The Chicago Painter Giving Black Mothers A Voice


Black woman in a chair in front of oil painting with a mother holding a child

Ashley January’s oil portraits capture women who, like her, faced pregnancy-related health complications.

In the United States, Black maternal mortality and morbidity is a systemic issue that is rarely discussed. Ashley January, a survivor of a traumatic delivery resulting from preeclampsia, wants to change that. Through her oil paintings, she is bringing much-needed attention to the health crisis.

January’s artistic path has traversed many media—photography, collage, sketching, acrylic and watercolor painting—but when she started working with oils, “it was like a lightbulb clicked,” she muses. “The medium represents the figure and the flesh so beautifully.”

three oil paintings with a cart of paint and materials in front of them

"I'll take parts of some of what they share with me and use that as the title of a particular painting," notes January of her paintings such as "A Saving Grace" (right) and "Intrauterine Growth Restriction(top left).

a grouping of oil paintings with a cart of paints and materials in front of them.

Among her paintings of Black mothers, such as "Intrauterine Growth Restriction (IUGR)" (top, left) and "Rainbow Baby" (right) are other artworks, including "Skyscape Study" (bottom, left).

an oil painting of a Black woman

January's 2022 piece, "Amber." "I think Black mothers and women just unfortunately aren't being listened to in the healthcare fields," the artist says.

oil paints in tube, used paintbrushes and paint palettes

I" am always drawn to working with oils," January says. "I love how I can manipulate the paint."

In her oil portraits, January depicts fellow survivors of traumatic delivery, yet her process begins long before she picks up a brush. She meets her subjects in their homes, where she photographs and interviews them. Back in her Pilsen studio, the artist begins a set of sketches based on the photographs, then creates a series of studies—often in acrylic, graphite, chalk or oil stick. From there, she starts on the painting itself, with the photos taped on a nearby wall. “I’ll use them as an initial reference but also as a point of departure,” January says. “My paintings aren’t photorealistic. I’d describe them as portraits that are a bit more dreamlike and ethereal.”

The recorded interviews aren’t just for her own inspiration. As part of her exhibitions and installations, January pairs the audio and corresponding artwork. “It’s important that when people see these paintings, they also hear the voices of those being depicted,” January explains. “A lot of the participants want to help other mothers and families who are embarking on their maternal journeys and create awareness around the issue of the Black maternal mortality and morbidity rate in America.”

January uses light and bright colors to balance the heavy topic. “I want the viewer to see all of the complexities of what’s going on but not be overwhelmed,” she says. “I’m depicting transcendence after going through adversity. This imagery shows joy, even though there has been lived trauma and sadness.”

For those encountering the issue for the first time through her works, January, who was recently awarded the inaugural Women’s Caucus for Art Emerging Artist Award, has one particular hope. “I want people to see the humanity in others. The title of my solo show is ‘Human | Mother | Black,’” she says. “It has to be in that order because humanity is the first and foremost thing. We’re all humans on this earth. We are more alike than we are different.”