- photos by Keith Borgmeyer
Ladenia Cowper creates a space full of color and art.
As I walk into Ladenia Cowper’s home, I am greeted by three things: a hug, a smile, and a bright green wall full of vibrant, original oil paintings. Ladenia is an 81-year-old artist, and her home reflects her unwavering passion for creating.
Ladenia found her love for painting while moving between foster homes as a child in Kansas City. She figured it was a good way to spend much of the alone time she faced. “I just picked it up and taught myself,” Ladenia says. “Other artists may be better because they went to school, but I went to Ladenia school.”
Painting remained a creative outlet for Ladenia as she navigated through different seasons of life. In 1974, Ladenia moved to Columbia to raise her eight children — four boys and four girls. She is now a grandmother to 33 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren. She beams with pride while talking about her ever-expanding family.
“It’s a wonderful thing to have that big of a family, but I’m just glad they all don’t live here to hassle me,” Ladenia laughs. “I’m just a very blessed grandmother.”
Ladenia moved into her current home on Third Avenue in 2005, which was built in the same year she was born, 1936. “I like this old house. It’s got good bones,” Ladenia says. “When I moved in here, I decided I will never have another white wall.” Sitting in the living room, you can see that she has stuck to her word: The walls are painted purple, yellow, and green.
Ladenia’s home is not only colorful in the way it looks, but in the energy and creativity that is apparent in what’s found inside. Picasso books grace the coffee table, a few small sculptures sit on surrounding furniture, and handmade crochet purses hang on a rack close-by. The studio where she does much of her painting is located in the back of the house.
In 1981, Ladenia started selling her paintings through the Columbia Art League downtown. Although she is no longer able to move paintings back and forth, customers frequently reach out to her when they hear about her artwork through word of mouth.
Ladenia’s family, her childhood, and impactful moments are main focuses in the art she creates. African-American families seen dancing outside project housing, a memory she remembers from Kansas City, are seen in one painting; joyous fun is shown through the movement and colors. One of her most successful paintings to date was of Hurricane Katrina survivors seeking refuge, which she painted after seeing the footage on the news.
Her current ongoing project is painting all 66 grandchildren and great grandchildren on a 5-by-7 piece of plywood leftover from a home renovation. Ladenia has already painted 33 of the familiar, smiling faces.
“What makes me proud is that I can put something I think of on canvas, and if someone else will like it too and come buy it, I must be doing pretty good,” Ladenia says. She has paintings in Philadelphia, Texas, Illinois, and even Japan.
Her reasoning behind choosing what to paint is simple: “If something crosses my mind, or if it stays on my mind, I put it on canvas and see how it looks,” she says.
Although Ladenia suffers from arthritis and chronic pain, it doesn’t stop her from pursuing other hands-on hobbies like ceramics, crocheting, and sketching. She admits sometimes inspiration can be fleeting, and she knows she can’t ever force an idea or project. “You have to do your hobbies when you feel like it or it won’t turn out right. It never does,” she says.
Ladenia’s vibrancy is shown through her artwork, her home, and her warm presence. All her creations are for sale, but selling has never been more important than taking the time to create a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. “You have to do it because you love it, and that’s what I do. If they sell, fine. But if not, I’ll just continue to sit here and enjoy them myself,” Ladenia laughs.