"Through the simplicity of paper, I create my art to teach and highlight the complex struggles and authentic beauty of black people and black culture.
Growing up, I didn’t see many pictures of black women as Queens, either historical or fictional, or in many positions of power. From this lack of representation, Besa Saka was created to display black women in positions of power with grace and beauty. Using the format of a playing card, I experimented with ways to highlight black beauty through hair, patterns, symbols, and adornments. This paper-cut piece is named after the staff in the Queen's hands. Besa Saka is a West African Adinkra symbol meaning "sack of coloa nuts," representing affluence, power, abundance, plenty, togetherness, and unity, all traits a Queen would need to reign."
- Janelle Washington
Prints are produced on demand on stretched canvas, acrylic plexi, or giclee fine art paper in a variety of sizes here in the United States.
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“Using paper as my medium, I unearth forgotten or untold stories that highlight the struggles and perseverance of Black people in America. I explore the history, identity, family, and feminine beauty themes in Black culture.”
Janelle Washington is a papercut artist who uses her platform to tell the stories of her ancestry and advocate for a better, more equitable future. Born in Richmond, VA, Janelle was an imaginative child who drew on anything she could – including the furniture and walls of her childhood home! Her parents fueled her love of art by purchasing coloring books, enrolling her in art classes, and reading her picture books, providing her with inspiration and tools to grow.
In high school, Janelle desired to study Fashion Design in college, however, her high school guidance counselor and art teacher tried to convince her away from the choice – arguing it was not a stable career. Without the support of her teachers, Janelle pushed forward, creating her own portfolio and applying independently. Her determination and perseverance paid off, as she was accepted into Virginia Commonwealth University’s early admissions program, which she attended, graduated and had a successful career as a children's wear designer for 12 years.
While designing, she found interest in paper cutting after being presented with an opportunity to display other artistic talents during a company show-and-tell presentation. Creating with paper proved to be quite an exciting concept, and after extensive research, she designed and made her first paper cut. Exploring the art of papercutting led to greater confidence in herself and developing her own creative voice. She shares, "I have learned throughout my life experiences to speak up for myself, to create the art that I want to create and not what is trending." In addition, she adds, "Having a fashion design background has helped me to have an eye for design and style; seeing art in my surroundings and fashion has given me a competitive spirit with a strong understanding of the creative process from start to finish."
Janelle explains her intricate, delicate process, sharing, “Working with a simple sheet of black or white paper and a box of blades, I cut multifaceted designs to weave stories of strength, perseverance, and pride.” The medium and process inspire her. “Using paper reminds me of my ancestors and how a transformation can occur from humble beginnings, creating something extraordinary.”
Janelle’s work represents the act of understanding and appreciating her ancestors who came before her, giving space to their struggles and achievements while highlighting the joy and beauty of being Black in America. Drawing on history and poetry, she absorbs inspiration from poets like Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, allowing their words and poetic rhythms to influence her work. In addition, she is inspired by the beauty of Black people and aims to tell their unique stories visually. In turn, Janelle hopes that greater visibility around these experiences will support civil rights for Black people, voting rights, and racial injustice.
In terms of her process, Janelle starts with an inkling of inspiration – often from something she has read, viewed, or heard. She records her thoughts and initial visual design from her mind’s eye, then begins sketching out ideas, looking for photos and artifacts that inform her idea and can help to complete her design. Once she draws her final composition, the act of cutting can begin. After taking weeks to cut out each piece of paper and reveal the greater design, she sometimes incorporates details like thread, gold leaf, painted backgrounds, and tissue paper infills to “reflect the different shades of melanin and to add a present-day point of view to my paper cut designs.”
Besides providing a career, artmaking also has helped Janelle overcome feelings of loneliness, sadness, and not belonging by allowing her space to express herself and focus on things that bring her joy. Janelle has lived with infertility for many years which profoundly affects her. Always wanting children of her own, she never imagined that this would not be possible in her marriage. After great testing and trials of alternative methods, Janelle shares “the emotional and financial toll was too much to try again.” While accepting this reality is difficult, exercising her creativity and sharing her story helps Janelle to cope with this.
Dreaming of the future, Janelle hopes to continue building her career and sharing important stories through her art. She is honored to have published her first illustrated children’s book full of beautiful papercuts, and looks forward to more projects that push her creative abilities. Her dream project is collaborating with a muralist to create a mural in her hometown of Richmond, VA. When she’s not creating, she spends her free time reading fiction and sci-fi books, watching movies, sitting outside in the sunshine, traveling with her husband, and spending time with family.
“I love that art is a gateway to a person's soul and mind. It allows you to see and feel what is important to the artist and how they view the world around them.”
*Headshot by Class & Style Productions
ArtLifting champions artists impacted by homelessness or disabilities through the celebration and sale of their artwork. Learn more here.