The State (Columbia, S.C.)
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Sarah Ellis reports, “In just a few short years, [Ija] Charles went from a middle school student whose teachers bought the drawings she scribbled on tests she didn’t complete, to an ambitious entrepreneur painting commissioned murals for the state capital and beyond.”
A little boy, no more than 3 or 4 years old, craned his neck up at the 300-foot wall where Ija Charles floated above the ground, working her magic with paint. Standing beside his mother, he called up, “Ma’am, you’re a superhero!”
When Charles lowered herself from her rented cherry picker, she said, the boy’s mother told her, “I’m so happy you’re creating things like this, because I was so afraid my little boy wouldn’t have things like this to look up to in South Carolina.”
Beside them stretched some 180,000 square feet of vertical concrete bearing Charles’ latest masterpiece, a homage to downtown Columbia’s long-gone historic Black business district. A vibrant parade of people, seemingly plucked straight from Main Street, filled Charles’ scene, turning heads and drawing onlookers day after day as the work came to life.
To inspire little ones with big eyes and bigger imaginations, to spark joy — or nostalgia, or sadness, or hope — in whoever receives her work, “There’s not enough money in the world that could take that away,” said Charles, the 24-year-old artist who is making waves across Columbia with her vibrant murals. “I know the effect it’s having on the community, and seeing how happy people are, I feed off of joy. That’s the only thing I want with my life and my art and whatever I’m doing.”
A self-taught, self-supporting artist, Charles is quickly becoming one of the most visible creators and recognizable names in art across the capital city.
A superhero to one little boy, an inspiration to blossoming creatives in her hometown, and a young woman becoming a leader, Charles is an artist who’s “painting positive vibes on the canvas of life,” she says.
And she’s making her literal mark all over Columbia.
In just a few short years, Charles went from a middle school student whose teachers bought the drawings she scribbled on tests she didn’t complete, to an ambitious entrepreneur painting commissioned murals for the state capital and beyond.
If by some chance you haven’t yet seen Charles’ latest mural on a city office building at 1401 Main St. in the heart of downtown, perhaps you’ve driven past her “Leap” banner on the outside of the Richland Library main branch on Assembly Street or her “Cayce Wonders” mural on State Street across the river. You might have paused to take in the display of her paintings while flying in or out of Columbia Metropolitan Airport, or stepped right into her full-room painting at the Immersion interactive art center on Main Street.
“She’s been popping up everywhere,” said Ashley Warthen, the arts librarian for Richland Library.
Last year, Charles was one of two artists the library selected to paint Black Lives Matter-themed murals in the wake of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other injustices. Her banner depicts a young Black girl with beaded braids, arms raised in the air as she takes a leap, set against the background of a dreamy sky.
“It’s a symbol of taking risks and jumping into reality to change the narrative of how one perceives the world and how one is perceived in the world. She’s focusing on character, rather than preconceived notions,” Warthen said of Charles’ “Leap.” “That spoke to us.”
Charles’ sudden prominence in Columbia’s art scene has made her one of the few women with major visibility in the city’s public art space. She’s also a young Black woman carrying a torch for Black experience in this vibrant cultural moment, a time when long-overdue doors are finally being opened for a diversity of voices in public spaces.
“All of her themes around Black experience, or a lot of African American connections … certainly stand out in the time we are in, particularly in Columbia with our large African American population,” said Lee Snelgrove, director of One Columbia for Arts and Culture, which guides public art projects across the city. “We haven’t had a lot of women doing murals, Black women and particularly young Black women working in the public space and speaking to these themes.”
Snelgrove described Charles’ Black business district mural on Main Street as “immediately iconic for downtown.”
“Because of the sheer scale of this wall, the prominence of it being right on Main Street … I hope that this has a great effect on her career and that she is able to continue to create this kind of work at this scale that won’t necessarily be just in Columbia,” Snelgrove said. “I hope she stays here and continues to create work here but also has opportunities that take her different places and share her work with different towns, and then share the word of how Columbia supported her and continues to support her.”
Charles recently captured the attention of the NFL, which tapped her to create a piece for its national Artist Replay initiative. Her work was shared on the NFL’s social media channels and displayed at this year’s Super Bowl in Tampa.
“I feel like it’s irresponsible to create things you do not know anything about. I really create what I know, whatever that is, and my expression is bringing back the renaissance of joy through my experience, which of course is African American,” Charles said. “I’ve been put into the position where I am a leader in different movements and a leader in the art community as me, as myself. … I don’t mind carrying that on my shoulders. I can bench press it very well.”
The cards she’s dealt
Charles’ rise to notoriety might seem to have come on suddenly, but her climb to success has been deliberate.
Charles has mastered the art of promoting her art, a skill she began to sharpen as a student at Blythewood’s Westwood High School. It was there that she first got her hands on paint as a medium — “I fell in love with it and never went back,” she said — and it was also there that she first developed a business plan as an artist.
She sold her first commissioned painting to a teacher, and she picked up her first national commission from the town of Houma, Louisiana, where she painted an African American history banner.
She had the chance to attend the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, but even with the offer of a half scholarship, it wasn’t in the financial cards for her, Charles said. So she left home, traded the Palmetto State for the Pelican State, and set out creating and selling art any way she could in the New Orleans area, from face painting to cake decorating to Mardi Gras float painting.
After about three years, with her feet firmly under her in young adulthood, Charles returned to Columbia “to give back.”
“It was a community service thing for me,” she said. “Everyone in the community, especially in Richland 2 (school district), really gave me all the tools that I needed to be where I am now.
“I want to show all the kids who grow up in this town that it doesn’t matter where you are, it just matters what you do with the cards you’re dealt.”
She got jobs at Cracker Barrel and in sales at a Verizon phone store, all the while creating and selling her work — “I would sell a phone, but I’d sell some art to you, too,” she said.
She was soon able to stop selling phones and focus on selling art full-time.
Suffice it to say, the art business is going well.
“I literally bought a house last year, so I’m very happy,” Charles said.
Polishing the gem
Charles grew up using art as “self-therapy,” making paints out of leaves and berries she found in the woods and crafting dolls out of whatever she could pick up on the playground. Now, she’s drying out honeysuckle blossoms for an upcoming sculpture and taking commissions for personal paintings and public murals. She’s diligent about documenting her projects on social media (she has more than 24,000 followers on Instagram, @ija_monet).
Whether her work finds its way into someone’s home, a gym, a coffee shop, an office or a wall on along a city street — her next big project is a mural in Columbia’s Five Points district — Charles believes she’s sharing a piece of herself with each piece of art.
“Whether I’m happy or sad, I always know how I was feeling when I created (something). People want that in their house — it’s like spirits. That’s how I feel when I have my paintings, so when people want to buy them … it’s like letting a piece of my heart go,” she said. “But I know it’s going to a good place.”
Charles plans to take her art to places far beyond Columbia in the days and years ahead.
“I’m becoming more and more myself. I feel like it’s just fine-tuning what I like to do with my work,” she said. “If you have a gem, it’s already been cut. At this point, I’m just polishing it.”
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