By Casey Rafter
Barbara Range, director of The Brickhouse Gallery and Art Complex since 2012, has called her work as the space’s curator “in service of arts to the community.” Range has an undying fire for social justice, sparked by a childhood spent in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts during the era of the mid-1960s Watts Uprising. That activism carries on today in the provocative work of local artists on display within the Brickhouse walls.
Jaya King is a Sacramento-based muralist and painter with a portfolio that boasts a diverse selection of black and white paintings, vibrant 4,600-square-foot murals and delightfully textured encaustic work. King also teaches her craft, most recently offering an online color mixing master class.
The two self-labeled Sacramento transplants met at Brickhouse Gallery to discuss their earliest experiences with the Sacramento creative community, their thoughts on a primer for fledgling artists and the scarcity of artists residencies in the region.
King: What do artists need to make success a reality?
Range: They need to really believe in themselves. They need to be seriously committed to their art. They need to be committed to the journey to get wherever it is that they need. But most of all, when an artist is coming to me, they’re looking for support. They’re looking for information: How do I frame this art? What is a contract? What do I need to look at in terms of a contract? What do I need to know? Artists statements, bios, putting together a portfolio.
Because I’ve had many artists walk in just cold with nothing, and asked me for an art exhibition. No, it doesn’t work like that. But how to prepare themselves so that when they do walk into an art gallery, they’re fully clothed, they’re not naked: I have my portfolio. I have my bio, I have my resume. But a gallery is there to support, to help sustain them, to help guide them, especially if they’re a first timer.
King: That can be so intimidating.
Range: It’s very intimidating for them. For me, the artists that come in, it’s almost like they’re my children, and you need to take care of them. You need to protect them as much as possible, but just really making sure that they’re prepared after they leave me, wherever they go.
King: I think that the business of art, which is what you touched on: the bio, the statement, knowing how to read a contract, knowing your numbers. I mean, that one was high on my list.
Range: How to price your art.
King: How to price your art and how to be reasonable with it. Know when you are at that next step where you move the decimal point over.
King: And having confidence in that. You can say, “This is why this is X and this is why this was X five years ago.” With artists who are jumping in, the resources … are not black and white [and] available — how do I do this? How do I do that? So there’s a lot of swimming. I think that resources need to be out there or, at least, newbie artists need to be educated about where to find those resources, so they can strengthen themselves.
Range: Maybe if we had more resources provided in galleries, where we’re doing artists one-on-one. … The artist has to understand that a lot of the work they have to do as well. I’m not going to shepherd you constantly all the way.
I want to make sure that any information I’m sharing with you, that you’re using it, that you’re applying it. I don’t like wasting my breath, but I love when I see an artist applying the information that you’ve shared with them and that shows through their art. That shows through the etiquette, how they address you. … Oh, I’ve created my portfolio. Oh, I’ve updated my Instagram account. Oh, I finally got a website. All those things that you need, which I know is cumbersome, but they’re needed.
King: You need to put the time in and I think that, unfortunately, there’s a lack of that — maybe it’s generational — the elbow grease that you need on your own bio and not just, you know, finding it on AI.
Range: Oh, no AI.
King: It’s like going to the gym. You’re strengthening your skill set by writing about yourself. And I know that with conversations with emerging artists, they have a hard time writing about themselves. They feel weird about it. My advice is to separate yourself from your art. Now, speaking personally … I am my art, my art is me. I take it very personally, of course. I invest 100% of myself in my art, but when you look at it as a business, you’re looking at your art as the product. You’re managing you. Write about you in that sense. Write about someone that you are working for.
Range: Yeah, because you are the product.
King: You are the product. For me, making that distinction makes it a lot easier when I have to toot my own horn. Hopefully, I’m doing it in the most appropriate way possible. But I think that a lot of folks have a hard time doing that. And that’s one way that I found success with that. I am my own manager … and my manager’s gonna be my biggest advocate.
Range: I think that comes, though, with a lot of self-confidence, self-esteem, and then people doing reflective work when you’re talking about knowing yourself. So that means that you have to do that reflective work. Really, who am I? Why am I an artist? Why am I doing art?
