Feeling blue: The calming canvases of Tiffany Conway

Mary Corbin, 48 Hills, 11 July 2021

Artist Tiffany Conway cannot live without blue paint. 

Her recent series of portraits, which were exhibited in June at Shoh Gallery in Berkeley, take us into the cool zone with faces that look out at us, often with multiple eyes, as if asking us to—please, honestly—witness them. Using color as a vehicle for perception, her often-multi-colored canvases have deferred to these shades of azure this past year, connecting to a mood and tenor of the times. Her subjects, mostly female, possess a strength, vulnerability, and resilience that suggest we can all make it through no matter what.

Born in Long Beach and raised in the Bay Area by her father and stepmother, Conway has lived all over the state, but has spent most of her life in Richmond. She says art chose her, and not the other way around. She has felt that creative calling since childhood, and it has helped her develop a way to process difficult questions and experiences. Painting became her passion and primary medium in her late 20s, as she was trying to figure out the direction of her life. 

“Yem-MY-Ya” by Tiffany Conway

Citing influences from Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky to Harlem Renaissance artists Carl Van Vetchen and Augusta Savage, Conway makes art to expose her own personal narrative, while always searching for a face, a pose, or image to use as a launching pad for that story. She takes artistic liberties when using a photo reference, in order to allow a new individual to emerge. 

“There are times when it’s very intentional that it is a portrait of someone,” she said. “And then there are times when viewers can find themselves in the work.”

Largely self-taught, she defines her work as healing, otherworldly, and powerful. Conway stated that her mission is to heal women through her paintings by displaying them as seen, heard, soft yet resilient. Her tendency is to escape current events through her process, but they tend to sneak back in, product of her art’s commitment to self-reflection. 

Following a meditation before arriving at her studio, Conway begins work by responding to gathered images and working out light sketches, focusing first on the figure. Everything else, from the color palette to the details of the figure and the background, flows organically from there.

She has gravitated towards the previously-mentioned ultramarines for the past year, actually and metaphorically speaking. 

“I think picking up the blue tones in my work was a way to invoke calm for myself and the viewer,” she said. Though she feels her themes are universal, her paintings are also self portraits to a degree, channeling her experiences and struggles as a woman of color. Choosing a limited palette may have been a subconscious attempt to work out the limitations of staying home through the pandemic year, but in a very subtle or indirect way, she is also addressing how living in this country with projected limitations impacts emotional health. 

In 2016, inspired by song lyrics by Tyler, The Creator and Aretha Franklin, among others, Conway created the Project Get Free: The Coloring Book for Navigating the Diaspora. The project documents the world from the perspective of a displaced African soul. It began as a way to decompress but then Conway decided to challenge herself to complete a daily drawing for 30 days. 

“I realized it was much more than responding to my playlist, that I was pulling a visual language from my unconscious,” she said. Inviting others to share the experience, each page of the emotive coloring book provides blank space for viewers to participate through documenting their own reactions to the images and themes.

“Heal Thy Damn Self” by Tiffany Conway

In 2020, Conway won an Artistic Achievement Award for the exhibition “The Art of the African Diaspora” shown at The Richmond Art Center. She recently wrapped up a grant project with the Richmond Arts and Culture Commission that encompassed a small series of portraits of local residents wearing masks. 

“It’s a way to mark this moment in time and an opportunity to engage with the community,” she said.

This summer, Conway is participating in Art Walk at CoBiz and will exhibit in “Beyond the 19,” at The Bridge Co-Working Gallery, both in Richmond. She is currently preparing for a group exhibition entitled “Poetic Justice,” at Aziz Gallery in Los Angeles from August 6 to 28.

Apart from painting, Conway loves comedy, cooking, and communing with her small circle of creatives. Conway’s visual chronicle will surely continue to grow from the roots of her own experience, in a bold and beautiful celebration of spirit.