If the lights in Erica Jones’ basement studio are on well past midnight, the painter is deep in the work. She prefers to prowl among her paints and her passion when the world is asleep, when the rhythm of time is hers alone to bend and meld. Sometimes her canvas comes to life to the staccato beat of a Clifford Brown playlist; other times, she works in unadulterated stillness and a single pool of LED light. “When I’m working, my sleep pattern is completely backwards,” Jones says. “It’s this innate thing I can’t explain. Something about energy and rhythm. When the work is done, I’m back to sleeping at night like a normal person.”
But for someone who is constantly feeling inspired, is the work ever done?
Jones the painter is renowned for her Wilmington mural of Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, a then 19-year-old who disappeared in 2020 shortly after tweeting about a sexual assault she experienced. Her body was found days later. Salau lives in Jones’ portrait, which was originally placed on the 200 Block of West 9th Street but is now housed at One Village Alliance. Resplendent in gold and magenta, eyes closed and seemingly entranced by some otherworldly rhythm, the work is luminous.
Jones the rapper, who emcees under the name E.Lizé, is on the come up, too. Her latest video, “3AM,” dropped in December 2021. It’s aptly named, considering her penchant for keeping late hours. In the track, she seems to lay bare an artist’s fear—letting creative energy run cold:
“Time is pacing, I’m the one for patience/To take what’s mine, to live it up so gracious/So I need a place where the space is vacant/’Til then, my mental’s nomadic/Stillness, a crutch if you turn it stagnant.”
Today, fresh off a new self-portrait and series of paintings titled Skin Deep, Jones—who gives off young Lauryn Hill vibes—is all high-top Chucks and long braids that knock and beat their own bamboo-beaded rhythm. She muses about the intersection of her art and music. “The energies feed off each other,” she says. “I feel like I paint the way music makes me feel when I hear it. I also will step back from a piece and wonder, ‘If I wrote a song about this, what would that sound like?”
The series is an homage to the women of Black films and television of the ’70s, which Jones, an old soul, grew up on as a kid two decades later.
“There was something about those shows, those blaxploitation films that spoke to me,” she says. “I was in awe of Black women being at the forefront. And I was really proud of my culture. We were taking up space in the media in this profound way, and the entire aesthetic was ours. You knew exactly what it was and where it came from. It didn’t need to be questioned or whitewashed. It was authentic. The slang, the fashion, the hairstyles…it was us. It was ours.”
The series features 17 portraits of women, including Nichelle Nichols, Diahann Carroll, Ruby Dee, Paula Kelly, Eartha Kitt and Pam Grier, the latter whom Jones met this year when she visited the Wilmington Public Library for part of its Living Legend series. “[Grier] strode in, looked at the painting and said, ‘This needs to be on a wall somewhere,’” Jones remembers. “I was like, ‘Well, yeah, it does!’ Meeting her, and seeing her react to the work, was really a moment for me.”
Skin Deep is ever evolving. “I’ll continue to add portraits to the series as Black women continue to get their hands in more pots,” Jones says. “Yeah, we’ve been taking up space on screens, but there have been white men or other people who don’t understand the experience doing the writing. Now Black women are writing, directing, producing. It’s laying all kinds of new foundations.”
When it comes to foundations, Jones’ new self-portrait respects her own. In the work, her face is bisected in vibrant color, a shoutout to her bold style in the series and the way each of those 17 women enriched Jones’ life. But it’s the three smaller portraits of her mother and both grandmothers that drive the connective tissue home. “These women are the reason I exist,” Jones says. “These are my direct foundations. No matter how I evolve as an artist, a woman, this is where I started.”