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How artist Ya La’Ford is using her work for activism

Ya La’Ford is a world-renowned, US-based artist, professor, muralist and self-proclaimed “artivist”, who credits her Jamaican ancestry as a strong force that is propelling her along her path as a changemaker. 

Known for work that embodies strong social community through intricate geometric patterning, Ya has been exhibited at the Tampa Museum of Fine Arts, the Orlando Museum of Fine Art, and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Her originals have also been incorporated in the collections of giants like Nike.

Connectivity, it seems, is at the center of all she does. One of her recent exhibitions, Distance, explores the navigation of life during the pandemic, and the concepts of social distancing, monotony and societal values, through deeply contemplated repetitive patterns. 

Ya also amalgamates her art into activism, and she works to create change by partnering with a variety of community-based organizations. 

Community Woven, for example, is a St. Petersburg, Florida-based mural she designed to represent intergenerational learning and knowledge passed down from one’s ancestors. The mural was painted by over 40 local students, and is composed of “words, wisdom, and well-wishes” collected from the local community in support of the push for justice and equality. 

We had the honor of speaking with Ya, an undeniable visionary, to find out how she views influence and creativity, the role of her Caribbean roots, and the importance of activism.

Here’s what she told us… 

You are an embodiment of someone who is living fully in alignment with self. This can be difficult for creatives whose skills, talents and ambitions don’t neatly fit in conventional boxes. What has the path to success as an artist been for you? 

Ya: Thank you. The blueprint to success is unique for each person, however, mine is driven by passion, focus and love. I use my intuition to develop my own style and language by exploiting my strengths and curiosities. I use cultural impact and community engagement as my benchmarks for my career successes. I have amazing role models to keep me grounded, inspired and courageous. I try my best to creatively approach every interaction, stay in the moment, and remain balanced with my two beautiful baby boys, my family and friends.  

How has your Jamaican roots played a role in your drive and ambition, and inspired your work as an artist? 

Ya: My heritage is who I am, as I am a continuation of my ancestors. The strong vibrations from Jamaica are a huge source of pride and motivation. On top of Jamaica being the birthplace of reggae, Bob Marley, the world’s fastest sprinters, Blue Mountain coffee, Red Stripe beer, Jamaican rum, beautiful beaches, jerk dishes, luxurious all-inclusive resorts and majestic waterfalls; my grandfather John Dunkley is considered to be Jamaica’s most important artist. Thinking back, I see myself sitting on the lap of my father in Kingston, Jamaica, and catching a glimpse of my grandfather’s imagination for the first time. These memories take me to various places that I always knew I needed to go to be able to map out and find his place – the space of the unconscious, the place that is unknown yet somehow quite familiar. He gave me the keys to enter his paintings, and I walked in those spaces and created my world. In doing so, I recreated, and also extended, his. 

Expanding the collective vision for creatives seems to be important to you. Can you tell us why, and how you’re working to help break social structures and barriers for creatives?  

Ya: My artwork primarily explores themes of the human journey and its parallels with the natural world. So, the continuous challenge of exploring these themes through the lens of connections is paramount. This is deeply rooted in my philosophical thinking. Jamaica’s national motto is Out of Many One People, which is the ultimate celebration of the collective humanity. Finding the spirit of humanity is at the core of my practice. In my mind, everyone and everything is interconnected. I seek every opportunity to use my creative platform to portray true transformation – one with unity, love and interconnection. 

What are some of the community-building projects you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of, and why?

Ya: I am proud of every community project, however I will mention the most recent. 

With every project, I am always looking for outreach opportunities within the communities that we serve. I have worked with major sports organizations like the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, to involve community kids (our future) into our projects. With the Rowdies, we had over 100 kids from the community create a large-scale mural, incorporating the learning of life skills and development. Those children can visit this public art piece, and always remember that they have a place here and are a part of something. 

I also recently partnered with the Florida Orchestra in a year-long arts enrichment series that helped them stay connected to each other during the pandemic. We incorporated zoom classes on music and the orchestra, which culminated in the kids and myself taking a field trip to the Florida Orchestra to experience the music they learned about. 

I am presently working with the Ringling to bring over 200 children from both sides of the bridge to unify the space and give them the opportunity to root a tree that they can come back to visit for years to come. 

As a representative of possibility for children, particularly girls, of Caribbean immigrants who want to be successful artists or creatives, living in the U.S. amidst the particular challenges of the time, what one message would you give them? 

Every single person is destined for greatness. Focus on finding that and shining that light. It is our gift to the universe.  

Check out Ya La’Ford’s work online on IG @yalaford

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