Attendees unwind with art, music, and cannabis at Puff Paint Pass. Credit: Bruno Bueno

DeJa Jovon wears many hats: visual artist, licensed sex and relationship therapist, and owner of Unladylike, LLC, a business that promotes mental wellness through art, music, and events. At her signature event Puff Paint Pass, attendees can unwind with a smoke and a painting project to a killer playlist. Somehow, Jovon also finds the time to play the bass.

In a 2022 University of Chicago (UofC) community health survey, South Siders ranked mental health as the top concern for both adults and children. Jovon’s work explores the ways in which cannabis and creative spaces can come together to offer healing to South Side communities.

For South Side Weekly, Luz Magdaleno-Flores recently spoke with Jovon about her inspiration, personal practice, and vision for the future of Unladylike’s offerings that center the mental health of communities of color. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Luz Magdaleno-Flores: Let us start with: Who is DeJa?

DeJa Jovon: That’s a good question, because DeJa is a complex person. I would describe myself as a creative person first. The things that I do are extensions of that because I also work in the mental health field as a counselor and specialize in sex and relationship therapy. I’m a visual artist and I work primarily with acrylic and oil [paint]. I like to dabble in other things. My business Unladylike, the name itself is a reflection of me wanting to go against traditional expectations, societal norms, and define my own self. It’s become this whole community space. I do feel like I do a lot, but it is all under [the umbrella of] just me being creative. So I would definitely define myself as a creative first: an artist.

That’s why I was also super excited to talk to you, ’cause you’re a bad bitch. You do so many things. I wanna know about your upbringing. Any mentors that you’ve had that have fed your spirit in that regard?

I would say my upbringing was really good. I remember my mom putting us in a lot of different activities. I think that’s [why] I’m like open to trying stuff and not quick to be like, “No, I’m too old to learn this.” I think that’s why I just have a playful spirit, I think, because I did a lot of playing as a kid and had a very vivid imagination. Definitely a romantic too. (laughs) I would say my mom is definitely a big influence of that. Her side of the family raised her as a Jehovah’s Witness, so it was a lot more restrictive. When she got out of that, she made it a point to make sure my sister and I tried different things to see what we gravitate towards. She has always believed in me and my dreams and even when things were just like real down and out, she was always the one pushing me. So I would say she was definitely the biggest [mentor].

Your introduction to art came later in your life. How did that happen?

Yeah! After I graduated from undergrad, I decided to teach English in Madrid before deciding what I wanted to do in life because I didn’t know and I didn’t wanna go back to school and pick something and waste money. So I was like, I’m gonna go live life (laughs). Again, being open to stuff ’cause I also have my bachelor’s in psychology and Spanish. So I definitely wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country. I just loved it over there. I had so much free time [compared to] the States’ hustle and bustle, grind culture. Being in a different country where you don’t have that pressure on you to show up in that way—that was really big. I had to do something with my time out there. So I just started drawing. There was an art store in the neighborhood that I lived in. I just went there, grabbed a notebook and some pencils and just started trying to draw and have wine nights. So that’s how I got started. When I came back to Chicago, that’s when I started painting and then I started immediately getting into art shows too. It’s been a wild journey. I never would’ve expected myself to be in this position right now, to be honest.

It’s inspiring. That space, that sanctuary, that you built with yourself when you’re painting and sipping wine and having that moment…do you think it might’ve also influenced your puff and paint journey? I am curious, how did you get inspo for that? Did it come from that vibe?

Like you said, I created my vibe, had my wine, had my smokes, and was just like vibing out, I would do that with friends. In 2017, I really started getting more into cannabis ’cause I wasn’t a smoker before, but at that time I started learning about it and learning how to be more intentional about it. So then, I really created my vibe and I always gotta have a good playlist too. At a lot of Unladylike events, people will ask me for the playlist, so I wanted to start consistently putting out a playlist so people could just download it. I try to create a nice vibe, so that people can relax. The first thing you’ll hear people say, is they look at the painting and they say, “I can’t do that” (laughs). I tell them, “You need to give it a try. I have really good teaching skills, you gotta just trust the process.” And if they find themselves criticizing themselves or being mean to themselves, I tell them to really try to tap into their inner child and show that child some compassion. And if you are still being mean to yourself, take a breath, take a puff (laughs) and just try to let go. And then their paintings really come out nice, you stop hearing them talking sometimes. And I have to do a temp check and be like, “How are we doing out here?” And everybody’s just high and zoned out. Then you’ll hear chatter and laughter. 

I love that. It’s been five years of Unladylike. Any special moment that stands out or a favorite puff and paint sesh?

We’ve had Puff and Paints where we had live models come. Those have been fun to do, shake things up a bit. I really like doing the black-light edition. I’ve had a DJ come through and spin some tunes and that’s been really nice. And I brought my fog machine.

