In our January issue, we asked: Who will carry the city's torch forward for the next generations? Here, the next artistic agent of change
Lisa McLymont's Universe Tribe portrait series is about perspective. The paintings on birch are mesmerizing for their use of color, the swirling woodgrain patterns and the raw emotions they express. Yet she knows some can be unsettling because the subjects stare right back at the viewer. Her intent isn't to be unnerving; she says it's just her way of saying, “I see you.” She wants to pull people in.
“There's just something about the spirit of these women that's conveyed and captured in these works,” says Melissa Starker, a friend who works at the Wexner Center for the Arts. “You can't help but be moved by them.”
Universe Tribe is indicative of McLymont's signature style—reminiscent of Georgia O'Keefe and Susan Seddon Boulet, her largest influences—but it's also notable for portraying women of color almost exclusively. Larry Williamson Jr., the director of Ohio State's Hale Black Cultural Center, says her work exhibits traces of longtime OSU professor Pheoris West, whose renowned, colorful art often features black women. Through her subjects, McLymont is making her contribution to a proud tradition of Columbus artists like West—Smoky Brown, Aminah Robinson, Elijah Pierce, Kojo Kamau and many others who highlighted their African-American heritage, showcasing people underrepresented in art.
McLymont, 48, a New York City native who moved to Columbus at age 10, has paid tribute to a few of those predecessors, creating portraits of Brown and Robinson; the latter is among the city's most revered artists for her prolific mixed-media pieces that depicted Columbus's African-American communities. Robinson was a master storyteller and recorder of history, McLymont says. In contrast, many of McLymont's works feature women who aren't real at all; they're created using an amalgam of traits and features so they resonate universally. Her paintings are meant to put love and beauty into the world, McLymont says, and to show people of color in a positive light.
Rebecca Ibel, who represents McLymont's art, says she doesn't know anyone else in the community with such a unique artistic voice, a voice McLymont didn't fully discover until she felt burnt out at 40 and embraced the idea of becoming a visual artist. She's an Ohio State grad and a graphic designer by trade—currently with Equitas Health—and until 2009, her primary outlet for personal expression was her handmade metal jewelry company, Coppercurious. Acclaimed local artist Queen Brooks—another of McLymont's inspirations—says she enjoyed McLymont's copper jewelry but also encouraged her to stretch her abilities.
Her portraits are largely hopeful and affirmative, but the work has a surprising origin: anger. She started with abstracts and landscapes before moving into figurative work in 2015, as the country grew more polarized and negativity dominated the news, especially regarding people of color. She has harnessed her sadness, depression and frustration with current events and channeled it to reflect positivity instead. “I can't do angry art,” McLymont says. “It's not cathartic for me. It's more cathartic to force myself to shift my energy into something useful.”
She finds purpose through community involvement, particularly among other Columbus artists. Stephanie Rond, a local street artist who co-founded a professional support and networking collective called Creative Arts of Women, says McLymont was an integral group member who helped brand the organization early on. McLymont has also been active in the Ohio Arts League, Creative Women of Color and The Art and Artists of Ohio, and she's considering how to use the sales of some current pieces to start a fund that pays health care costs for artists of color.
Rond sees McLymont's personality present in her work—a commitment to social justice that's welcoming rather than confrontational. “She's not screaming at the top of her lungs about something,” Rond says. “She's inviting you into the conversation.”
“If we can shift the majority of people to raise their kids in a way where they can look at some stranger in love, and not as ‘other,' that is the goal of my Universe Tribe,” McLymont says. “We are all connected. That is it.”
She still makes Coppercurious jewelry and plans to continue her portraiture odes; next are paintings of Brooks and the late Denny Griffith, the seminal leader of the Columbus College of Art & Design, where McLymont once taught. She also hopes to begin showing her work outside Ohio. Brooks says she's impressed by McLymont's ambition and her dedication to her craft.
“If she keeps at it and she stays here,” Starker says, “I could see her being like one of those people in Columbus that just everyone reveres.”