Charlottesville cartoonist Laura Lee Gulledge never really considered herself a portrait artist until she was inspired to paint a large-scale portrait of George Floyd for a Black Lives Matter march to the Rotunda in June 2020.
“When problems feel too overwhelming it can be immobilizing figuring out how to help,” Gulledge said. “What can I possibly do? Well, I can draw.”
After completing the portrait of George Floyd, Gulledge went on to paint 12 more paintings using india ink on cardboard. These are part of a series titled “Say Their Names” which aims to “honor and humanize” the Black people who were victims of police violence and racial injustice. Some of the subjects include George Floyd and Breonna Taylor along with local figures such as Marcus David-Peters, Sage Smith, Tony McDade and more. Gulledge also collaborated with local rapper LaQuinn on a large-scale piece featuring lyrics from his song “Black Lives Matter.”
The “Say Their Names” portraits along with the collaborative piece are currently on display through the end of March 2021 in the windows of Silverchair on the Downtown Mall located at 316 E Main Street, near Heather Heyer Way.
However, visitors who passed by the windows the past few weekends may have noticed not only the 12 “Rest/Recover in Power” portraits, but also Gulledge herself busily working on a new portrait series celebrating figures “Living in Peace.” These portraits celebrate the life and work of living icons, including poet and activist Amanda Gorman and Kehinde Wiley, who is well-known for his 2018 portrait of former President Barack Obama.
Gulledge chose a live-painting experience to present these works because she wanted to “inject some love and life into this emotionally scarred space in the spirit of healing.” In fact, a bomb-scare that blocked off 4th Street and led to increased police presence and K9 unit investigations Feb. 27 — the day after a Black Lives Matter protest marched through the same area — made her “even more grateful [that she] was there to help bring positivity and hope to this site of trauma.”
Moreover, Gulledge said making art in isolation can make her feel as if she is in a vacuum which can “distort one's perception of both your art and yourself.” Being observed by onlookers while making her art helps her feel both “accountable to the art but also seen as a human.” Gulledge also hopes that by putting herself in the public eye during her live-painting, she may act as a role model for any younger artists that might walk by.
“The stress of the moment can make it challenging to be inspired, but I want to help encourage others that they too can keep making,” Gulledge said.
Gulledge started her career as a public school art teacher and did not have any intention of becoming a professional artist. Her students and role as a teacher gave her the courage to go out and discover herself as an artist. This journey took her to New York, where she became a published author of YA graphic novels and continued developing her storytelling. At the same time, she worked as a scenic painter, primarily in the Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue's holiday window displays. This experience taught her about creating art as a team, worldbuilding and the importance of making art accessible to the public. For the time being, she is back in Virginia creating art.
Gulledge likes to describe herself as a “citizen artist,” a term she picked up while working at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
“It refers to artists who use their work to create a positive impact on the community,” Gulledge said. “I like this label because I always felt that there was a responsibility that came with my creative gifts.”
Gulledge prefers new terms such as “citizen artist” or even “artner” over more politically charged terms like “artivist.”
“Politics separate us, but art unites us,” Gulledge said. “For we are all citizens and we are all artists.”
Gulledge believes there is great power in the stories people choose to tell. Her mission is to use her artistic gifts to be an ally and amplify the voices of those who are underrepresented in our collective conversation. In doing so, she creates art that is “radically truthful and forward thinking” and presented beautifully in a way that is accessible to the public. At its core, Gulledge understands her responsibility to make art that is “so full of love that it is non-threatening.”
"Even if I make art about sadness, it will have hope,” Gulledge said.
As for the student artists and activists at the University, Gulledge urges them to not wait for permission to undertake creative endeavors. She believes the very conception of an idea is all the permission one needs as an artist. She also encourages doing and creating no matter how “obvious” the idea may seem, as it may not be so obvious to someone else.
“You find your voice by using it,” Gulledge said. “Just remember to also pass the mic.”