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Art AND: LaToya Hobbs

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LaToya Hobbs was a self-professed homebody even before COVID times. The artist and educator works mostly from her home basement studio where, since last March, she’s also been teaching her college classes remotely. Being at home allows the 2020 Sondheim prize winner to maximize her time, which Hobbs needs to do because she’s doing a lot. 

Known for her arresting, large-scale paintings of Black women that mix the aesthetics of print techniques with portraiture and pattern, over the last two and half years Hobbs has had three solo shows in Baltimore, exhibiting first at Goucher College, then Baltimore City Hall and finally, her Sondheim prize-winning digital exhibition with BOPA (that in any other year would have taken place at the Walters Art Museum). She was also the 2019 recipient of the Artist Travel Prize awarded by the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City to take a research trip to Morocco, which was unfortunately cut short by COVID back in March.

The mother of a four- and six-year-old, Hobbs has been prioritizing her family for the last three years and breaking into the Baltimore art scene. As a result, she has put seeking gallery representation on the back burner.

“I want to have something that is sustainable for me and also respect the fact that my family is a priority right now,” she explains. “My practice is a priority, but being a mom is also a huge priority as well. I just want to make sure that I’m balancing—’balancing’ is in quotations!—all of those things together. I like the fact that I can produce at my own pace. I can control where my work goes, who I sell my work to and I can keep all of the profit.”

Birth of a Mother (Expectation)

Hobbs didn’t necessarily set out with the intention of being a college art professor, but the occupation is a good fit for her ordered personality because she recognizes that “instructing people and organizing information and disseminating that information to people has been something that I’ve always done.” Originally from Arkansas, Hobbs earned her MFA at Purdue in Indiana before moving with her family to Baltimore seven and a half years ago so Hobbs could accept a contract position at MICA, where she still teaches today as a full-time faculty member.

In addition to producing her art, teaching full-time in MICA’s First Year Experience department, and parenting responsibilities, Hobbs and her partner, the artist Ariston Jacks, homeschool their children. It’s a decision Hobbs made when her eldest son was three years old and it’s working for her family because it allows them to customize their education plans to each child’s needs and preferences.

Portrait of a Mother

“As a Black mom, just thinking about the school-to-prison pipeline, you have those things in the back of your mind as well. I just wanted to give them the type of experience that I felt was best for them,” Hobbs explains. “It’s not coming from a place of fear, but you have to be aware of the statistics that you read about—Black children are more likely to be penalized for things that their other classmates aren’t.”

Hobbs is an observational artist, basing her work on capturing real people’s likenesses. She believes that observation is tied to honor, and for each of her subjects, she is acknowledging their presence and their power as individuals. For Hobbs, this connects with her “ideas about visibility, particularly with Black people, because sometimes, [as a Black person] you have a double consciousness of being visible and invisible at the same time. People see you, but it’s generally through the lens of whatever stereotype they have of you, and [as a result] they don’t really see you.”

Portraits in a gallery are there with the express purpose of being observed by the public. By painting her family and friends as her subjects, Hobbs is creating a legacy and helping to insert more Black representation into Western art history.

... and then, she realized she was enough
Prosper: to do well, succeed or thrive

This winter, Hobbs is preparing for a group show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, set to open in March 2022, so lately, she splits her studio time between home and a rented studio at Maryland Art Place in downtown Baltimore. (The show was originally slated to open this March but was postponed due to the pandemic.) The MAP studio provides the space to work larger, but having to leave the house has definitely added another layer of planning to Hobb’s intricately scheduled life.

She explains that this additional project has caused her to “pull more out of myself and my practice. I would say when I just had one child, I was five, six steps ahead. Now on a good day, I’m two, three steps ahead. And then some days I’m just one step.” Still, Hobbs is a rare person who sets intentions and actually accomplishes them, who revels in being busy and who can forgive herself when she falls short of her own extremely high standards. Her mantra during COVID has been to give herself space and remind herself, “It’s okay if you don’t get everything done, you know, it’ll work out. It’ll work out. It’ll be fine.”

 

Over Zoom, Hobbs and I discussed the influence motherhood has had on her work, what she loves about Baltimore, and how painting someone’s portrait is preserving their legacy.

SUBJECT: LaToya Hobbs, 37
WEARING: Pale olive green artist overalls by Paintwear and a red shirt with black New Balance sneakers.
PLACE: Zoom

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

LaToya Hobbs: It’s hard to pick the most important book, but I have made it a priority to read more. One book that definitely comes to mind is Sister Citizen by Melissa V. Harris-Perry.  Some of the other recent books I’ve read or am reading right now are:

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves by Glory Edim

We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood by Dani McClain

Do it Scared: Finding the Courage to Face Your Fears, Overcome Adversity, and Create a Life you Love by Ruth Sockup

 

What was the best life advice you’ve ever received?

Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. Or If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

You’ve lived in Arkansas and Indiana before moving to Baltimore to accept a year-long contract position at MICA. What makes Baltimore distinctive from the other places you have lived? 

Baltimore has the hustle and bustle of the city life, but not as crazy as New York. I also like the fact that geographically it’s close to so many other nice hubs and metropolises, for example, you can get to DC really quickly, you can get to Philly really quickly, you can get to New York really quickly. As an artist, it’s just a really great location, and [cost of] living is pretty reasonable in terms of housing and studio space. 

Have you always been an artist? How did you know? Was there ever another career path you considered or were encouraged to pursue?

