I began focusing on painting after working in business and then as a lawyer. I used to walk past an art supply store on my way to work daily. Though I couldn’t shake from my head the desire to go inside, I felt intimidated and overwhelmed by the selection. Not knowing where to begin, but knowing I wanted to begin, I bought a box of watercolor paint. From there, I found online classes and workshops that made me remember how much I loved the art class I took in high school. While I sometimes regret not recognizing or investing in this passion earlier, my art practice draws heavily on my past experiences. Much of my work reflects my desire to break free from the box of respectability, the pressure felt under a predominantly white, male gaze, in order to find my true self.
I did not attend a formal art school program; however, I have studied figure drawing and portraiture with Jody Mattison and abstraction with Melinda Cootsona. I am grateful to all the artists I have met in community centers and as part of online forums for their advice and encouragement.
I live with my husband and two children in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Julie Atkinson uses oil paint and mixed media to create abstract figurative work that centers Black women. She sees her art as a love poem to Black women. Black women’s bodies and emotions are under constant scrutiny. She aims to treat Black women with the tenderness and nuance that is too often denied as they are looked at as a particular “type,” particularly as she explores and processes her experiences living and working as a Black woman in predominantly white, male spaces. She draws inspiration from Black writers and poets, specifically the poem, “Listen, Children,” by Lucille Clifton.
Creating in layers is an important part of Ms. Atkinson’s creative process. The final image, made rich by texture and pattern, is forged from mistakes, intentional and unintentional marks, and layers that she was convinced were final until they weren’t. She uses the layers to cover and reveal different amounts of the female form, finding beauty in the emotions that emerge from and merge with the physical figure.
Ms. Atkinson’s recent work focuses on rest and renewal. The pursuit of “respectability” within white spaces can come at a high cost for Black women in terms of self-esteem. As Ms. Atkinson struggles with how much of herself she has sacrificed to make others comfortable, she is exploring through art the journey from feelings of exhaustion and stress, to, ultimately, an unapologetic rest and rebirth with a newfound wholeness.
What does “Gaze” mean to you & how do you connect it to your work?
The Gaze is all too familiar to me. It is a constant. I am a Black woman who has grown up, been educated, and worked in predominantly white spaces my entire life. For me, the Gaze manifests as the assumptions and stereotypes that reduce me to the most convenient popular image of a Black woman at the moment– “You remind me of…”. The Gaze puts me in a category. I suppose at times it is meant to be flattering, but I feel diminished and unseen.
My studio is a respite from the Gaze. I paint Black women around me– the women I do not see in the community where my house is located. Here, in my studio, my emotions are unscrutinized, my hair is unexamined and free. I don’t have to live up to the comparison to Michelle Obama. When my paintings leave my studio they will be subjected to a gaze; such is the nature of exhibiting art. I anticipate this and respond by intentionally revealing and obscuring women’s bodies through layers and textures. If they must be gazed at, then she is in control of what she shows you.
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