Meet the Artist: Christa David
Christa David is a public health researcher turned collage artist and painter. She works primarily with paper and glue to tell the stories of Black and Brown people in a visual way. We’re proud to feature her as part of the latest group of artists in our Black Artists Print Shop.
What is your background as an artist?
I am primarily a collage artist and abstract painter. I wasn’t that artsy as a kid. I started my art practice in high school and then stopped doing it for a number of years and reengaged as an adult when I was in graduate school. It’s been about 10 years since I’ve been engaging in my practice consistently.
It was in 2016 when I quit my day job to make more space to make art.
Tell us about that decision to quit your day job and how you’re channeling that important work through your art.
For a number of years before I quit, I was doing what a lot of artists do, making art in the cracks—nights, weekends. I was using my practice as a form of self expression and art therapy because my job was very stressful. I am a public health researcher and I spent most of my public health career, over 10 years, at the New York City Health Department. Working in unresourced communities throughout New York, working on high priority, high profile things, was a lot of stress. It was really good work, but I got to a point where I felt like I had done all the things I could do in my public health practice at that time and in my role. What people should know is that public health is inherently social justice focused. It’s inherently about equity among all and shoring up populations that need extra support. I wanted to engage my social justice and equity work in a different way through my art.
I wanted to tell stories of Black and Brown folk in a visual way, in a more creative way. I still have instances where my public health work and my artwork clash and it’s really cool when that happens. I think a lot about what public health is and in getting people on board with the message of public health, storytelling is a very compelling component. I have instances where I’m able to use my collage work in particular to tell stories about some of the public health issues that we’re dealing with and the historical underpinnings of some of those issues.
How do you bring your identities and collective identities into your work?
First and foremost, art is one of these forms that has been with us since the beginning of time. It really is a human expression. At the base of it, I am telling stories that hopefully resonate with all humans, but the particulars of the work have everything to do with who I am and how I present in the world. I have multiple identities. I’m Black, a woman, I’m American, I’m the descendant of enslaved Africans, I am a Northerner with Southern roots. I’m all of these things and I try to bring all of that to my work. I’m about telling stories that hopefully resonate with all humans, but they are particular to the Black experience in America. The one thing I hope I’m communicating is that Black folks in America or in the diaspora are not a monolith. The stories are so varied, with so many different perspectives. Not everything is about pain and trauma and anger and rage and anguish. I try to be very balanced in the way that I tell these stories. There are stories of joy, like the piece that will be in the Print Shop—Note to Self: Play is Primary. That’s an example of everything about who I am as a Black person, as a Black woman, isn’t being angry or being in anguish. As with all humans, we have moments of joy and moments of play at various ages and stages in our lives. I don’t want to retraumatize Black people in particular. We see enough of folks who look like us being completely annihilated and that stuff starts to mess with your mind. It starts to mess with your heart. I am in the business of telling the truth. I deal with these very hard things of structural racism, sexism, marginalization, and oppression, but I deal with them in a way that doesn’t retraumatize. You can lead people on a journey to understanding you, your culture, your race and your religion. Every artist has a different take on it but I try to be very tender and kind with the Black figures that I use in my artwork.
I think it’s important to show the whole range because people are susceptible to the single story. If you put a narrative before someone over and over again, people start to believe it whether it’s true or not. I talk about my responsibility as an artist, about the things that concern Black and Brown people very seriously. I just want to make sure I’m not only being honest to my perspective, but honest to what I know is happening with other people like me.
Why is it important to you to tell the stories of Black and Brown people?
The art historical canon is heavily white and Western and European. You go to museums and you see white people. You go to galleries and you see art by white people. Even though I do figurative collage work and abstract painting with figurative work, it is really important to me for people to see themselves in the work. I love it when I hear collectors say “oh it looks like me when I was a little girl in South Carolina” or “oh that looks just like my Auntie” or “oh that looks like my great grandmother Sadie” or whatever the case may be. That’s important. Especially for Black folks, 1) acknowledging Black folks have been making art since the beginning of time even though we may not be represented in the canon in the ways that we ought to be and 2) doing my part to make sure that for future generations, I’m adding to the work where other people who look like me can have an entry into being an art observer or collecting art. I want people to know this is for them, too. Art is not reserved for a certain kind of person. My collectors span the gamut. They’re not all Black folks. They’re white folks, they’re moms in the midwest, Germans. But I am making my work for Black people. I just want to do my part and offer something I think we can learn from, something we can be proud of and we can see ourselves in.
What drew you to collage and assemblage as mediums? Do you approach other mediums, like painting, differently?