I haven’t always been an artist, but I’ve always been a creative and a fan of the arts. I actually started my college career as a Biology Major with intentions to go to medical school to study pediatrics. I’ve also dabbled in modeling and dance. I didn’t commit to being a visual artist until around 2009. If I could choose another career just for sheer enjoyment I would be an Alvin Ailey dancer.

What material do you use so much you should buy stock in it? 

3-Wick Scented Candles from Bath and Body Works… Love those!  They’re kind of expensive so I only buy them on sale!

 

Your work is, by and large, large-scale portraits of Black women. Why are you drawn to this particular theme and how do you choose your subjects? 

I’ve always been drawn to doing portraiture and have taken an interest in the body and in the physical form. I think part of that comes through my enjoyment of dance which is a hobby of mine and something I did all throughout junior high, high school, and some in college—I was always on the dance team performing or doing liturgical dance at church. The figure was a natural subject matter for me to explore. I think [I started making portraits] because I didn’t see a lot of images of Black people in art especially when I started to take art history classes; there just wasn’t any representation. I decided I needed to create images to make up for all the lack of diversity I was seeing. 

Finally, I also have a desire to capture the importance of the people around me which is my primary subject matter. Friends and family, generally women who are around the same age as me, although I’m starting to vary that a little bit more. It’s very important for me to think about women that I actually have access to. So although I’ve done a couple of portraits of famous people, for the most part, I really enjoy connecting with people that I know. That sense of familiarity comes through in the work.

You’re clearly a big fan of patterns and you mentioned you started using them in conjunction with your portraiture to make the resulting work “feel more contemporary,” which I assumed was a reference to Rosalind Krauss’s essay on the same subject. Would you say that your love of pattern comes from a love or interest in the structure of the grid as suggested by Krauss, or does it come from other traditions of organizing space visually?

I’m not familiar with Krauss’s essay, but I will definitely check it out. My use of pattern was born out of a sense of discovery and as a way to organize the Adinkrah symbols (a Ghanaian symbol system that represents popular proverbs and maxims, records historical events, and expresses particular attitudes related to depicted figures) I use on the substrate I’m working on to coincide with the figure. Because I introduced this element through printmaking (making smaller woodcuts and using them like a stamp on a larger surface), connecting the symbols in a grid became a natural thing to do; although I sometimes break away from or use different variations of the grid. 

 

You mentioned you’ve been enjoying cooking and watching cooking shows in quarantine, have you discovered any new shows, recipes, or cuisines you’ve incorporated into your family’s meal planning rotation? 

My two favorite cooking shows right now are The Great British Baking Show and Nadiya’s Time to Eat, both on Netflix. I cook pretty well, but I’m not much of a baker so it’s really fun for me to learn about all of the baking techniques and terms via The Great British Baking Show. I love Nadiya’s Time to Eat because she (Nadiya Hussain, who happened to win the British Baking show a few seasons ago) shares quick recipes and shortcuts that are super easy and ideal for busy people who still want to eat well. I’ve incorporated a few of her recipes into my cooking regime that my family really loves, like her cream cheese croissants

I also really like watching Chopped and Worst Cooks in America.

Do you have a daily “uniform” or specific favorite piece of clothing?

Usually anything that’s comfortable. In warmer weather, I love wearing dresses. In cooler weather, if I’m staying home I usually wear comfy sweats and a hoodie or oversized cardigan.

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make or the show you would curate.

The exhibit I would love to do is a joint exhibition with my husband Ariston Jacks. We have talked about doing an exhibit together but it hasn’t gone past that. With unlimited funding and time, I’m sure we could put together an amazing exhibit!

Another thing I’d like to do is fund the Inaugural Exhibition of Black Women of Print, which is a collective of Black Women Printmakers I’m a founding member of. We all live in different places so all of our interaction has been online or via phone. It would be awesome for us to get together and have a retreat and show an awesome body of work.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get better at creating a competitive application for artist opportunities such as grants, residencies, or awards?

Be organized and keep good documentation of your work. Be clear and concise with your writing. Always have someone else look over your materials. Don’t take rejection from these types of opportunities personally. 

Personally, right now I don’t feel the need to apply to everything I see as opposed to earlier in my career. I’m being more selective with the types of things I participate in based on the impact they will have on my career. I don’t have a set number of things that I apply to each month, but there are certain things I make a note to apply to each year; these are usually more substantial art prizes/grants and residencies like the Studio Museum in Harlem or the Harpo Prize. Most of the exhibition opportunities I’ve gotten as of late have been via personal invitations to exhibit my work.   

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I don’t think astrology is silly at all; I wouldn’t base every life decision on it, but I think it’s valid.  I’m a Taurus and I would say that my sign matches my personality pretty well. Whenever I read about my sign some things that stand out are the desire to be surrounded by beautiful things, comfort, good food, being loyal and sometimes stubborn.

Who are your business heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

In business, I would say Tiffany Alihche also known as The Budgetnista. It’s been encouraging to learn about her financial struggles of being in extreme debt to now running a business that makes over six figures. In art, I have so many people I admire but I am especially inspired by any woman who is a mother and is still managing to make awesome work and thrive in their practice. 

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

My first real job was at Chick-Fil-A. I started at 15 as a cashier and worked my way up to a manager. Working in that capacity helped me in a lot of ways such as learning how to interact with different types of people, developing great customer service, training others, and being organized. All of those skills have been important to my teaching and art practice.

*****

LaToya Hobbs’ work will be included in the exhibition All Due Respect (also featuring Lauren Frances Adams, Mequitta Ahuja, and Cindy Cheng) opening March 6, 2022, at the Baltimore Museum of Art in conjunction with the museum’s Joan Mitchell retrospective.

 

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