By Katerina Graziosi
Faith J. McKinnie and Gerry “GOS” Simpson laugh often and easily throughout a recent Zoom conversation. They have been friends since 2019 and though discussing the systemic barriers and challenges faced by Sacramento Black artists and creatives, they remain hopeful for equitable change to create more opportunities for artists of color.
McKinnie, who grew up in South Sacramento, is the founder and director of Black Artist Foundry and is dedicated to centering and elevating Black artists through her work as a curator, writer and cultural organizer. She is the recipient of a number of awards including the Sacramento Bee and Nehemiah Emerging Leadership Program’s 2022 Top 25 Black Change Maker Award. With the support of donors, BAF recently announced a new artist-in-residence program with more details to come July 1.
Simpson, an abstract artist who works under his nom de plume “GOS,” grew up on the East Coast. He came to Sacramento in 1999 and has been creating art ever since. Simpson was a 2018 inaugural Iris Awards winner and his work has shown in a number of venues including the Crocker Art Museum, the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum and The Brick House Gallery & Art Complex. His forthcoming show, “Everyone Is Invited,” is set for Aug. 12 at Old Soul Co.’s The Alley.
Guided by a few questions provided by a reporter, McKinnie and Simpson discussed their experiences as Black artists living and creating in California’s capital. Below is a condensed version of their conversation.
McKinnie: Tell me about successes you’ve achieved and what made them meaningful to you?
Simpson: Well, my whole art career has been a success to me because that wasn’t my intention. I came to Sacramento as a stylist for Nordstrom. I had been a fashion designer in the Bay Area, had been doing fashion shows. I owned my own modeling and acting school. … But I didn’t intend to be an artist when I came here. I got into art because I was bored and I needed to know what people were doing. Art is what they were doing.
McKinnie: What year was that?
Simpson: I moved to Sacramento in 1999. I did my first show in 2000. … I’m a self-taught artist so I painted what I felt. I had a person come up to me once and say to me, “You don’t divide your canvas properly.” And I’m thinking first of all, who are you? Second of all, I don’t know anything about that so I’m just gonna keep on painting.
McKinnie: I love that you said that, because it makes me think of Black artists as I think back to the history, especially Black American art. We’ve always been innovative because we didn’t have that very formal training. Like you said, in thirds and do these things and perspective. As Black artists, we definitely show up and show out in that regard and in fashion and all these things because we have no limits.
Simpson: I don’t have an edge. I don’t have a stopping point. I’ve been able to do what I do because I got a lot of nerve.
McKinnie: For mine, the success is probably [Faith J. McKinnie] Gallery and being able to have a physical space. [The gallery closed in April 2022.] I feel like I’ve always done this work and kind of saying, ‘Hey, these are the artists.’ But once I had a gallery space, I could educate but also I could give visibility to things like [through] Second Saturday and every Friday people knew to come to the gallery. So I think that was something that was really [successful].
Simpson: Because it made people know that it was possible! What you did is still rare in Sacramento — to be Black and have a space where you can do your thing. So my hat’s off to you for being somebody that brought something here and it’s not about the fact that it’s no longer here, it’s the fact that you did it.
McKinnie: I look around and I see what’s being shown, I see who has space and I’m like, gosh, now we’re going backwards almost. We’ve lost more spaces than we’ve gained. And I worry about the future of Sacramento if we don’t get our spaces back to be able to help the narrative and say, ‘No, this is what you should be looking at, these are the shows that are relevant.’
Simpson: My [upcoming] show is at Old Soul for one reason: There’s a lack of places to show art. Today as an artist in Sacramento, you have to be creative in finding spaces for your art to show. Be it a restaurant, a hair salon, whatever. You have to find places that will be willing to show your work.
McKinnie: Absolutely. I’m looking at the question [related to challenges] — that’s definitely the major challenge, is having space. … We’re even limited in how you can even create work to sell it.
Simpson: When I got to Sacramento, there were no collectives. I couldn’t find the Black artists; I couldn’t find Black galleries or anything. … I just started showing wherever I could show. … That’s how I got my start.
McKinnie: And sales? Were people buying?
Simpson: People were buying my art. My first show was in a hair salon. My first show in Sacramento was in a place called KINKS [International].
McKinnie: OK, yeah, I know KINKS!
