Lanecia Rouse Tinsley channels inimitable grief in brilliant new works inspired by nature and ‘life amidst death.’ By Zachary McKenzie, Photos by Melissa Laree Cunninghman
James Baldwin once wrote, “A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”
The author is a favorite of local painter Lanecia Rouse Tinsley. December marked five years since Tinsley and her partner, Cleve, lost their daughter, AJ, prematurely. “The grief is almost as fresh for me today as it was in 2013,” says Tinsley, a graduate of Duke University Divinity School. “This particular year, it’s been a struggle to hold back tears when I think of her absence. It’s been a big fight mentally and emotionally.”
The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so it is fitting that Tinsley — who uses her art to reflect pain, joy, and every emotion in between, showing that beauty and creativity can flourish in all seasons — will be showing new works inspired by her unforeseen journey of loss and healing, at the Forth and Nomad gallery space in the Heights, May 4-June 30.
Wearing a gray sweater, gold bracelets, and long braids laying gently over her shoulders, Tinsley speaks softly and intentionally, occasionally glancing at the paint on her hands. “When we lost her, my heart shattered and life paused for me,” she says. “I knew I didn’t just want to survive it, however. I wanted to live and thrive through it all. So I did the work. Art became a part of the therapeutic process.”
She recalls spending the first few months after AJ’s death painting and letting her emotions out on small canvases. “It was all a way for me to move through my grief and the creative process gave me life amidst death. Art nature became significant to me along this path of healing.”
Her earth-toned works range in size from 4-by-4-inches to 5-by-5-feet, and incorporate natural materials and found objects: red dirt, wood, rainwater, rusted items. “All of these objects are metaphors for me of the fragility of life,” she says. “They represent how life marks us, and how we seek to shelter ourselves from breaking or being fully seen.”
She occasionally uses a paint brush, and is also known to use her bare hands and even objects like a broom to apply the layers. “I find the canvas is so resilient,” she says. “There are times I’m literally beating it with stones or dragging it through the dirt after it’s sat through a storm.”
Beyond her own experiences, Tinsley seeks inspiration for her art in poetry, nature, and vinyl John Coltrane records. She also finds outlets in her work with the social justice org Project Curate and as a cofounder of ImagiNoir Group, an alliance and think-tank of black activists, artists, writers, scholars and educators.
“I just try to be myself, without any objective to change anyone or make my story anyone else’s,” she says. “I am inviting people into one woman’s experience of grief, specifically that of infant loss. I’ve found that by allowing myself to be vulnerable, the work has a life beyond anything I can possibly imagine for each person.”
AT TOP: Lanecia Rose Tinsley makes her multilayered pieces at Hardy & Nance Studios.