Synthia Saint James
Saint James, Synthia 1949—
Synthia Saint James 1949—
Author, book illustrator, entrepreneur
The work of self-taught artist Synthia Saint James can not be mistaken for anyone else’s. Every painting she creates carries her unmistakeable trademark of brilliant color and lithe body language, and each one spotlights a happy moment captured for her viewers to enjoy. Because she follows her own technical rules she feels free to set her own worthy goal: Synthia Saint James likes to make her viewers feel good.
Saint James chooses to celebrate life—a personal philosophy that could make her art seem superficial if we viewed it on only one level. But gives us many levels to enjoy. Some are the cultural gift of her rich African-American-Cherokee-Haitian heritage. Others come from the different corners of the world to which Saint James has traveled. Yet even this is not all she has to say. She also wants to gather all of us together into one big bouquet of humanity, which she ties together with a vital message: our ancestry may differ but we are all equally valuable.
Despite her intense focus on art there is nothing of the disorderly, otherworldly painter about Synthia Saint James. An eminently practical woman, she is wise enough to protect her own financial security. While learning her craft, she supported herself with all kinds of work, and while she was at it, took care to learn something from everything she undertook. These days, though, no such distractions are necessary, thanks to commissions from such clients as the House of Seagram, Maybelline-Kayser, and Essencemagazine. Add the beautiful children’s books she has written and illustrated, the cards she has created for UNICEF, and the selection of prints that are both sold by her own company and licensed for reproduction on items of clothing, gift bags and decorative items, and it’s obvious that she has a comfortable income. Saint James’s assorted ventures have made her an international celebrity with little spare time, but thanks to experience in both the legal and the tax fields, she finds time to write all her own contracts. In her own way, she’s a living example—the epitome of the American dream.
Synthia Saint James grew up in a blended family of 11 children, four of whom looked upon drawing and paint-
At a Glance…
Born February 11, 1949, in Los Angeles, CA; Education: Attended Los Angeles Valley College; Dutchess Community College, Poughkeepsie, New York; Inner City Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA; and H & R Block, Los Angeles, CA, (certified tax practitioner).
First commissioned paintings, 1969, New York; first one-woman show, 1977, Inner City Cultural Center, New York; Group Exhibition, Paris, France, Musee des Duncans, 1980; House of Seagram commission for Black History Month, 1989; designed cover art for Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, international edition, 1992.
Awards: Prix de Paris, 1980; Gentlemen Concerned (An AIDS Foundation) Service Award, 1995; UNICEF Greeting Card Artist Award, 1995.
Addresses: Atelier Saint James, P.O. Box 27683, Los Angeles, CA 90027.
ing as a way of life. All this talent came from her father, William, who had harbored dreams of becoming a professional artist before the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhoodled him to steadier ways of earning a living. But he never stopped painting, turning out series after series of pictures in his favorite 4-inch-by 5-inch size.
While a career in art might seem a natural choice for someone from a family like Synthia’s, it did not immediately present itself to her as a logical choice. Mother Hattie had taught her the vital importance of financial independence, and Synthia saw no indication that painting could provide it. So instead, she chose to follow this sensible advice and keep her art as a hobby while working at a more lucrative occupation.
Saint James stuck resolutely to this decision after she left Los Angeles at age 18 and went to live in New York City. A succession of jobs helped her to pay her bills and allowed her the after-hours freedom to plunge into art. She experimented with great enthusiasm, creating abstracts and geometrical figures of different types, and applying her colors with sponges of several sizes as well as with brushes. She soon had enough paintings to decorate her apartment, which was much admired by her coworkers. Before one year was up she had even managed to sell a piece of her work. This modest success proved a turning point. Now she knew that art would be the center of her world forever.
Saint James was 23 when she went back to Los Angeles. There she met a self-taught artist called Richard Jennings, who was happy to pass on some of his vast experience to anyone as meticulous and eager to learn as this young woman was. For her part, she marvelled at his artistic genius. “When he paints a navel,” she told American Visions magazine in 1992, “you can stick your finger in it!”
