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Artist Ya Levy

In Living Color

Artist Ya Levy La’Ford is painting the town.

By Mariette Williams
Photos by Melissa Santell, FoodxFeels

Every morning Ya Levy La’Ford wakes up early with her family to meditate and set her intentions for the day ahead. These days her schedule is filled with school drop-offs, project site visits, after-school activities, and studio sessions to work on the latest painting or sculpture. Although her schedule is busy, she’s intentional about spending time outdoors and staying connected with nature.

“Being outside is very important to us,” she says, referring to her husband and two young kids. We like to go for walks and observe the sounds and patterns of life that are happening around us. We also want to make sure we’re making the most of our time through the chaos and finding those quiet moments.”

La’Ford’s need for quiet moments is understandable. Her profile has grown tremendously in recent years, and the Tampa-based artist’s work has been exhibited all over the world, including in Europe, Asia, and South America. Her public art installations and sculptures can also be found in destinations like Toronto, South Africa, and Hawaii. You may have also passed by La’Ford’s signature geometric installations around Tampa at Sparkman Wharf or Oxford Exchange. And though she was born in the Bronx, La’Ford credits her Jamaican heritage for her strong sense of creativity.

“I’m a first-generation Jamaican, and even though my parents had us here, we summered in Kingston, and I was inspired by the creativity of Jamaicans,” La’Ford says. “After independence, the Jamaican national motto was ‘Out of Many, One People.’ When I think of Jamaica, I think of this diverse array of colors and tastes like the locally farmed pineapple and the sweet papayas and mangoes. When you come from the Caribbean there’s this creative rhythm that’s rooted in our blood.”

The creative rhythm La’Ford is referring to is reflected in her work, which often shows the complexity and intricacy of human connections. Though La’Ford’s work also relies heavily on bold colors, geometric shapes, and interconnected angles, her artistic career hasn’t necessarily been a straight line. She earned a Juris Doctor from the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and then received a Master of Fine Arts from the Art Institute of Boston. Though a law degree and an MFA seem like they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum, La’Ford says they complement each other.

“What law did for my art practice is actually refine how I think about art,” La’Ford explains. “Because of my law degree, I was really able to dig deeper into symbolism, interconnection, and the philosophy behind lights and darks and answer these harder life-questions through art.”

La’Ford also finds inspiration through traveling, and says a recent artist residency in Utah opened her up to further exploring the ideas of human connection in her work.

“Utah had a huge, transformative impact on me,” she says. “At the end of the residency, we titled the show, Survey: The West, and really dug into the concept of Pangea. I spent time exploring Utah and the states around it, and it got me thinking about how interconnected people and civilizations are. I got a chance to reflect on the fact that 200 million years ago we had all these continents that were a supercontinent, and I thought about shapes and time and how we all fit together like a puzzle. I really expanded from working in negative and positive space and lights and darks to thinking about elements like sound and light and colors.”
It isn’t surprising to find out that La’Ford’s creative process also involves music across all different genres. In the same way that La’Ford can translate the interconnectedness of the human experience through art, she says she’s able to find a common thread between musical genres.

“When I’m working, I listen to a bit of everything. Sometimes I listen to podcasts or classical or 70s music. From the Beatles to Sade—I love a lot of different genres and I like to explore the bass and the beat of humanity through music,” La’Ford says. “My husband is a drummer, so much of the art I create is listening with that in the background.”

La’Ford is drawn to community and fellowship in both her artwork and her lifestyle, and she’s decided to make Tampa home for the last ten years, having been drawn to the city’s communal spaces, long-standing artist community, and new editions in the Water Street neighborhood.

“Overall, Tampa has some really cool places. Oxford Exchange is one of my favorite little places to hang out. And right next door to Oxford Exchange is this great French restaurant, Mise en Place,” the artist says. “Water Street has a bunch of new places to check out. I really like the restaurants and entertainment at Sparkman Wharf, and I love the Tampa EDITION. The hotel is New York and so high-end, and it’s cool that we now have it in Tampa.”

Inside Sparkman Wharf you’ll find a coplex La’Ford mural, WATERFRONTIER. It greets guests as they enter the building’s lobby, and is inspired by the contours and urban layout of the waterfront community that surrounds it—its pedestrian, streetcar and vehicle pathways. She knows the area and the city well.

La’Ford is an ambassador for the art scene in Tampa and wears many hats: professor, visual painter, muralist, and installation artist. Some of her recent partnerships include Louis Vuitton, Nike, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Toronto Blue Jays. She’s received numerous awards, including being named the most important artist by the Jamaican National Gallery. The accolades are well deserved, but La’Ford says her mission is not only to create art that resonates with people, but to have a positive impact on those around her.

“I love my career,” she says, “The biggest challenge is having enough time for everything, but my greatest reward is paving a positive road for my children. Living and being human is only one part of the deal. The other part is figuring out how you can help and make a difference.”