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Black History Month: Boulder artist turns tragedy into beauty

Artist Lydia Carlis highlights the strength and brilliance of women of color.
Artist Lydia Carlis highlights the strength and brilliance of women of color.

When Lydia Carlis was in college, one of her siblings was struggling with mental health issues and accidentally burned down her childhood home in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

All her family’s photos — their treasured memories — were destroyed, she said.

“That’s how I got into photography — to capture our family memories,” Carlis explained.

The loss of her family photos taught Carlis the power and value of pictures, but the tragedy isn’t the only one in her family’s history that drives her renowned artistry.

“I am the daughter of folks who grew up in the Jim Crow south, so my parents went to segregated schools until high school — they missed school to go chop cotton, and were rented out as day laborers in their community, chopping cotton,” she explained.

Her father’s family were sharecroppers, and worked on a plot of land they didn’t own, she said.

“My mom’s family owned land, but still did not make enough money to be fully self-sufficient without their sons and daughters doing work on other people’s fields as well,” Carlis said.

Despite all the hardship her parents faced, they went to college and earned graduate degrees. Her father was accepted into Harvard Law School, and he wanted his children to do the same, Carlis explained.

“I applied to Harvard — got in, but decided to go to Howard University instead, which is a historically Black college and university in Washington, D.C.,” she said.

Carlis met her husband there, and she became an educator. She earned her master’s degree from George Washington University and doctorate in Special Education and English as a Second Language from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Her father bought her a camera to celebrate her master’s degree, and she took many family photos through the years. 

Carlis then had her daughter, and her love of photography only grew.

“I started taking classes, started buying books,” she said. “In 2009, I created my photography business, and so that was done on the weekends, once a month.”

Carlis focused on women of color leaders, and her business — Eye Imagination Imaging — grew rapidly.

“They could be leaders in huge companies, or leaders of their own non-profits, or solopreneurs, chefs — whatever it is that they do, I just wanted to really show who they are through images that give us permission to show up as our whole selves,” she explained.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Carlis began drawing and expanding her artistry. She often creates collages — some of which are digital.

“I really love collage, and just placing things together. It feels to me like African-American quilts, and that history that we have of knitting together discarded things, and things that people don’t really value anymore.”

Her art was featured at a Black History Month event Thursday evening in Boulder’s Off Broadway Gallery - Pine Street Church. The exhibition is one of six that are featuring the work of Black artists in Boulder County.

Amber Fisher

About the Author: Amber Fisher

I'm thrilled to be an assistant editor with the Longmont Leader after spending the past decade reporting for news outlets across North America. When I'm not writing, you can find me snowboarding, reading fiction and running (poorly).
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