King: Why am I creating this piece? Is this piece for me, is this piece for exhibition, what type of exhibition, who’s the audience, what message do I want with it? That internal resonance with creating for yourself, that can easily start to cross over into your own public art practice. I find that that dance between what is going to be exhibited, whether you’re doing a piece of public art like a mural, or if you’re doing the gallery work, or if you’re exploring something else, they’re all tied together. Each of those can be an internal exploration. And I believe that leads to the evolution.
Range: Oh, most definitely. That’s what I love about art: seeing how far artists have come to understand themselves within their art. It’s a beautiful thing when you’re able to see it and recognize it. It’s awesome.
King: I want to be very distinct with the term “evolution” in the artist. Speaking for myself, I have the raccoon mentality. I’ll be excited by any little shiny thing. I love encaustic work, a little acrylic, I love abstract, I love texture, I love creating texture in acrylic or encaustic, I love working with mixed media. I’m excited about the XYZ alphabet of anything I can lay my hands on. They all cross inspire each other and within that artist, that evolution should be reflected not just in the artwork.
When you’re just, for instance, changing motifs for the sake of changing motifs that can be a successful new body of work, but when something shifts inside, that’s when it’s poignant. That’s when it’s a watershed moment and that’s where like, OK, that just leveled up. And I think … depending on who you’re looking at in the art community, you can see the inspiration changes, but there’s still a status quo with production. And then, when something just gets blown out of the water, that’s evolution — where it gets really compelling.
Range: It inspires you. It makes you smile. It makes you happy, gives you joy. … How do you feel about the Sacramento artistic community, and are you a part of it? Is it important? Is it welcoming?
King: I moved into [Oak Park in] Sacramento in 2018. I used to live 40 minutes south in a cowtown. … Coming from the Bay Area, from a very different art scene, I immediately felt welcome. I felt welcome from the first month I started working here. …
Coming into Sacramento, it felt like a small town. It felt like the art community was close. … This is the first time I’ve ever felt like I was at home in my community and that I am absolutely a part of it. In my short history through Sacramento’s art scene, I’m now doing public art, working directly with communities to create these community projects. That is life changing. … I feel so much gratitude because the trajectory really just skyrocketed.
Range: I’m a transplant. I am not a Sacramentan. I migrated from Los Angeles in 1983 to Oakland and then raised my daughter there and lived in Oakland for 15, 20 years. Coming from Los Angeles, I was exposed to a huge, beautiful art community there and that was everything — from theater, poets, authors, dance, music. In segregated ways, though, because you didn’t have a lot of African American artists in the ’70s and the ’80s who were in white galleries. They were in communities such as Baldwin Hills, the Leimert Park area and Watts. Those are areas that I grew up in, and so I saw a very rich Black art community there.
When I was in Oakland, I was only able to find one Black gallery and that was Samuel’s Gallery. This gallery was just awesome. It was amazing. It wasn’t until later, when Jerry Brown was mayor, Oakland kind of got bamboozled, thinking that you were going to have an art community, we’re going to have a business community, it was all about jobs. This is where my social activism came in. I migrate there and see that the art community is just really kind of nil.
So then I get here… . I always felt that the capitol should be the leader representing the art community. A friend said, “Barbara, this is the capital. This is a town where policies — everything that affects humans in California is done here. Nobody’s thinking about art.” And I was like, what? Why not? What do you mean? … That had to resonate with me. Policymaking and how they had to catch up. The Sacramento [Metropolitan] Arts Commission eventually started moving in the direction.
I built the relationship with the Oak Park community and communities outside of that. I grew and developed relationships with artists as well. … Once you come inside the gallery and we talk to one another and we’re talking about art and sharing our experiences, and then we’re talking about developing and growing together, that’s a whole different story for me. That’s something I can do. That’s something that I can work with. The community for me is more comfortable. Is there more that I think that could be happening within the art community?
Range: Yeah. Has the art community grown here by huge numbers? Of course it has. I’ve watched it grow. Just watching the art, just watching the artists grow. The utility boxes. More art popping up. We were considered off the grid.
King: In Oak Park?
Range: Yeah! Anything south of Midtown and downtown, you’re off the grid. But there’s a huge art community beyond that. Once they understand that, bringing art — when we’re talking about art and beautifying and edifying communities — it’s not just one particular group or one particular area. Yeah, they’re starting to move a little bit beyond, but not fast enough to the communities that I feel — and those are communities of color — that can use and want to see pretty things and want to see color. Every community wants to be beautiful. I don’t feel that anybody living in a community wants to have vacant lots and barren land and trauma and crime. I don’t think all people want to live like that. Art, for me, is a way of moving in and helping to change ideas and perceptions of communities.
