Studio Visit with Tamara Payne

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In the fall of 2018, I attended Baltimore City Community College and took an art class instructed by Tamara Payne called Art & The Culture. I loved the class especially because it highlighted many Baltimore artists I’d already admired such as Larry Poncho Brown and Ernest Shaw. Payne knew I was pursuing fashion and reached out to me one day during my semester at BCCC saying she had something for me. That “something” was my first mannequin form. 

To give a little context, I was an 18-year-old fashion designer in my sophomore year at the time trying to make my way back to North Carolina A&T State University where I later graduated in 2021. Due to a lack of financial support, I was attending BCCC and was doing my best not to fall back on my prerequisites.

Payne gifted me a resource I didn’t know at the time would carry me through senior year at NCA&T. In the final stretch to graduation, my school projects were to be done mainly at home, in an almost completely remote environment and I had deadlines to make. She was essential in making this possible.

Tamara Payne is a multimedia artist and activist who has been committed to serving her community from a very young age. She has always advocated for herself and others around her. If you’re attending an art or fashion gathering these days, you have likely seen her supporting some of her favorite artist friends while also conducting neighborhood mural projects, teaching young artists to hone their skills—and all while pursuing her MFA in Studio Art at MICA.

After completing my Fashion Studies at North Carolina A&T State University, I bumped into her again. This time it was in a professional setting; I was the artistic director of my first fashion shoot for designer Yelé Oladeinde in BmoreArt’s print Issue 15: Migration. 

Payne reached out to me soon after the shoot to say, “I have a project in the works and I just want you to show up and be your fierce self.” At the time I didn’t know exactly what she meant, but it was a no brainer for me to be there for her as she has for me. We met at the Lazarus Building, which many MICA students are familiar with. There, I got to experience her installation and performance piece, Dear Black Girl: Love Letters to My Sisters.

Portrait of the artist by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Issue 15
Gallery View of Dear Black Girl Installation, photo by Vivian Marie Doering
From Dear Black Girl Installation, photo by Vivian Marie Doering

Have you ever walked into a space so beautiful you didn’t want to touch a thingas if it was sacred? The Dear Black Girl exhibition inspired this feeling; at the same time, it was charged with an energy of togetherness and familiarity. It felt like I was in one of my aunties’ living rooms and we were having a long overdue catchup. 

The walls were lined with various African printed fabrics. Affirmations and quotes, blended within the fabrics, dared Black girls not to hide their greatness. Mirrors placed throughout the space paired the words with our reflections. There was a big yellow and blue African print couch that a group of us came to sit on. Many of us had never met until that day, but it seemed we knew each other. We danced, we laughed, we hugged.

But it wasn’t only joy we were invited to express in this space. On headphones, we could listen to the stories of our elders/aunties/community members. They were stories of trauma and triumph, stories that may not be often shared out loud, but ones it felt we shared in spirit. The experience reassured me that it truly was okay to open up about the things I usually keep tucked within. I felt seen, celebrated, important, beautiful, and safe. 

Inspired by the poem, “A Black Girl’s Country,” by poet, film maker, and dancer Nia June, Dear Black Girl explores the idea of home. Payne embarked on the project after the passing of her mother, Shirley Elder Parker, in late 2022, who she refers to as “the biggest priestess in my life.” Parker was an activist in her time, while also battling mental health and medical issues. Payne witnessed her mother navigate the world and its hardships “with tenacity, grace, femininity, and boldness.” And it inspired her to give attention to her own mental health and to create safe, healing spaces for others to join on that journey.  


Gallery View of Tamara Payne's Dear Black Girl Installation, photo by Vivian Marie Doering
Gallery View of Dear Black Girl Installation, photo by Vivian Marie Doering
From Dear Black Girl Installation, photo by Vivian Marie Doering
My art always begins with myself and then extends to my relationships with others.
Tamara Payne

Payne welcomed me into her most sacred space, her home, and we got to catch-up on our journeys over the years apart. I wanted to learn more about the ways her work, as an artist, connects and radiates into her care for community. The following interview was edited for clarity.

How does collaboration influence your work? 

I have always been intrigued with assisting others in a holistic manner so engaging others in collaboration just seems right. 

My art always begins with myself and then extends to my relationships with others. I was raised in a community and family that was mission oriented, so my actions just reflect what I have witnessed through others. Allowing others to engage in the subject matter of my work gives other people the opportunity in the creative process and it is through my interactions with others that I learn more about myself. It’s the gift that keeps giving! I have enjoyed watching myself evolve in this process.

What forms of collaboration do you value most in your artistic process?

In my experiences as a young girl growing up, I was able to have exposure in many things such as visual arts, dance, performing arts, and dramatic speaking so it seems natural that my latest work, Dear Black Girl, would include collaborations with other performing artists. I never feel that I should limit myself in my creative process. My work has grown from 2D to 3D rather quickly. Community has played a big role in how my work has evolved in the last fifteen years as a community artist, educator, and activist. I am very influenced by people. My visions in collaborations are often times from something much greater than myself.  I think the process in collaborations can be a bit more complicated than working alone.

What media do you enjoy exploring?

I enjoy the playfulness of messy materials, but the materials I use shift from season to season. My love for textiles will always be evident in my work. As a ceramicist in my undergrad studies, I loved to feel clay and raw materials. I am forever inspired by fashion, but I have always been a great draftsman. At heart I will always be a multimedia artist. I tend to get bored or feel I want my work to be a surprise to the viewers in each season. I often surprise myself when I explore a new idea and have an instinct to shift in my materials. That is when the magic happens. I do not feel in control most days. My collaborations and the project ideas dictate many of the materials that I will explore.

Portrait of the artist by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Issue 15
From Dear Black Girl Installation, photo by Vivian Marie Doering
In my personal body of work, I create ways in which other Black and brown women can be inspired and celebrate themselves when they don’t feel quite celebrated by the world.
Tamara Payne

Who are some artists that have inspired you?

I feel I have always been inspired by other Black women. My mother was the first artist that I experienced. I vaguely remember sitting with her in a college classroom as a little girl. She would quit for reasons unknown to me. I found out later in my adulthood that she was a student at MICA. Never did I anticipate that I would be attending the same private institution later in life as well. The next time I would experience her work was when I was auditioning for The Baltimore School for the Arts, a performing arts high school. She removed her work from a paper portfolio so that she could put my work in there. 

Outside of my mom, I love the work of Bisa Butler. There is her use of textiles and paint that I so admire. She tells such beautiful stories of Black people. I love the work, tenacity, and resilience of Carrie Mae Weems and Valerie Maynard. These women had to fight against so many barriers to get to their platform. 

I am enamored by the life-sized panels and paintings of Latoya Hobbs, Mickalene Thomas, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Amy Sherald, Ebony Patterson, and so many other Black women today. 

What impact do you wish your work to have? 

I was raised by a village and grew up in a multicultural environment, so community is the secret to my work’s success. My work is all about collaborations with all people. I create workshops in my collaborative mural work for all people and in my personal body of work, I create ways in which other Black and brown women can be inspired and celebrate themselves when they don’t feel quite celebrated by the world. I want people to understand that we are most successful through the assistance of one another. I pray that others witness the importance of humanity in my work. We all have a gift to share in the world that should be witnessed by many. I want to tell stories that I have experienced, tell the stories of others, and allow the world to witness.

Girls' Empowerment Mission "Gems" Baltimore visiting the Dear Black Girl Project
Audience at Dear Black Girl Installation

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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