I first met abstract painter Sophia Domeville last year, at the offices of Medina=Citi in the Richardson Lofts here in Newark. I went home and checked out her website, fell in love with one of her paintings, and bought it. It now hangs in my apartment.
When I met Sophia that first time, she was still figuring out how to make a living as an artist. Not long after that, it seemed like new opportunities were happening for her left and right. Quite often, social media would light up with news of a new opportunity being afforded Sophia because of her art.
In the conversation below, we discuss her inspiration, how her creativity called her into a career as a painter, how Newark helps her to create, and more. (Check out Sophia’s recent street style spread here.)
Andaiye Taylor: How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Sophia Domeville: I would describe myself as an abstract painter. I use colors, shapes, various designs, and mixed media to express my emotions, and to talk about what’s going on in society.
How long have you been painting?
I started painting when I was five, so 25 years.
And why did you start painting?
I used to draw on the walls as a child. And I remember even in kindergarten, I would mix colors just to get the right shade of green 0r the right shade of yellow I saw when I went to the park the other day. So art has always my voice, refuge, and therapy.
I always had an issue speaking in general – like letting out my emotions and trying to find the right words. Art in itself was my voice, and I rediscovered my love of painting in middle school and high school, then again in college.
Now you’re a professional artist. How did you go from painting on the walls as a child to being a professional artist. Did you decide to make that happen, or did it just happen to you?
After I finished college – I got my BFA – I basically had a breakdown, and I gave away 90 percent of my work. I gave it to people I knew: friends, campus ministry. One friend of mine in South Jersey was holding my work, but her basement was flooded, so a lot of my work was destroyed.
Giving away the work was me trying not to care anymore. At that time, I didn’t know where I was going with my creativity. I wanted to get MFA at Art Institute of Chicago, but that fell through, and I felt really stressed out between graduating from college, not knowing where I was going, and thinking about how to pay for school.
So what did you professionally after college?
I dove into the corporate world for the first time. I was working at a law firm for a family friend and was training to be a legal secretary, but I was not happy. Then I got a job working at a huge cosmetic company in New York as a receptionist and HR assistant. That was my first real corporate job. During that time, I would love to go out and party, and I started hanging with promoters and bouncers. So I started doing party promotions, and I realized I loved to plan. In 2007, I dove into being an event planner. I created “Ms. Phia Presents…”, and did event planning for years.
What kind of events did you do?
I did everything: charity events, spoken word, poetry was my thing, concerts, and was working with Urban Pro Group, which introduced me to the urban market scene. I was doing events in New York, Jersey, Long Island, and Miami. Those events really boosted my popularity at that time.
Were you making a living at this, or still working at the cosmetics company?
I was still working at the cosmetics company, and doing this on the side, as hobby.
In ‘o8, I left [the cosmetics company] and started working with LinkShare as their purchasing coordinator. I was still working there in 2011, but by that time I was becoming more depressed, because I wasn’t happy with work anymore, and didn’t understand what was going on with me. It was my friend Simone who said to me, “You need to create art.” She’d known me since I was 19. So she gave me her sister’s old paint and brushes, and said, “Here, paint.” But I had no canvas.
So I painted the walls within my entire apartment. My creativity started haunting me in my sleep, and I couldn’t sleep anymore. I wasn’t happy. I knew something was missing, and I knew what it was, but I just wasn’t ready for it. And it wasn’t until I basically had a small heart attack (a reaction related to hypertension) that I took two weeks off of work. During that two weeks, I made the decision to leave my job, and pursue my passion for the arts.
I wasn’t working for almost a year after I decided to leave. My savings were depleted. I was living in Brooklyn the whole time. and it wasn’t easy, because it was expensive. I lost my apartment, and I was living couch to couch.
During that time, I received an opportunity to showcase at Jade Lounge in Queens. It was my first exhibition in 8 years. I had no money at that point, so my friend Kimberly asked if I wanted to do Kickstarter campaign. Initially I didn’t like to ask for money, but she said I needed to do it. My ex was a videographer, and he helped me make three short documentaries in one day: in my home, walking around Brooklyn in front of murals, saying why I was doing this exhibition. I wound up raising $1,300.
The exhibition I did was called “Soliloquy of Chaos”, and it discussed what I went through those past two years: not having a job, pursuing my passion, falling in love, realizing I was falling in love, pursuing that dream. That exhibition was for the people, by the people. Everything – the paint, brushes, canvases – was paid for by others. Some of them didn’t even know me, but they said, “I heard about you, I want to support you.”
How did you get the opportunity to show there in the first place?
My friend Kimberly went the lounge and noticed a gallery space. I still remember when she texted me and said, “There’s a gallery space. You need to check it out.” At first I was like, “I don’t want to do this – I’m scared.” But when I saw the space, I knew my work was going to be there. I could see it. I didn’t even know what I was going to create, but I knew, “That’s mine.” And that’s how it’s always been. As an artist, I know when it’s right.
I sent an email to the event coordinator with the only three images I had. He responded the same night, and said he had an open spot in January. Because of that exhibit, I was on WPIX11 news, I interviewed and got featured in Amour Creole magazine, I had my work in Philadelphia – all in one year. I realized at that point that I could no longer do a nine-to-five.
That was 2011. When I first met you [in 2012], you were on your way, but still figuring things out. Then I looked up, and it seemed like you had tons of opportunities all over the place. How did that happen?
