Lamar Peterson’s Multifaceted Self-Portrait

A Self-Portrait: An Exploration of Lamar Peterson’s Artistic Journey


In this interview, we delve into the artistic world of Lamar Peterson, a Florida-born, Minneapolis-based painter whose works blend elements of pop art and social commentary. With a childhood influence from the iconic Bob Ross, Peterson has carved his own path, creating series after series of thought-provoking paintings that celebrate and question the experiences of Black America. As an Assistant Professor of Drawing and Painting at the University of Minnesota, Peterson’s recent solo exhibitions, including the notable “A Self-Portrait” in 2017, have marked a vibrant and unconventional chapter in his artistic career. In this interview, we explore the inspirations behind two of his remarkable paintings, his exploration of different styles, and his thoughts on the contemporary figurative painting scene.

The Conversation: A Blend of Old and New

Peterson’s painting titled “The Conversation” sparks curiosity with its myriad of styles, textures, and ideas. In discussing this piece, Peterson reveals that it represents a shift in his style, with a greater focus on painting rather than drawing. Moving from flatness and color to the vibrant possibilities of oil paint, he combines both love for flatness and an interest in gesture within his latest works. Within “The Conversation,” Peterson depicts an ambiguous scene of an old couple engaged in an intense discussion amidst a pastoral landscape. The tension in the painting is heightened by a flower vase on the verge of toppling, evoking a sense of anticipation and impending change.

A Young Man with a Fish: Exploring Contrasts and Emotions

Another notable painting by Peterson is “A Young Man with a Fish,” which captivates viewers with its vibrant colors and surreal qualities. This piece serves as a counterbalance to the harsh realities of police brutality and political indifference towards communities of color. Peterson explains that amidst depictions of fear, anger, and hopelessness, he created this painting to convey a sense of calm, safety, and dappled light. However, subtle elements such as a bite mark on the fish remind viewers of the lurking presence of violence even in seemingly gentle scenes.

A Diverse Exploration of Styles and Techniques

One of the remarkable aspects of Peterson’s work is his willingness to explore various styles and techniques. In his show “A Self-Portrait,” Peterson presented a diverse collection where different styles coexisted harmoniously, telling a compelling story. Undoubtedly, this artistic exploration has led Peterson to experiment with different mediums, including sculptures earlier in his career. The influence of sculpture still lingers in his thoughts, and he has upcoming projects in the works that delve into three-dimensional art.

The Revival of Figurative Painting

Within the contemporary art scene, figurative painting has gained renewed attention, and Peterson has gracefully navigated this landscape through various stages of his career. However, he highlights that painting has always existed and that artists continuously pick up the brush. Rather than viewing it as a revival, he suggests that collectors and curators shape what is considered important at any given time. Currently, he finds joy in witnessing many artists of color finding success and recognition in the figurative painting genre.

“A Self-Portrait” Reflecting Uncertainty and Dichotomies

Discussing his show “A Self-Portrait,” Peterson acknowledges the deeply personal nature of this series, which flawlessly intertwines elements of uncertainty and dichotomies. He explains that while his previous works did not explicitly aim to make racial statements, the unapologetic portrayal of black figures often led viewers to interpret social commentary. In contrast, “A Self-Portrait” carries a deliberate message, conveying the impending sense of loss, harm, and socio-political dissonance prevalent in today’s society.

Exploring Ambiguity and the Influence of Childhood Experiences

Peterson’s works often invite viewers to ponder and question, drawing them into an ambiguous narrative. He emphasizes his desire to encourage speculation, allowing individuals to create their own interpretations and answers. Drawing inspiration from films geared towards children, such as Jim Henson’s creations, Peterson continues the tradition of balancing darkness and lightness found in those childhood influences. Recognizing the subtle complexities of folklore and unsanitized cautionary tales in old children’s books, he infuses his paintings with similar dichotomies.

Influence, Pressure, and Being a Role Model

As a successful contemporary painter, particularly as an African-American artist, Peterson acknowledges the potential influence he holds for young painters of color. While he aspires to be a source of inspiration, he emphasizes the importance of remaining true to his artistic vision, irrespective of external pressures. By prioritizing authenticity, he believes that his work will resonate with both current and future audiences, allowing younger artists to appreciate his unique artistic journey.

