Some people journal to process their feelings. Others meditate. Some may go for a hike. Jamilla Naji paints. “I’ll take whatever thing that’s going on inside that’s not so great and I’ll get it out,” she explains. “I purge my emotions.”
This purge often translates into the most vibrant artworks. “Sometimes my sad things are my best work,” notes the Scottsdale-based artist. “If something’s troubling me, I’ll present it with a lot of colors and humor.”
The color-drenched, often surreal images she paints feel at first glance like whimsical, complex fairy tales. Floating and falling figures mingle with oversize creatures, each radiating a hidden agenda. The hues Naji uses—rendered in oil paints across large, stretched-linen canvases and wood panels—are also symbolic. Blues and purples often represent freedom; greens might mean new beginnings; yellow is for fun; pink symbolizes life, innocence and purity; and white is the color of mystery.
With no formal art training, Naji is completely self-taught. She was first compelled to pick up a paintbrush more than 20 years ago after being inspired by a series of large paintings at a friend’s house. As her interest in art progressed, she used it as a way to escape dysfunction in her family life. She explored it further by creating a book of illustrations inspired by David Bowie songs.
She began painting on wood panels while living near an Amish population in Ohio. After admiring their woodworking skills, she asked if they could build panels to act as a canvas. “I like the wood because it gives it more of a folk art feeling, and I love folk art,” she says. “I get handmade panels because I want the work to feel like someone has already put energy into it.”
Many of Naji’s paintings feature a recurring maritime theme depicting boats, fish, life buoys and other oceanic objects. “I love the ocean—it’s mysterious,” she says. “But I also think it’s a good theme if you want to have a lot of activities going on because the waves are going in all different directions, just like life.”
In that vein, her most recent work is helping her process her daughter’s departure to college. “I’ve got her swimming away with little floaties on, even though she’s older,” Naji explains. “And I’m in a ship with my arms out and I’ve got a sail that’s all tattered and broken, with all the history of life. It’s hard, but I’m yelling at the sky, very happy—like I’m sailing away on this huge wave.”