Ya Laford

St. Petersburg


Woman on lift painting ceiling in large room.

Ya Laford preparing her installation, Quantum, at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Photo courtesy of artist

Experiencing art in America is a lifelong treasure! In celebration, today I am an installation artist, arts advocate, university professor, and the first in my family to inherit the title of "American citizen." As a first-generation American, my parents were certain to expose me to a diverse range of artistic mediums as a measure to propel my appreciation for the ever-evolving and dynamic world around me. Artistic exploration was encouraged as a means to rouse my interests to learn and develop self-expression, imagination, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skill sets, as art and life skills go hand-in-hand.

The impact of family trips to experience the vast range of museum exhibitions throughout the Washington, DC area laid the foundation for what later would become the nexus of a promising career within the art arena. As my legacy would have it, I am the granddaughter of John Dunkley, one of Jamaica’s first and finest intuitive painters. And while I was frenziedly to follow in his footsteps, my parent’s counseled me to pursue a career in law, as education is cornerstone to my family’s values. In seeking to blend law and art, I was recruited to a practice that specialized in trial demonstratives and legal animation design as a means resolve multimillion dollar cases. Although I succeeded, I needed to communicate more and wanted to experience the same sense of artistic independence as my grandfather. It was within a transcendent defining instant, I realized I wanted to not only paint, but teach others to do so as well.

On a leap of total faith, I committed to the full-time pursuit of art making and the noble calling of teaching, which required earning a master’s degree and a heart intent on developing the artistic minds of the next generation. Each day, I have the opportunity and responsibility to cultivate the training of the next generation of art students. The rewards are numerous and paid through the smiles and astonishment of first-time students who reach the pinnacle of their drawing project or accomplish the coveted blue ribbon in exhibits. I believe an art class colors the world and while each of my students come from diverse backgrounds and economic strata, I have been enlightened by their abilities to channel the sum total of their experiences into the power of their art. I am simply a creative coach, seeking to assist them in learning how life and art run parallel to our future interconnected existence.

Having the opportunity to inspire and expose underprivileged and underserved communities to art became the mantra of my canvas and later evolved to painting large-scale murals which are used as community gathering places designed for storytelling and community engagement. For some, they are comforted by the gaze of painting on an easel; for me, I find the greatest reprieve in infusing paint and lights on a wall-scape, rising on 35-foot boom lift. It truly reflects the means that gives communities a much-needed voice. Large-scale installations offer communities that do not have highly visible art the opportunity to expand cultural resources, improve the livability within the neighborhood, and improve the lives of ordinary citizens. Through the NEA's 50 years of support, you have made the dreams of communities become reality. And I and a host of other artist are grateful for this celebration of national historical significance.


Installation in a museum.

The completed installation of Quantum. Photo courtesy of Ya Laford