Jennings taught her to focus her attention on her art, whether or not she was supporting herself by doing other jobs. By turns she became a biographer, a law firm accountant, and even an actress, but her focus on art did not waver. In time she was able to strengthen her technique and lay the foundation of her creative philosophy. No longer content to stick to the purely abstract, she began to blend elements of both realism and impressionism in a style that seemed ideally suited for animal subjects. Koala bears, lions, and monkeys began to spring to life under her skilful brush.
It was not too long before all Saint James’s hard work began to pay off. In 1977, she had her first one-woman show. This was an exciting measure of success, but not nearly as thrilling as the joyous experience of winning the prestigious Prix de Paris in 1980. Then, as if even this accolade was not enough, she was invited to exhibit her animal paintings in a prominent Parisian gallery coowned by a niece of dancer Isadora Duncan.
Saint James was now an internationally recognized painter, but she was not content simply to keep to the style that had made her art so highly prized. In the early 1980s, she began to create works in the trademark style that now make her paintings instantly identifiable. She used clear reds, glowing greens, bright blues, and deep yellows—colors that still make her feel good. She used groups of geometric figures that often seemed on the verge of dancing, talking, or swaying towards each other. And, in contrast to the detailed and rather fierce eyes of her painted animals, she used no facial features. “I thought it would be interesting to illustrate character and emotion without eyes and faces, by simply using color blocks and body angles,” Saint James explained, in a 1996 interview with Upscale magazine.
Saint James’s developing originality was developed further by a 1984 trip to the island of Martinique. By no means her first vacation abroad, she had been to Guyana in the days before it gained its unfortunate association with the 1979 Jim Jones tragedy; and she had also traveled to Barbados. But somehow in the Martinique markets and streets, Saint James found a new magic. And as always, she wanted her viewers to enjoy the vivid colors, the unfamiliar language, and the exotic clothes that had so enchanted her there.
Saint James’s fascination with body language as an expression of cultural individuality found another living example some time afterwards, when she visited colorful Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. “People of different cultures walk differently from each other,” she observed, after standing in the street one Sunday and watching people streaming out of church. “Someone from Tibet, wearing all those clothes, does not walk like someone from, say, Thailand, whose clothes and culture are dissimilar.”
While travel made an intense impression on Synthia Saint James, she derived just as much stimulation from literature and from poetry. In 1989, she read Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, which she admired so much that she felt inspired to paint her, dreadlocks and all, in a setting typical of the Ndebele women of South Africa. It was an unusual work representing Saint James’s intense interest in all peoples of African descent, and its featured backdrop was singularly appropriate for the prominently feminist Walker, since the artistic Ndebele women have been highly respected feminists for generations.
Walker was enchanted with the photograph. “She had her assistant find me, and she asked whether the picture could be used for a special trilogy edition of her novels, to be published in 1990, by the Book of the Month Club” Saint James noted later. This book cover proved to be the first of a list that, in time, would reach 40 and still be soaring upward.
Saint James’s second such venture started with “Ensemble, “a 1988 painting of four black women that promptly became one of her best-known works. In one of those serendipitous events that later prove to be pivotal to success, a copy of the print was snapped up in an art gallery by novelist Terry McMillan, who thought it so appropriate as a cover of her novel Waiting to Exhale that she contacted Saint James and introduced her to her own publisher’s art director. Still one of Saint James’s best-beloved works, “Ensemble” has also made an appearance in several other places, including television shows hosted by Arsenio Hall and Oprah Winfrey.
If ever Saint James could claim 12 months as The Year of the Children’s Book, 1994 was it. The idea of illustrating children’s books came to her from one of the art directors involved with Waiting to Exhale, and, never one to resist a challenge, Saint James lost no time in picking up on it. By the end of the year she had three picture books to her credit. The first, Tukama Tootles the Flute, was a folktale from the Antilles retold by Phillis Gershator. It tells the story of Tukama, a “very wild” boy who ducks out on his chores to play his flute on the seashore, despite his grandmother’s dire warnings of a two-headed cannibalistic giant on the lookout for small, succulent small boys. The book deals with a universally familiar theme, and Saint James’s innovative illustrations cleverly offset her usual featureless faces against a sea painted in such detail that it seems to be heaving under the sun.