King: It’s connectivity. It’s a way that the community can also have a sense of pride and ownership and empowerment over what surrounds them. … That’s something I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to help facilitate in underserved communities. I think that sense of ownership empowerment is transformational and is necessary, especially for the next generation of artists. I’m talking about the 5 year olds in elementary school — their brains are still developing — seeing that level of empowerment in their community.
Also just from an artist creating something: this individual leading this project, bringing something beautiful to fruition into an otherwise not so pretty environment. I would imagine that shapes that mind in some way that they either say to themselves, “Oh, I can do something whether it’s creative or not.” When you’re able to participate in it, that’s amazing. When you’re able to see it transform day by day, it’s a huge impact, because they can say, “Look, I can do something too. This is how I’m going to change my community. I’m going to practice art on my paper at home, so that I can do something with this, too.” That’s what is missing, has been missing in schools. So it’s not necessarily being taught. Creative thinking through art is not part of the curriculum.
Range: It should be.
King: And it should be.
What can Sacramento do to enhance this? This is something where I hope this isn’t going to sound too righteous but: Know who you’re voting for. There’s legislation that gets put through that supports public art. There are folks that you want to know where they stand on a creative platform. Do you want them in office so they can help pass this type of legislation that can help beautify communities, that can create opportunities for people where opportunities might not have been present? Because if you don’t vote, you give up any right to complain.
Range: You don’t have a voice.
King: From a community standpoint, yes, putting through these opportunities for public art or looking at vacant spaces and how can these vacant spaces be better used? Possibly for people who need studio space or creative space? You know, how do we get another Warehouse Artist Lofts and affordable housing for artists? We need more than one.
Range: Well, of course you do. I think one of the things for me you know about the Brickhouse was the art studios. We still have the least-expensive art studios in Sacramento. Studios have to be affordable for artists. So you have to remember that artists are living to work for their art and live off of your art. When you don’t have affordable housing, most artists are not even working another job. I found a lot of beginning artists — and I don’t even know how they’re doing it — not having another job.
How are you living, when you have [high] rent … and then your wages are not comparable to your cost of living? Artists are compounded with all of these issues. The Brickhouse having art studios, I was real happy about. We have art studios, where an artist can come in, it’s affordable, you can create your art, you can move in and out without restrictions. But then also to be able to have a safe environment, a peaceful environment and then harmony with the rest of your art community that is here.
King: Faith [J. McKinnie Gallery] just reopened.
Range: She started a residency program, too.
King: She’s working with The Gallery by We Are Sacramento. … These are two galleries that are represented by artists of color and they opened up right about the same time and this is so cool.
Range: Because it’s needed.
King: This is so needed, having a gallery representation by that next generation. This is something that is not common, which is unfortunate.
Range: We’re starting to see what the needs are. Residencies are really important. … But artists are needing more than a year. They’re needing at least two years.
King: To create a body of work.
Range: Right. And then within that, they don’t need to worry about, “How am I going to pay for this?” … Providing the space and that space is paid for. Giving them a per diem. Whatever is needed so that they can live, because they still have to live.
King: There’s still overhead. It doesn’t go away.
Range: But thinking outside of the box or thinking in the future of what’s really needed for an art community and for artists to thrive, that’s what’s needed: residences, spaces, affordable spaces, studio spaces, a support system that is going to help sustain the future emerging artist and beyond.
King: Some people create well with others; other people need solo space. Solitude. I have transitioned from painting well with others to I need just me and my space. And that is where my vibe is. That was a transition that kind of happened over COVID. … My way of creating shifted. I need a space where I’m not going to be interrupted. I need a space where I can just focus and I can be weird on my own and do my thing and not have to worry about someone’s music bugging me or hearing someone eat their lunch. I don’t need any of that. So having an opportunity or having a resource for emerging artists where they have a freedom to choose how they create.
I know there’s grants that are out there, and this is awesome. We need more of them. …
Range: … The concept that a lot of states and cities are developing now is redevelopment of their downtowns, and then we’re going to bring in some artists and we’re going to give them some space, which for me is exploitation. That’s just Barbara. You’re gonna make your living off of the artists that are there. It’s a selfish idea for me.
