Comment #1, 2020” makes more of a social commentary than her other work. It was created when she was listening to a poem of the same name that was about the black liberation movement in America.
“It’s a commentary on America and the issues in our country regarding race and class. I hope it will resonate with people when they are looking at the piece,” she said.