(Reji with Pam Booton who rides shotgun.)
Here’s a few things about Reji:
The first time I met her she complimented me on my glasses. “They’re old,” I said. “I’ll have to get new ones soon.” She made a dismissive gesture and said, “what the hell for? Leave them with me. I’ll fix them. I’ll even grind new lenses.”
I figured she was blowing smoke up my ass.
(Pam outside Reji’s studio in Austin, Texas.)
Pam, Reji’s interface with the day-to-day world, brought me to Reji’s studio which reminded me of nothing more than Laurel Canyon, LA, in the sixties. I’ve been to artists’ studios before and I’m not easily impressed.
Reji’s studio was chock-a-block with canvases propped against the walls in layers.
There were more higher up, stacked all the way to the mushroom ceiling. Everywhere you looked were layers of something.
So much. Overwhelming. Whirligig colors, abstract design, pop art iconography. Amid mountains of materials, packing boxes, art, pieces of art, and art to be, even some furniture was tucked away.
As Reji gave me a tour of her work, things slowly came together. Focusing on one canvas, then another, and another, I began to appreciate her genius for painting, her particular artistry, craftsmanship, and vision.
The paintings spanned decades and reflected a multitude of styles, influences, and echoes, morphing into a symbolic language of their own, expressive of Reji’s complex and often contentious personas: veteran with PTSD, etcher of over 6,000 panes of glass for the Texas state capitol, spark plug and godmother of a singular artistic community, and a black woman embroiled with soul-zapping life-sapping bureaucracies of old white men. She is a palimpsest of her African descent, her slave past, her people’s history, her personal artistic struggle, and humanity’s conflicted present.
But that still didn’t mean she could grind lenses.
Then I noticed a beautiful glass bowl.
“You like that?” she asked, and conversing inaudibly but spiritedly she browsed through stacks of boxes. She unwrapped glass artifacts, goblets, pipes, sconces, angels, amulets.
“You made those?” I asked, a bit incredulous. I lived in Venice for years and spent much time observing the glassblowers on Murano up close and personal. I have an admirer’s appreciation of the hellish complexities of that peculiar art. Reji nodded in answer to my question, as if it were nothing.
Two things struck me. First, that Reji’s glasswork is unique and personal and accomplished, and second, that she is as accomplished in glass as she is in painting.
(Etched glass door, one of 6,000 panes Reji created for the Texas state capitol.)
I also understood that she wasn’t blowing smoke up my ass. She could grind lenses with the same finesse and dexterity with which she fashioned an angel or etched a portrait in glass.
“I’m blown away that you are so accomplished in both painting and glasswork,” I said.
So she smiled and showed me the portrait of her mother. The glass face is set in a plinth of carved stonework.
“I did that too,” she said, indicating the stonework.
That’s when I got it.
Reji can and will do whatever is necessary to fulfill her artistic vision. She is an artist in the classical sense of the word, a master craftsman elevated by pure inspiration. She is not only visionary — dazzling, ennobling, joyous, and terrifying — but she is strong and stubborn enough to master what ever medium she needs to realize it.
(P. S. I bought the bowl and Reji gave me a print for my office 🙂