You’re giving the artists the space for a specific reason, not for the artists to literally be able to create their own work and survive. I’d love the idea if it were that, but we’re talking about creating spaces now for artists where it is to draw patrons in for different things, but not for the purity of art and the artist. … If we’re doing The Railyards down there, let’s take some of those old warehouses down there; let’s transform that and create that idea that you were just sharing, those spaces they’re ripe for that. An artists community down there, I’d love to see that. You could definitely take one of those, maybe two —
King: Sign me up.
Range: — and develop that. Then you have the Second Saturdays that we were talking about. You’re creating spaces where artists can create, but you’re also creating spaces that are drawing in community who are curious about what this new art community is.
King: Where the artists can thrive and not necessarily the building.
Range: Exactly. I’d love to see that transformation while they’re creating everything that they’re creating. I love the idea. I think that if we understand the art community and that art is in the forefront of everything it is that you do in any city, any state. It’s the messenger for communities, for the people. It’s the messenger that carries whatever that voice is, from that politician, whatever that mood is that is happening within a community. It carries that and it’s translated from that artist to that piece of art, or for that novel or book that was being created or for that piece of poetry, for a pantomime that was done in a theater or a play.
King: What themes or topics in art catch and sustain your attention?
Range: Well, definitely the one we have coming up here: the homeless issue. I was actually an organizer in Oakland, working with the homeless community, and I worked with an organization that was called the National Union of the Homeless. It was out of Philadelphia and it was founded by common beings who were homeless and decided to take things in their own hands and created a homeless union. … They had all of the issues: childcare, mental illness, education, housing, jobs. Everything that is facing the homeless community today. … Now you have a new group. You have women and children even more so, families out there, children out there, teenagers out there as well. But subjects such as this, that moves me. Art with a message is what I love because I also feel that we should be teaching with art. Art should be that tool. It’s that voice for the voiceless.
“Homeless to Heartful” is the title of this exhibit. The photographer’s name is Kachiside Madu and his photography business is called Make it Madu and his homeless program is called Solidary Saturday. I love thematic art. Another one that we did was during the Black Lives Matter movement. We literally had a casket in here that was airbrushed. That was just heart riveting. That was done by a gentleman. He goes by Airballin. … When he did the Black Lives Matter casket, it literally took my breath away.
[And] I’m always looking for solutions. I don’t want to have art, and then we don’t have solutions for the messages that we’re sharing with the community that comes through here. We do have a responsibility — individuals, I’m saying — we have a responsibility to our communities that we live in.
King: We as artists.
Range: We as artists, but we also as individuals. We have a responsibility to create the kind of community it is that you want to see and be in, I feel. Themes for me are really important in art. I think that we can have things that are beautiful and things where we don’t really have to think about anything every now and then. But sometimes we need —
King: — what’s the change? The impact on this particular show presents you not necessarily with something beautiful, but with what is the change and what change can you make individually and what is that next step after you see this type of artwork?
Range: Well, first, I do think these pieces are beautiful. Honestly, I love [Madu’s] photography. I think his photography is just so on point, so I’ve seen a lot of beauty in the images. But I think also too, for us and him sharing this exhibit with us, was for us to do something. One of the things it is for this first Friday when you’re coming in to view this exhibition is bring a donation, it can be socks, it could be some type of hygiene product, it could be a donation for food because he does do food giveaways. He asks the community that he serves: What do you need? And I thought that was absolutely beautiful. …
King: What I was describing, what you see, might not be beautiful. What might not be beautiful is the public statement. The work itself is superior, but beautifully executed work depicting something that is not beautiful. That’s intense. That’s where your wheels start to turn. Any work that does make you question things and makes you think about your place in all of it, that’s next level. This show is one that does that. It can be challenging for people to look at and I think that is the type of work that needs to be out there. Easy to look at work has its place. There’s a spectrum. What changes people, what changes communities and what changes history is putting something out there that is not necessarily easy to look at.
