Asha Elana Casey has the dream studio. The abstract portrait artist works out of a brightly lit space large enough for her life size canvases. There’s a huge table for her to spread out her work, a corner nook for her easel, plenty of space for her feminist and religious studies books and it comes with the best commute in D.C. All she has to do is walk down the stairs.
Working out of her house in Fairfax Village, Casey creates portraits tinged with history. She infuses each piece with religious iconography, drawing equal amounts of inspiration from the ifá yoruba tradition or buddhism. The subjects are always friends or family members, cast in shades of black and white, and occasionally accented with gold or blue. Her gold pieces are the most requested at her shows (which she does on a constant basis), but walking into her studio on a bright and surprisingly warm Saturday, it’s her more abstract work that drew our attention. Those pieces, painted entirely black or white and filled with the most amazing textures, shows off Casey’s multimedia aspirations. She’s a high energy artist, someone who is always coming up with new ideas and diving into different themes. Yet she takes her time with everything, doing copious amounts of research before putting brush to canvas.
With her monochromatic pieces hanging all around us, we chatted about D.C. art schools, Toonami and how her style continues to develop.
Could you tell me a little bit about how you got into art?
I lucked into it honestly. I think it was in middle school… I didn’t have a high school to go to. Both of my brothers went to DeMatha and I thought I would get into Elizabeth City Catholic High school, but it didn’t happen. So I didn’t have a high school and someone suggested I go to Duke Ellington. I went there for visual arts because I like to draw, I just drew all the time. Then I went to school at the Corcoran School of Art and Design. And so I’ve been out of undergrad for two years.
Were you at the Corcoran before it became GW?
How was the transition?
It wasn’t that different honestly. It started to become different my last year. The main thing that changed was that my department got disbanded. I was in the art education department and it stopped existing. The masters of arts teaching stopped existing. A lot of the teachers were still there, but maybe three to four notable teachers were removed. Class-wise I didn’t see a big shift while I was still there, but now they are building new things and renovating. It’s really different for the people graduating after us.
So you wanted to be a teacher?
I did. I really enjoyed teaching and I wanted to get a job when I got out of school. So I’m an art teacher. I’m the art teacher at Archbishop Carroll Catholic High School. I love teaching high school, because [the kids] are so smart. I have the best kids, they’re brilliant. They’re engaged. I get to throw different themes and art history references at them and then they think critically about why something looks the way it does or what happened during that time period to make it look like that. My IB students, which is International Baccalaureate, are really cool.
I’m actually looking at an MFA program. I want to be a professor. Being a high school teacher is cool, but I’d prefer to be a professor and then teach high school sometimes.
What would be the dream school to teach at?
Howard University… My first thought was the New York Academy of Art, but that’s just because I want to go there, that’s my top choice. Dream-wise, I’d like to go to HBCU’s and create MFA programs for them. So they would just have amazing programs. It doesn’t make sense to me why Howard couldn’t have a studio museum residency. So, I’m like, how can I create those connections? How could I get a job like that? I’d love to run my own visual arts department and then connect communities and high schools and museums together.
So, you went to the Corcoran and you went to Duke Ellington. How old were you when you started drawing?
I was eight.
So it’s always been a thing in your life.
Yes, its always been a thing. I don’t know if you guys remember Toonami? When I was little, we would run home and Toonami came on at 4 p.m. So we’d run home and I’d draw Dragon Ball Z characters and Sailor Moon characters with my brothers. So that’s something I’ve always done as child. Thats why people were like, “Oh, she can draw! Why don’t you go to Duke Ellington?” It’s because I always drew anime and different cartoons.
But obviously your style nowadays is very different. When did you start to develop this monochrome, incredibly textured style?
That happened fairly recently. When I came out of the Corcoran, I started this series. It was part of the When Watching God series. I had a solo show at Gallery 102 and I was thinking, how do we get to the gold phase? When people see my work, they usually see the gold paintings, and so I was like, “How do we get to the gold phase when we’re gods and empowered?” I think it’s through mindful meditation and self-healing and self-worth. So the monochrome, black and white series came from the idea of when you reduce yourself to just light, then you can rebuild yourself from there. It’s like the prequel.
Your work has a lot of religious themes. Was that always the case?
I think in my last year of high school, I was really thinking about how god works and what that means, but it came really recently, me investigating god. In maybe the past four years, my third year of college, I was thinking about Byzantine art and halos and Ethiopian christianity. I was using those themes and putting them in my art and my peers challenged me. They were like, “Well, you’re using this, but how do you relate to this in reference to European colonization of African countries? And how Christianity is a colonizing force? How do you then empower people that were colonized by this religion you’re putting onto them?”
What happened is, I started to research other religions, African centered religions. So I was looking up the ifá yoruba tradition and the con tradition. My job was a great part of that, because my junior year of college I was a part time art teacher at a school called Nation House, it was a private African centered school. So, the kids would learn about these different traditions and they would learn about African history, cultures and religions. Everything was from an African lens. It really influenced the work going forward, so now I’m talking about horn libation and African deities and ancestor veneration.
Are these themes you want to continue working with?
I do, because even this big canvas right here… This is going to be a portrait of my mom. She was mad my dad got one, so I had to, but hers is bigger, so she should be fine. This is the start of the Watch The Throne series. So, the art pieces on my Instagram, they’re the gold ones, so this is me going back to gold. I’m painting her on a throne, so it’s a throne that embodies African religious aesthetics into it and then there will be ancestor deities on the sides of it.
Have you always been drawn to black and white?