The Language of Colors and Inspirations

Color plays a significant role in Peterson’s artwork, evoking emotions and memories alike. His vibrant palette draws inspiration from comics and children’s book illustrations from the 1960s and 70s, reminiscent of his childhood experiences in colorful Florida landscapes. While he cherishes all colors, he proudly defines a “signature” shade of blue, green, and brown that resonates throughout his body of work.

Fond Childhood Memories of Comic Books

Reflecting on his favorite comic books as a child, Peterson mentions “Spawn” as a major influence during the 1990s. This series, featuring an African-American anti-superhero, captivated him with its intricate artwork, compelling storyline, and representation of a black protagonist. Although he no longer actively follows comic book culture, his childhood collection of “Spawn” comics and corresponding action figures remains a nostalgic treasure.

An Exploration of Humor and Dark Elements

Within Peterson’s work, humor often acts as a surface-level attraction, drawing viewers in with playful and giddy icons like smiley faces. However, as viewers spend more time engaging with the works, they identify the underlying dissonance with the tragic elements present. Peterson draws parallels to childhood cartoons, where colorful characters often undergo perilous situations, prompting both amusement and reflection.

Artistic Foundations and Suburban Influences

Growing up in Florida, Peterson found limited exposure to contemporary art but discovered inspiration in Bob Ross’s “Joy of Painting.” Using his father’s old oils, he painted along with Ross, captivated by the utopian worlds created on the show. Art became his refuge and a means to leave his mark in a challenging academic environment. Drawing from the vibrant colors of suburban Florida landscapes, Peterson seamlessly incorporates them as backdrops in his paintings, adding a unique layer of meaning to his work.

Teaching and Its Influence on Artistic Freedom

As a professor of Drawing and Painting, Peterson attributes his artistic growth and expanded freedom to his teaching role. The stability provided by teaching enables him to play and experiment with larger paintings, which necessitate more physical space. Teaching also exposes him to young artists, fostering discussions on contemporary issues and ideas, reinvigorating his artwork. Feeling at ease in his current stage as an artist, Peterson hopes that his work reflects this newfound artistic liberation and inspires younger artists, especially those from marginalized communities, to embrace their own paths.


Lamar Peterson’s artistic journey is a testament to the power of self-expression and exploration. From his childhood influences to his interactions with contemporary figurative painting, Peterson’s work balances tension, ambiguity, and social commentary. Through his vibrant use of colors, diverse styles, and thought-provoking subject matters, he invites viewers to reflect on their own experiences and create personal narratives. Peterson’s dedication to authenticity and artistic freedom serves as an inspiration for both aspiring and established artists alike. As he continues to navigate the art world, his unique perspective and unwavering commitment promise to leave a lasting impact on the contemporary artistic landscape.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the significance of the “A Self-Portrait” exhibition in Lamar Peterson’s artistic journey?

The exhibition marked a significant chapter in Peterson’s career, showcasing his vibrant and unconventional style through a narrative-driven collection. By exploring themes of uncertainty and dichotomies, he presented deeply personal works that reflected the socio-political environment.

2. How does Lamar Peterson balance humor and darkness in his artworks?

Peterson incorporates humor and universal icons of giddiness as a means to engage viewers initially. However, upon closer inspection, his works reveal deeper layers of complexity, often dealing with tragic elements that prompt both reflection and dissonance.

3. What role does childhood experience play in Peterson’s artistic approach?

Childhood experiences, including exposure to comics, children’s books, and films, heavily influence Peterson’s art. These nostalgic influences shape his use of vibrant colors, ambiguity, and storytelling, infusing his works with a blend of innocence and darkness.

4. How has teaching impacted Lamar Peterson’s artistic journey?

Teaching has provided Peterson with financial stability, allowing him to experiment and play with his artwork on a larger scale. It has also exposed him to discussions with young artists, expanding his perspective and revitalizing his creative process.

5. What can aspiring artists learn from Lamar Peterson’s artistic path?

Peterson’s artistic path serves as a reminder to prioritize authenticity and personal expression. By staying true to one’s vision and allowing the work to speak for itself, young artists can embrace their unique journeys, knowing that genuine artistry will resonate with audiences over time.