Range: It was the exact same thing with the Black Lives Matter exhibition. It was jarring for a lot of people. … During that time, too, we were working on an exhibit with the Crocker [Art Museum about art in activism] and we were creating peace bowls out in the back. We had Stephon Clark’s name up there. There was a hummingbird that flew in from outside. … An artist saw the hummingbird and then she rallied all of us [to go] inside the gallery. And we look up and the hummingbird has landed on the name tag for Stephon Clark. We just kind of went crazy. Of all the names that were up there, this hummingbird lands on Stephon Clark’s name. …
That was a pivotal moment for me. … Are we doing something right? Do we get the message, the few people that were here? I felt like we did. It was heartfelt. It was emotional. There’s so much I feel it is that we can do just through art for changing humanity. I’ve had some crying in here with some of the pieces. I’m studying the faces and I think the beauty for me of having the gallery is that I get to sit with the art. There’s been times where I’ve just put a little palette down here, lights are down, pillow and lie back and just feel the energy, the spirits of the art.
King: My resonance with this [current Brickhouse exhibit] is the portraiture, because I love painting portraits. When I’m doing a portrait, that is a connection with me and that portrait and I see parts of myself in the other person that I’m painting and it becomes an introspection. When I’m looking at these portraits, I’m looking at a part of myself. The connection to the creation of the portrait, viewing the portrait, that other person is some connection to a part of you that you either want to connect to, or you’re in denial connecting to, that can bring up an emotion you don’t expect.
My journey with my own portraits that I do, it’s a personal journey. That’s my pet project. That’s my Jaya project. Seeing through that lens, it’s not seeing that person, but what does that person see when they look back at me through that other side of the canvas or the other side of the panel or that other side of the photograph? What does that person see when they’re looking back at me? You could say, “I’m looking at this portrait. It’s a black-and-white portrait of a smiling man with gray stubble, he’s got a four o’clock shadow. That is what this is a portrait of.” If it’s a good portrait, I feel: Who am I to that person? I think that is what good art does.
King: When you are presented with something and it’s not the art but it’s the mirror.
King: That’s what’s life-changing.
Range: That’s evolution.
King: That’s evolutionary. I think that one roadblock that artists, whatever spectrum they’re on, there is a block as to what do you put out there? And what do people want to see? And what will sell? In my opinion, it’s not necessarily about the selling.
King: It’s about this transformation. Artists who are either discouraged because they put something out there that is from the heart or it is a transformational work, but it doesn’t sell, that can be extremely discouraging. … I would just say to an emerging artist [who] has a message to say with their work, whether or not John Q Public is going to understand it or not … put that message out there. Speak what you need to speak and that audience will manifest and that will be your community and those will be your people and the opportunities surrounding that message will begin to cultivate and ultimately form into something that will be appropriate for what you’re doing.
When you see an artist who might be trying to fit a round peg into a square hole just to fit into what they think should be a gallery, well that’s not the gallery that you need to be in. I would encourage not shutting down your message for the sake of what you think people want to see.
Range: Exactly. That’s one thing that I share with them straight off. You have to be true to your voice and true to your art. I’m not making money off of some of the art that is in here, because art is very subjective. There have been times where I’ve not sold anything. But the priority for me, for the gallery itself, was being able to provide a space for the artists to be able to have his or her art voice shown and they have to understand in the beginning, just like you said, might not make one sale in here. But what was your mission when you created this group of work? Every artist gets an entire year to be able to create their show and all throughout that time I’m asking, “Is this the voice that you want to put forward? Is this the body of work that you’re sure you’re ready to move forward with?”
As you said, you’re building your audience. This wasn’t overnight for me. … This took work to build. This took patience to build. It wasn’t happening overnight. Now everybody knows your name, but in the beginning, it required work. It required a lot of patience to be able to build the audience that we have here or the following that we have here. …
King: Last year’s Open Studios, I turned my studio into a gallery. This one guy who was walking around looking at my work, really close-up studying, so I immediately like awesome, cool, get your nose on there, look at that texture, get it, study it. It may be different if it was one of my encaustics. Look at it, but don’t touch it, but with my acrylics just like get up in there and see the layers. He was going through each piece, looking at it, stepping back, just like what you’re describing. He ultimately sits down in the middle of my studio. I don’t know if he was looking at one particular piece or just this wall of art that I had.
That compliment is so high; that you would sit down to study this piece. That time spent in front of the art just like in the gallery, where you’re really trying to understand it from your own perspective, not what the artists want to say. But when you take time with the piece, whether it’s purchased or not I mean, that’s huge.
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.