I’d say yes, because my foundation is in drawing. When I took AP studio art in high school, I did a series on my classmates. I just drew all their faces, and it was in black and white, with a little bit of color, but not much. Even my geometric abstract art is black and white. I think the gold was just fitting. I’m kind of bringing blue into it, I really like blue. I was looking at Buddhism and there was a translation about the Buddha that said he had “blue, black hair” and there are sculptures of the Buddha with blue hair. I thought that would be an interesting representation of enlightenment. So, some of my figures have blue hair as well.
So what’s your schedule when you paint?
My deadlines keep me busy, so it depends on the deadline. Something they don’t tell you leaving art school is that it’s really is really hard to make art when you get out school. You have a nine to five job and then on the weekends you just want to do nothing. I think because people are asking me for art, it’s easier to make it and the momentum is exciting. So as the momentum is going, it’s pushing me to make more work. And it’s momentum from family or friends who want a portrait, or it’s momentum from showing in D.C. As it’s building, it’s like, “Okay, I need to make more work. I can’t keep showing the same four paintings.”
Do you paint every day?
No. I go to dance most days! I love dancing. I do west African dance and I’m terrible at it. I keep telling myself that in ten years I’m going to be amazing… Honestly, I paint maybe two or three times a week, but my painting schedule is long. If I spend a Saturday painting, then I’m in the studio for six or seven hours. So that’s the difference, that’s why I don’t paint as much because when I’m in the studio, I’m really in the studio.
Do you want to be a full time artist?
Yeah, I think in this lifetime you are afforded multiple lifetimes. So, I think there will be a time when I’m a full time artist, but there will also be a time when I have to be a professor. Right now, this is my teaching high school lifetime and as I move out of this lifetime into a different one, there will be different jobs that will fit my life.
Do you like working at this scale? Do you like full size canvases?
Yes, I do! I was just talking to my dad… It’s like a family business. My mom is really supportive and my dad is my partner in crime. He’s like a salaried employee, I literally pay him. He helps me put things up. I buy the canvases and he helps deliver them to me. We work together, we install shows together.
Yeah, I like working at this size. I went to the art store and I was telling my dad, “I want a 10 foot canvas, it’s gonna be 12 feet tall, we’re gonna buy the stretchers.” Then when I realized that I couldn’t fit this in the truck, I was like, “Maybe I should stay this size until it’s really poppin’ in museums… Then I can go massive.”
Thats amazing your family is really into it. Are any of your family members artists?
It’s really funny the relationship between my idea of a paint job and my dad’s idea of a paint job, because my dad used to be a finisher. What he did was, he painted buildings around schools and universities, patched up walls and stuff like that. So when I say I’m doing a paint job, it means a completely different thing when he’s doing a paint job. We are both painters, just in different ways
Is there a piece that you haven’t been able to nail down, a holy grail piece?
I think that’s an awesome question, because this is that piece.
The one of your mom?
Yeah, I’ve been thinking of this Watch The Throne series since my junior year of college. It’s been years coming and now I think I can do this. That’s what happens with my ideas. I’ll put something off and do something different until I feel like I can do it.
Now the idea that’s brewing is six foot sculptures, so these paintings as sculptures. I have no idea how to do it, but I want it to happen. Another idea is… In my newer paintings there are African masks. I’m first an abstract artist, which is really interesting, but I’m also a portrait artist. You can see them living together in a painting. I don’t want to get rid of one and go completely in one direction. So, I have this idea of this face, this African mask. It’s wooden and it lives on walls.
You want to branch away from canvas, you want to paint on a variety of things?
Well, I don’t even know if they have to be paintings. When I see successful artists, I see that they have a mixed media practice. Even with Kehinde Wiley, he has busts of people. There are painters who are branching out of painting. Someone I look up to is this woman named Renée Stout. She has a multimedia practice. She might have paintings or photographs or sculptures and I want to have that. I do want to primarily make paintings, just because of the political history behind them and that really sells the idea that I’m saying, but I’m really excited to use sculptures… And I’m really excited to always be excited about my practice.
What do you listen to when you work?
That’s a funny question. What’s really funny is that what I listen to different is from what you think I would listen to. I love Kanye West. I listen to trap music. I listen to music that energizes me. Going to the studio is like working out for me, I have to be at a high energy to create and sit here for hours at a time. It’s a lot of focus. I really like… I don’t know if it’s called house music, but it’s the remixes of regular songs. Maybe it’s electronic, I don’t know what it’s called, but I really like those a lot.
Do you have any shows coming up?
I do! I have a show up right now, at the PG African American Museum & Cultural Center. I have a piece in Alchemical Vessels at the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts. I have a show coming down today, right after I’m done with you guys I’m going to go take down a show in Baltimore, it’s called Black Bird, that’s where all my new pieces are. The curator is Alexis Dixon, she’s awesome and she’s part of MICA’s curatorial studies program. I have my three new pieces in that show and I have another show coming up… But I don’t know if I’m supposed to speak about it yet.
How often do you show?
All the time. As soon as one show comes down, there’s another show coming up. I had maybe seven shows last year. Including this year, it’s been maybe like 13 or 14. As soon as I graduated, it seemed like they just never stopped. I had maybe a two month break between showing. So it’s been like show, show, show.
If you could change anything about the D.C. art scene, what would you change?
I don’t know, I like the D.C. art scene. At least, the people I talk to are really nice and supportive. I have a community of professors that can write me recommendations. I have people who are looking out for me who are older than me. I’ve had a very positive experience with the D.C. art scene.