Leeya Rose Jackson: Curiosity and Abundance

A conversation with the 2023/24 MCAD–Jerome Fellow on the unconventional beginnings of her studio practice that has grown into creative expressions of Black neurodivergence, femininity, and celestial/universal surrealism

Colorful painted plaque reads "change is the one unavoidable irresistibly ongoing reality of the universe" with other small paintings surrounding
1Leeya Rose Jackson, Universal Change, 2022.

Yi WAngYour journey into art began with doodling on virtually everything around you, turning what was once considered a bad habit into the foundation of your artistic career. How do you think this unconventional start has influenced your artistic style and approach?

Leeya Rose jackson Reflecting on my adolescence, I remember doodling on everything as both a nuisance and a necessity. It was a coping mechanism for channeling my scattered thoughts. This early practice taught me to embrace different mediums and utilize whatever was around me to create. I doodled on “inappropriate surfaces,” such as homework, quizzes, library book margins, receipts during my barista shifts, the walls of my childhood room, and even the pages of the Bible. This helped declutter my mind. I now categorize this as a form of neurographic art, which influences my current work. My work often exhibits traits of being multi-modal, noisy, curious, or as I frequently describe it, all over the place. There’s a stream of consciousness aspect to much of my work that evolved from doodling, as the final forms are typically improvised in the moment, even if I start with an abstract plan. It feels more like downloading or channeling the pushes, rather than concretely planning where things will land.

YWYou utilize a diverse range of mediums–from painting and printmaking to film and animation–to express your visions. How do you decide which medium will best convey the message of each piece, and what challenges do you face in mastering multiple mediums?

Leeya Rose Jackson, The Celestial Sisters, 2021.

LRJWhen I decided to become an artist, I originally reached for painting because it was the medium I had the most knowledge of and access to. Discovering printmaking was revolutionary because it allowed me to embrace grit and process, and eventually the skills I learned in that practice translated well to design. I never actively made a plan to learn a myriad of mediums, if anything it came from an abundant curiosity and moments of being overwhelmed with the former medium. I never felt like I could actually pause and not be making/creating/laboring in some way, so instead I’d procrastinate with learning a new skill or medium.

This has left me with a rather large hoard of skill sets, and so when approaching an idea for a work, it often follows the same journey as my artistic practice. Initially, I considered making a painting but from there consider whether it should move, have text, be designed. In the same vein of doodling on everything around me, I often find that almost everything is up for exploration. I’ve let go of the notion of perfecting any particular craft. I weigh the acceptance of making mistakes and exploration higher than perfection. There’s something freeing in learning to do something like animate but not putting the pressure on myself to be masterful of it. The more I think about it, the term “master” carries such a controlling weight that I prefer not to include it in my artistic expression, a space intended to be safe. I’m now more interested in how to combine these disparate mediums into pieces that create more of an experiential installation. My most recent piece, Affirm. Adage., included painting, textile work, woodwork, and digital animation to create an altar to memory and sources of childhood shame. The process with this piece began with an idea of a portrait of myself emerging from the weeds, but eventually evolved to have corresponding pieces of phrases I grew up hearing, mementos, and an animation of joyful childhood footage inset into a “treasure chest.” I’m beginning to examine every element of an installation, from the wallpaper/background to the flooring and seating within the space. I’m considering how these features can incorporate messaging and accessibility. Often now, my challenge is about knowing where to stop or pull back to declutter the piece.

YWYour art explores complex themes such as Black neurodivergence, femininity, and celestial/universal surrealism. How do these themes manifest themselves through your recent projects?

lrjLately, I’ve been keen to explore not only my own journey in understanding my intersecting identities, but also the experiences of other Black femmes inhabiting similar spaces. I’ve been contemplating the concept of the neuro/negro and the extent of our permitted imperfections. I’ve been considering our place in a society fixated on labor and productivity, where many of us, who once affirmed the need to be twice as good and work twice as hard, are now learning to relinquish the deep-seated shame of not meeting that standard without risking our mental health. Our disabilities often go unnoticed and under-diagnosed, primarily because they manifest differently, often out of necessity. Would these mental divergences be problematic in a world not molded by white supremacy and capitalism?

