By Katie Vaughn | Photography by Hillary Schave
Art had always held a place in Sharon L. Bjyrd’s life, but it wasn’t until she was diagnosed with a chronic illness in 2012 that there was space for it to take on a more prominent role.
Since moving from Chicago to Madison, Bjyrd has been working toward degrees in social work and Afro American studies from UW–Madison and worked as an advocate for women at the YWCA of Madison and the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence. But learning how to live with lupus, in addition to sickle cell disease, forced her to pause.
“I was in a weird, quiet, isolated space trying to reevaluate what my life could be,” she says. “I had some paints and picked them up, and I just kept painting and painting and painting.”
While Bjyrd had taken art classes over the years, now she got to choose her subject matter.
“I started painting Black women’s portraits,” she says. “What I found myself with was a room of Black women.”
And she’s continued to paint them. Sometimes she features women with vibrant African print headwraps, and other times she deconstructs those patterns and uses them as backdrops. Or she lets the woman’s natural hair hold the spotlight.
“I want to introduce a new iconography — the African woman as her true self,” she says. “It’s about living in a society where you’re told your natural state is unappealing — and the amount of strength it takes to embrace it anyway.”
Through her portraits, Bjyrd seeks to celebrate the beauty and the diversity of the Black experience.
“Black art is sometimes accepted more when it’s about pain,” she says. “I want to give some humanity and dignity, and show that whatever we go through, we’re going to do it beautifully.”
Following her show, “Heavy is the Crown,” held last year at the Arts + Literature Laboratory, Bjyrd plans to continue exhibiting. She also has a contract with the brand Ashro to print her art onto clothing, and hopes to paint a mural.
As she reflects on her path, she feels gratitude for having to change directions years ago.
“I believe life leads you to where you need to be,” she says. “My art career has been a series of serendipitous moments, and I’m grateful for every single one of them.”