Simpson: I [was] looking for places that show art and KINKS happened to come up and Art Foundry Gallery came up. … One particular day, I decided I wanted to go see the galleries. I go to KINKS. They’re excited, oh my God, they loved my work. I go to the Art Foundry Gallery. … I walk in and I got my loose leaf binder, that’s my portfolio. I got snapshots of my work … and [this] lady said to me, “Is that your portfolio?” I said, “Yes.” She says, “Hey, have a seat. Let me look at it.” She’s looking at my portfolio and she’d never looked back up at me. She says to me, “I’m not interested in your Black issues. But I’ll take your abstracts.” This was in 2000!
I said to her, “No, thank you. Thank you.” I got up and as I’m walking out of this gallery, tears came down my eyes because I’m mad now. I’m mad. I’m trying to figure out where am I that you’re telling me this in the year 2000. And so I decided that day that I was going to be an artist that you’re going to know in Sacramento. I promise you, you’re going to know me.
McKinnie: Mhmm me and my Black issues.
Simpson: All of ‘em! Whether they’re figurative or abstract.
McKinnie: And see, that’s my issue with Sacramento: I find that people don’t want the issues, they don’t want figurative work. They [want] landscapes, very abstracted landscapes.
Simpson: Pictures of the bridge.
McKinnie: Yes, pictures of the bridge! I always think of the ceramics of cakes and ice cream cones. I remember once I had the gallery and I started talking to more and more collectors, and I was going into people’s homes like in Land Park and East Sac, and I just saw the same old artists that I would see at Elliott Fouts Gallery. And I was like, wow, that’s the gallery they’re going to but it was just so safe and so dry. And then I started presenting some work and they’re like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! So the collectors I’m getting are much younger people and a lot of them are coming from other places. From the Bay Area, they’re coming from Seattle, they’re coming from the East Coast.
Simpson: My first show at the Crocker, before the white building was built, I did a show [and] an auction in the garden. I did this piece, it was fiery! A picture of a brother with dreads that were going all over the place. I always have circles in my work but I turned the circles into globes, like pictures of the world. It was bold orange and all these colors and it was in this garden show at the Crocker.
I had never been to a real art show. I had learned from TV that you drink wine and you eat cheese and that’s what I’m supposed to do at the art show. And so I’m standing there and this guy walks up to me and says, “Are you one of the artists?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Show me your work.” And I take him to this painting with this brother with these dreads flying all over the place (both chuckling). And he said, “Let me show you mine.” He turns around and he walked me over to this pastel painting of a field and he said, “This is art.” And I just turned around and walked away.
McKinnie: Yeah, that sounds about right, still.
Simpson: It’s been crazy in Sacramento, but I’ve also had a great time at the same time. Because I’ve had to build my own world. And it’s involved everybody, which brings me to my show, “Everybody Is Invited,” because everybody has helped me get to where I’m at.
McKinnie: What do you think of Sacramento’s art/creative scene? How could it be improved?
Simpson: It can be improved by allowing more space for the art. Allowing for space for artists to come up and have places to do shows. When I first came to Sacramento, there was a lot of empty spaces in the Del Paso area. You got a lot of landlords sitting on buildings, which create eyesores. What they should do is turn them over to the artists … just to keep the building looking alive. Just to keep the neighborhood from decay.
McKinnie: And it puts money back into those artists’ hands. The city always talks about [the] creative economy and creative careers. I think of Del Paso [Boulevard], I think of K Street and there’s just all these front-street properties. I know [the city] talked about insurance but just letting the artists in there to create and display their work would be transformative.
I wish people knew also about the history of [Del Paso Boulevard], because [in the] early 2000s Second Saturdays used to be there.
Simpson: [It] originally started on Del Paso Boulevard.
McKinnie: Yes, yep, I remember that. There were a bunch of galleries down there too.
Simpson: Well, I have to be honest, the art areas have always been the areas that have been somewhat not the best areas to go to. You think about New York’s Meat[packing] District. It used to be ‘don’t you go there’ and now it’s the place to be, all the high-end shops and all the art galleries, the whole nine yards.
McKinnie: I think it starts too because it’s probably affordable and artists need somewhere that’s affordable. You know that space at 16th leading up to Del Paso Heights? There’s all those warehouses, it could be a great artist community where you can live and work and bring tourists in and shops. I just wish the city would really think about artists because that would be my answer to how could it be improved. We need more gallery space. We need more space [where] people can interact with artists and buy art.
