Arielle Austin’s abstract oil paintings are like a soothing Rorschach test. The innate balance of form and color in her work seems to unobtrusively ask: how are you feeling right now? A question which couldn’t come at a better time for this country.
“My last commission was for a therapist’s office, which was a very full circle situation,” she tells me. “There is a conversation going on when I paint, and even if I don’t want to talk at first, by the end, I have a little more insight into what’s going on inside me.”
Austin isn’t an art therapist, though she believes the process of exploring is tantamount to creating. For the past couple of years, she has been facilitating abstract painting workshops, an experience which is less about teaching and more feeling: “I want to provide a space in which people can understand themselves better.”
Intuition is a guiding force in the 31-year-old artist’s life, as well as her faith — both of which show up on the canvas when she works. A self-professed avid reader of spiritual growth books, she says painting is a bit like prayer. A way to stay present and open to life.
That openness is what brought Austin to Austin in 2015. A born and raised Angeleno, she had never considered living anywhere besides Los Angeles, let alone a state she’s never been too. But when Texas randomly came up in conversation with a friend, something in her said she was going to go there.
“It was a God thing,” she lightly laughs.
At the time, Austin was still working toward a degree in graphic design in Southern California. Still, thoughts of Texas lingered. In the summer of 2015, she packed up her life and drove to the capital of the Lone Star State.
Arielle found a job in graphic design, much like the position she had had in LA. It was the grownup thing to do, she recalls, though sitting behind a desk in an office all day was anxiety-inducing. She started painting after work, just as she had back in California, when coming home at night proved to be the best part of her day.
“At the time, I didn’t have words to describe what I was going through, all I had was colors and movement — and leftover canvases and paint from school.”
Within a year of moving to Texas, Arielle gave up graphic design to her pursue her art. Being alone in a brand-new city afforded her lots of time to paint. And unlike the hustle and bustle of LA, she found Austin to be less overwhelming and more accessible.
“It’s easy to hop right into the community here,” she says. “I appreciate having gotten my feet wet in Austin.”
The city’s small Black population, however, did surprise Arielle, a feature which went against its reputation as a liberal and progressive city: “I thought I’d see a little bit more of myself here, but instead I find myself in a lot of white spaces.”
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Austin was often the only Black girl in a group, but the group itself was made up of many different ethnicities: Middle Eastern, Korean, Mexican, Cuban.
Early on, Arielle was invited to take part in a group show at Six Square, the non-profit working to celebrate Austin’s Black Cultural District, which introduced her to to the Eastside and its history.
“I’m grateful for that, but I know a lot of people of color have a hard time finding their space here.” She has since formed a close circle of friends.
I ask Austin how COVID-19 has impacted her painting, to which she cheerfully responds: “I actually planned on taking most of this year off anyway!”
By the end of 2019, Arielle felt burnt out. Rather than keep painting, she wanted to remember why she was a painter in the first place. “I’m thankful that I listened to myself, my intuition was not wrong.”
After six months off, she is happy to be getting back into her art: “It’s under weird circumstances though — I still don’t even know what to call it — where everyone is supporting Black artists and creatives and business owners.”
Austin finds herself listening to jazz these days while painting. She likes the drama of it, that aspect which is hard to pinpoint, and can only be felt. It’s what makes it so easy to paint alongside.
Jazz is an important reminder in 2020 of who we are as a country. A unique American art form — a manifestation — which would not exist without coexistence. Its African roots intertwined with European influences. Centuries of song and strife freed up by undefinable notes and possibility. An exact history that is hard to pinpoint, and can only be felt.
I ask Arielle what 2020 is trying to teach us. She thinks about it for a minute. There is a knowing silence on either side of our phone call.
“I think it’s trying to strip us down to who we are. Patriotism and nationalism, blue or red, it’s not going to matter. What matters is, who are you in this very temporary world?”