Julia Bottoms isn’t afraid to think big picture: wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling-big.
Bottoms, a Buffalo-based visual artist, just finished her largest solo project yet: a 1,700-square-foot mural at a local affordable housing development.
“I definitely love the scale of it,” she said. “I’ve found that working so large with murals has influenced my studio practice as well; I find myself more and more trying to go bigger and bigger with the stuff that I’m doing in the studio just to get some of that monumental feeling I get when I’m working on a mural.”
Bottoms worked on her first major mural project in 2017, when she was one of four local artists commissioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Public Art Initiative to create “The Freedom Wall,” a mural at the entrance to Buffalo’s Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor. She painted wall-sized portraits of local and national civil rights leaders, including Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass and local African American historian Eva Doyle.
This project, while larger than she was used to, was an extension of Bottoms’ work, which has long focused on Black representation and deconstructing stereotypes, often through portraits of Black subjects.
“When I look at art history and I see depictions of Black people, so many times it’s through the lens of whiteness. … When you do see Black people in art, a lot of times you see (them as) background figures, servants, … so it’s almost like we’re playing this background character, this supporting role,” she said. “I want the goal of my art to be bringing our stories forward, having us play a main role in whatever narrative the painting is trying to convey.”
In 2012, after being shocked by national discourse around the death of Trayvon Martin, she started a portrait series examining the many facets of Black masculinity.
“(There was) this perception of him as being somehow potentially harmful, and that led up to the murder of him,” Bottoms said. “(I was) just looking at how the media spun that, and presented it as, ‘There might be a possible, probable cause for why this ridiculous murder happened,’ and looking at how stereotypes really helped fuel this (narrative) surrounding the case.”
Since 2017, she has created a number of murals around Buffalo, and one in Cincinnati, almost all large portraits of people of color.
“(They’re) centered around the theme of representation and reshaping the way that Black people are represented in fine arts and in the media,” Bottoms said. “(I’m) showing who we are, showing our stories, versus having somebody else tell them.”
Besides enjoying the power of creating work at such a large scale, she is drawn to murals because of the way they engage the communities where they’re made.
“It’s so much (about) including the people around it,” she said. “There’s this interaction that’s happening where, even when you’re putting it up, people are coming by and they’re getting inspired, they’re asking questions — and that can be hard when you’re working on a mural, because it means you have to stop a lot and talk to people — but it’s also really inspiring just to see what kind of effect it can have on the surrounding neighborhood and how much it can mean to people.”
Bottoms hopes that Chautauquans will listen to her lecture with an open mind, and come ready to hear from a perspective that might be different from their own.
“As a Black female artist — there are a lot of us out there — I think for us to start getting a platform is a newer thing,” she said. “I feel like I have a whole different perspective to share, and I’m really hoping that in sharing that, people will think about the art world a little bit differently.”