Visual artist Julia Bottoms’ new exhibition, A Light Under the Bushel, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, New York, is driven by her desire to explore Black images as celestial, royal beings, expanding the narrative around representations of Blackness. In “5 Questions with an Artist,” she shares the vision behind her paintings, her creative inspirations and her must-have treats while making her art.

Julia Bottoms. Image: courtesy of the artist.
Julia Bottoms. Image: Tiffany Gaines.

EBONY: What is your exhibition, A Light Under the Bushel, about? 

Julia Bottoms: This exhibition, which was curated by Tiffany Gaines, is really about imagining a history that was lost. I'm thinking about people of color and how during the creation of pieces that would be considered classical, we have always existed, we have always had contributions to offer. But when we think of portraiture, it's always been about who was worthy of being documented. And because we weren't considered people worthy of documenting, we don't see ourselves represented in these classical portraits. I wanted to imagine what that could look like if we were put in these really grand scenes, posed in religious iconography as saints and warriors and all those figures we're so familiar with in classical imagery. It’s how it might feel to see ourselves represented in that way.

When did you first fall in love with art?

I can think back to being in Head Start and anytime I had a chance to get crayons and paper, I was always creating. Actually, at this show, my first-grade teacher—who I haven't seen in 20-something years—came in. She told me that when I was a little kid I made this really, really detailed drawing, and she could tell everything that was in it, and she knew even then I had a passion for art. So it's just been something that's always been with me. And I was really fortunate that my parents encouraged it. They always cultivated the love I had for art.

A Light in Constant Motion, Julia Bottoms, 2022. Image: Courtesy of the artist.
A Light in Constant Motion, Julia Bottoms, 2023. Image: Tiffany Gaines.

Do you consider yourself an artist first, and then a person of color?

I think so often the art world demands Black artists to create trauma-centric work dealing with slavery and things like that. And I think what we're seeing now is as people of color, we're pushing back and saying, “Maybe I want to create work about race, but maybe I want to create work about something else, maybe I want to explore abstract work.” We are finally seeing an opportunity to be able to just be artists and not necessarily have demands or an attachment to topics other people want to hear. It can really be about us just exploring our passion as artists.

What do you need to have in your studio when you’re about to create art?

Caffeine, for sure. I'm a big tea drinker, I don't do coffee. I really like London Fog tea, so I drink a lot of them. I also have to have some gummy snacks. In addition, I always have to go out and buy some new art supplies to experiment with, which I think has led to some really beautiful work. I'm never afraid to just take something, like a cool pen that kids might use, and play around with it and have fun. Actually, in this exhibition, there are some pieces that are on vinyl and acrylic. I think some of the coolest work comes out of just keeping a sense of playfulness as an artist and never being afraid to try something new.

Who are some of your contemporary inspirations?

Kehinde Wiley is a huge inspiration. I also look at a lot of local artists as well because there's something to be said for your peers and what they're doing. Being able to have direct access to working with them and seeing what they're producing at the moment is a great experience. So Markenzy Julius Cesar is somebody locally that I'm just like, “Oh, wow, such beautiful work.” George Hughes is another local artist. There are just so many here in Buffalo. I think a lot of people don't realize the wealth of talent that we have. I look at their work, and I'm blown away. It's world-class.

See A Light Under the Bushel at the Burchfield Penney Art Center through October 29, 2023