However, though it has always been popular for reading aloud, Tukama was received with guarded enthusiasm at best. Possibly the unique style of the pictures was too unusual for the young children who were its targeted audience. Perhaps it was the subject-matter, two-headed giants being deemed too scary for young readers. But almost certainly, in these times of drive-by shootings and senseless kidnappings, Tukama failed because it twangs too loudly at every parent’s nightmare about the child who runs away from adult supervision and gets himself into a desperately dangerous situation.
Saint James’s second book of 1994 was Snow on Snow on Snow. Kids stuffed into bright winter clothing are painted with irresistible warmth, and Clancy the dog is the comical good-sport pet every child dreams about. Snow on Snow on Snow is so appealing that it has since been translated into Spanish. It was also selected for use as an interactive video for first and second grade reading, and Saint James herself was asked to do its introduction.
The third book to appear in 1994 was a most beautiful picturebook called The Gifts of Kwanzaa, both illustrated and written by Synthia Saint James herself. While it contains no suggestion of textbook style, it is basically an educational book designed to explain the harvest-based holiday first celebrated in the United States in 1966. The Gifts of Kwanzaa tells the story of the festival’s seven principles and where they originated. Saint James’s illustrations make it clear that all children of African origin should share a bond of tradition and acceptance. It is no surprise that Kwanzaa sold 9,000 of its first printing of 10,000, and went into a second printing within three months. Before too long it had become a bookstore staple in every major city in the country.
While Synthia Saint James’s special-occasion cards, illustrations, and prints are becoming well-recognized everywhere, her paintings are especially prized. Important clients now include comedian Richard Pryor and attorney Johnnie Cochran, who owns three of Saint James’s works, the first bought at a gallery exhibition held to celebrate Saint James’s 40th birthday.
Saint James’s work is also treasured by Essence magazine, which chose to mark its 25th anniversary by commissioning one of her paintings, and by corporate giant Maybelline-Kayser/Roth, whose joint theme “The Shades of You” celebrated African American women during the 1995 Black History Month. The House of Seagram, another satisfied client, featured “Visions” and “The Professor,” two of her most arresting artworks in their 1996 calendar.
Though any successful artist might be forgiven for a little secret pride in her own achievements, Saint James is scrupulously careful never to lose sight of reality. “Some people who are successful get a big head. Not me, “she told the Press Telegram, in 1995; “I’m just a regular person. Success only makes me work harder and harder.” To prove it, she takes pride in her own selfreliance, and uses her eight years of experience as a freelance tax consultant to write her own contracts as she has always done.
In the mid-1990s Saint James’s art is blossoming in ever-expanding new directions. A children’s book called Sunday, scheduled for September of 1996 is an exercise in the value of the family and the importance of family time together. Can I Touch You:Love Poems with Paintings —a collection of the poetry she has been writing for the past 20 years-was also due out that year.
The world is more than ready for Synthia Saint James’s ideas and enthusiasm, judging by the continual blizzard of requests for licenses to reproduce her works on clocks and watches, clothing, a gift bag, and coffee mugs. On a bleak winter morning, when the call to “wake up and smell the coffee” is a duty rather than a joy, how bracing it is to drink it from a mug painted with the bright colors of “Ensemble. “Then, as Saint James herself says, it’s easy to “smile your special smile as things begin to come your way.”
Children’s Books Illustrations
Tukama Tootles the Flute, with Phillis Gershator, Orchard Books, 1994.
Snow on Snow on Snow, with Cheryl Chapman, Dial, 1994.
How Mr. Monkey Saw the Whole World, with Walter Myers, Doubleday.
Neeny Coming, Neeny Going, with Karen English, Bridgewater, 1996.
Children’s Books Written and Illustrated by Synthia Saint James
Sunday, Albert Whitman, 1996.
The Gifts of Kwanzaa, Albert Whitman, 1994.
Boyd, Julia, Girlfriend to Girlfriend, Dutton, Penguin.
