Recent visitors on Main Street might have noticed a huge mural rapidly appearing on the side of the City of Columbia building. This giant mural, by virally-appreciated artist Ija Charles, features the rich history of Columbia.
The 300-by-600 foot mural depicts the once-Black Wall Street that used to be nearby, representing a bygone era with black and white 1920s imagery. The art is cornered with colors to show modernity and people to represent those who used to be present in the community.
Charles, a 24-year-old self-starter from Columbia and Louisiana, hasn’t always been painting murals commissioned by the city.
Although she did art her entire childhood for interest and self-therapy, her career began in middle school when she started drawing on her tests. Instead of discouraging her with frustration, teachers empowered her to develop her passion. They would buy her work, and Charles said she feels that this support inspired her to pursue her talent more.
Jeff O’Shields, a long-time teacher at Charles’ high school, Westwood High School, went to see Charles' new mural on Main Street.
"For maybe a half hour, and there were five different people who walked by asking questions," O’Shields said. "I was shocked to have that many people to approach me.”
Her art has now reached beyond Columbia residents; it has touched people all over the nation.
One of the defining moments of her career was a painting she did of George Floyd and his daughter. It was a recreation of a moment during the BLM protests in the summer of 2020 between Gianna Floyd and Stephen Jackson, but instead, Charles painted with Gianna on Floyd’s shoulders.
“When I found out about all the George Floyd stuff, the first video I saw was with his little daughter talking about, ‘My daddy changed the world,’ and I broke down in tears. And I was like, ‘I got to create a painting,’’’ Charles said.
The Floyd family saw the painting and reached out to her for it, which inspired her to bring it to the Million Man March. It ended being the leading image of the march when someone asked her to embellish their truck bed with the painting. It was later mailed to her, signed by hundreds of encouraging names from the Columbia event.
All of her art stems from emotion, she said. This, in combination with her love for a heavy use of vibrant colors, scenery and uniquely fast artistic ability, represents her mission statement: “Painting positive vibes on the canvas of life, bringing life to dark rooms.”
According to her father Shawn Charles, her artistic identity can be traced back to the age of two, with her recognizable attention to facial details, colorful tones and human emotions.
“I would call it scribble scrabble," Shawn Charles said. "But it was very neatly done. The surprising part was how she paid so much detail to the eyes, expressing that she wanted to see. So it can be a vague picture, but you knew exactly what she wanted you to get from the picture about expression. She put it in the eyes and the way she structured the face."
Since then, Ija Charles has grown into a renowned artist who takes calls from the Columbia mayor and emails from the NFL.
Charles said she attributes a lot of her entrepreneurial skills to her father, a traveling medical personnel and orthopedic salesman who would do things such as give her a $5 bill and match her profit if she could resell things she bought with it.
In 2020, Charles was notably one of 16 artists worldwide to be selected by the NFL and had three days to come up with a painting for them.
“I don’t watch sports like that, so when they emailed me I thought it was spam until I joined the group call,” Charles said.
She is also in the works to illustrate the tickets for next year’s Super Bowl.
Charles has a number of other works going on in Columbia, such as her Immersion room, a mural on the bridge at Broad River Road and more.
Clarification (April 24, 2021, at 10:49 a.m.): A portion of Ija Charles' quote about joining the group call with the NFL was removed because the recording was unclear.