Interview with Sojourner Truth Parsons


The cool breeze off her back is my face cream, 2016, canvas, acrylic, glue on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Downs & Ross, New York. 

And then there’s Sojourner Truth Parsons, a Canadian-born artist of Mi’kmaq, African-Canadian, and settler heritage. A very sincere, deeply sensitive young woman with a faraway, sing-songy voice, and a love of stray dogs and smelling the flowers. Sojourner paints what she knows. Holding your Dog at Night is a collection of Sojourner’s paintings completed over the first two years of her life in Los Angeles. She corrals together the emotive and visual details of a city in all its shame and splendour like a dizzying carousel ride. Malibu bows, sunset pink, mauve and blue, long cigarettes, a shadow at night time, lost puppy-dogs and butterflies. She is shaping to become an iconic, spiritual, and mythic painter while retaining her childlike wonder, slapdash effortlessness and sense of play. I picture her in this city “riddled with glamour and devastation” like a small child, watching her balloon slip through her fingers and ascend into the clouds.

It’s been so nice watching your work evolve. How has moving to L.A. changed your paintings?

In so many ways. I would say the colors most of all.

Do you like it there?

It’s painful to see so much suffering here. People are in need of a lot of help, animals are in need of a lot of help. There is more suffering here than I have ever lived close to, although it does feel similar to East Hastings in Vancouver, where I grew up. You have to hold a lot of space for different emotions living here. The closeness to ocean, wild sage, and cliffs rolling with mustard flowers like soft sun everywhere, is so beautiful, it’s so, so beautiful. The poolside parties and diamonds sparkling in the moonlight, literally! Poems in your eyes everywhere. But then it feels problematic if it’s not just a poem. I do like it here, I feel a lot of empathy and sadness for the poor and homeless and fucked over Americans. You can’t not see that living here. You stand witness to hell. It’s been hard knowing how to help and what to do. I have a rule that if I see small dogs in bad shape and they want to come I take them in and find them homes. Stray dogs are everywhere here. My friend Abbe who is a medical herbalist does a foot clinic on Skid Row treating different kinds of problems people have with their feet. She has been really inspiring to me. People are doing things. It was amazing to be a part of the women’s march, seeing and feeling in that capacity. I could go on, I do like it. I find L.A. riddled with glamour and devastation.

Every shit you take, 2016, canvas, acrylic, glue, glitter, Flashe, lavender essence on canvas. Private collection, Los Angeles. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Papa and the fruit (no dad), 2016, canvas, acrylic, glue, glitter, Flashe, sand on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Downs & Ross, New York. 

Self portrait at my best friend’s mansion, 2016, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Downs & Ross, New York. 

What has been a seminal experience for you?

Last weekend, I went to see the video work by Arthur Jafa, Love is the Message, the Message is Death. The most powerful work of art I have ever seen, a gift to all of us.

Can you talk about the process of your work? What is the most integral aspect?

It’s about trusting that whatever wants to come into existence will show me the way. I like to be guided, not to take the lead.

Are any of your works diaristic or narrative-based?

Making the paintings is mostly how I process my feelings about what’s happening around me. This show, “Holding Your Dog At Night,” has a lot of personal things in it. It is moments of my life in L.A.. Every shit you take was made at a moment where I realized how connected in time and space I was with my two dogs. We spend all our time together. I think that painting was an obituary, of sorts, for them, and also a meditation in understanding the intensity of that responsibility. The dynamic is very intense for me.

How do you title your work? What’s your relationship to words and writing?

I write a lot, usually short stories that relate to real life. It’s the same as painting, I will feel it come over me, the need to do it, and then it goes away. I title the work by intuition and how the words make softness and vibration with the picture at hand. Sometimes the title is before the painting and sometimes the words help me find the picture. Everything is a slow and unfolding process that we must respect.

What is Papa and the fruit (no Dad) about?

It’s about love and horror. Or maybe those are one in the same.

Who is the iconic girl with the bow in your paintings? Who is the dog?

The girl is many women. But mostly one that I was very involved with for many years. I think about these paintings as sort of stone love letters. It’s the first time I felt the impulse to spend time understanding the beauty and painful feeling of loving a person, and having that become a picture. The dog is upper-class sometimes. I don’t know what kind it is.

I hate sex, 2016, canvas, acrylic, glue, Flashe, raw pigment on canvas. Hort Family Collection, New York. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Pink and mauve and blue on the vines every time you open the blinds, 2016, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Downs & Ross, New York.


How has your childhood affected your work? What’s your relationship with your heritage?

I was talking to a friend recently about learning certain things too young and what that does to you. I think that is a good way to answer this sort of question. Seeing and hearing things that change you from young to old, but you are still holding your stuffed bear or whatever. I personally had a walrus and a monkey.

I remember my dad telling me that when he was little his father wanted all of them to pass as white, and he would take their afro hair and press it down on the ironing board, burning their scalps trying to iron it straight. I got to hear a lot of stories about being black and coming into your own in the late 70s, and the climate of what that was like. I’m grateful to have heard everything I did. I think as a child I was really confused. It’s confusing to have one side of your family come to Canada through the underground railroad, having escaped from slavery, and then to walk through the world looking and being treated as a white person. I think about slavery and the oppression of black people every day. My parents named me after Sojourner Truth, the oppression of black people is not something that I ever, ever, ever don’t have in my mind.

How does your spirituality lend itself to your work? Do find your work healing for yourself and others? If not, what do you hope to achieve with your paintings?

I feel the world around me and the people in it very deeply. The other day I was thinking that magic is just guided spirituality. I do find the idea of healing central to my life, so it must be some small part in pictures. I don’t have an achievement really in mind. To learn and give maybe.

Do you paint to music? What’s your favourite song at the moment? I know you play songs on repeat like I do.

Lately, I have been listening to the birds out the window! It’s been windy and the trees are shaking delicate lingering romantic shwwwooosh shaaaa. Alice Coltrane’s Transcendence, bell hooks interviews and lectures, Love Theme from Blade Runner, Beverly Copeland’s self-titled album, Enya, Robbie Basho, Fiver. Music is my favorite thing in the whole world. Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” contains the most important message that I return to. Folk art is art that I always find perfect and real. I like it when people make things because they have to, not because they want to.

When do you create your best work?

I like working in the morning, usually early, and I do love the rain. It was rainy here this winter. Such a sensual repose from the oppressive nature of constant sun and heat.

I see you’ve been using lavender and grapefruit essences in your new paintings. What are your favourite scents?

The jasmine blossoms just blushed all over where I live. There is something about smelling it carried by the wind at night. It is just perfectly there and not there. I love smelling flowers. I like the idea or the image of a woman smelling a flower and dreaming of her life unfolding. Or maybe that’s what I do. I like day-dreaming.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about art-making?

Paint what you know.

Where do you see yourself living and painting in the future?

I hope somewhere with fruit trees, close to the ocean with tons of wind and rain and moody skies.