Aysha Pennerman at the Echo Contemporary. Photographs by Isadora Pennington.

“I like to see my work as a form of empowerment; I like for my personal work to show the beauty of Black women,” said artist Aysha Pennerman from her desk in the Echo Contemporary artist studios. With a portfolio that includes graphic design, paintings, murals, and mixed media art, Pennerman uses her art to send a message of empowerment, hope, and inspiration.

Pennerman has always loved drawing and painting. She moved frequently due to her father’s Army career, with stints in Texas, New Jersey and as far away as Germany. The family eventually settled in Savannah after her father retired. 

As a young girl, she would doodle in sketchbooks while her mother did her hair. “Cartoon characters, dogs, random things, and it just exploded from there,” said Pennerman. 

Aysha Pennerman points out details of her work on display at Echo Contemporary. Photograph by Isadora Pennington.

Between art classes at school and the extracurricular art lessons her parents afforded her, she explored her creative passions. Despite an obvious love for art, being a working artist didn’t really seem like a viable career at the time. She didn’t see many other Black women artists represented in galleries and museums; the dream felt too far out of reach. 

She later enrolled at Georgia State University where she started taking graphic design classes. It was a good fit for Pennerman. She had a knack for it. 

“I started doing freelance work and became the design editor for the GSU newspaper, The Signal. I rebranded it and we started winning awards. That’s when I realized, ‘Okay, I’m pretty good at this graphic design thing.’” She went on to graduate in 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Arts. 

When Pennerman began working with the APEX Museum she took the first real step towards a career in public art. APEX Museum, Atlanta’s oldest Black History Museum, was founded in 1978 in Atlanta’s Historic Sweet Auburn District. Pennerman began creating book covers, flyers, and other design collateral for the museum’s founder Dan A. Moore, Sr. 

“He would take me around Atlanta to take pictures of public art pieces made by Black artists, and that’s kind of when the seed was planted for me with public art. I had never known that was a possibility for me.” 

Murals popped up again for Pennerman during a phase of corporate work. She began working as a designer for commercial real estate brokers, creating their presentations and promotional materials, and one of her last clients enlisted her to lead a community mural project. 

“Each year they would do a community service day and they figured out I could paint through word of mouth, so they asked me to lead this mural project,” said Pennerman.”I did it, and I enjoyed it, so the next year I did it again.” 

Pennerman’s first murals were completed on the walls of the Mary Hall Freedom House in 2017 and a men’s shelter, the Gateway Evolution Center, in 2018.

“That’s when it clicked for me that I was in the wrong place,” said Pennerman.

She recalls witnessing the expressions of those who utilized these shelters, and hearing how the murals brightened their lives. At the end of 2018 she took a leap of faith and dove full-time into art. 

“I’m really grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and I’ve seen how public art can transform lives. That has been my motivation to continue to make art.”

Pennerman pulls from her own experiences as a Black woman to inform and inspire her artwork. Black women are the main figures that appear time and again in her work, their strong silhouettes often framed – or obscured – by floral designs.

Aysha Pennerman’s work on the walls of her studio. Photograph by Isadora Pennington.

In her personal work, Pennerman has been experimenting more with adding 3D elements to her paintings. In some, a woman’s hair is given a dynamic texture with the careful application of thick paint strokes. In others, raised patterns and florals seem to beg to be touched.

“I am fascinated with the patterns and textures on us,” explained Pennerman. “Like our fingerprints. I think it’s fascinating that we are all uniquely different. No one in the world has the same fingerprint. I play around with those thoughts in my figures, using linework and patterns to play off of our uniqueness while adding a twist of nature.”

Much of Pennerman’s most impactful work is not painted in her studio. She stays busy with murals and community art projects. 

Pennerman’s tactical walk lane in the Adams Park neighborhood of Atlanta. Provided.

One such project, a temporary tactical walk lane, brought beauty alongside intentional attention to protect pedestrians in a neighborhood where there were no sidewalks. Another mural on the side of Staplehouse on Edgewood Avenue reads “Vote Like Your Children’s Future Depends On It.” The mural features portraits of her two sons and four of their neighborhood friends.

“I intentionally put six Black boys on it,” said Pennerman. “We watch them in our neighborhood. I look out for them and I feel scared for them. They are growing up in a society that views them as a threat. The power I have is through my art, so I wanted to put a message out there to encourage people to protect these Black boys.”

“The only power that I have is through my art, and so I wondered how I could put a message out there to try to attempt to protect these Black boys. One of those things that I feel could help is voting, so it’s motivating people to get out and vote, especially the Black community.”

Staplehouse mural, provided.

Pennerman has also found purpose through education. Though she never saw herself as an educator, and in fact considers herself to be an introvert who is often uncomfortable speaking in front of people, she learned how to embrace the discomfort. 

“I know it could change the path of one of these kids’ lives, because you have to see someone doing it,” said Pennerman. “I want to be able to pass on knowledge and wisdom that I’ve gained to make it better for them, to make their path a bit easier.” 

Terri’s Heart, mural by Aysha Pennerman. Provided.

She told me about one such experience when she was speaking with kids about Terri’s Heart, a mural that she recently completed on the Southside Atlanta BeltLine. The piece has deep meaning to Pennerman, who used elephants as a motif to explore the grief she feels following her beloved aunt Terri’s passing last year. 

But the kids? They wanted to know how much she got paid. 

“I respected that,” said Pennerman, laughing. “They need to know that there is money in this and that they can make art. This is not about being a starving artist. You can make a living as a working artist.”

This past spring Pennerman taught a wheatpasting class at MODA in which she encouraged the students to make works that carry a meaningful message.

“I asked them: what’s the message you want to get across in your work? What’s the message you want to amplify? What’s the story you want to tell to the world, to the community, to your class, to your peers? A lot of it has been about diversity, education, and saving the Earth. Those have been the three biggest common factors in a lot of the students I’ve been working with.”

Soon, she will complete a new mural at Echo Contemporary. The piece will feature OutKast and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop with imagery of marching bands and sunflowers.

This mural will be completed in collaboration with The Creatives Project and funded by an ELEVATE grant from the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Teachers from ARTScool, a city-based camp, will coordinate to lead workshops with students who will then assist Pennerman in the painting of the mural on the weekend of July 13 and 14. The completed mural will be unveiled on August 12 from 12-5 p.m.

In another upcoming collaboration, South Fulton Institute will provide funding for a mural that Art In The Paint has coordinated at Atlanta Heights Charter School on M.L.K. Jr. Drive. On July 8, Art In The Paint will complete a mural on the basketball court while Pennerman will work with students and families to create a new mural inside the school.

Pennerman relishes opportunities to make art with students, to encourage their creativity and encourage them to engage with the arts. 

“Our children are speaking to us, we need to listen. I think that’s a really cool thing that we can do with art, it’s like these kids are amplifying these messages to us. I hope y’all are paying attention.”

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.