The French writer Émile Zola once said, “One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of deadlines.” For Chicago painter Andrea Coleman, that rings especially true.
While working toward her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Columbia College Chicago, Coleman found herself working against the clock when her initial plans for a project had fallen through.
With less than twenty-four hours until deadline, Coleman remembered an old photograph of her mother. “I had collected a bunch of pictures from family albums, and I kept this one of my mom because it kind of looked like me,” she said. Though she had never painted digitally before, she decided to make a collage with the old photograph in Photoshop, staying up all night to make her deadline.
“It was an intuitive process,” she said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t like, let me put this pattern here or make calculations based on the colors. I just kept painting and overlaying the stories I was told of this person.”
By morning, Coleman had created a seventy-four-by-forty-four-inch digital print featuring colorful brush-like strokes over her mother’s portrait, titled “Physiognomy.” When professors praised her painting for its originality, she knew she had created a style of her own. To date, she has created six large digital paintings using old family photos, including “Physiognomy.”
Coleman, who graduated from Columbia in 2017, finds inspiration for her paintings in her family’s knack for storytelling—and the discrepancies that inevitably appear as anecdotes grow into folk tales. “I was told stories from different people and there’s an overlay,” she said. “You get different information, and some of it diminishes. That’s how I work with the colors.”
She grew up in south suburban Chicago Heights, surrounded by extended relatives. “They kind of always circled around each other and lived a block away from each other. When I would go to my grandparents’ house, I would get different stories than when I would go to my aunt’s house…I’m trying to revisit those experiences I’ve had and make them a current situation.”
Aside from her family, Coleman counts among her inspirations Marvin Gaye and Toni Morrison, two artists she says have helped her stay in tune with her past and reach beyond words to capture shared experiences.
As a young painter coming of age in the era of Instagram, where some artists quickly gain vast exposure and influence, Coleman says trying to find her own voice has been a frustrating process. “I have to have a lot of patience because I see more established artists that have this style that everyone responds to,” she said. After creating “Physiognomy,” she says she essentially had to work backwards to re-learn what she did to create the work so that she could effectively recreate it in future paintings. “You don’t know you’ve found your style until other people respond to it.”
In addition to her digital paintings, Coleman’s work has also been showcased in galleries run by Columbia. She also created a video work filmed with a three-dimensional camera when her grandfather was hospitalized in 2017 that aims to evoke empathy for those in the healthcare system and capture everyday interactions in hospital spaces.
Lately, Coleman finds herself experimenting with fabric, canvas, and carpet instead of print and paper. That work will be on display at the Chicago Art Department in Pilsen this July.
If there’s one element Coleman isn’t likely to experiment with, it’s size. Large paintings allow Coleman to create an experience for her audience, she says, where they can study the strokes, fragmentation, and layers in every piece. “That’s where the intimacy lies.”
Bridget Gamble is a contributor to the Weekly and a communications specialist. She last contributed an interview with longtime Chicago public health nurse Joan Lawson.