In the fall of 2018, I was…pretty depressed, for lack of a better word. My book wasn’t selling (I was not a marketing genius), and I was working for a school that--bless the kids--drained every ounce of energy and joy I had, so I had none leftover for my book. The past summer had been a reprieve from the madness, but the fall had hit me like a ton of bricks.
So when my good sis, artist Suhaylah Hamzah (IG: suhaylah_theartist), invited me to an art show in which she was participating, I’ll admit that I didn’t have the spoons to go. Outdoors, it was cold and wet; on the inside, I was dark and twisty--you get the picture. Nevertheless, Suhaylah is one of my dear friends, and when I make her a promise, I always want to come through. So, I got out of bed (with my hair still in twists, so you know I wasn’t about it)--I trudged through the muck and the awful fall Cleveland weather, and I attended the RAW Artists show at the Cleveland House of Blues.
The House of Blues has always been one of my favorite venues. I’d gone there for plenty of notable concerts (SZA, Miguel, Smino, Adele, etc.) but had never seen the space used as it was that night. Artists had set up their booths, tables, easels and all, displaying their art and turning the HOB into a full-on gallery walk. I had come alone, so it was intimidating at first, but I navigated my way through the sea of people to find Suhaylah. When I found her, I immediately bought a piece of art (love her style), then caught up for a bit. Soon after, I decided to really explore the space, meet some of the artists and view their work. I saw some incredible, impressive art that night. I regret not taking more pictures, but trust me when I say that this felt like an event for the cream of the crop in Cleveland.
I walked around for a while, looking for nothing in particular. I talked to a couple artists, took a few cards and kept walking. Art was never really my thing, but I could still appreciate a beautiful painting. Finally, I came to an artist’s booth near the bar, if I remember correctly.
As I viewed some of the work, my heart started to speed up in my chest. I was frozen in my spot. I was having a visceral reaction to art (a good one) and I was enthralled. What I loved about the pieces I saw was that they were fantastical and surreal; they were colorful and playful and authentic and raw. I also loved seeing all of these things involving black bodies; I was amazed to see black bodies in art that wasn’t overly sexual, dark or violent. It stirred up something magical in me; I knew that before I left this show, I would have to buy something from this artist.
I found a print that I liked and wanted to purchase, but I wanted to talk to the artist. I wanted to ask her about her work (and maybe get my print signed, too). I waited patiently while she, and her partner at the time, took customers and sold a few other prints.
Up close, the artist was a small woman, a bit shorter than me (which is a feat), but visibly spunky and brimming with cheer. When we finally came face to face, she introduced herself as Lenabella, her artist name; I introduced myself and gushed over her art, thanking her for the print. I then asked her if she had ever considered designing a book cover.
Amazingly, she confessed that designing a book cover had been one of her longtime dreams.
I couldn’t believe my ears. I think we talked for maybe five minutes, but it was one of the most splendid, exciting five minutes of my life. We exchanged contact information immediately, took a picture, and planned to meet in the near future.
I learned that Lenabella (Zakiya) was a Cleveland native. Not only was she an artist, but also a graphic designer. We shared a love for many things, among them coffee shops, where we spent many of our first meetings. Her portfolio was impressive--I was already sold at the art show, but seeing more of her work only solidified my desire to work with her.
I’m no art critic, but I enjoy the way Lena’s art plays with color in contrast to dark or serious themes. Her art is extremely tasteful; she has the ability to depict naked, black, feminine bodies in ways that don’t reflect or perpetuate the male gaze or come off as too sexual. She processes many of her experiences through her art and there is a genuine love behind the work that she does.
Whether I knew it then or not, meeting Lena brought me out of the funk that I had been stuck in. Being involved in the process of creating something new, something fresh, was revitalizing.
Over the course of months, we met and brainstormed, coming up with ideas for a new cover for A Shrouded Spark, that would not only bring in more readers but also be more representative of the main character of the series. The first cover that Lena created was gorgeous. However, almost immediately after finishing it, she offered to re-create the cover. She felt that a new cover could better encompass her style and talent as an artist, rather than her trying to conform to a specific art style. I was enamored with her style and more than willing to embark on another journey with her.
Lena’s art is unique--just as she is. Her quirks and nuances come through not only when you meet her, but also through her paintings. I am lucky to know and have had the privilege of working with an artist and graphic designer of her caliber.
To learn more about Lena, read the brief interview below.
The first question I asked the artist was where are you from, and how does that influence your art?
