Painting the Town

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For better or worse, blessing or curse, Synthia Saint James' most widely seen painting is the confetti of bold, celebratory colors that blasts from the dust jacket of Terry McMillan's 1991 bestseller, "Waiting to Exhale."

Saint James' impressionistic rendering of the first sister circle, a regal collection of women titled "Ensemble," made the urban circuit, carted in handbags, briefcases and knapsacks from beauty shop to bus stop, from lunch hour to book group to airplane.

Could any artist ask for a better showcase?

Maybe. One of the many projects to come her way since that success could carry her colorful, spiritual images to an even larger audience in an even smaller format: the first Kwanzaa stamp commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service.

"I have to say [the book] was a blessing. But," Saint James says, without a shade of frustration or regret, "it's not the only thing I've done."

A cursory glance around her art-crowded Los Feliz home lends proof. Inspirations everywhere: sculpture and fetishes from Africa, vacation mementos from the South Seas. Picture-window-size canvases contain Saint James' own studied glimpses of other lands--oil-painted visions of Brazil, India, Africa, to be shown at a neighborhood gallery.

"A lot of them are places I would like to go," says Saint James, lighting just for a moment on the couch. "Sometimes I think it comes from the different heritages we as black people have."

This drizzly morning, Saint James and her paintings are the sole splash of color on the day's dreary palette--glimpses of elsewheres--the echo of color gliding across canvas, an image's repeated refrain. Lounging in roomy black trousers and an oversize sweatshirt, her bright lipstick picks up shades in the shirt's image--"Of Many Colors"--a silk screen of one of her paintings and part of a new line of clothing: the Synthia Saint James Collection.

Her home--which doubles as studio, gallery and product clearinghouse--is a cottage industry, quite literally. Saint James can barely finish a sentence before jumping up to storm her study or up a flight of stairs to her studio to fish out another proud-parent visual: T-shirt, baseball cap, embroidered turtleneck. From another collection there are clocks, watches, wooden coffee-table boxes, playing cards. In a colorful pinwheel, like origami paper, fans a stack of children's books that Saint James has either wholly conceived or provided paintings. Atop those she places a slide depicting the Kwanzaa stamp's design.

Is Saint James worried about overexposure? At present, that worry doesn't seem to be even a blip on the radar. She wants to make her work available in forms affordable to those who find joy, comfort or a mirror of self in it.

Fans and collectors, including Johnnie Cochran, Alice Walker and actress Jenifer Lewis ("The Preacher's Wife," "Dead Presidents"), find personal resonance in the stance of the men and the women--an upward tilt of the head, an attitudinal hand on hip--much the same way McMillan's stories find their center in the celebration of sisterhood, cultural pride and self-confidence.

Maybe that's why, as publishers flood the market with McMillan clones eager to mine the sisterhood mother lode, the covers of so many books by young African American women try their best to approximate Saint James' fluid mosaics. The message and spirit, they hope, both part of a magic cash cow incantation.

But that's just it: It isn't simply a whirl of random color. It is something more that speaks to the heart.

"When I saw her work, I was just overwhelmed," says gallery owner Daira Baisley, who has been handling Saint James' work since her gallery, Third World Art Exchange, opened eight years ago. "The beauty, the vibrancy of the colors and her command of the brush. It's obvious she's a figurative painter, and she is a master of the faceless image, but all of the images have personality even though they do not have a face--and that just astounded me. She's really a pioneer of that particular style."

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Brenda Funches, a longtime friend, sees that this gift comes from a real sense of rootedness in culture, humanity.

"There's a subtle spirituality that exists in Synthia," Funches says. "It's not in your face, it's just kind of there."

And that is the reverberation that rumbles through her work. "She's been pursuing this career for a long time, and she's had to learn to roll with the flow when she was struggling. So she's remained very down-to-earth and is always giving back in ways that make sense to me--from fashioning a more affordable artwork to donating work for various community fund-raisers."

