T'onna Clemons' painting at the West Park bandshell is an extension of her political pop-art style


T'onna Clemons' West Park mural

T'onna Clemons' painting at West Park in Ann Arbor. Photo courtesy of T'onna Clemons.

The woman is in a red shirt, white sneakers, and blue shorts, her outfit unintentionally matching the colors of the American flag. She's on the West Park bandshell in Ann Arbor, painting on a large white sheet taped to the wall between the stage-left doors.

The first thing she writes on the sheet is "Black Lives Matter" in blue.

The time-lapse video she later posted to YouTube shows her fleshing out the mural with protestors presented in a stencil-style, the BLM slogan crafted into pixelated form, and the old rising-sun flag of the Imperial Japanese Army painted behind everything.

Ann Arbor artist T'onna Clemons is the person who created this graffiti-inspired piece and it just about encompasses everything in her style: politics and pop-art mixing with Japanese imagery and the African-American experience.

"I love Japanese art, contemporary art, and my favorite is the Renaissance," Clemons said. "I am a lover of comic books and manga as well, but I mostly just study the history of art in general. I like to paint in oil mostly, but I am inspired by comics, Hokusai, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Betye Saar. They traditionally do not work in that medium and I find it to be a great challenge to try and incorporate that into my oil paintings."

While Clemons paints in various styles, much of her work is in the negative, playing with the dark outlines and insets of an image.

"I like working in the negative because it’s easier for my mind to process the shadows of an image instead of the actual foundation of an object," she said. "It’s also a quicker process. I was classically trained by [Ann Arbor artist] Jon Onye Lockard. I was a graffiti artist once upon a time and I just love to try anything art-related so that helps me a lot with my vision."

Collage of T'onna Clemons' work

Three paintings by T'onna Clemons, whose photo is in the lower left of the collage. From top left running clockwise: Tinashe, Shout Out to “Karen,” and Self-Portrait. All images courtesy of T'onna Clemons.

Clemons graduated from Eastern Michigan University where she majored in fine arts painting and minored in Japanese, then she went on to Arizona State University and received majors in art history and African-American studies. Over the past 10 years, she's lived in four different states, as well as in Amsterdam, Netherlands, but she returned to Ann Arbor, the town where she was born and raised.

It hasn't been easy.

"Since I’ve been home, I haven’t been able to find work," Clemons said, "even though I’m qualified and have lots of experience in different fields, but I have found that this town has a long history of hidden discrimination toward blacks and hiring in professional aspects. I have been told recently that I can only be a janitor in this town -- SMH. I am a certified financial consultant and medical biller and coder."

But Clemons' painting is always there for her and the Black Lives Matter movement has energized her.

"Since the BLM movement, I have been inspired to do more pop-art type of paintings with commentary from a black perspective on how some of us are perceiving what is going on."

Clemons' painting at West Park is still up as of this writing and, as with all her work, she hopes it can "make a difference in someone’s life or open someone’s eyes to what’s going on in the world and the mind of someone like myself."

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

To view and purchase T'onna Clemons' works, visit her website and Instagram pages @tc19art and @comicbookartist.