Artist Tiffany Lawson is ready to craft her own happy ending

The Columbus native takes part in ‘Between, With, and Away,’ a new duo show opening Friday at 934 Gallery

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
"Dragon Slayer" by artist Tiffany Lawson

As the coronavirus pandemic continued to tighten its grip through the summer of 2020, Tiffany Lawson started to sketch a series of faces. Gradually, the artist began having conversations with these emerging figures, who appeared to be wholly imagined and not based on anyone she’d encountered.

“They just showed up, and then I started asking questions: Who are you? What do you want?” Lawson said in a recent interview at 934 Gallery, where she is set to join Gloria Ann Shows in “Between, With, and Away,” a new duo exhibit that opens at the Milo-Grogan art space on Friday, March 5. (The show will take place both virtually and in-person on an appointment basis.) “This was one of those meltdown moments. I was sick of being home alone. Can’t go anywhere. Sick of eating the same doggone meals for three weeks. Can’t go further than to the corner store and back. And I was like, ‘Mom, I’m sketching all of these people and I don’t know who they are.’ And then they started talking. And they started telling stories.”

These stories form the backbone of a trio of pieces by Lawson on display in the gallery: three-dimensional, diorama-like portraits that incorporate drawings, found items and collage. Accompanying each piece is a narrative, each written by Lawson, that brings the portrait to life in greater detail. 

“I’m a dragon slayer,” begins one bit of text, which appears below a portrait of a woman casually holding a massive gun that stands nearly equal to her height. “Dragons come in all sizes … from long ago and present.”

For some pieces, the text emerged first, and then Lawson would use the words to inform the drawing, while other creations, such as the woman who came to be known as the dragon slayer, existed in physical form before the artist hit upon a more detailed story. This is a byproduct of Lawson’s everything-at-once creative process, where sketchbooks tend to be filled with poems, drawings, song verses and bits of narrative text, all interspersed, reflecting the unpredictable nature with which these ideas can surface.

Lawson traced this, in part, to an upbringing where art, literature and music existed in a constant swirl. As a child, Lawson would read constantly, often spending hours Downtown at the Main Library, seated in cubby beneath the sprawling reading tree. At the same time, Lawson’s mother, a dollmaker, ran an arts program at the Methodist church across the street from the family’s South Side home. On Saturday mornings, Lawson would take place in workshops taught by local artists such as “Grandpa” Smoky Brown, Aminah Robinson and Gilda Edwards, who would later serve as a mentor.

These lessons would occasionally spill into the home, with Lawson drawing on the wall behind the living room couch, which she could then push back in place, hiding her impromptu gallery. “My mom would say, ‘Tiffany, did you write on the wall?’” Lawson said, and laughed. "No, mom."

Through the years, Lawson has gradually allowed more of her story to bleed into her artwork, though initially in more camouflaged form. The dragon slayer piece, for example, incorporates the cover from a past issue of The Other Paper that features a photograph of the artist’s brother, who overcame a more tumultuous past and currently works as a yoga instructor, a turnaround that plays into the work's greater theme of slaying dragons.

Each piece also contains elements pulled from the artist’s past. Sometimes this is done more directly, such as two small paintings of pillars, which the artist completed while healing from hernia surgery in 2013, and which are incorporated into the background of one new work. In other instances these time travels are built around an idea or a memory, such as the stained glass-like features present in a trio of pieces, which Lawson included because all of the homes in the neighborhood where she grew up had at least one stained glass window.

Moving forward, Lawson envisions her work more directly confronting her own story, describing part of her artistic journey as a process of becoming more comfortable within her own skin. “I found I’ve worked through my emotions and come to a space where I’m OK sharing that story,” Lawson said, referencing a piece she completed for another show, in which the characters’ skin was created using brown paper bags from liquor stores and their dresses from the pages of a hymnal, which she combined as a means of confronting past alcohol issues. “I’m looking forward to telling a little bit of my own personal history, and I don’t think I was comfortable enough to do that before, and I guess that goes a lot toward self-worth. ... But I kind of got rid of some of that negative thinking.”

The pieces on display reflect that emerging sense of joy, which Lawson described as essential to her work, noting that, oftentimes, Black art necessarily dwells on the more painful aspects of the African American experience. “In Black art you do see a lot of despair and hurt, and not a lot of healing,” Lawson said. “My mother can most definitely tell those stories, and I’ve had my own experiences with injustice and discrimination. But, at the end of the day, I truly believe the world has changed and will continue to change, especially if we illuminate Black joy and other things that can shift that narrative of who we are as people.”