The DC-based artist mixes dark dystopian futures with vibrant silver linings in her recent Parable of the Sower campaign
By Jacqueline Renfrow
Local artist Justine Swindell works out of her design studio, Bold Oasis, in DC’s Shaw neighborhood. Known for her vibrant portfolio of illustrations, murals, and paintings, the artist dabbled in darkness to create the artwork for last year’s premiere of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower at Strathmore. The fully staged Afrofuturistic opera, created by Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, is based on Butler’s celebrated sci-fi novel about a young woman looking to survive a dystopian future. Featuring 30 original songs drawn from hundreds of years of African American music, it illuminates deep insights on gender, race, and the future of humanity.
After selling out twice last year, Parable of the Sower returns to the Music Center at Strathmore June 28 through July 1, along with new artwork by Swindell. We spoke with Swindell about her journey as an artist and the inspiration for this year’s production poster.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I am a multidisciplinary artist, so I’m always experimenting with different mediums. I do digital work. I paint murals. I make paintings. I’m just starting to dabble a bit more in pattern design. But consistently, my stylistic approach is one of minimalism and rich color, and my work always carries a bit of a message. Lately I’ve been experimenting with serenity in the midst of a chaotic world. I’m finding my way on this journey of life by expressing myself through art and helping other people to tell their stories.
A lot of your artwork is bright and colorful, which is in stark contrast to the Parable of the Sower artwork.
The production gave me a lot of freedom and respect for my individual creativity, but that story is like the world on fire—it’s dark. And so, it doesn’t necessarily have that same treatment as my usual bold bright work, but it does connect with that theme I love—a sliver of hope that exists in the midst of things that are really difficult.
What was the inspiration for the design of this year’s poster?
When I did the first poster, I just used photos of the main character. But for this version, there were a lot more photos to work from so it was exciting to bring more of the amazing performers into this year’s piece. This time around I was really inspired by movie posters and book covers from the 80s and their approach to collaging the characters together. I kept some of the same elements of LA and played with textures to make it feel like space, whimsy and futuristic. I think that the book and everything that Octavia Butler was expressing is about us being caught between the past and the future. And I love to play with things that feel very nostalgic, but also feel like they’re still relevant and current to this day.
Did you read the novel before designing the poster?
I read the book when I was in college 20 years ago. So, it was a little bit distant, but I remembered the story and was able to connect with it. And Octavia Butler is an icon. She’s part of a group of literary women that for me, growing up, gave us a different imaginary world that also felt so real. But I did revisit parts of the book and listened to Toshi’s podcast and some of the music in order to get into the space to create so the artwork felt authentic to the story and her approach to the production.
My stylistic approach is one of minimalism and rich color, and my work always carries a bit of a message.
When you saw the performance of Parable of the Sower at Strathmore last year, what were your impressions?
Oh, it was just so powerful. I mean, the music was so good, but I knew that going in. What I wasn’t expecting was that it was almost interactive. I think it’s the energy that Toshi brings, how she includes her audience a bit into her performance, but also the way all the actors are so talented and bring so much energy and so much rawness to it. Overall, it was just such a wonderful show, and I was overwhelmed by the response to the artwork. It was a special moment for me as a visual artist to be a part of this beautiful performing arts experience, and I will never forget it.
What are you working on now?
I have a number of clients that I’m supporting, creating and designing pieces that help to tell stories about their communities. I also just opened my “work/play space,” as I’m calling it, in the Shaw neighborhood, where I have an off-street retail studio. There I’ll be teaching, doing some painting for, hopefully, a solo show in the next six or seven months, and experimenting with making some products that I’ve been thinking about. I plan to have the shop open to the public in the holiday season, which will be a fun way to close out the year. So, a mix of balancing clients and leaning into some new passion projects that I hope become a bigger part of my portfolio and work.