COLUMBIA, S.C. — Ija Charles is a superhero. Armed with artistic talent and an attitude of gratitude, she spreads joy to every canvas her paintbrushes touch.
“I’m going to use my superpowers to help,” said Charles.
While her talent has garnered national attention from celebrities, city leaders, and national organizations, her real power lies in her love for people and the community.
“A lot of people might go through life and know there’s not a lot of good, but if I made you smile for a second, then I did my job,” the 25-year-old explained. “I can’t help everybody, but I know my work will reach more people than I will ever get to talk to in my life.”
Her mission statement is “painting positive vibes on the canvas of life” which she has been doing since grade school.
The self-taught artist discovered her love for art during childhood. “It was therapy for me,” Charles said. “Growing up, as I dealt with things, whether at school or home, instead of taking a negative route, art was my escape.”
Even though her parents, who are veterans, were not always able to afford art supplies, they supported her passion with constant encouragement, support, and love. “They let me be me,” Charles said. “They were always there to pat me on the back and let me know, ‘We don’t know where you’re going, but we’re here for you as long as you’re giving 110% to yourself,” she recalled.
Over the years, as her talent grew, so did the attention her work received from peers, teachers, and community members.
Dedicated to pursuing art as a full-time career, Charles continued working to cultivate her talent. “I would paint pictures for people for $25 and get them done really, really quickly whether I’m at the bowling alley or at school,” Charles recalled. “I got me really comfortable with doing things outside of my comfort zone.”
At 17-years-old, Charles became a nationally commissioned artist, creating the first ever black history month banners for the city of Houma, Louisiana.
After graduating from Westwood High School, Charles moved to New Orleans and worked in several different roles including as a cake decorator and Mardi Gras float decorator.
After establishing herself as an artist, she moved back to the Palmetto State.
“I feel like South Carolina is misunderstood, misrepresented and people are always leaving,” Charles said. “I am not going anywhere.”
Since returning to the Midlands, Charles has completed at least 15 murals in South Carolina. Residents can see her work on the sides of several buildings including Richland Library on Assembly Street, in the “The Wonders of Cayce” art corridor, as well as inside immersion – an interactive art gallery on Main Street in downtown Columbia.
Charles is also responsible for the mural at the corner of Washington and Main Street commemorating Columbia’s Black Wall Street. It was a thriving black business from the early 20th century through the early 1970's according to the Richland Library.
Her talent has also received national praise as she was tapped to create a piece for the NFL’s National Artist Replay Initiative and featured on BET (Black Entertainment Television).
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Whether a personal piece or a mural, Charles pours her emotions into each painting. “It’s a part of me, they are my children,” She explained. “When people buy my work, they are taking a soul with them.”
While her work is a form of therapy, it’s also an opportunity to honor communities of color. “I feel like it is irresponsible for you not to create things that are based off what you know, I know my people,” Charles said. “To be able to spread a renaissance of joy to my community by showcasing people that look like me, look like you…it just makes me feel good to be able to do something like that.”
Charles is booked and busy with several new projects lined up. Even though she has a lot on her plate, she hopes to find time to mentor up-and-coming artists in the hopes they can avoid the challenges she faced navigating the industry.
She also hopes to create murals outside of the United States and has taken an interest in animation.
No matter where her talents take her, Charles says the Palmetto State will always be home. “I just want to bring it (joy) to South Carolina because it’s been brought to me all my life.”