Painting with Purpose: Meet Georgia Tardy

The artist has become known in the community for her contemporary Art Nouveau-style graphics, paintings and murals.
by Colony Little | photography by Terrence Jones

Underneath Georgia Tardy’s practiced hand, figurative portraits of women slowly emerge from curvilinear lines, presenting their metamorphosis as a state of “becoming.” This process of flourishing through change feels familiar to Tardy. “There’s a phase within the cocoon where a caterpillar completely liquefies before becoming a butterfly,” she says. “That speaks to me —  there are parts of me that will always remain, but other parts that will completely transform and take a new shape.” 

Tardy is known for creating graphic art, paintings and murals in a contemporary Art Nouveau style in her Raleigh studio. Her subjects are often surrounded by colorful waves, sinewy foliage and fluid swirls. Representations of lotus flowers, koi fish and butterfly wings often pop up, too, layers of symbolism that, for Tardy, are self-referential.

In her hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Tardy took delight in drawing her favorite Sunday comic characters — Garfield, Beetle Bailey and Curtis — perfecting their lines and shapes until she could recreate them from memory. Sketching and doodling became an important part of her process. “I grew up with a mother and grandmother who always encouraged my artistic urges and whims,” she says. “I’m very grateful and I don’t take that for granted, because I know so many people whose creativity was discouraged as a child.” 

Community is a cornerstone of Tardy’s artistic career, one that prioritizes a sense of purpose. While studying graphic design at Kendall College of Art and Design in Michigan, she thrived within a diverse circle of fellow artists. After graduating, she started teaching graphic design, working for the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts and at her alma mater. But teaching often made her feel disconnected from her personal work and from the sense of community she had as a student.

She realized that in order to develop her own art practice, she’d need to cultivate a new environment for herself. “I didn’t want to be the only Black artist every time I walked in a room,” she said. “I had to be somewhere that had a rich deposit of Black, minority and female artists to help me stretch and grow.”

That desire inspired a move to Raleigh in 2016, where many of the themes around transformation that she explored in her personal work began to coalesce. Then, a series of family losses, including the passing of her father and her husband’s grandmother, dramatically changed the tenor and scope of her practice. “I had to dig deep to ask myself what I wanted to say and what I wanted my work to represent,” Tardy says. “And then my work grew because I was forced to grow.”

Tardy began to closely study the symbols she used in her work, becoming more intentional about selecting them not just for their aesthetics, but for their symbolism. The lotus, for example, is a flower that takes root in mud and muck, a plant that can withstand extreme conditions. “At first I thought, this is pretty, but the more I learned about how and where the lotus grows, it blew me away,” she says. “I realized that this imagery could speak to darkness as well as beauty.” 

Her work has also grown in scale in recent years. While she lived in Michigan, Tardy assisted established muralists to gain experience, but when she moved to Raleigh she had to start over. “There’s the technical process of how to scale your work, but you also have to know people and they need to know you in order to do that type of work,” she says. “I knew it was going to take time for me to get there.” Tardy regularly attended First Fridays, walking the galleries and studios at Artspace, to meet fellow creatives around town. 

During the downtown protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Tardy hit the streets, talking to the artists and business owners who were trying to rebuild. One of her first murals was a plywood piece she painted for Retro Modern Furnishings at its former location on Dawson Street. The piece featured a series of curved shapes framing a quote by Nina Simone: “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” “Everybody was going through such a hard time,” she says. “Even though I knew it was going to be temporary, I didn’t care.”

Since then, Tardy has created murals for the North Carolina Museum of Art, Whiskey Kitchen and Duke Hospital in Raleigh. Her piece for the hospital, Despite It All, I Will Arise, is painted along a walkway that leads to the Radiology and Oncology Department. It features a trail of swirly black lines that flow into a series of colorfully painted butterflies. They appear to flutter among flowers beneath the rays of a bright yellow sun. 

Artsuite’s Marjorie Hodges, an arts advisor to Duke Hospital, recommended Tardy for the project. “Selecting artwork for a hospital setting is very different from selecting work for a gallery or residence,” Hodges says. “Patients, families and healthcare providers are under constant stress; I was searching for an artist that would transform the entrance to the cancer center with a mural that was meaningful and hopeful.

I knew Georgia would create something beautiful in this setting.” While painting the mural, Tardy immediately felt its impact. “Patients, doctors and nurses watched the whole process unfold, and I saw people coming in for treatment on good days and horrible days,” Tardy says. “They all said the same thing: this is so needed.”

Over the month that she worked on the mural, Tardy encountered many of the same patients returning for their appointments. “One gentleman coming for treatment said, this is the highlight of my day, I look forward to coming to see what you’ve done,” Tardy says. “It meant so much to me.”

Through murals, Tardy has expanded the reach of her art, and as the community slowly emerged from the pandemic, she and her husband Reggie opened up their backyard studio for informal creative gatherings. Coined The Artist’s Lounge, the space officially opened in 2022 to host events. Tardy has also opened up the studio for classes where guests can paint objects such as ceramic flower pots, sneakers and skateboard decks. 

“I try to do unique things, things that are going to pull people in while still being able to teach,” says Tardy. “We’re learning about color relationships, composition, how to communicate your story and how to take your idea out of your brain and get it down on paper, but on fun sorts of objects.” She hopes to develop more educational opportunities that target children with limited arts access. “I’m really geared towards parents who have children that clearly demonstrate some sort of artistic desire, but don’t know what to do with it,” she says. 

For Tardy, cultivating an environment to inspire creativity is just as important as creating space to learn and be transformed by that knowledge. “I want all of my classes to have a purpose. I want to have fun and to give people the opportunity to have that creative moment, but everything for me has to have a purpose,” she says. “You’re leaving with something you didn’t have before.”

This idea of being transformed by an experience is what has guided Tardy in this phase of her artistic practice that harmonizes teaching and personal expression, while stressing the importance that creativity can play in our lives. “I realize that every person or young person that I come in contact with won’t grow up to be a professional artist; we all have our own path,” she says. “I simply want to be a part of changing the narrative of who an artist is and what an artist looks like.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.