Living Her Dream: Artist Synthia Saint James Captures NAACP Image Award Nomination

Synthia Saint James

Internationally renowned and critically acclaimed visual artist Synthia Saint James had the keen intuition that she’d be an artist, even as a child. “That’s what I knew,” said Saint James, who loved to color and draw when she was a little girl. Her latest creations – three books, created in three months, the first time she’d ever self-published – have expanded her diverse body of work and includes a book for inspiring artists.

Saint James’ paperback, “Living My Dream: An Artistic Approach to Marketing,” was recently nominated for a 2012 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Instructional. The book presents a blend of her autobiography along with lessons learned from working in the visual and creative arts sphere for more than three decades. In each chapter, Saint James recounts a story and an instance in her life where she discovers a valuable teaching moment and shares morsels of wisdom with readers.

Underpinning the lessons in “Living My Dream,” she imparts 31 inspirational affirmations – one for each day of the month. She’s an expert in affirmations, since she often speaks them along with prayers while walking the beach at dawn.

“The book is about sharing and getting something from everything you do,” said Saint James.

Doing such is no understatement for Saint James as she has seen success under many umbrellas including visual arts, acting, writing, teaching, music and now self-publishing. Using Amazon’s Create Space publishing, she had full control and her books came out faster, within one week from completing them, she said.

Saint James, who wrote her art marketing book seven years ago at the prodding of an art marketer, decided that now was the time to “get the work out” and to show aspiring artists shortcuts for pursuing their passions.

“What it does is it shows the things that I did wrong, and then the marketing tips is how you should have done it. You don’t ‘pop-call’ on galleries and one day I did. I just put my things in the car and drove around,” said Saint James. A more appropriate way, she said, to approach galleries is to make appointments in advance and do research to see what type of work they accept. “You’ve got to find out what that gallery is doing,” said Saint James.

“A lot of artists make the mistake of going to exhibit openings and they bring their portfolio. That’s another reason for the book, the process – save some time and money, [and show] how you’re really supposed to do things,” she said.

Saint James has been working as an adjunct faculty member and artist-in-residence for an honors program at Saint Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C. The institution awarded her an honorary doctorate degree in 2010 and also established the Synthia Saint James Fine Arts Institute within the college.

Saint James said she enjoys working at Saint Augustine and that her most important goal now is to raise funds for a scholarship the college created for women in her name under the institute they established. Providing scholarships for young women in the visual arts is what Saint James desires to be a part of her legacy.

Saint Augustine’s College is also using her recently published book, “I Wills According to SAINT JAMES: Book One (Volume 1),” for a class that they’ve entitled by the same name. “They had a course called The I Wills According to Saint James … where the students chose one or two of my ‘I Wills’ and they wrote a story from it. I was so amazed,” she said. The ‘I Wills’ are positive affirmations she created. “It’s not what you’re not going to do, it’s what you’re going to do,” said Saint James.

Carrying her lighthearted and unassuming persona, she takes all of her success and accolades with meekness. “When I’m there, I’m Dr. Saint James, which is too cute,” she giggled.

Having more than 20 books with her credits of illustration or authoring, Saint James’ broad array of artistic accomplishments reached a new plateau when in 2010 she became the first visual artist to win the prestigious Trumpet Award from the Trumpet Foundation headed by media trailblazer and civil rights champion Xernona Clayton. “I feel like I received my Academy Award for Civil Rights,” she said.

The way she has been able to overcome any challenges along her journey came through mentors,  including a Black Indian sculptor from the 1800s, Edmonia Lewis, and legendary dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. “There is another form of mentoring,” she said. “You don’t have to be walking around with someone. You receive encouragement from what they were able to do,” said Saint James.

Singer, actress and activist Lena Horne was another mentor for Saint James, whom she knew personally and visited on several occasions. Horne, she said, gave her pointers for accepting awards and told her to “always remember to say thank you” and to “most of all, be humble.” Saint James shared that her mother and Xernona Clayton are her mentors as well.

No matter what, Saint James acknowledged that she has always possessed self-determination. “I’ve always had that,” she said. “Overcoming is that I’m self taught, and getting the gumption to still present my work to people, to try to get exhibits, to try to get people to not only purchase it, but have it in galleries”, said Saint James.

Her tenacity paid off when she was afforded the opportunity to design the first postal stamp celebrating Kwanzaa for the United States Postal Service in 1997. She is also recognized for designing the book cover for Terri McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale” and Iyanla Vanzant’s “Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations for People of Color.”

Saint James’ hallmark design style of colorful shapes and faces depicting African-American culture is indicative of her multifaceted skills that have colored her repertoire of work. “All of these things just came together that I’ve learned to help me do what I’m doing,” she said.

In the seventies, she used to be an actress and once played a Cuban slave in the 1976 Dino De Laurentis film, Drum.  She also played a modern day teenager in the Blaxploitation film Emma Mae, earning her a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) acting designation. She recently renewed her SAG membership as opportunities are still coming her way in film.

The movie “Emma Mae” has since been renamed “Black Sister’s Revenge” and was recently screened by the University of California’s Film and Television Archive. She was also featured in the documentary “The Black Candle by MK Asante,” which explores the Kwanzaa celebration and African- American history.

Recognizing her ancestry links to the Cherokee Tribe, ten years ago, she co-authored, “Enduring Wisdom: Native American Saints,” a collection of quotes made by American Indians. About two months ago and just in time for Valentine’s Day, she published poetry she had written in the ’70s and ’80s in a book called “Can I Touch You: A Collection of Love Poetry.”

In every facet of her life, Saint James has shown she’s living her dream while laying a foundation for others to follow. She continues to dominate the multicultural visual arts space through her ingenious work and what she defines as being “open.”

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