Simpson: What I find hard about here in Sacramento, is the people, it seems like they’re afraid to let it be a city. Don’t be afraid. We need a little funk in Sacramento. Let it get a little greasy. We need to be able to be more relaxed with it. Just because you bring a restaurant to a street that doesn’t make it a hip city. You also need the people and you also need spaces that make cities happen.
McKinnie: Yeah, when the Kings went to the playoffs and I remember being on K Street, there were all these people on K Street and there was nothing. There was no music, there were no street vendors selling T-shirts, and I just think about all the other major cities I’ve been in …
Simpson: They got too many rules!
McKinnie: Rules! Yep. And last time I was talking to the city about Second Saturday I was like what about amplified sound? You need people on the street that can just do a little concert and they were like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no amplified sound. You can play guitar or something but no amp.’
Simpson: It needs to be alive! I always said from the time I’ve been here, I said the city planners need to take a road trip and they need to visit all the major cities in the country and bring back all the hot pieces that they can find. … Sacramento is not a city, it’s just now trying to be a city.
McKinnie: Now you’re giving the secrets! Because I thought about this too, but I was like we should plan that and lead it and curate it and say, “These are the cities that you need to go to.” If I can give a little city lineup and [say], “Go to these places … You need to go there and then come back.” Because that’s how cities become better. I always feel like the people that add the most richness to the city have traveled.
Simpson: How are you gonna have a party if you ain’t ever been to one?
Simpson: That’s how I look at it, cities should be a party. … In that part that [we] call downtown, that they call the hub of the city, it should be jumping! And that includes art. I read an article about Sacramento being the most diverse city in the country, well show me that it’s diverse. Let me see it.
McKinnie: Living in South Sac — I mean it is very diverse —but it’s also very segregated. You have a lot of Asian population that stays in their area, you have a lot of Black folks in their areas. You might get some cross cultural, maybe some, but it’s really we’re staying over here, you’re staying over there. That to me is not really the definition of diversity.
Tell me about any moments you’ve had when you felt close to giving up on your artistic endeavors. What kept you going?
Simpson: That day, when I told you that lady told me she wasn’t interested in my Black issues. Had I been a person that had [the mindset of] OK, I’m going home and throwing away my brushes, there’d be no GOS. But what made me not give up was the fact that she said she wasn’t interested in my Black issues. … You got to fight for this because somewhere in this town, they’re not letting Black artists get through. So I had to fight.
McKinnie: I would say mine was — I didn’t feel like I was gonna give up but it was really hard — I was at Crocker during 2020 during George Floyd protests. I think this is true for so many Black people. You go into these institutions feeling like OK, I’m gonna come in there and fix it and then you get in there and you realize that there are hundreds of years at play that are gonna block even the most well-intentioned Black people. [They’re] still stuck in their ways. And then the protests happened and then it sent me into this like, oh, wow, I’m almost this puppet. I completely felt like a token, like going out and talking to the Black community, doing the pop ups, but we’re not interested in talking about Black Lives Matter or George Floyd.
Simpson: We’re not interested in your Black issues!
McKinnie: We’re not interested in your Black issues. And the thing that did it was when they just released that gray square saying, “We stand with the community.” And I was just like ugh! I told [them] I was like in good faith I can’t continue — because I was a community engagement manager — I can’t continue to go out into the community and I see what you guys are doing and talking about. …
And a lot of people did leave the museum field during that time because I think so many Black folks realized like, oh, wow, we’re in here spinning our wheels for a place that really doesn’t give a hell about our Black issues! That was the moment I realized I needed to build my own institution. … I think for so long we wanted to get in and be included in theirs instead of saying, ‘Actually, you know what? You’ve never really been looking out for us, let’s go and create our own.’ And for me that looked like creating a gallery where I can say these are Black artists that I want to feature, these are the projects I want to do. Instead of being really hand tied to what they wanted to do, which I always fought [because it] was normally during Black History Month.
Simpson: Yeah, I would work all year long but I wasn’t too interested in showing my work during Black History Month. Matter of fact, when I worked at Nordstrom, I made sure I went to work on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Mainly because that’s what he fought for, for us to have jobs. I’m a Black person in a position that nobody Black has been in before, so y’all are gonna see my Black ass today!
McKinnie: Y’all are gonna see me, yup! (laughing)
Simpson: The next day, the day after? I’m off. But that day? No.
McKinnie: Right. Right. Absolutely.
This conversation has been edited for length, clarity and flow.
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.