Finding Art in Fences

Alumna artist’s work lands on a TIME magazine cover

Lavett Ballard CCAS’14 with her work Tar Baby in the Rutgers University–Camden Student Works Gallery in Campus Center. Her work is featured on a March 2020 TIME magazine cover. Photo by Jonathan Kolbe.

By Sam Starnes

Lavett Ballard was seeking a distinctive surface for her paintings depicting African-American women, a project she planned for her senior fine arts thesis at Rutgers University–Camden, when nature intervened. “It just so happened my neighbor’s fence got knocked down during a storm,” said Ballard, who lives in Willingboro, New Jersey. “My husband helped to remove the fence, and I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to use this fencing for my thesis.’”

Ballard cleaned up the old wooden picket fence and started painting on it. A quotation from August Wilson’s play Fences—“Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in”—stayed on her mind. “That line has so much symbolism with what I was trying to paint,” Ballard said.

Ballard earned a Rutgers–Camden art degree in 2014. While earning an M.F.A. at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, she transitioned from painting to creating mixed media collages on fencing and other pieces of recycled wood. In 2018, Ballard’s images focusing on the identity of African-American women earned her national recognition. She was named by Black Art in America as one of the top 10 emerging black female artists to collect, which resulted in acquisitions of pieces by a number of prominent collections, including the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African-American Art.

Ballard’s artwork on “100 Women of the Year” issue. Courtesy of TIME.

In early 2020, when she was asked to create a piece to appear on a cover of TIME magazine, she initially didn’t believe the email. “I thought this has got to be a scam,” she said. But it turned out to be “the real thing.” Her piece depicting Rosa Parks and four other women who led the Civil Rights-era bus boycotts appeared on one of the magazine’s “100 Women of the Year” editions in early March.

Ballard’s success comes after more than 30 years of creating art, dating back to her high school years in North Jersey. She enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, but left to give birth to her first child. She continued to paint while raising a family and working a number of jobs in insurance, finance, and human resources. She returned to college in her thirties to earn an associate’s degree at Burlington County College before enrolling at Rutgers–Camden in 2011. She credits art professors Margery Amdur and Elizabeth Demaray for being profound influences. “They really opened my eyes to the bigger art world,” Ballard said.

Today, Ballard, who has children ages 29, 16, and 13, recently became a grandmother. She said she has often heard the old adage that one cannot make money as a professional artist, but she is glad she persevered. “I may be an exception, but if you really work at it and totally immerse yourself in it, it’s possible,” she said.

Ballard’s work is highlighted in the exhibit HER-Stories—Visual Narratives of Women of the African Diaspora that will be on view through March 28 at the Rutgers–Camden Student Works Gallery. She is pictured below at the exhibit. Photo by Jonathan Kolbe. 

Comments are closed.