In Ya La’Ford’s mind, everyone and everything are inter-connected. As an artist, she creates bold paintings and murals from geometric designs, patterns and lines, image tapestries that she feels represent the not always linear spaces between us as community members, and those that bind all of humanity together.
It’s all about “stepping away from the known and familiar, and thinking about how we connect to the greater world,” she says. “And how we connect as a community to the greater universe.”
Next month, La’Ford will unveil her latest public art piece, Community Woven, in the Warehouse Arts District directly across 22nd Street South from the Historic Manhattan Casino, where her King’s Dream Unite was unveiled in 2016.
The two murals are intended to be both symbiotic and symbolic, the artist explains. “It’s all around this idea of Dr. Martin Luther King and his dream, and these vibrations that will happen as you move in between that space.” Like King’s Dream Unite, the new “quilt mural” will be specially illuminated at night.
With financial support from Smith and Associates, the St. Petersburg Foundation, the Lovelady Family and The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, Community Woven will include a “patchwork” created from a series of 12×6-inch panels designed, under La’Ford’s guidance, by St. Pete schoolchildren and other community members. The final work, measuring 25 by 20 feet, will be unveiled Aug. 28, the 57th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
La’Ford’s singular, unmistakable murals have become hallmarks of the St. Petersburg arts experience, from the SHINE festival (Golden Wave) to the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum (QUANTUM: Inhabited Space).
“I firmly believe that when art is strong, it stimulates the public imagination,” she says. “And I think imagination leads to greater heights of innovation. And innovation ultimately leads to a better world.”
Her best-known community project is most likely the mural she created – with a little help from 100 or so of her friends – outside the Tampa Bay Rowdies stadium in 2019.
At its core is a spatial and multi-colored collection of handprints.
“It started with actual players showing their dedication to the community,” La’Ford explains. “And then community leaders such as the mayor, the deputy mayor and other community leaders. All of this was layered. And lastly, we had 100 children from the south side that laid their hands all over this wall.
“It’s this idea of really going back historically. Thinking about the first mark-makings and showing this connection that we have to the past, leading to the present then to the future. I’m making it a long string that connects and attaches and bridges.”
Born in New York, La’Ford is a first-generation American of Jamaican heritage. Her first name, on paper, is Tanya (“My brother couldn’t pronounce the name, so everyone calls me Ya, or Ya-Ya”). She lives with her husband and their two small children in the Historic Kenwood neighborhood.
She has a law degree from the University of Florida, and briefly practiced in Washington, D.C., finding advocacy for social justice to be her strongest and clearest calling.
“I always wanted to advocate for humanity,” she says. “So there is a very unified line there with my journey. So a law degree was the obvious degree for me to seek, because I wanted to help humanity in some way. Making sure that there was advocacy for people who were suffering.
“After I got my law degree, I did get my Masters in Fine Arts. So one has always bridged and connected with the other. In order to create these intricate patterns, I find that even though I make patterns in my artistry, the patterns were being created even before.”
Even the arc of her life and career, she believes, led her – in a non-linear fashion – to this moment, and the work she’s doing now.
“All my life, I’ve figured out ways to advocate for people who don’t have a voice. So finding a way to use my medium as an artist and a painter, and an installation artist, I have tried to take that medium in order to create a safe space of dialogue. And that’s where my community practice comes from. Where I’m trying to tell a story using these paintings.”
St. Pete Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton is a board member of the St. Petersburg Foundation.