Tafy LaPlanche’s pandemic hustle


LaPlanche sits in her City Market studio before ‘Shoop Shoop Shoop,’ the final image in the ‘N’um’ series

I visit the vibrant, talkative, and very savvy Tafy LaPlanche (American, b.1991) in her spacious upstairs studio in Savannah’s City Market Art Center. (Tafy is an abbreviation for Tiffany; her mom loved the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s and knew her daughter would be a beautiful jewel.) We meet to discuss her prestigious acceptance as the Jepson’s next Boxed In/Break Out artist. 

Having only recently begun her journey as a painter during the pandemic, this young woman’s meteoric rise in the art world is beyond impressive. Here is her story…

LaPlanche first developed her passion for portraiture during a hospital stay as a 13-year-old newly diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Given art supplies, she began making portraits of her nurses and visitors in an anime style, the only art form with which she was familiar. 

That style stuck until her mom enrolled her in a community art school in Flushing, NY where she mastered still-life and portraiture, eventually drawing from live models in pencil and charcoal. 

“That’s where I developed a love for that medium. Even today, the figure work on the large pieces for the Jepson are rendered in charcoal.”

Later, at LaGuardia, the New York public magnet high school specializing in visual and performing arts, LaPlanche began painting in oils, using color, and received the opportunity to attend a landscape painting course in Italy. Despite her Haitian father’s encouragement of the genre, landscapes had never “connected” for her, but, she thought, “maybe I’ll connect in Italy!”

She tells the story of hiking up an Italian hill and finding a field of sunflowers. She set up her box easel, and promptly, her vision started to blur. She had been stung by a bee on her eyelid. Fortuitously, an elderly Italian woman helped her, taking her to her home and placing half an onion on her eye. As the woman tended to housework and fed her chickens, LaPlanche’s vision eventually returned to normal. 

click to enlarge LaPlanche with ‘The Voodoo that do’ and ‘So well it’s a spell’ from the ‘N’um’ series.
LaPlanche with ‘The Voodoo that do’ and ‘So well it’s a spell’ from the ‘N’um’ series.

“I realized this is what I should be capturing. This moment. This woman.” Today, “Portraits are my joy,” she says, “They’re my life.”

LaPlanche subsequently double-majored in painting and photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art. 

“I got really into photojournalism, capturing people’s stories in a different medium. I loved being in the darkroom and the creative process.”   

After a brief stint in “the superficial, super-edited fashion world” where “my heart just died,” she returned to photojournalism, and began a career as a Delta flight attendant to help fund international photo shoots. 

Eventually though, she carried her camera equipment less often and started to draw again. “I’m such a talker, I would just sit in a café, strike up a conversation with a stranger, and doodle a sketch of them, like when I was in the hospital. Even when I was on the plane, I’d doodle passengers.”

Then the pandemic hit. Airlines shut down and LaPlanche rented a small studio in New York and returned to painting. 

“That is where the ‘Las Frutas’ series began,” she says, “I had never created anything like that before.” In a striking series of eight portraits, each of her subjects is surrounded by vibrantly colored, almost graphic representations of tropical fruit. “When I did the first painting, it was during a time when I was reconnecting with my dad’s side of the family. I was trying to find my place within that Haitian culture. The one thing that reminded me of my background was the tropical fruits - guavas reminded me of Puerto Rica and mangoes reminded me of Haiti. I knew I wanted to incorporate tropical fruits into the paintings.”

LaPlanche recalls, “I was learning to be an artist during a pandemic and thought if I could find a social media influencer, it would help me build an audience. I found a Congolese model on Instagram who became the muse for my second painting. I asked her what fruit she’d like in the background, and she chose her native pawpaw fruit which represents prosperity.” 

She began to seek out people with of Caribbean descent on social media as, “at the end of the day, I wanted them to still represent me. I’d get to know them during our video-chat sketching sessions and ask them what fruit reminded them of home.”

click to enlarge The seal on the back of a painting made from dust blessed by Voodoo priestesses.
The seal on the back of a painting made from dust blessed by Voodoo priestesses.

Creating during COVID, LaPlanche hustled to get her art seen. She submitted work to anything and everything, even if there wasn’t an open call… She directly solicited and contacted art directors of magazines of publications she was drawn to and engaged them in conversations about what they were drawn to… She created a network of other artists who could share information through chatrooms via the Clubhouse app… She gradually built a network while learning tactics to get her work noticed. 

And then, “Things really took off.”

LaPlanche was accepted into Saatchi Art’s prestigious “The Other Art Fair” in Chicago, the leading artist Fair to discover emerging artistic talent. 