[The year] 2012 was a whirlwind. I’m like, “How did I get here!” I was asked to be featured in Amour Creole by Valerie Brutus, who is also my publicist. She believed in me, and she said, “Ok, let’s see if we can get you out there. I need to see you everywhere.” And honestly, all the exposure was between her and people hearing about my story. A lot of the gigs, the articles, the blogs, the magazines, newspapers, going to Dartmouth, going to Haiti — it was just referrals.
I remember a couple weeks ago, I did a fundraiser for the Haitian American Caucus. I had one of my large paintings called “Emotional Combustion” there — it’s always grabbed people’s attention. There was one lady who was like, “That’s mine. I need that in my house right now.” She had one of the attendants spy and make sure no one else entered bids. To see that – it’s fulfilling as an artist. Especially because I want to change the world through art.
How specifically do you want to do that?
I’ve done creative art workshops for nonprofits and schools. The workshop is called “Discover Your Voice”, and at that workshop, students rediscover who they are as a person. I discuss media and how it affects who you are as a person. We discuss the fundamentals of art, the meaning of art. We also discuss its history. We dive into how art is revolutionary. That’s how I feel I’m going to change the world: using art as a tool, as a medium to open the eyes of others, and inspire others to think, “my voice is important”.
Can you talk about the importance of getting started? Do you think your artistic career took on a momentum of its own once you put yourself out there?
Like, immediately. I was so used to being in the background, doing the events and not being in the public eye. So once I decided it’s time for me to say my story, and understand the purpose of my point of view, and not be scared of being a leader or success, things started happening.
Success is a whole different responsibility. I really have to be a leader and say, “This is my art. This is my vision.” Honestly, it’s not about the money. To me, success is knowing that I’m inspiring others. Money and recognition is cool, but just to know you’re inspiring others – it’s wonderful.
What primary emotions and themes inspire your artwork?
Everything. Love, life, and understanding the world. Understanding why things happen, and understanding ways that my vision can have an effect on someone. And my voice – I have to let it out.
What is it about the abstract style in particular that’s so conducive to talking about the themes you care about?
There are no rules. I tell my students: there are no mistakes.
Right now I’m into breaking things apart, like wood. I used to deconstruct canvas when I was 19. I’m literally going back to that old style of mine, what I learned 11 years ago. It’s just about finding ways to communicate that are not so obvious. Abstract art makes you think. It makes you feel. It makes you understand. It makes people question things: “Why did she do that?” It makes people ask themselves, “Why do I feel so strongly about that one piece?”
As an artist in today’s climate, what would you say about opportunities to exhibit your work? I’ve noticed a lot of artwork in spaces that aren’t necessarily galleries. Have opportunities to show your work become more diverse?
Opportunities to show my work have definitely become more diverse. Showcasing at restaurants and lounges is a good opportunity, but the issue is, you don’t want to get stuck. That’s the thing: it’s great, but I need to get out to a broader audience. I need to be in Chelsea. I need to be in Jersey City. I need to be in LA. I want people knowing who I am – like, “Oh, that’s a Domeville.” It’s starting to get like that in Brooklyn, I notice. I want to continue that, but at a larger scale. I’m going to try to get my kit together and see if I can show my work at the Brooklyn Museum, or even the Newark Museum. I really want to do a show at the MOMA San Francisco. New York is cool, but San Franscisco…I actually want to live there eventually. I want to show my work not only domestically, but internationally. That’s the goal. I want to be out there.
How do you break into those opportunities?
It was [Citi] Medina that said this: you have to go places where you don’t feel comfortable. One place like that for me was Dartmouth College (Sophia taught at the Rassias center recently). It was different not to see people who look like me, and to understand it didn’t matter. I had to break out of my own shell and comfort zone, and say, “You know what? I’m just gonna be Sophia.” I know that to get myself out there, I’m going to have to put myself in situations like that.
How did you come to be in Newark from Brooklyn, and what has your experience been here?
A friend of mine let me sublet his apartment because he was getting married last year. I’m still, a year later, getting to know Newark, because I got so comfortable being in Brooklyn. Now, I’m trying to make Newark my new home. I’m still trying to figure out what are the ins and happenings of the artists here. But Newark helped me focus — being in Newark, it is a different world for me. I’ve created much more work being here. Newark is my refuge — I go home, and I create art.
What is your impression of the town? What do you observe about Newark as someone who moved here fairly recently?
People are very different than in Brooklyn – the energy is different. In Brooklyn, there’s a creative energy that can be very distracting and suck you in. It’s about being an individual and standing out. Crocheting your own sweater, creating your own earrings. In Newark, I notice people are more similar to each other. There’s a little bit of individuality here – hopefully there’ll be more. When I first moved here, people would look at me like, “You’re not from around here. Are you from Brooklyn?” And I would say, “How did you know?!”
In Brooklyn, everybody’s always ready – Jay-Z might do another pop-up concert somewhere, or somebody’s taking photos down the street for a magazine. There’s always something happening. And I can see that happening in Newark in time.
If you had the opportunity, would you move back to Brooklyn, or could you see yourself staying here?
Part of me says yes, and part of me says no. I want to see how much of an impact I can make in Newark. I feel like with Newark, I’m starting over, and I have a platform to really sustain an actual impact here, and be known for it. Brooklyn is a little saturated. Here, it’s like you can make your own pond. So I would stay in Newark. I want to build first before leaving.