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Young artist makes her mark all over Columbia, unveils head-turning Main Street mural

Ija Charles' newest mural in downtown Columbia commemorates the Black Business District that occupied parts of Washington St. in the early 20th century

A little boy, no more than 3 or 4 years old, craned his neck up at the 300-foot wall where Ija Charles floated above the ground, working her magic with paint. Standing beside his mother, he called up, “Ma’am, you’re a superhero!”

When Charles lowered herself from her rented cherry picker, she said, the boy’s mother told her, “I’m so happy you’re creating things like this, because I was so afraid my little boy wouldn’t have things like this to look up to in South Carolina.”

Beside them stretched some 180,000 square feet of vertical concrete bearing Charles’ latest masterpiece, a homage to downtown Columbia’s long-gone historic Black business district. A vibrant parade of people, seemingly plucked straight from Main Street, filled Charles’ scene, turning heads and drawing onlookers day after day as the work came to life.

To inspire little ones with big eyes and bigger imaginations, to spark joy — or nostalgia, or sadness, or hope — in whoever receives her work, “There’s not enough money in the world that could take that away,” said Charles, the 24-year-old artist who is making waves across Columbia with her vibrant murals. “I know the effect it’s having on the community, and seeing how happy people are, I feed off of joy. That’s the only thing I want with my life and my art and whatever I’m doing.”

A self-taught, self-supporting artist, Charles is quickly becoming one of the most visible creators and recognizable names in art across the capital city.

A superhero to one little boy, an inspiration to blossoming creatives in her hometown, and a young woman becoming a leader, Charles is an artist who’s “painting positive vibes on the canvas of life,” she says. And she’s making her literal mark all over Columbia.

In just a few short years, Charles went from a middle school student whose teachers bought the drawings she scribbled on tests she didn’t complete, to an ambitious entrepreneur painting commissioned murals for the state capital and beyond.

If by some chance you haven’t yet seen Charles’ latest mural on a city office building at 1401 Main St. in the heart of downtown, perhaps you’ve driven past her “Leap” banner on the outside of the Richland Library main branch on Assembly Street or her “Cayce Wonders” mural on State Street across the river. You might have paused to take in the display of her paintings while flying in or out of Columbia Metropolitan Airport, or stepped right into her full-room painting at the Immersion interactive art center on Main Street.

“She’s been popping up everywhere,” said Ashley Warthen, the arts librarian for Richland Library.

Last year, Charles was one of two artists the library selected to paint Black Lives Matter-themed murals in the wake of nationwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other injustices. Her banner depicts a young Black girl with beaded braids, arms raised in the air as she takes a leap, set against the background of a dreamy sky.

“It’s a symbol of taking risks and jumping into reality to change the narrative of how one perceives the world and how one is perceived in the world. She’s focusing on character, rather than preconceived notions,” Warthen said of Charles’ “Leap.” “That spoke to us.”

Charles’ sudden prominence in Columbia’s art scene has made her one of the few women with major visibility in the city’s public art space. She’s also a young Black woman carrying a torch for Black experience in this vibrant cultural moment, a time when long-overdue doors are finally being opened for a diversity of voices in public spaces.

“All of her themes around Black experience, or a lot of African American connections … certainly stand out in the time we are in, particularly in Columbia with our large African American population,” said Lee Snelgrove, director of One Columbia for Arts and Culture, which guides public art projects across the city. “We haven’t had a lot of women doing murals, Black women and particularly young Black women working in the public space and speaking to these themes.”Snelgrove described Charles’ Black business district mural on Main Street as “immediately iconic for downtown.”

“Because of the sheer scale of this wall, the prominence of it being right on Main Street ... I hope that this has a great effect on her career and that she is able to continue to create this kind of work at this scale that won’t necessarily be just in Columbia,” Snelgrove said. “I hope she stays here and continues to create work here but also has opportunities that take her different places and share her work with different towns, and then share the word of how Columbia supported her and continues to support her.”

Charles recently captured the attention of the NFL, which tapped her to create a piece for its national Artist Replay initiative. Her work was shared on the NFL’s social media channels and displayed at this year’s Super Bowl in Tampa.

“I feel like it’s irresponsible to create things you do not know anything about. I really create what I know, whatever that is, and my expression is bringing back the renaissance of joy through my experience, which of course is African American,” Charles said. “I’ve been put into the position where I am a leader in different movements and a leader in the art community as me, as myself. ... I don’t mind carrying that on my shoulders. I can bench press it very well.”

Ija Charles’ ”Cayce Wonders” mural on State Street in Cayce. Sarah Ellis SELLIS@THESTATE.COM

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