This month-long inspiration series celebrating Black icons and influences features teachers we admire highlighting the creatives who sparked their own journeys. They’ll share their personal projects inspired by these icons, and invite you to create along with them.
Meet Eva Woolridge. Eva is an award-winning photographer, public speaker, and social activist. Her work has graced the pages of Rolling Stone, Teen Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar. She uses her camera to capture the full scope of identity, exploring themes of spirituality, sexuality, and femininity.
Eva Woolridge’s Inspiration: Simone Leigh, visionary of sculpture, installation, video, performance, and more
To know the work of Simone Leigh means knowing that she doesn’t fit into any one box. At once a sculptor and also a cultural commentator; an installation artist and also an advocate. Simone has made a worldwide name for herself through her art which centers Black women. As ARTnews notes, “Black women have long been her protagonists.” It was this sensibility that drew Eva Woolridge to the current works and cultural legacy of Simone Leigh.
When did the work of Simone Leigh begin to influence your own style or approach to photography?
I was introduced to Simone Leigh in 2019 when I was preparing my TedX Talk on how to use art to heal from trauma. Parallel to my series Size of a Grapefruit which highlights the emotional and physical trauma I experienced during my ovarian cyst emergency and the overall microaggressions and negligence that Black women face during medical emergencies; Leigh creates multi-dimensional art pieces that address society’s relationship and mistreatment of Black women.
In my talk, I analyzed Leigh’s exhibition “The Waiting Room,” which shared the story of a Black female patient by the name of Esmin Elizabeth Greene who died on the waiting room floor of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. Leigh’s exhibition spotlighted the injustice that Greene faced, which included medical professionals and security officers stepping over her body multiple times to only check on her 30 minutes after she already died.
From the beginning to its completion, Leigh’s art pieces and exhibitions are intentional and offer not only the societal problems that affect Black women but provide solutions through her art. “The Waiting Room” exhibition held a mirror up to the traumas Black women face due to the negligence of Western medicine, but she then offers knowledge of natural, traditional medical methods that are historically associated within the Black Diaspora.
What I admire so greatly about Leigh is her ability to command the world’s attention toward the delicacy, grace, and beauty of Blackness using large, black and brown, space demanding sculptures.
How did you approach this piece of artwork and what were you aiming to convey or capture?
When I was given the task to create a piece for this campaign my mind went all over the place. I was immediately trying to brainstorm how this was going to look, how would it be perceived, and how I would even attempt to make it as impactful as a Simone Leigh sculpture? I was worried about the how instead of the why. Instead of starting with my intention.
This past year we saw so much death. It was all around us. From the pandemic and the passing of loved ones, the very clear signs of our destruction of the planet, to the countless Black lives who died from police brutality including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The violence we are all experiencing worldwide could no longer be ignored by the miniscule distractions of our day-to-day life. And in September I experienced for the first time a death of a close childhood friend, Danny Ives, who was one of the most positive, free spirits that I have truly ever known.
These were all realities that were commanding my attention, but my heart wouldn’t hold that amount of pain. I was curious and I turned my attention to spirituality, learning about collective energy, researching divinity and although somewhat morbid, exploring my own thoughts of what life and death means to me. And then I had my dream.
I dreamt my friend Danny visited me. I was looking out the window watching the violence of 2020 occur on the streets. Even in my dream I was unphased by our violent reality, when I saw a pair of black pants, work boots, and a chain that stretched from a belt strap to inside the pant pocket cut through my line of vision. My friend Danny took a seat on the roof, back turned to me, right in front of my window, and was looking at the full moon. The moon was so bright and big, and his silhouette was gorgeous, that I even took a photo of him in my dream.
I climbed out to the roof and sat next to him and then the earth became still. The chaos and noise gently faded out, and I felt extremely calm and loved. All we were doing was sitting and talking about his transition, and the entire experience felt euphoric and looked like a set design from a broadway show. It was so powerful that I woke up crying, extremely moved.
