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LaNia Roberts: Painting Her Future: First-generation college graduate and former LVA student becomes a global art and activist sensation

By Gill Holland

Photos by Cora Holland, Gill Holland and Tre’Sean Durham

I first met LaNia exactly ten years ago — the summer after she graduated from Central High School. This was long before she garnered her now over 400,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok. She had participated in Governor’s School for the Arts and was featured in an e-blast I received from the Louisville Visual Art Association (now called Louisville Visual Art—LVA), where she had taken their storied Children’s Fine Art Classes. I was intrigued. I journeyed over to her shared and cozy (read: “tiny”) Mellwood studio (she was paying $150/month). When I saw her prices, I told her to double or even triple them. I still walked away happy with two amazing self-portraits. 

Around the same time, the now super famous artist Stan Squirewell visited LaNia. He was profiled in the VOICE-TRIBUNE last year (2023). In 2022, Stan hired LaNia to be his studio assistant and as she says, "really changed my life. Stan encouraged and pushed me in my own studio practice, which led to the huge shift in my new series of work!" 

After Central graduation, she was then off to Syracuse University on a scholarship as a first-generation college student, where she got a degree in Painting from its Visual and Performing Arts School. While at Syracuse, she presided over the Black Artist League for three years and contributed her voice to the Black Celestial Choral Ensemble. From the early days here at LVA to Syracuse, she discovered in visual art a transformative outlet for (and a profound means of self-expression) her early challenges with her identity as a young Black woman. And now with her hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of online interactions, her visual art has expanded into an online-based social art practice, empowering millions worldwide to embody radical self-compassion, love, and acceptance.   


In late winter/spring of 2017 LaNia had a great show across the river in New Albany at the Carnegie Center for Art and History (now called the Cultural Arts Center). I was tickled to see her self-portrait was the artwork selected for the giant banner hanging outside the building to promote the show.  


During her junior year, LaNia became the first in her family to embark on international travel (besides some family members’ military assignments), living in Florence, Italy, for four months to study painting, photography, and sculpture. Her connection with Tuscany endured through four recurring art workshops led by master professors from 2017 to 2023. After graduation, LaNia interned at the important arts non-profit Creative Capital and at New York City’s Ronald Feldman Art Gallery. Then she immersed herself in a comprehensive study of Human Rights & Multiculturalism in Cape Town, South Africa. She has now visited twelve countries and says her “new global perspective has resulted in a more acute understanding of [her] own culture and experience growing up in Kentucky.”


In 2019, I did another studio visit, now to her 75-square-foot (yes, seventy-five, that is not a typo) studio at Art Sanctuary. She showed me a fun photo from her trip to Marrakech of her riding a camel! I am pleased to report she now lives and works in a 1,200-square-foot-studio!

This past November she was featured at Art Basel! LaNia recounts: “My first time at Art Basel this past December in Miami was incredible. Showing my work with Claire Oliver Gallery at the Scope Art Show was the most affirmational moment of my career thus far.  I've dealt a lot with imposter syndrome, and not only exhibiting but also selling my painting at Scope really boosted my self-esteem. Meeting artists from all over the world whose work I admired was one thing; and then having them just as eager to become my friend and love my work in return was another. I was shocked by the support I received and felt a warm welcome into the art world. Art Basel Miami was completely and utterly life-changing for me, especially as a Kentucky girl!”

Every artist has some important moments around an important early sale of one of their artworks, so I asked LaNia about how 21c Art Hotel first acquired her work. “I made my first 21c sale during an exhibition at the Muhammad Ali Center called ‘We Don't Wither.’ Shepard Fairey came to town during the exhibition to complete the Ali mural in April of 2023. Steve Wilson (co-founder of the 21c Art Hotel group) was there at the reception — I hadn't seen him in person since before the pandemic. He remembered me, we spoke, and I showed him my work, which was three self-portraits. He stood by them for a while. During Fairey's speech, Steve Wilson approached me and whispered, ‘How much is the painting in the center?’ I told him the price, and he whispered, ‘Sold.’ It was such an incredible moment for me!” 


Faith is very important to LaNia and she exclaims “Hallelujah” joyfully and frequently!  She has been attending the Burnett Avenue Baptist Church where she finds the pastor, choir, and community so enriching. 


This fall, LaNia has her first solo show in New York City where she is represented by the esteemed Claire Oliver Gallery, website here, to learn more about dates which are not yet available at time of press.


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