Wait, the fog machine is only for the black-light edition?

So far I only been using it for those (laughs).

Because it has more of a dark, spooky vibe?

It’s so trippy. I love curating a vibe. So like the sound’s gotta be good. The feel, the looks. There’s a big-screen TV in there that I had YouTube trippy visuals on. I like to be in a vibe when I’m nice and elevated. Even the erotic art ones that I [host]. Sometimes I have rose petals and those fake candles and try to make it all sexy and sensual. 

Speaking of curating, you’re creating an art show. Tell me about it.

Yeah, long overdue because our anniversary was actually in December. I am celebrating five years with an art exhibition highlighting femme visual artists with a DJ and a burlesque performer. I’m excited for that. I just finished picking out the artists. So I’ll be putting out that information shortly. It is 5pm to 9pm on April 27th. If you’re free please come through. The dress code is “fierce AF.”

I saw that, I’m ready. Are you exhibiting?

So I have this one painting that’s been in the making for over a year now that I’ve been really stuck on. It’s, like, a huge piece too, it represents a lot of heartbreak, losses, and grief. The last three years have been really terrible for me. A lot of ups and downs. It would be nice to actually show this piece at this five year anniversary because some of those downs were about this business too—having to go through a lot of different changes and transformations over time. Unladylike used to have a gallery space. And I dealt with some discrimination around that and a lot of drama. I had to resurrect Unladylike from the dark, and now things are going in a nice pace and direction. I just wanna celebrate all of that. Opportunities are continuing to come in and more consumption lounges are interested in working with me. It’s been a nice change where I don’t have to make the locations private anymore. I’m finding other spaces so I’m expanding, so that’s cool. I really wanna celebrate all of that, that hard work, the consistency, the dedication, the tears, all of that. So I’m really looking forward to that. It’s gonna be an emotional day.

Do you know what you’re wearing?

No! I need to figure that out actually because I wanna feel good.

I’m sure it is gonna be great. Talk to me about why Unladylike, why did you choose that name? What does that mean to you?

Unladylike described my business partner at the time and myself, ’cause we just weren’t really traditional women. It just started off with the Puff Paint and Pass classes. It just branched out into so much more where we were tackling social issues that were also deemed as unladylike. I was in grad school when we first started Unladylike, and I was honing in on my specialization of going into sex therapy. I started incorporating that, hosting workshops and educating folks, especially when the pandemic hit. I was putting out a lot of social media content. It was interesting how things took a turn and then we started diving more into mental health issues for people of color. I think Unladylike is very fitting for the events that we’ve been hosting, ’cause it just goes against a lot of stuff and we address a lot. And then the Puff and Paint too, cannabis itself is still stigmatized to this day. It’s an unladylike thing to do. We were both smokers so it was like, let’s normalize this a bit more.

I would love to hear what you have to say with your sex therapist hat on about sex and weed.

Jovon:

Sex and weed: It can be fun (laughs). I definitely think the right amount and depending on the strain, ’cause I know different strains hit differently for everyone. I’m a sativa girl, so indica might be knocking me out, so I don’t think I would do that during sex. I think it could really help us be more present and in tune. You can focus more on those sensations. Nowadays with a lot of technology, and a lot of stress at work, and a lot of things going on, there’s a lot of distractions. Sometimes we’re in our heads during sex. I think cannabis could be a good way of trying to be attuned to your body and focus on your partner or partners, whoever you’re engaging in sexual activities with. I think it could make you feel more present.

What’s your favorite place to smoke in the South Side?

This is gonna be bad, but it’s true though. I always go to Oakwood Street Beach, sit in a parking lot in my car and just hot box the shit outta my car looking at the lake every time. And I have a specific parking area where I like to park because I get a direct view of the lake and I’m just sitting there and I’m listening to my music, ’cause I gotta have that. During some of those dark times my only safe space was my car. I would go to different beaches and just chill and smoke. So now that things are good, I still do that. I be jamming and then I be like pumping myself up in the car. It is well needed.

Smoking by the lake sounds nice. Is there anything else you would like to add?

I’m excited to see what more Unladylike will do. It be surprising me, I’ll tell you that. I’m looking forward to hosting bigger events. Definitely stay tuned for that. I would like to curate more art exhibitions. I didn’t always enjoy teaching, not even the Puff and Paint classes. But I grew to really love it. I really love planning stuff. That’s probably my Virgo, but I like to plan stuff. I like to put stuff together. I like to set a vibe and I wanna do it in bigger spaces. I’m definitely looking forward to doing that and having more collaborations and branching out more in that way. Stay tuned.

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Luz Magdaleno-Flores is a Chicana art curator, poet, textile artist, DJ, and fotógrafa based in Pilsen.

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