Because of that calling and her rich gift of visual communication, Saint James finds herself trapezing from the rarefied world of fine art to various commissions (from the Postal Service to the Girl Scouts' 85th anniversary poster) and now to the world of book publishing--this time beyond the front cover.

With six children's books to her credit--including "Neeny Coming and Neeny Going" written by Karen English (Bridgewater Books, 1996) and "The Gifts of Kwanzaa" (Albert Whitman & Co., 1994)--and one on the way in 1998, her latest effort, "Sunday" (Albert Whitman & Co.), precedes a January landslide of other work.

There's a collection of Saint James' poetry, "Can I Touch You?" on audiocassette (with book to follow) and a commissioned picture book-inspirational collection, "Girlfriends" (Peter Pauper Press). Now she's up to find the galleys for her upcoming cookbook, her voice fading as she drifts into a darkened room. "Chez Synthia: Creative Fixings From the Kitchen" is scheduled for fall release.

Each is a way to share the stories of the African diaspora in visual form. And Saint James does so by using visual components as a tool in oral tradition. Her paintings--which often depict large gatherings, couplings, groupings--underscore the importance of verbal-physical interaction.

"I've got her piece 'Reggae' featured in my living room. It speaks to me," says Lewis, who first saw Saint James' work at a showing at a private home almost 10 years ago. "Basically, what she painted was a party. It's a very warm, very elegant, peaceful room--but 'Reggae' brings the other aspect in, the colors. The party in Jenifer."

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This whirlwind of work, says Saint James, comes "after about 22 years of pounding. A string of things just started happening, I believe, because I just stuck to what I was supposed to be doing.

"It's just only been in the last few years that it's been enough for me to make a living out of."

By the time Terry McMillan phoned up with a life-shifting proposition, Saint James was just beginning to move into more public circles: A book club edition cover for a collection of Alice Walker's writings, Richard Pryor's purchase of five prints for his new Bel-Air digs, a poster for the Mark Taper Forum 1990 production of "Miss Evers' Boys," a show in Paris.

All the while, however, she was still squeaking by with part-time jobs. She'd done everything from writing bios for recording artists at CBS / Epic, to modeling and acting, to accounting, to writing ad copy, to running her own tax consulting business.

"I was finally able to quit that just about six years ago. That's when enough money came in, or rather, when I made room for it to come in in some other way--when I did Terry's cover."

For a year, McMillan had been living with a print of "Ensemble" she'd picked up in an Oakland gallery. She chose it to grace her book jacket.

Since then, Saint James's images have been used to adorn more than 40 book covers--domestic and foreign--from inspirational writers Iyanla Vanzant and Julia Boyd to Alice Walker.

And that has brought forth a nonstop flurry of work. Saint James admittedly has a hard time saying no, but she's learning not to "make herself sick over it." And no matter how buried she is, she takes a sliver of time out for her daily walk around the neighborhood--soaking up the city's tropical inspiration.

The grueling schedule, she explains, is a means to an end: This long haul will allow her the latitude in a couple of years to really hide away, take a retreat--and allow her work to wend its way in its most natural direction.

Until then, she'll strike while the iron is hot, supplying the demand. The imitators don't faze her as much as they used to: "I just shake my head. I don't like to store up negative energy."

It's the byproduct of an inner filament, an essence and roots-pride that hovers in the work.

"Most people do mention the colors," Saint James admits, "but there is something else that a lot are getting from it which is nice--which is the spiritual side . . . the sense of pride which is important to my work . . . the way the head is looking up."

She glances up at a canvas of many-hued black women--darkest to lightest--their bodies a mesh of capital Zs, arranged snugly as if someone held the key down a second longer than intended. Each woman's head is tipped this way or that, heavenward: "I'm always thinking about pride on one level or another," explains Saint James, confronting her image face to face. "They are all really one." She points to the woman, head raised the highest, the richest shade of ebony. "This is where we came from. She seems to be the proudest."

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