Abstract artist who has worked for Nike, NBA, Maya Angelou

Artist Ya La’ford in front of one of her artworks.

Ya La’ford

Abstract artist Ya La’ford is in demand.

Her commissions — including sculpture, installations and gallery exhibitions — mean she is fully booked for the next four years.

La’ford, who is based in the artsy community of St. Petersburg, Florida, reeled off the names of current and former clients, including Nike, McLaren Racing, basketball team Orlando Magic and ski brand Rossignol during a phone call with CNBC. She’s also worked for the likes of the NFL, making commemorative gifts for team owners during the 2021 Super Bowl.

“I create site-specific installations of these bold, geometric paintings that explore these themes of transformation, transcendence and interconnectivity,” she told CNBC by phone.

“My fascination [is] how geometric patterns can create an illusion of depth and movement,” she said. La’ford works with different mediums including painting, sculpture, installations and video.

She’s also a celebrity favorite with commissions by household names, but non-disclosure agreements prevent her from speaking publicly about many of them. A photograph of La’ford with Janet Jackson is among the images on her Instagram account, captioned “Birthday love.”

“American Roots” (2021), an installation at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, by Ya La’ford.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art | Ya La’ford

“Water finds its own level,” she added — La’ford has a Master of Fine Arts from the Art Institute of Boston and a Juris Doctor from the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law.

One person she is able to talk about working for is author and activist Maya Angelou, who died in 2014. La’ford made a tapestry quilted with words from Angelou’s poetry. “She commissioned me to do a piece … when I was in Houston, and it was such an entanglement of words, poetry … and the power of love and light,” La’ford said.

“My greatest lesson that I learned from Maya was that any person who you meet should feel better about themselves and their objectives as a result. People rarely remember what you said, but they always remember how you made them feel,” La’ford told CNBC by email, recalling a quote by the author.

Artist Ya La’ford works on a piece titled “Unloaded” (2017) at the Orlando Museum of Art.

Orlando Museum of Art | Ya La’ford

Using geometry is a “universal language” she said, adding that she’s “redefining ancient civilization, connecting this present space we live in and really thinking about what happens in our future.” Travel has influenced La’ford, and she mentions the Great Wall of China, Rome’s Colosseum and Egypt’s temples as well as the people of Palenque, Colombia, who were officially freed from slavery in 1713, as monuments and cultures she’s interested in.

“I would like to think these pieces have enriching powers, or healing powers like a stone or a talisman,” La’ford said of her work, adding that many clients meditate next to her art in their homes.

“This idea that we can manipulate our space, our perspective our viewpoint, our idea to engage with humanity, and create an immersive experience that we all can share together, I think is the magic of the mark making,” she added.

A computer-generated image of a sculpture honoring the Courageous 12, a group of Black police officers who sued the city of St. Petersburg in 1965 for discrimination, designed by artist Ya La’ford.

Ya La’ford

Among her public art projects is a sculpture to honor the Courageous 12, a group of Black police officers who sued the U.S. city of St. Petersburg in 1965 for discrimination, winning the right to police in the same way as white officers.

The concrete, stainless steel and bronze sculpture will feature La’ford’s geometric lines and will be constructed on the site of the former police headquarters. “This sculpture is going to pay tribute to the bravery and resilience of those trailblazing officers,” she said, with the piece expected to be displayed early next year.

Alongside creating public art and working for corporations, La’ford has held artist’s residences in Ogden, Utah, and Jacksonville, Florida, and exhibited at the Tampa Museum of Fine Arts and the Asia Contemporary Art Show. Her work is also part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s permanent collection.

La’ford’s talent showed up early: As a child, she painted on the walls at her home in the Bronx, New York. “My mother was a second-grade teacher, and her walls became my canvas at a very early age. She let me create these epic installations. At the time, I thought I was just building a safe space for second graders to come in and feel welcome, not realizing I was … laying the foundation [for a career],” she said.

Mark Rothko’s painting “Black On Maroon” from 1958 (right) at London’s Tate Modern gallery. The work was defaced in 2012 and restored in 2014, and Ya La’ford said it is one of her favorite artworks.

Rob Stothard | Getty Images

Art is in her blood. La’ford’s grandfather is John Dunkley, who is regarded as one of Jamaica’s most important artists. Dunkley died in 1947 and a 2019 exhibition of 45 of his works at the American Folk Art Museum was called a “revelation” by The New York Times. The museum described Dunkley’s work as “landscapes defined by their distinctive dark palette and psychologically suggestive underpinnings,” on its website.

“While I was growing up, each work left me with hidden riddles that I now find can only be solved and understood with the paint I use to create my own world,” La’ford wrote of Dunkley’s work on the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s website.

Abstract expressionist artists such as Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly and James Turrell are those La’ford described herself as being “in conversation with.” One of her favorite Rothko pieces, “Black on Maroon” (1959), makes her cry, she said, “because I think there’s this moment that art can capture, that echoes through the space of time.”

Regardless of who she’s working for, La’ford said, she seeks to explore the human condition. “We’re then discovering tranquility to excitement … positive and negative: how do those live together?” she said.