Artist Spotlight | Nayana LaFond

Nayana Lafond

Nayana Lafond in her Northampton Studio. (Jenn Burdick Photography)


In downtown Northampton a colorful pop-up art show appeared recently in the empty building where the hummus food truck used to park. The exhibition featured several interesting artists but I was immediately taken by a group of powerful black and white paintings of women, each with a bright red hand over their mouths.


This disconcerting imagery is symbolic of the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls human-rights crisis. Nayana LaFond — who is of the Anishinaabe, Abenaki, and Mi’kmaq nations — painted the first in this series last year to mark the May 5 national day of remembrance. It got so much attention on social media that she did another, and another, and soon had promised to paint the portrait of any affected woman or girl whose photo she received. Some of the portraits are of the missing or murdered women, some are family members. When I visited her studio, she’d just finished the 45th in the series (pictured behind her, above).

These paintings have appeared in museums from Rhode Island to Montana, and Nayana’s goal is for them to continue touring the country to raise awareness. She is donating all profits from the series. The crisis is widespread in parts of the US and Canada: an article in the Great Falls Tribune gives the example that while Native Americans make up less than 7% of Montana’s population, they comprise 26% of the state’s active missing persons population. Nayana explains the tragic situation as arising out of domestic abuse, drug use, human trafficking, and the separate and unequal handling by law enforcement of crime in indigenous communities.

Nayana Lafond

Paintings by Nayana Lafond. (Jenn Burdick Photography)

Survival Instinct

A few days after the pop-up show, I met Nayana next-door at her studio to talk about her art. Grabbing the opportunity presented by a vacant building is just the latest in her Choose Your Own Adventure approach to life. She ran a local indie record label. She bought a restaurant for a few bucks plus a painting and ran it for 4 years. She went to art school where a professor told her she wasn’t a painter, but she kept painting and was later published in a catalog on side-by-side pages with that professor. She was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent bone marrow transplants, and used her experience to create an ongoing body of work related to medical supplies and treatment.

Nayana Lafond

Artist Nayana Lafond in her Northampton Studio. (Jenn Burdick Photography)



How long have you had this pop-up gallery and studio?

Since two weeks before Christmas [2020]. We knew the people renting it for the food truck so when they moved, we talked to the landlord and took over. We’re going month to month until they tear it down, which we don’t know when that will be. Could be months, a year. But it’s a pop-up so we can pop-up anywhere.

Before this did you work out of your home? Is it any different?

This is the first time I had a physical studio outside my home. I still paint at home a lot. No difference.

Do you listen to music while you paint? [We had music playing during the interview.]

I listen to music, it’s all over. Billie Holiday lately, older jazz to alternative and rock, indie, Beastie Boys, … it’s very bi-polar, but it works for me. I go into a meditative trance type of thing, and I’m in my own thoughts and I’m painting, and I stand back and it’s done.

Is that what you like best about painting?

Yes, it’s meditative. It takes you out of everything else and you’re just in the painting.

I know you’ve said your painting is informed by your study of B&W film photography. Aside from these [Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls] paintings, I was intrigued by your big B&W paintings with multiple figures where some people distorted faces…

I was inwardly going through a hard time. Outwardly, people thought I was happy, but I was in an unhealthy relationship full of domestic violence. The only way I could express how I felt was through art, because people weren’t really paying attention to what it meant anyway. And I could B.S. and say it meant something else. So the distorted faces and no-mouths are from that period.

What’s funny is the no-mouths started with “I can’t get the mouth right! I can’t get the mouth right!” There are like 5 mouths under this one face, so I just painted over it, and realized it expresses “not being heard” better. I carried that over into some of the medical work. [She’d been painting portraits of people wearing medical masks even before COVID hit.]

What other art or artists are you drawn to?

I like all different stuff because I’ve been a curator for 10 years. I love sculpture. I love photography, I’ve done that as well. I like textiles, specifically art textiles (not sweaters and scarves). Painters obviously. I like to see people doing something different, or combining mediums. Some of the digital art is tremendous.

What’s the best advice you’ve gotten? Do you have advice for other artists?

