Always artistic, San Jose-based artist, Stephanie Lam, never thought about pursuing art. In fact, it wasn’t until she was close to graduating from Santa Clara University that she took her first art class and realized not only that she enjoyed painting, but she was good at it.
After graduating, Lam began her career in non-profit fundraising but continued painting, eventually taking commission work that focused on pet portraiture – a subject close to Lam’s heart as she’s the pet parent to four dogs, fish, a tortoise and horse, and she volunteers with the Bay Area non-profit, Our Pack, Inc. Pit Bull and Chihuahua rescue. However, despite having a large body of work focused on animal paintings, it was her job that took her artwork in a new direction.
While browsing her company’s database of photographs, Lam came across images of African children and upon realizing many of these children will never live to see adulthood, Lam felt compelled to paint their images – telling their stories through a paintbrush and oil paint, and placing the same value on their lives that has been placed on historically significant or wealthy individuals.
“Portraiture has always been something open to the privileged few … When you see portraits now it’s usually political figures or famous people or royalty,” she says. “I really like the idea of taking something that’s reserved for an elite status of people and using it for kids that most of the world will never know their name; and a lot of these children are not valued by their community or their country. They’re abandoned or orphaned. They’re dying.”
Even though she was still developing the body of work, and only had a couple of people portraits under her belt, Lam took the recommendation of a friend and entered two pieces, African Child I and African Child III, into the Triton Museum of Art’s Salon at the Triton: A 2D Competition and Exhibition.
On the evening of the reception, Lam found her two oil paintings and thought, based on the blue card near her submissions, they were hung in a great spot – next to the painting she believed was the winner; but as she moved closer, her excitement turned to shock. Her painting, African Child III – a young child with yellowed eyes and cherub-like features – wasn’t next to the winning piece, it was the Best in Show and made her the recipient of a solo show at the Triton in 2016.
“I saw that it was my name and literally all the noise just faded away,” she says. “I think I started shaking. I did an about-face and walked the other direction. I was just so stunned.”
African Child III tells just one story of the hundreds children who die from disease and famine across the world.
“I’m hoping that viewers will connect with the individual child or the individual person,” says Lam, adding that she wants people to engage emotionally with her pieces the same way she connects to the photographs.
Lam will be taking a trip to Africa this year to take more photographs and gather stories of the children she intends to paint. “I’m so excited,” she says. “I feel so blessed.”
African Child III and African Child I, which received an honorable mention, are on display at 1505 Warburton Ave. until Feb. 8.
Visit www.stephanielam.com to see all three paintings in the African Child series or to learn more about the artist.