In my current practice, I am exploring these questions as I aim to uncover the rich, intricate, and layered inner truth of Black femmes. As a queer, neurodivergent Black woman, I draw from my personal experiences to encapsulate the tumultuous beauty of our diverse mentalities. Through interviews and portraits of fellow Black, neurodivergent women, I examine the intersections of Blackness, femininity, and neurodivergence, celebrating the resilience, joys, and mental maps that emerge from these complex intersections. I am captivated by the complexity and unusual beauty of Black neurodivergent girlhood, memory, and the hidden aspects that others find difficult to perceive. I delve into the multifaceted nature of Blackness–its relationship to identity, and its representation in various depths of Black pigment. These voids symbolize the darker points and gaps in memory, as well as portals to other universal or celestial worlds. Works such as Mind Map and Hill to Lie On capture this balance of memory, complexity, and identity.

Brown skinned person lies on mound of colorful fabrics with botanical shapes and star-lit sky behind
Leeya Rose Jackson, Hill to Lie On, 2023.

YWRecently, you’ve started to animate elements of your work. What inspired this shift, and how do you feel it enhances the viewer’s experience of your art?

LRJI’ve always seen my paintings as freeze frames of a moment, especially in portraiture. Growing up, I was fascinated by the lively portraits and photographs in Harry Potter. This inspired me to animate my digital illustration work, often for clients. The first painting I animated was Yearning, inspired by a dream I had of phrases surrounding a female figure like a halo.

To me, animation is a form of magic that brings further motion and life to a static piece, adding depth. The movement can be simple, or involve building up elements or adding ephemeral words or phrases. I’ve started exploring less obvious ways to display these animations, such as hiding them in places that require extra effort from the viewer. For example, in Affirm. Adage., the animation was hidden in a tiny chest, visible only to those who opened it and bent slightly to see it. I’m now experimenting with QR codes, augmented reality, and small built-in screens to add a layer of mystery to my work, like an Easter egg for invested viewers.

Leeya Rose Jackson, Yearning, 2021.

YWYou mention being inspired by Octavia Butler, Faith Ringgold, Frida Kahlo, and Kehinde Wiley. How do these figures influence your work, and are there any specific works by them that have had a significant impact on you?

LRJI’ve always been drawn to artists who explore identity, social issues, and futurism/surrealism through a lens of beauty and vibrancy. One of my earliest artistic inspirations was Frida Kahlo, who delved into her own pain and identity in her work. Being a woman of color, she resonated deeply with me. Although I have never been physically confined, I understand the mental need to create your own worlds of escapism and reflection.

Seeing Kehinde Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars at the Detroit Institute of the Arts in high school was a transformative experience. The portrait of a familiar-looking, everyday Black man carrying such immense strength, dominance, and elegance was unlike anything I had ever seen. It reinforced my desire to pursue art and create portraits of us, for us. Octavia Butler’s writings introduced me to the concept of Black futurism. My installation, Universal Change, was inspired by her words from the Parable of the Sower series. It merges language, graphic design, carving, and painting to create portals into the human experience. The piece explores the idea of embracing hope and change during humanity’s darkest times. It includes Black ancestral/descendant figures painted in a starscape on the walls. The installation is designed to be viewed as a cycle, with no clear start or end. It can be viewed from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, or bottom to top. This reflects the spiritual and scientific belief that there is no past or future, only the present and how we choose to perceive it.

YWBased on your experiences, what advice would you give to young, emerging artists who are navigating their identities and personal experiences through their artwork?

LRJAs a Black woman, the greatest freedom I’ve found is in releasing the urge to educate through my work. There is often pressure within the arts and other spaces for individuals with marginalized identities to convey their trauma in their work. This is typically aimed at providing understanding and acceptance to the general audience, which is predominantly white. I have chosen to let my work convey love and understanding towards Black femmes. If it resonates with anyone else, that is supplementary.

YWHow has winning the Jerome Fellowship affected how you approach your work?

ZCReceiving this fellowship gave me both affirmation and support to advance my work. I had largely lost touch with my artistic practice and the arts community since becoming an art director in advertising in Minneapolis in 2015. It was only in 2020, while confined to my home seeking an emotional outlet, that I resumed my art.

Access to resources, space, discussions, and fellowship peers is crucial as I start the next phase of my artistic career. Already, I have had the opportunity to deeply consider my future creations, and regular check-ins with other artists, writers, and curators will further enhance my current ideas. Additionally, I will have access to MCAD’s printmaking studios, providing an opportunity to delve more into that practice.

YWIf you could describe your work in one word, what would it be?


Yi Wang

Yi Wang is an interdisciplinary artist based in Minneapolis. Her practice spans the mediums of digital illustration, painting, and installation. Wang creates satirical tableaus that weave together brightly colorful collages, everyday objects, and disjointed scenes that explore loneliness, our environment, and humanness through the lens of dark humor. Originally from Beijing, China, she moved to New Zealand, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree at Auckland University of Technology. …   read more