I haven’t gotten a lot of advice… that’s disturbing! Where’s my advice? Just “Do your own thing and don’t care about what people think.” … The only advice I would give is: a lot of people think they can’t do something because they haven’t done it before, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Starting a record label, or pop-up gallery — I had no idea how to do those things. You just have to wing it and jump off the cliff.

What would be your dream project? If you got a huge art grant what would you do with it?

The current [MMIWG] project has a lot more ability to help people, so I would try to put it into that first. But aside from that I would continue the work on the medical stuff. I have this large body of work, a large multi-media installation that I’m slowly accumulating. I’m always going to work on the medical project, it’s my therapy. So I don’t know that I need a grant for it. But buy me more epoxy, it’s expensive.

Multi-media, what is it? I saw some of the epoxy sculptures, do you have videos, or ?

I’ve got videos from the hospital, photos, paintings I did during that time. I stole a lot of medical supplies! Johnnies, blankets, which I’ve been stretching and painting. I got a mannequin from a closing Sears, and I’ve been encapsulating my unused medical supplies and medication in forms and covering her completely in them. And I want her to walk through a room with droplets with medication in them falling from the ceiling, with the light strategically placed so she shines. That’s gonna take, I don’t know… a couple years at least.

It sounds like you’re patient.

Not really. I work with a sense of urgency because bone marrow transplants don’t restore full life expectancy, they give you more time. I want to get as much done as I can. I’m at 7 years out now, and the average patient makes it to 10… I’m not supposed to be here already. I was given 2-4 years to live 9 years ago. I’m stubborn and my daughter’s only 10, so I’m going to be here. My father was a quadriplegic who was told he wouldn’t make it to adulthood but made it to 34 and died from something unrelated. So I don’t want to take it for granted. So I feel a sense of urgency, that’s why I painted over 60 paintings in the last year.

Nayana Lafond

Paintings by Nayana Lafond. (Jenn Burdick Photography)


How does selling art relate, or not relate, to what you’re trying to do?

This [Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls] project is not for sale. Unless it’s to an institution that will display it for awareness. Hopefully by next year, I’ll have at least half of that collection touring around the country in exhibitions. But I do make a living at art. Well, scrape by. Food stamps are great. But it’s really not important. I could make a lot of money off this [MMIWG] project, but I feel it would be the wrong thing to do. I sell prints but put that money back into it, canvases, shipping, and I donate prints and money to charities…. I would make art if no one was looking, if no one was buying, if everything was falling in around my head, I would still be like “I need another canvas!”

You were saying it’s like therapy.

It’s like a physical need. It’s like breathing at this point. It’s no longer an option.

Other than this project [MMIWG], which has the goal of spreading awareness, do you set goals for your art?

No. The success I’ve experienced has been nice, it’s gratifying to know that your work affects somebody. My only goal is to keep pushing myself to do better work… According to my standards, nobody else’s.

What have you found is the best way to reach your audience?

Online has been huge. When COVID hit I had an “a-ha” moment. As artists lot of how successful we are is: Who sees your work. Who it gets in front of. Who you know. And I realized, all those people you want to rub elbows with are all stuck at home in their pajamas, too. The whole playing field is level now! And I thought, all you have to do is make work and put it out there. Just consistently do it. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, the Social Distance Powwow group (that’s been huge).

I painted the “Little Fox” portrait [for the MMIWG project], posted it, went to bed, woke up 6 hours later and it had been shared over 40,000 times. And Fox News talked about the show at The Emerson [museum in Montana] and the web article was shared over 50,000 times. And that was with no advertising, that was organic. So I can’t say enough about online.

Especially since a lot of people were depressed during the pandemic. I was trying to rev up a lot of my artist friends. “Come on guys, we should be making art now!” Think about history, a lot of the most impactful work was made during these kinds of times. Put all those feelings into your work. My work has taken off since COVID. I’ve always been one of those people who finds the silver lining, and finds a way to take a negative situation and make it a positive one.

Where to find Nayana LaFond
facebook: Nayana. Artist
twitter: @artsnayana
instagram: @NayanaArts

Watch for her pop-up gallery at 236 Pleasant Street, Northampton.


Nayana Lafond

Artist Nayana Lafond in her Northampton Studio. (Jenn Burdick Photography)

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