Hurston, Zora Neale, Their Eyes were Watching God, Scott Foresman.
Johnson, Angela, Toning the Sweep, Orchard Books.
McMillan, Terry, Waiting to Exhale, Viking, Penguin, 1986.
McMillan, Terry, Waiting to Exhale, Pocket Books.
McMillan, Terry, Disappearing Acts, Pocket Books.
McMillan, Terry, Mama, Pocket Books.
Walker, Alice, Paper back Trilogy, Book-of-the-Month Club.
American Visions, October/November 1992, p. 35.
Carib News, Week Ending March 7, 1995, p. 23.
Desert News, February 12, 1995.
Essence, January 1995, p. 97.
L.A. Watts Times, July 20, 1995.
Press-Telegram, July 22, 1995, p. C1.
Publishers Weekly, January 10, 1994; September 19, 1994, p. 27.
School Library Journal, April 1994, 118; September, 1994, p. 182;
October 1994, p. 43.
Sister, Sister, May 1995, p. 59.
Sunday Oaklahoman, March 3,1996, p. 6.
U.S. Art Magazine, January/February 1993.
Upscale, April 1996, p. 74.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Black Art Gear, Inc; Cornerstone Creative Apparel, Ethnic Reams, Rolls & Bags, July, 1992.
Saint James, Synthia 1949-
SAINT JAMES, Synthia 1949-
Home —Atelier Saint James, P.O. Box 27683, Los Angeles, CA 90027. E-mail —[email protected]
Artist, 1969—; Former certified tax practitioner; Atelier Saint James (print publisher), Los Angeles, CA, owner. Has worked as an actress, freelance writer, publicist, and accountant. Exhibitions: Works exhibited at solo shows in New York, NY, Charlotte, NC, Salt Lake City, UT, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Burbank, Westwood, and Santa Barbara, CA; works exhibited at group shows in Paris, France, Seoul, South Korea, Quebec, Canada, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Works commissioned by major organizations and corporations, including House of Seagram, National Bar Association, Essence Magazine, Kayser-Roth/Maybelline, AT&T Alliance of Black Employees, Children's Institute International, UNICEF, Mark Taper Forum, South State Cooperative Library System, Los Angeles Public Library, and Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.
Prix de Paris, 1980; Gentlemen Concerned Service Award, 1995; UNICEF Greeting Card Artist Award, 1995; Parent's Choice Silver Honor, 1996, for Sunday; Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, 1996, for Neeny Coming, Neeny Going; YWCA Silver Achievement
Award in the Creative Arts; Treasure of Los Angeles Award; AT&T Entrepreneur of the Year/NAACP Black Women of Achievement honor; Women of Vision Award from Black Women Lawyers; NAPPA Gold Award, 1999, for "Happy Happy Kwanzaa" (song); Oppenheim Gold Award, 2001, for To Dinner, for Dinner.
The Gifts of Kwanzaa, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1994.
Sunday, Albert Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1996.
Girlfriends, Peter Pauper Press (White Plains, NY), 1997.
Can I Touch You: Love Poems and Affirmations, Music Quest (Newark, NJ), 1997.
Creative Fixings from the Kitchen: Favorite Multi-Cultural Recipes, Persnickety Press (Port Chester, NY), 1998.
It's Kwanzaa Time!: A Lift-the-Flap Story, Little Simon (New York, NY), 2001.
Phyllis Gershator, adaptor, Tukama Tootles the Flute: A Tale from St. Thomas, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Cheryl Chapman, Snow on Snow on Snow, Dial Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Marcia K. Vaughan, Tingo Tango Mango Tree, Silver, Burdett & Ginn, 1994.
Walter Dean Myers, How Mr. Monkey Saw the Whole World, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.
Karen English, Neeny Coming, Neeny Going, BridgeWater Books (Mahwah, NJ), 1996.
Johnson, Mother's Love, Peter Pauper Press (White Plains, NY), 1997.
Phillis and David Gershator, Greetings, Sun, DK Ink (New York, NY), 1998.
