by Tiffany Nicole Slade
Ten years ago, contemporary painter Tamara Natalie Madden got a second chance at life. Since then, she has lived by the creed, “Create as much as you can, while you can.” That thinking has lent itself to a prolific body of work, as well as a Jane-of-all-trades approach to life since Madden is also a children’s book author and illustrator, a fine art photographer, a stylist and make-up artist, a master colorist, a vegetarian and health advocate, a blogger, a mom, and a kidney transplant survivor. She lives near Atlanta, but hails from a small, rural town in the parish of Manchester, Jamaica. It was there in Frankfield, high up in the mountainous bush, where the artist resided with her grandmother and others while her mother pursued a better life in America.
Though steeped in poverty, her early years were filled with the warmth of neighbors, family, and friends. By the time she began to pursue an art career in America as an adult, she was already deeply inspired by the Jamaican people who had surrounded her during her formative years. A precocious child, Madden loved reading books, climbing trees, and helping her beloved grandmother, “Mama,” who was always busy fetching water from the outdoor tank, building fires in the outdoor kitchen to cook meals, boiling water for bathing and washing clothes, and walking, mile after scorching mile, through the blinding white heat come dawn every Saturday morning on the grueling trek to church.
Money and resources were scant, but her grandmother was always generous in her care of family and others. Even under such dire circumstances, it was not unusual for her grandmother or others to take in children from families who were unable to care for them. That spirit of interconnectedness and survival left its mark on Madden and later came to influence her otherworldly portraits.
If one looks closely at the artist’s subjects, the faces of those townspeople might become evident. Most certainly, one will see extraordinary images of ordinary black folk. But what Madden has set out to do is pay homage in paint to the true heroes and heroines of our time.
Of Royal Lineage (2010) by Tamara Natalie Madden (48″ x 24″, acrylic and mixed media on canvas)
Positively influenced by a challenging but rewarding childhood, the artist paints to dignify the indigent. She wrote, “Amazing people surrounded me, including my grandmother, who despite her struggle with poverty and emotional strain, found it in her heart to give back, to care for and support her fellow man. The neighbors would share food, water, and their love for God. I always found that to be amazing, and I wanted the voices of those people to be heard.”
Rastaman Chant (2007) by Tamara Natalie Madden (30″ x 20″, acrylic and mixed media on canvas)
When Madden began to paint these ‘everyday’ people, it was not uncommon for her to dress her subjects in unremarkable clothing and to situate them in prosaic Jamaican settings—a woman with a baby in her arms, a man on a stoop with a machete, or even her grandmother with her dog.
Mama and Bringle (2007) by Tamara Natalie Madden (18″ x 24″, acrylic and mixed media on canvas)
Her interest in manipulating color and quilting were evident in early works, but her mastery of paint handling and style evolved quickly when she began to infuse her subjects with royalty. This was evidenced in the elaborate rendering of subjects’ skin, hand-stitched quilting of their stately garb, and intricate handling of gold-leaf crowns and regalia for each king and queen.
Sankofa (2008) by Tamara Natalie Madden (48″ x 24″, acrylic and mixed media on canvas)
Madden states: “Unfortunately, when I began to paint these people, they were not readily accepted, they were still overlooked. I decided to turn the same people into representations of royalty, clothing them in fantastical ornate outfits, and focusing on all that would attract viewers to pay attention to the beauty within.” Around that time, the artist was deeply moved by yet another everyday hero and it made her want, more than ever, to honor those who live unsung even as they save others’ and survive their own lives.
By then as the mother of a young child and stricken with a fullblown, life-threatening, genetic kidney disease, Madden felt that if she didn’t make a trip home to Jamaica soon, she might never get another chance. Additionally, her beloved grandmother was nearing the end of her life but helped the artist locate a long lost brother. In 2000 before beginning the dreaded dialysis treatments, Madden flew home to Jamaica for the first time since leaving as a child.
While there, she was serendipitously reacquainted with her brother who took one look at her and inquired about her condition. She explained her ashen skin, low weight, and lack of strength as well as the illness, the medications, and the side effects. Before the end of her trip, this brother with whom she who she had never communicated beyond a chance meeting as children, offered her his kidney, further churning the artist’s fascination with the fortitude of everyday people.
Back in the United States, Madden suffered the pain and indignity of dialysis, sketching and drawing to pass time and vowing to become a professional artist when she received her transplant. Several times per week, she sat, connected to multiple IVs and needles, watching all the blood drain from her body into machines, and then, through multiple tubes, back in, cleansed, while other patients mysteriously disappeared, one after another.
Fatigued but friendly with nurses and others, she struggled to maintain her sanity while coping with the reality of death all around her. A year after their reunion, the artist and her brother successfully underwent the kidney transplant surgeries. That same year, Madden also participated in her first art exhibition.
Mystic (2008) by Tamara Natalie Madden (36″ x 24″, acrylic and mixed media on canvas)
Today, Madden continues to elevate ordinary folk to royalty in her paintings. Adorned with mythological golden crowns, her subjects dazzle with nobility while situated in ethereal landscapes. Inspired by Gustav Klimt, Egyptian and West African royalty, the artist imbues her subjects with power through masterful portraiture and an adroit handling of color.
Paradise (2011) by Tamara Natalie Madden (30″ x 20″, acrylic and mixed media on canvas)
To see more work, visit tamaranataliemadden.com .