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creation story: Janet Brown Fleming, mixed-media collage artist

The opportunity [to express myself] was not commonplace when I was growing up. That's why I like to do it.

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What you will see: Intricate, brightly colored, socially conscious collages that incorporate images from African and African-American history and experience.

How she became interested in collage: Fleming's primary medium was pencil until she viewed an exhibition of cut-paper collages by African-American Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the mid-1980s.

"I was absolutely taken," she says. "A few of my good artists friends had been telling me that I needed to lighten up [my work]. When I went to see that exhibit I was confident enough to say, 'That's what I want to do.'" Since about 1983, mixed-media collage has been her primary means of artistic expression.

Her first experiences with art: "I have been drawing for as long as I can remember," Fleming says. She says her parents were supportive of her interest in art as a child, "But, at that time, things were limited in scope for opportunities for African-Americans."

It wasn't until 11th grade that she participated in her first organized art class, and immediately, she says, "I knew that's what I wanted to do."

Fine art vs. design: Fleming attended VCU to study art, choosing a more "practical" track in communication arts and design over fine art, her first love. "Graphic design was really a vocation for me," she says. Today, Fleming works full time as a printing and publications specialist for Richmond Public Schools, where she puts her degree to use daily.

She says she also uses her design skills in her fine art. "Even when you do fine art you do a little bit of design," she says. "You have to decide where to place the different elements. The two merge together."

What inspires her: "Art for me is very, very subjective," Fleming says. "I'm most creative or prolific when there is something going on. This current situation [in Iraq] is going to make something happen. I've already started assembling things. … I often consider myself to be making social commentary. I like for my work to be a reflection of what's going on around me."

What her art is about: The human condition — as seen through the eyes of an African-American woman who came of age in the South during the 1960s. "I always considered myself a culturally conscious individual," she says in her artist's statement. "… I use my art to make visual statements calling attention to those mutual circumstances of the African-American condition."

Two of her three works on display at Elegba are from the "African Safari" series she began in the mid-1980s. "It's not so much a person physically transporting themselves to Africa for a safari," she explains, "but myself as an African and my journey over here."

Who she wants to communicate with: "I would like to think that my art appeals to anyone who is interested in art," she says. "… My work is definitely from an African perspective — some people can relate to that, some can't. The opportunity [to express myself] was not commonplace when I was growing up. That's why I like to do it."

The message in her work: Flemings's works, laden with African symbolism and icons of African and African-American culture, always tell a story. "I don't really start out with a message, so to speak," she says. "The message doesn't come to me until the image is complete. But the message is really what the [viewer] sees in it. … If people see something in my work that sparks them to comment, positively or negatively, then my job is done." — Jessica Ronky

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