“I made a logo, business cards, built a website, got the smallest booth possible and decorated it with gold leaf decals. Before I even got to the show, I reached out to all the media partners and show sponsors and invited them to stop by my booth for a gift.”

The hustle paid off. She sold six of the seven ’Las Frutas” paintings and an NFT - “The exclusive, secret one in the series.” A multi-page spread in October 2021 AfroStyle Magazine quickly followed, and one of the show’s sponsors, the online custom-framing company Framebridge, asked her to partner with them for their Black Artists’ Print Shop that happens each February. 

“I got an exclusive print created through them. It’s a beautiful partnership. Same thing with Saatchi. Some of their curators reached out to me after the show, and I gave them an exclusive look at the next series I was working on.” Saatchi subsequently honored her as one of their “22 Artists to Watch in 2022.”

The new work LaPlanche showed Saatchi has developed into “N’um,” the series of five 5x6’ paintings she will display in the Jepson windows. “When I moved here a year ago, I saw the window exhibit at the Jepson and told myself, ‘One day I’m going to be there.’ I didn’t think it would be so soon!” Her installation proposal resonated with guest judge Hallie Ringle, the Hugh Kaul Curator of Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

“The whole idea came from me wanting to do something more focused on me. ‘Las Frutas’ was about others. I wanted something that spoke to how I related to my own culture. People would often say to me, ‘That’s that voodoo magic you do,’ and I would be taken aback as I knew nothing about voodoo.” 

Wondering what it meant to her Haitian kinfolk, she started researching. “I’ve always painted white skulls and found out that they symbolize healing. And I found out about a healing dance where the dancers carry a dark indefinable energy in the pits of their stomachs which they ultimately release through their heads.”

This spiritual energy is called n/um (pronounced numb). 

“The energy starts in the stomach and travels up the spine, When it reaches the skull there is a moment of stillness after all the intensity. It’s the instant before getting on the path of rebirth. It’s realizing that you must let go of negativity to move on and heal.”

The works juxtapose meticulous charcoal drawing with more free-flowing brushstrokes. LaPlanche explains that the skeletons painted over the charcoal drawing represent where the n/um is currently located, and the intensifying colors represent the intensifying energy as the dance progresses. 

“The important thing was that you did not see a face until the very end because I wanted viewers to feel that movement and the energy until that moment when you are forced to stay still and reflect. Which is interesting, after doing so many portraits, to have only one in this series.” 

On the back of each canvas is a seal created from red brick dust, made, and blessed by Haitian Voodoo priestesses in New Orleans. 

“I added the seal to ward off any bad energy – a little tribute to my people.”

Next up for LaPlanche is a series about Spanish Harlem “to honor my Puerto Rican side and give a nod to how I grew up in New York,” she tells me. “My maternal grandmother lived in Spanish Harlem amidst so much vandalism. It got to the point where businesses got so tired of it they hired artists to paint murals of neighborhood people who had passed away or of icons from within the community. The people depicted in the art were so respected that no one dared to touch them. Even to this day the murals are still there. I remember these graphic images and felt connected to them. Subconsciously I think they have influenced me in my last two series of work.”

 Her new series will examine poverty and wealth in New York. 

“I want to use a Tiffany blue with oxidized gold or copper foil over it to symbolize prosperity and wealth, but then have images of the local people and businesses from Spanish Harlem – the old guys playing dominos in the corner, the women with rollers in their hair while they get their groceries. If I like them enough, I may do a secondary part of the series depicting the Latin community I’ve found here in Savannah.”

Until then, catch “N/um” in the Barnard Street-facing windows of the Jepson Center as part of the Boxed In/Break Out exhibitions organized by Erin Dunn, the Telfair Museums’ talented curator of modern and contemporary art. The installation will be on view throughout 2022 and the artist will give an opening lecture at the Jepson, Thursday, April 28 at 6:45 pm.

Visit Tafy LaPlanche in Studio 6, upstairs in the City Market Arts Center and online at lepouf-art.com or Instagram @lepouf_art (Le Pouf, the sensational hairstyle popularized by Marie Antoinette, is similar to the pineapple style LaPlanche favors - plus she thought Le Pouf/La Planche sounded fancy!)

Commission portraits are available.

About The Author

Beth Logan

I am originally from Portrush, Northern Ireland, and emigrated to San Francisco after attending the University of Belfast. My photographer - and ex - husband brought us to Savannah, and it has been my passion to get to know and to be involved in the local art community ever since. I look forward to profiling artists,...
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