Ysaye M. Barnwell, No Mirrors in My Nana's House, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 1998.
Sherley Anne Williams, Girls Together, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 1999.
Tololwa M. Mollel, To Dinner, for Dinner, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2000.
W. Nikola-Lisa, Hallelujah!: A Christmas Celebration, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000.
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Enduring Wisdom: Sayings from Native Americans, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2003.
Illustrator of book covers, including Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan and children's books by Angela Shelf Medearis, Angela Johnson, and Barbara Ann Porte. Creator of designs appearing on over eighty greeting cards, including several for UNICEF, as well as licensed images appearing on T-shirts, magnets, boxes, gift bags, deck cards, puzzles, calendars, and mugs.
Author and illustrator Synthia Saint James seeks to inspire readers and viewers with her highly acclaimed art. Drawing on her cultural heritage and developing an unmistakably unique style that defies common technical rules and is emboldened by her use of brilliant colors, Saint James has been praised by critics for her ability to express her personal passion for life and accurately portray the celebration and beauty of life in all its glory. Among the many books that she has illustrated are It's Kwanzaa Time!, which she also authored, and No Mirrors in My Nana's House, written by a capella vocalist Ysaye M. Barnwell. The illustrations in each of Saint James's books speaks to cultural pride and individuality, both characteristics the author/illustrator adamantly defends.
Created for pre-readers, It's Kwanzaa Time!: A Lift-the-Flap Story showcases Saint James' illustrations in a collage-like lift-the-flap book. With one or two sentences per page, youngsters are enticed to uncover the principals that make up the seven days of Kwanzaa. Behind the little flaps are structural feats that signify accomplishment, and people rejoicing. The illustrations, simple and flat but enlivened with color, highlight a book that a School Library Journal contributor recommended as an "attractive teaching tool to introduce the concepts [of Kwanzaa] to young audiences."
In No Mirrors in My Nana's House, a young black girl looks closely into the world that surrounds her every day and discovers beauty there as well as in herself. Illustrating the inspiration of this girl, Saint James enhances Barnwell's text with acrylic paintings that resemble collage, creating what Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper praised as a "wonderfully eye-catching mix." While a Publishers Weekly critic maintained that "Younger readers may wish for more visual expressiveness than the abstracted bodies can muster," but a Skipping Stones contributor praised No Mirrors in My Nana's House as "Beautifully illustrated." In another picture book, Walter Dean Myers' How Mr. Monkey Saw the Whole World, Horn Book contributor Ellen Fader enthusiastically cited Saint James' contribution to the book, writing that her "vibrant minimalist illustrations in her trademark neon bright colors bring the story to life."
Saint James told SATA: "One of the most beautiful things about painting is the actual sharing of the artwork visually with others, and what a pleasure it is now to be sharing more closely with children by way of children's picture books. The process of creating the images to bring the words to life is amazing in itself, and quite a task—but very rewarding once the challenge is met."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Contemporary Black Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
American Visions, October-November, 1992, pp. 34-36.
Black Issues Book Review, November-December, 2001, Olivia Harrington, review of It's Kwanzaa Time!, p. 76.
Booklist, September 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of No Mirrors in My Nana's House, p. 234; February 15, 2001, Henrietta M. Smith, review of Sunday, p. 1161.
Caribe News, March 7, 1995.
Charlotte Observer, February 14, 1993, pp. 1F, 2F.
Essence, January, 1995, p. 97.
Horn Book, July-August, 1996, Ellen Fader, review of How Mr. Monkey Saw the Whole World, p. 452.
Publishers Weekly, August 8, 1994; September 19, 1994; July 27, 1998, review of No Mirrors in My Nana's House, p. 77; September 24, 2001, review of It's Kwanzaa Time!, p. 48.
School Library Journal, October, 1994; January, 1997, Barbara Osborne Williams, review of Sunday, p. 90; October, 2001, review of It's Kwanzaa Time!, p. 69.
Skipping Stones, September-October, 1998, review of No Mirrors in My Nana's House, p. 32.
U.S. Art, January-February, 1993.
Vibe, June, 1995.