Exploring my ideas of life and death brought me comfort knowing that I have control on how I perceive every experience, which is why art is so healing to me. It helps you visually make sense of topics that we often can’t explain.
Instead of clouded by the “how’s” I instead found my why. I found my intention. I wanted this project to loosely replicate the visual and emotional feelings I experienced in my dream, and from my spiritual studies. I wanted to show a Black person transcend above the noise of 2020, and find that we can create our own peace without distraction.
What do you want our readers to take away about your chosen creative icon?
I want to emphasize the significance of being intentional throughout the entire creating process. Even if you don’t necessarily have the entire details of your art piece prepared (which if you’re like me that is 100% of the time), it helps to know who you’re trying to reach with your piece, and ensure that you’re creating from your personal truth.
Simone Leigh is 100% a badass. As a Black woman she speaks from her truth unapologetically and is clear in who her target audience is– Black women whose traditions she once told The New York Times “have been left out of the archive or left out of history. I still think there is a lot to mine in terms of figuring out the survival tools these women have used to be so successful, despite being so compromised.”
Leigh isn’t distracted by seeking recognition or mainstream fame. My perception of her intention is to archive, preserve, and heal. Recognition came from her staying in her truth. And I am still learning to embody the same method throughout the last seven years as an artist.
What do you want our readers and community to reflect on when viewing your photo series? Or in sharing it on social?
Know that when you create from your own truth, no one can discount or take away your message. I too can get distracted from my intention when I’m pressuring myself to create a piece that I think will be considered by others profound or relatable. But when I zoom out, and I remember that as an artist I am responsible for dictating what I find profound in this world–not what others think. And how am I supposed to know what a stranger considers profound? My work is a reflection of where I am in my life and what interests me at that moment. So whether someone else likes it or not I am no longer concerned with, because I know that I have an intention to share how I perceive the world and offer healing through my art.
What’s one thing you’re doing this month (February) to bring you joy?
Quitting my corporate job and working full time as a photographer, public speaker and social activist! My circle would argue that this is long overdue, however, it took the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic to reflect on my life, where I want it to go, and to make the decision to walk away from corporate lifestyle. So after juggling my full-time job, and my full-time photography career I am taking a three-week-long vacation from working, and then starting my birthday month (March, I’m a Pisces baby :-* ) betting on myself as an artist and educator.
Week 4 Creative Prompt
People ask me where I find inspiration for my next projects, and they are all sourced from my own life experiences, interests and life events. Every morning, I participate in a 10 minute free write. It’s journaling without the pressure of writing with a purpose.
The benefit of freewriting is that it reduces our expectations of perfection, brings out emotional blocks and barriers to our success, and offers a blank slate for 100% honesty. In turn, you’re getting to know yourself as a creative. To photograph with intention we must continue to check in with ourselves on where we stand on the topics we care about, and are sometimes uncomfortable by.
I encourage you to grab a notebook or your computer and free-write for 10 minutes. That’s it, only 10 minutes. You can write about anything and everything. Reflect on yourself, childhood memories, what’s on your mind, what you thought of the lesson and explore why. Describe your thoughts and connect with your senses. What did it feel like to go camping for the first time? What did the campfire smell like and what did that make you think of, or how did the river sound and why was it important to you? Ask yourself questions as you would the most interesting stranger in the world. Just don’t stop writing for 10 minutes.
Thank you for joining us for My Creative Roots this February! If you’d like to revisit the words of our teachers, head back to this landing page to explore the creative legacies that power contemporary art.
For Eva’s new Skillshare Staff Pick class on Socially Responsible Photography, click here.
To learn more about Simone Leigh, read the New York Times article Eva referenced here.
Photo series credits:
Model: Isaiah Alan
Assistant 1: Alex Paterson-Jones
Assistant 2: Leonidas Ocampo
Studio: Vault Studios in Greenpoint, Brooklyn