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Painting the Town

Synthia Saint James' most famous work graces the cover of 'Waiting to Exhale,' but the widest circulated may soon her Kwanzaa stamp. Her art celebrates sisterhood, cultural pride and self-confidence.


For better or worse, blessing or curse, Synthia Saint James' most widely seen painting is the confetti of bold, celebratory colors that blasts from the dust jacket of Terry McMillan's 1991 bestseller, "Waiting to Exhale."

Saint James' impressionistic rendering of the first sister circle, a regal collection of women titled "Ensemble," made the urban circuit, carted in handbags, briefcases and knapsacks from beauty shop to bus stop, from lunch hour to book group to airplane.

Could any artist ask for a better showcase?

Maybe. One of the many projects to come her way since that success could carry her colorful, spiritual images to an even larger audience in an even smaller format: the first Kwanzaa stamp commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service.

"I have to say [the book] was a blessing. But," Saint James says, without a shade of frustration or regret, "it's not the only thing I've done."

A cursory glance around her art-crowded Los Feliz home lends proof. Inspirations everywhere: sculpture and fetishes from Africa, vacation mementos from the South Seas. Picture-window-size canvases contain Saint James' own studied glimpses of other lands--oil-painted visions of Brazil, India, Africa, to be shown at a neighborhood gallery.

"A lot of them are places I would like to go," says Saint James, lighting just for a moment on the couch. "Sometimes I think it comes from the different heritages we as black people have."

This drizzly morning, Saint James and her paintings are the sole splash of color on the day's dreary palette--glimpses of elsewheres--the echo of color gliding across canvas, an image's repeated refrain. Lounging in roomy black trousers and an oversize sweatshirt, her bright lipstick picks up shades in the shirt's image--"Of Many Colors"--a silk screen of one of her paintings and part of a new line of clothing: the Synthia Saint James Collection.

Her home--which doubles as studio, gallery and product clearinghouse--is a cottage industry, quite literally. Saint James can barely finish a sentence before jumping up to storm her study or up a flight of stairs to her studio to fish out another proud-parent visual: T-shirt, baseball cap, embroidered turtleneck. From another collection there are clocks, watches, wooden coffee-table boxes, playing cards. In a colorful pinwheel, like origami paper, fans a stack of children's books that Saint James has either wholly conceived or provided paintings. Atop those she places a slide depicting the Kwanzaa stamp's design.

Is Saint James worried about overexposure? At present, that worry doesn't seem to be even a blip on the radar. She wants to make her work available in forms affordable to those who find joy, comfort or a mirror of self in it.

Fans and collectors, including Johnnie Cochran, Alice Walker and actress Jenifer Lewis ("The Preacher's Wife," "Dead Presidents"), find personal resonance in the stance of the men and the women--an upward tilt of the head, an attitudinal hand on hip--much the same way McMillan's stories find their center in the celebration of sisterhood, cultural pride and self-confidence.

Maybe that's why, as publishers flood the market with McMillan clones eager to mine the sisterhood mother lode, the covers of so many books by young African American women try their best to approximate Saint James' fluid mosaics. The message and spirit, they hope, both part of a magic cash cow incantation.

But that's just it: It isn't simply a whirl of random color. It is something more that speaks to the heart.

"When I saw her work, I was just overwhelmed," says gallery owner Daira Baisley, who has been handling Saint James' work since her gallery, Third World Art Exchange, opened eight years ago. "The beauty, the vibrancy of the colors and her command of the brush. It's obvious she's a figurative painter, and she is a master of the faceless image, but all of the images have personality even though they do not have a face--and that just astounded me. She's really a pioneer of that particular style."


Brenda Funches, a longtime friend, sees that this gift comes from a real sense of rootedness in culture, humanity.

"There's a subtle spirituality that exists in Synthia," Funches says. "It's not in your face, it's just kind of there."

And that is the reverberation that rumbles through her work. "She's been pursuing this career for a long time, and she's had to learn to roll with the flow when she was struggling. So she's remained very down-to-earth and is always giving back in ways that make sense to me--from fashioning a more affordable artwork to donating work for various community fund-raisers."

Because of that calling and her rich gift of visual communication, Saint James finds herself trapezing from the rarefied world of fine art to various commissions (from the Postal Service to the Girl Scouts' 85th anniversary poster) and now to the world of book publishing--this time beyond the front cover.

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