Columbus Artist Aqua Creates Her Own Path
Aqua is a QPOC artist/painter located in Columbus, Ohio. Recently, Aqua and Perry sat down to talk about the themes behind Aqua’s art, and her journey so far.
--So you’re originally from Columbus, and you got your degree from Ohio University. Did you go there for art?
No I went to OU and I started out in marine biology. I was trying to do saltwater but it didn't really work in Ohio, so I switched to plant biology because I want to get into complementary and alternative medicine. I actually worked on this research project for medicinal plants in Pakistan. I had to grow breast cancer cells and extract compounds with ethanol, ethyl acetate, butanol, and petroleum ether to try to see which cells died because of the extract or which cells just died. That shit blew my mind.
--So for this research were you testing antidotes to cancer?
Oh it was all breast cancer treatment. So these were MCF7 cells, just tumorous breast cancer cells. I had to grow the cells, I had to make the media, I had to plate the cells, and I had never done anything like that before. I just thought I was going to be making compounds and stuff, and I had to learn so much.
--That background does seem to be reflected in your art. Did you make art before college, or did you really start diving in to it at OU?
I started getting in to it at OU. I had really bad anxiety. For months, I would wake up and just throw up because my heart was beating so fast. I had done art therapy before, so I figured why not just paint to try to keep my marbles together while I’m trying to study all of this science. And once people were like oh you can make money off of this, I was like what? I can be in art shows? Okay!
--Is painting what you do for the most part?
Oh, yeah. I’ve done like dumpster diving and I’ll find big furniture pieces to paint. It’ll just be random stuff that people will leave by the dumpster. Like wooden tables, and this nice giant bed frame that folded up. I painted it an aqua color, and I put rainbows and kind of giraffe spots on it, too. I really like that one. The table top is real wood, and it’s heavy as hell. I’ve also tried some 3D/interactive pieces. One had moss on canvas, it was moss, lavender, chamomile, and that kind of stuff so you could touch it and smell it.
--That makes sense with your science background --wanting people to engage smelling, herbs, all that stuff.
Yeah. I listen to a lot of funk music--I listen to a lot of Parliament Funkadelic, so I did a series that was based on the song Red Hot Mama: “A luscious bitch she is, true/ But it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” and that was what the series was about. The main canvas piece was full of moss. It looked like a big old portal. I debuted it around Halloween, and I made little ones that people could have. But the giant one was crazy. I used a thin varnish to finish it, but there was moss everywhere. It looked cool as fuck, so I didn’t care.
--So where was the first time you sold your art? How did that come about?
My friend said he was putting together an art and fashion showcase, and asked me to be in it. At every art show at least one person from my family turns up. I’ve got a pretty big family--my dad has 8 or 9 brothers. The Harringtons have a song--we know the slaves that came off the ship, everything. We have a whole family tree on my dad’s side. It’s the craziest thing ever.
--How much time have you spent digging in to your family roots?
I used to spend a lot of time with my great-grandfather. He would tell me stories about how his parents were slaves, and how he escaped in the great migration, stuff like that. Even my parents, their birth certificates say Negro or colored or some shit on it.
--Wow. So it’s 2019, and I think that for people our age, it seems like a long time ago. Although I’m white, so I’m removed from it a lot more. But it really wasn’t very long ago.
People also don’t realize that a lot of those implications are still there today, and are built in. It’s almost glazing over it, because they don’t want to know. Me, I feel like I’m in a simulation every day of my life and I just feel confused as fuck. I’m super disassociated. Like, reality is supposed to be reality, but it don’t feel like it. A good amount of my art is abstract because I feel like I am out of touch with reality a good amount of the time.
--So how long have you been painting?
I’m gonna say 2014, cause that’s when I got to school and I got overwhelmed. I went to a small private school and I graduated with like 52 people. When I got to OU, I was more overwhelmed by the people and not the schoolwork.
--Outside of the university, did you like the general vibe of Athens, especially with all of the forests around there?
Yeah and you can truly get lost in the woods in Athens. And I’d rather get lost in the woods then be around people. When I’m outside, I feel like I can hear things and see things better. Sometimes I feel like my ancestors are talking to me, because when I’m outside in those woods some weird ass shit be going down. Trees creak, but it sounds like a door opening and closing. Butterflies will talk, just like random stuff that you wouldn’t even believe.
--Well I 100% believe that different people are just naturally attuned to different energies. Especially if you unplug from Western culture a little bit and read about Native American or East Asian spirituality.
It broke my mom’s heart when I told her I had to stop going to church, and I couldn’t be a part of what she was doing with her religion. It didn’t feel like it was my spirituality. Since we came from people who were enslaved, and our slave masters taught us this religion. Some of my peers agree--they just don’t feel connected with Christianity or religion because it doesn’t sit with them. But when I’m outside in nature, I want to worship it because things out there are so amazing and beautiful naturally.
--Are the issues you have with church are related to slavery or with being queer, or both?
Both. They [the church] say[s] that wildness comes from the outside world or nature--the church will talk about a beast from nature--when in reality it’s humans! The thing is, the food chain out there, when you don’t mess with it, things happen naturally, the way they’re supposed to. Beasts coming from the wild doesn’t sit right with me. They’re not inherently evil, they don’t have that cognitive ability.
--Have you decided whether you want to do your art as a side thing, or find a job related to your degree?
I don’t know. I have a hard time managing time, because it all feels like one long day to me. I try, I really do be trying, but trying to grasp the concept of days and hours and months and stuff and how I split it up...I can’t. But with my degree, I hope to go in to alternative medicine. Medicine literally started as plants. I actually recently got hired at a new medical marijuana dispensary in Columbus.
--Congratulations! That’s exciting.
Yeah, so I’m gonna start there soon, once they get the license. I just want to break in to this indusry as someone who is a person of color, and who is queer, just beacuse it’s ran by a whole bunch of white dudes. When I tell people I want to be a doctor, they’re like what? But I have to start somewhere and be patient. I’ve been studying different strains, high CBD vs high THC, what you can start with as a beginner, rules and regulations. These people are patients, and this is their medicine. I do not want to fuck with someone’s health like that. I want to be able to help.
--Right. And the whole idea behind medical marijuana is that there’s a process, you have to go to a licensed doctor, etc. It’s not dealing drugs.
Yeah, I really started thinking about these things because I saw my own family members on medication, and I felt like it was making them sicker. When you take so many medications at one time--they’re not telling people the side effects, or anything like that. Then they take it and they still feel sick.
--Do you think you’ll do any design work for them, or would you rather keep your art separate?
When they hired me they were asking about whether i’d be interested, and I’d definitely want to. Some of my paintings are funny, and are about weed. So I think it does blend. I’d like to see myself as one unified thing, and I don’t necessarily want to separate the two. Just because I’ve gotten so far to be who I am. I love painting and I want to keep doing it, and I like the fact that people want to pay me for my art. I like painting just to paint, but people have been encouraging me to sell it. I just want people to enjoy art in their own spaces.
Aqua’s next act is a feature in an art show titled Heroes Among Us. It’s hosted by Black, Out and Proud at the Vanderelli Room in Columbus, Ohio. Follow Aqua on Instagram at @art.is.aqua.