When Theresa Chromati was a kid, she had a tendency to get bored. An only child who grew up in an artistic home on the west side of Baltimore, Chromati would fill the time by solving imaginary problems. “I’d be like, cutting my eyebrows off,” the visual artist explained, laughing and recounting the story behind the signature curls that sit gracefully coiled atop her forehead and in the logo on her website. “I’m just in the bathroom and I was like, Yeah, I’ma do this.”
Theresa carried this playful embrace of boredom into adulthood, and it shows in her work — colorful, dynamic paintings that explore the quotidian spaces occupied by the black women of her imagination. In Theresa’s world, circumstances are funny, black women’s experiences are diverse, and their voluptuous, misshapen bodies are beautiful. Whether or not her vision challenges a stereotype or makes a statement is irrelevant to Chromati; what matters is showing how black women live.
Over a plate of chicken and biscuits on a chilly day in Bed-Stuy, Theresa detailed her unique upbringing, what compels her to make art, and the situations and artifacts that inspire her.
What was your childhood like?
CHROMATI: I grew up in Baltimore with a single parent, my mom. My mom is an artist. We lived in this huge, super creative house in West Baltimore. My mom was going to night school at a college in Baltimore, studying fashion design. I was always seeing her making things. I was the only child, so everywhere she went I would go with her. My grandmother was super cool. She drove this old Toyota that had birds painted on it. It was a hole at the bottom of the car, so I would sit in the backseat, and you could see the ground. She was really into music and jazz and Sade. And then my granddad was like a flower child. Every morning I would wake up to him practicing with his [reggae] band in the basement.
That sounds like such a fun house.
Yeah, I had a really amazing childhood. There was definitely a lot of positivity in the house, but a lot of negative stuff going on around, which I was aware of. It was still so beautiful. Eventually, me and my mom moved on our own to South Baltimore, into this neighborhood called “SoWeBo,” which is where I lived the longest. It stands for South West Bohemian. It was this neighborhood that was formed by artists.
In Baltimore, all the neighborhoods kind of stack on top of each other, and that neighborhood allowed me to see a lot of different socio-economic incomes all at once. [I saw] diversity in black people, diversity in white people. I would spend a lot of time just sitting on the step with my friends, people-watching. I spent a lot of one-on-one time with my mom, and she was always supportive of the arts because it was her thing. She definitely pushed me into that. I took a class at [the Maryland Institute College of Art] when I was in kindergarten. From there I did theater and ballet. She had me all over the place just to see what I liked to do.
[When] I was 11, I was in [a program called] TWIGS [for clarinet], and I would go to the [Baltimore] School For the Arts for classes every Saturday with a teacher named Ms. Wong. It started to get real serious, because I was preparing to apply to the high school. She started coming to my house, which was amazing because she was someone from a completely different world.
I would have lessons with her in my kitchen, and my mom would just be in the living room listening. Eventually I applied for the high school and I got in. I didn’t get in for visual arts. I guess my observational skills weren’t where they wanted them to be at the time? Who the hell knows. That school was amazing. [We had] long hours and stayed at school until 10 p.m. when we had to rehearse a show, and all these things that I feel like helped for my life right now. Later, I just decided to go back to the visual arts thing, and I ended up at Pratt.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to share these nuances in black women.” —Theresa Chromati
Your work is very conceptual, some of it autobiographical, and focused on the body. What are the larger ideas behind your paintings?
It’s always different layers and people can pull whatever they want to pull from it. What’s important to me is the partnership, the community, and the diversity in black women. I feel like it’s my responsibility to share these nuances in black women. In the past, I was mainly making work that shed light on the glory of black women in proximity to destruction.
Right now, my work is very autobiographical. I’m thinking about black women as power sources, and how our power and our energy is often consumed against our consent.
Are there references you like to use, like other artists’ work or things you’ve read?
I’ve recently been researching the Francophone clown: the Pierrot. Aesthetically, I’ve always been into it. I think [it started] when I saw Madeline. You know the clowns that kidnap Pepito? I always thought they looked really cool. The Pierrot was seen as this pathetic, sad being. Throughout time, a lot of artists have used it as an alter ego, so the personality and the identity of it changed.
Right now, I’m working in sculpture and getting a bit into performance work, and it’s been hard for me to add myself into the work. I feel like using this Pierrot idea is a safe way to show fragments of myself and still have a shield, [like how] the women in my paintings have different body armors. As a woman, but especially a black person, it’s very hard to hold so much of yourself in. I like to have different objects in the work that represent armor, but then also represent identity and being proud and protecting your goods.
The Pierrot is such an interesting device to use as an artist. It’s probably pretty liberating.
Yeah, I feel like it makes sense. My look is already like this. I should research more about other things that kind of look like me.
Your style as an artist is expressed in so many different mediums, including how you dress. You’ve worked on clothes, you include sound in some of your work, and now you’re doing sculpture and performance. What do the different forms mean to you?
My background is in graphic design. For a while I thought, You can only do design or You can only do painting, which is stupid. That was when I was younger. A year and a half ago, I [told myself], You should just own all the different aspects of your life and put that into your practice.
Music was such a big part of my life, so I just started adding that into the shows that I was doing. It made me realize that I should be exploring what it sounds like. What do [these women] sound like and what do they hear? What is the noise of my thoughts for this particular show, and what I’m trying to say?
What are the technical decisions that are the most meaningful to you?
The things that are most important or that I claim the most are the limbs, like their shapes. Honestly, I started making the shapes of the hands and the feet a very specific way because I feel like it mimics the shape of my feet. I have these gaps in between, so I just mimicked what was on my body and ran with that. I made it kind of oversized and playful.
And that’s another layer to how your work is autobiographical.
Yeah, I add various forms of keloids on the figures. I have a keloid on my chest. That’s an important aspect of the work, and usually I make that out of glitter, which is kind of funny.
There’s definitely a comical quality to some of your work. Where does that sense of humor come from?
I think it’s just me. I’m a silly person. I like to make people laugh. I like to laugh. I realized if I don’t laugh at a certain part of the process when I’m making it, I haven’t quite gotten to where I’m trying to go. I get super intimidated when I start making a new thing, and I’m kind of like, Oh my gosh, this is not working out. And then I get to a point where I’m kind of laughing at it and I’m like, Okay, I feel confident to show this to people. That’s kind of my sign-off on it.
It seems like your work exists in a radical space or how you’re approaching it might be politically intentional?
I definitely am not interested in [being] classified as “political.” That’s a really big thing for me. I’m not making the work in opposition to what’s going on now in politics. I’m making work about black women and the things that happen in our lives.
It’s easy to look at your work and read about your concepts and then assume there’s a bigger, radical agenda. But maybe there isn’t and that’s what makes it powerful.
It gets tricky because these are stories of black women showing the diversity in our life and how we live. And showing that in general is radical.