Lena was born in Maple Heights, but grew up specifically in Shaker, both suburbs of Cleveland. Due to her surroundings, most of her art, for a solid time, was just of white people. A teacher of hers asked “Why do you only draw white people?” This question stuck with her. She realized that being around predominantly white people affected her idea of what beauty was. Her idea of beauty progressively changed over time as she learned what she wanted to project in her art.
The rest of our interview is as follows:
Who are your biggest artistic influences?
Not to be cliche, but Frida Kahlo. But, one of the artists that I really like who’s alive is Gawki. They show so much color and honest content in their art. One of the most recent things they did was a piece, beautifully done, of top surgery. It showed the scars as beautiful--and I bought it, because I have no self control when it comes to them. But, just artists that actually have a message--I like pretty art, just pretty art--but, when I’m sad or I need to connect, pretty art isn’t what I go to. I go to art that has substance.
Tell me about your favorite medium.
I work in watercolor, but let me get my hands on a different medium! Watercolor is what I am comfortable in, but if I try something different then that’s my favorite. My favorite really depends on what mood I’m trying to convey through the art at that moment. It probably changes from piece to piece, honestly. Right now, I’m just learning how to use procreate--right now that’s my favorite. Maybe next month it’ll be acrylic, maybe one day I’ll dip into oil (maybe probably never) but, you know, it depends on what it is.
Describe how art is important to society.
Art is beauty that forces you to think, when done properly. It causes conversation that might not have otherwise been had. In ideal situations, it brings together groups that wouldn't have come together otherwise. It’s way more important than school systems seem to think.
What motivates you to create?
It depends on the piece. A lot of the time, my pieces are diary pieces, something I need to get out of my system in a constructive way. Other times, it’s just putting more content into the world that isn’t all ‘one race’. It’s such a responsibility--it needs to be constantly done, not that others aren’t doing it, but maybe their art doesn't speak to someone and maybe mine will, you know? It could be the difference between somebody finding love for themselves now and finding love for themselves in five years.
Describe your favorite piece to date and explain why it’s your favorite.
My favorite piece is probably everybody else's favorite piece--that thing is sold--the original sold pretty quick. It was one of the first times I indulged willingly in a background and the woman is just sitting there with her legs open, eyes closed, and looks completely at peace. And because my pieces are diary pieces, it was a direct reflection of how I was feeling at the time. I don’t think I’ve ever, up to that point, translated how I was feeling as aptly as I had in that piece. That piece was tranquility, that piece was honestly what I was feeling and what I wanted to be and just…it conveyed the feeling that I wanted, which I feel is a rarity. I’m all about people looking at pieces and creating their own opinions from them, but I think it’s something special when the thing that you create also draws the same general emotion from other people.
What do you hope to communicate to people through the art you’ve created?
Honestly, as much as I want to create for people I’ve actually taken a bit of a step back from that. I feel like when I first became what I would classify as “good”, my art became (except for the diary pieces, but even those) something that was for everyone else--for consumption. For buying. For somebody else's enjoyment, for instagram, for something--and in that, if my pieces maybe didn’t get enough likes, didn’t get enough reception that I felt was positive, I would stop going in that direction, which literally halted exploration of art, of techniques, of mediums, of many things.
Where I’m at now isn’t so much for everyone else, because I did that. I want to do that again--but where I’m at right now is, what do I want to do? How do I do it without making it so much about everybody else? I still want to convey the same idea that 'black is beautiful', but I want to do it in a way that isn’t so centered around how everyone else receives it. I want my art to be for me.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
My first solo art show, of which you came to! You create things, and you do it in your living room, or sometimes lying in your bed half asleep, or just in between the time that you have when you’re living your regular life, doing your normal job, and you wonder if people will actually like it, if it will actually speak to anybody. And on kind of a whim, I was like “You know what, let’s see if it does."
I decided I was going to do a solo art show, in part of a bookstore. It was a one room thing--I was completely happy with that. I set everything up, and I’m excited, I’m scared, I’m nervous, and I’m listening to anime theme songs to pump myself up before this show. And the whole time I wasn’t sure if it [her art] was going to be received. And it was. And it wasn’t just by people that I knew. There’s something special about the moment when it’s not just people that you know--it’s people who are coming there because they simply like your art. Not necessarily even laced with support just “Oh I like this, I’m here!” That moment of looking around and realizing “I know some of these faces…and some of them I don’t”--that moment was wild.
Where can people find you/your art?