“I am,” she wrote in block letters between the girl’s shoulder blades.
In her next strokes, she surrounded that phrase with words she wanted her daughter to remember: Worthy. Powerful. Beautiful. Black and Proud. Enough.
It was one of the first pieces of body art the Black D.C. artist, who is known simply by her first and middle name to those who follow her work, created. She snapped photos of it and, as she tends to do with her artwork, shared them on her Instagram page.
Months later, that page is now filled with photos of women and girls, their limbs and torsos covered in eye-catching swirls of color and words that describe who they are, and in some cases, what they endured to become that.
Like so many people in the Washington region, Cierra Lynn has experienced different types of loss during the pandemic. She has lost the ability to drop off her child at school. She has lost job opportunities that would have required her to travel. And she lost her mother in April at the age of 62, two years after she was diagnosed with dementia.
But if you talk to the 34-year-old single mother about this awful, can’t-end-soon-enough year, she will also tell you she found something: A way to turn her talent and body paint into mental health therapy for herself and other women and girls.
Since posting those photos of her 11-year-old daughter, she has painted moms-to-be who have experienced miscarriages, female coaches who have had to defend cheerleading as a sport and size-whatever-they-want-to-be women who are tired of hearing they are “pretty for a fat girl.”
She has also come up with a name for her work, because “body art” doesn’t quite capture it.
“I call it ‘body language,’ because the vision is for you to be able to tell your story, whatever it is,” she says. “It’s a way for you to talk about something you overcame or something you want to overcome.”
It takes her about an hour to create each piece, and although the paint washes off, she says many women don’t want to take it off right away.
One photo of her work shows a woman covered in bright, bold brushstrokes of color and the adjectives “fat,” “thick” and “confident.”
In another photo, a woman sparkles under streaks of glitter and the words, “bro,” “mom,” “dad,” “stroke” “pain,” and “rare.”
The caption next to that image reads: “7 time Stroke Survivor. Loss Mom. Loss Dad. Loss brother. No siblings. Wife. Mother. Author … Just to name a few chapters of this story! Through it all she’s STILL STANDING!!!!”
Another caption contains this account from an expectant mother: “I was told that we wouldn’t make it to FULL TERM pregnancy. I was told that history shows that we would more than likely deliver another premature baby. I was told because of my age to prepare for a schedule caesarean birth. I’m sure all of these things played a factor on my mental in SOME capacity. However, LONG STORY SHORT … WE MADE IT TO FULL TERM …”
Cierra Lynn describes that woman as convincing her that she had hit on a need with her “body language” work.
She painted the woman using an abstract rainbow motif and specks of gold to pay tribute to the baby she was expecting and the one she had lost. When the woman saw the final product, which included golden angel wings, she started crying.
“Yep, I think I found my new thing,’” the artist recalls thinking. “I love this work.”
Not long after that, she says, another woman confessed to her that she thought she was “too big” for that type of artwork until she saw herself transformed.
“Every person I have painted, they’ve never been painted before, so when I get there, there are definitely reservations,” she says. Women complain about stretch marks or apologize for the shape of their breasts, she says. The women’s husbands and boyfriends have even refused to let her paint them, because they don’t want to take their shirts off.
“I just hope that they realize that a lot of the stuff they see is all in their head,” she says. “I may not be a perfect 10, as far as my body, but I’m going to love myself regardless … Life is short. Beating yourself up about things like that, right now, is not worth it.”
The artist describes herself as a “self-love and mental health advocate,” but it took time, and struggle, for her to feel comfortable carrying those titles.
As she tells it, she used to work as an art teacher in the District, until she showed up for work one day about a decade ago and learned that budget cuts had eliminated her position. Her daughter was 2 at the time. She remembers this, because when she couldn’t find work, she started painting hairbows and tutus to pay for day care.
Since then, she has turned objects of all sorts into art. On her website, she sells not only prints, but also a line of hats, doormats and face masks.
She has also painted murals in school bathrooms to boost the self-esteem of children, work that caught the attention of The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, a nonprofit with a focus on mental illness. Before the pandemic limited travel, she and the foundation had formed a partnership, with the aim of providing bathroom makeovers in cities across the world.
In that sense, her ‘body language’ art is an extension of what she has long been doing to promote positivity.
But, if you talk to her, you’ll hear in her voice that it is also much more than that.
She lives in the District and only has to look around to see the many ways that the Black community in the region is hurting right now — because of the novel coronavirus, because of police misconduct that has led to protests, because of all the problems that existed before either of those issues.
“I don’t smoke or drink and a lot of people say, ‘What do you do?’” she says. She paints people, she tells them. “That eases my anxiety. And I’m sure, on the other end, it’s therapeutic for my clients.”
She admits that she never gave much thought to mental illness before she became her mother’s caretaker. Then suddenly, she found herself needing to better understand anxiety and depression. Some nights she wouldn’t sleep, she says, because her mom would get up at 2 a.m. and try to head to a job she no longer held.
The idea for one of the prints she sells on her website came to her after she picked her mom up from a senior day-care center one day. She found her coloring a butterfly and staying within the lines. The print Cierra Lynn created afterward features a box of colors and the message: “Broken crayons still color.”
Her mom’s death changed how she sees life, she says. It made her more eager to create memories and let go of some of her reserved nature.
Before, she says, she would have been hesitant to paint her own bare body and share the photographs publicly. Now, she says, she is thinking about the design and how to execute it.
She is known for her bold color choices, but she is considering going back to the beginning. She plans to cover her body with white paint and use black lettering to tell her story.
She may even ask her daughter to do the painting.