I am a painter first, which is weird because you look online and the popular pieces are collage. People are like, “You paint?” Painting is my first love and I will never give that up. Collage sort of happened by accident about five years ago. My best friend suggested that I do a little Instagram challenge. I was so stressed out. She said, “Get up early, make the art before you go.” Collage is easy. It’s glue and paper. So I started doing that. I fell in love with it because it's so tactile and I really love using my hands to make it. I didn’t have to go out and get anything special—I was just using magazines and newspapers and a glue stick. It also solves some problems I have as a painter. I’m an artist who really doesn’t know how to draw that well. I just haven’t spent the time to practice rendering the human body. I can get by. Collage solves that problem for me. If I have this idea where I want to put some bodies together or I want to make a scene, I just go find the bodies and cut them out. It’s about the ideas when it comes to art for me. The ideas are the most important.
It is such an exciting medium. I love it because when we talk about fine art, to some Black folks, it seems intended for other people. When we talk about collage, it’s such an accessible medium, especially if you’re doing figurative collage. It’s so easy to enter in a conversation with it because you see a figure— “Let’s start talking about what the little girl looks like.” Whereas something like abstract painting, there’s a whole different set of language that is needed to feel and understand that work. For the people I’m trying to reach, I believe that fine art should be for everyone and for Black folks in particular. Collage is just such an accessible medium for us to have a conversation about what these symbols mean. I embed a lot of symbols in my work and in the titles of my work. Now collage has become my primary work. I often use images that were set up to be othering and I take them out of that context. I put them in this new context where it’s more of a celebration and an honest conversation about who these people are and how we can find resonance with them.
My collage practice is really a thinking practice for me. It’s a tiny bit intuitive, but I’m really thinking about something first. I’m thinking about a question and then I go find an image and I start looking and researching. The abstract painting is a feeling process. It’s very intuitive. One mark informs the next mark. I’m usually not thinking about anything, I’m just sort of letting my body work with it. I like having both of them next to each other because when things get really challenging, especially in the world like it is now where I have so many questions and I’m so confused about the way things are shaking out. Particularly things like Covid and the racial unrest that’s happening, some of the things I think about and process in my collage, but there are other parts that hurt so badly that I just have to feel my way through with color and shape. I like having both of my practices the way that they are because they help me navigate the world.
Can you tell us more about the two pieces in the Print Shop—This Joy That I Have The World Didn’t Give It and Note to Self: Play is Primary?
About two or three years ago I started using the six word story format to title my pieces. I like the brevity and the challenge of trying to tell the story in just six words. I use that device now with titling a lot of my work. Note to Self: Play is Primary is part of a series of three. If you see all three next to each other, they’re all the primary colors—red, yellow and blue. I was thinking about what things are most important to me as a Black woman and as a human. The things I came up with are play, joy, and peace. If we could get enough of these things, we essentially would have a really good life. Play in particular, is something that I personally struggle with even though I’m an artist. I’m a very Type A person. Loosening up and finding moments where you can just breathe and let your hair down is really important to having a good life. I wanted to play with that idea. For humans of all ages play is really important. One of the things I tell my friends who swear they aren’t creative to do is have coloring breaks in their weekly schedule. I’m talking about coloring with some crayons. I keep a box of 64. I encourage them to get on the floor and color. Get down to the kid level. Give yourself five minutes to just play and not have any responsibilities. I feel like it does the same thing for me as my meditation practice. You’re taking a moment to step out of your day-to-day life and tap into something else. The other day I learned the word “ecstasy’ in Greek actually means to “step aside”, to “step aside and look at”. We don’t use the word that way anymore, but it’s this idea of stepping aside and stepping outside of yourself. That’s what I think about when I think about play.
The other one, This Joy I Have The World Didn’t Give It, is actually a line from a church song that I remember singing growing up. I’m still trying to work out my relationship with this word “resilience” because I feel like when people use it, it’s a half-handed compliment. On the one hand, you overcame something, you’re a strong Black woman, but then I think why do I have to be all those things? Why do I have to fortify myself in a way to be all of these things? Because I live in a world that is literally set up to kill me. This Joy I Have The World Didn’t Give It in particular was a nod to the inner well of joy that we as Black women have. I actually think it’s divine connected and has nothing to do with anybody or anything. It’s not the result of being resilient in the face of adversity, it’s simply a part of who we are. It’s this reservoir. I don’t care what you decide you want to do to me or say about me or put in my way, I still have this thing and I’m going to hold onto it when I need it and I’m going to give it when other people need it and I’m still going to let it carry me. My joy has nothing to do with you and has everything to do with me, what I believe and who I believe.
Learn more about Christa at her website and Instagram page.