Five Black artists talk about their lives, experiences and mediums

Five Black artists talk about their lives, experiences and mediums

Photo of Shrishti Mathew

The Capital Region is open about its love and appreciation for the arts — but does it value all art and all artists? The following artists have been here for 30 years or more, which makes their work at least in part a reflection of the area and its people. They’ve marched with Martin Luther King Jr., watched French cabaret, and seen the workings of the arts world up close.

They’ve told their stories through a variety of media — paints, photography, fabrics, ceramics and more — over the course of their respective careers. Here, they tell them in print.

Daesha Harris

Harris started her career as an artist in Saratoga Springs by photographing her family to spotlight and celebrate them. Soon, her work extended and evolved into portraits of people across the city and a visual chronicle of how gentrification was affecting its Black community.

“The thing about Saratoga’s popular history is it doesn’t include any references to its community of color, its legendary Black residents or visitors," Harris said. "This is the history that has always interested me — histories untold and those forgotten.”

Harris’ earliest mentor was her great uncle, Joseph Daniels, a self-taught artist and accomplished master painter.

“He was and still is bigger than life to me," she said. "Painting lessons at his house consisted of him patiently teaching me watercolor techniques while telling me comical family history and talking to me, a 7-year-old, about politics. Since the only real working artist I knew growing up was my uncle, I was surprised at school and college when the only artists included in the textbooks were white men and a sprinkle of women.”

This stuck with Harris: knowing firsthand that Black people and other people of color existed in every capacity that white people did, while recognizing that they were continually excluded.

“The camera gives me the power to address these exclusions, celebrate the people I want to honor and point out issues that I want to be acknowledged,” she said.

Despite being born and raised in the Capital Region and showing her work regionally since the early 2000s, Harris feels that she hasn't yet broken through to as wide an audience as she'd like to have.

“I mean, let's face it, the Capital Region is no different than the national art scene, in that white artists — particularly white male artists — are the ones who are shown” in galleries and museums, she said.

Harris has found the most support for her work in organizations or associations devoted to inclusivity, such as Albany's Black Dimensions in Art, the Bronx-based photography collective En Foco and the Center for Photography at Woodstock. "They've historically created spaces and opportunities for artists of color where there was none," she said.

She said that while the racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd last spring brought the spotlight to Black artists, she wants to emphasize the diversity of Black art.

“There's no one kind of Black art. I think people just call art made by Black people 'Black art,'” she said. “Black art, ... in this country at least, has always been (recognized in) in phases. ... For example, the Harlem Renaissance. And now I think it's going through a similar phase in that people are starting to reckon with how it's been excluded purposely. And there's definitely been great strides starting to be able to rectify that. But the work that needs to be done is 400 years’ worth of undoing.”

Marcus Anderson

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Anderson grew up in the Capital Region. Except for his college years, Anderson has lived most of his life in Albany. While being a Black family in the region wasn’t an issue, being one of the few Black illustrators was.

“I was looking for other visual artists, and I wasn't as connected with them," Anderson said. "But over time, I found that we are here in the Capital Region, it's just that we don't always know where we all are."

Anderson said he owes his connections with the region's artists of color to his decade-long involvement with Black Dimensions in Art.

He uses his art to showcase his identity — personal experiences as well as his part in the larger story of Black people in America. Unhappy with representation in mainstream media, he hopes his art will be a step toward a more accurate depiction.

“It's not even always an intentional thing where somebody is specifically saying, ‘I'm going to mistreat this group of people.’ A lot of times it comes from just generational neglect," he said. " ... And then it's definitely been in the news in recent years, just disparities in the ways that Black communities and people are policed differently from others. I think there's still a long way to go. And that's also part of what informs my work. I do try to address some of the ways in which we still we still have a long way to go.”

Francelise Dawkins

Dawkins grew up in Paris, where her mother — from the Caribbean island of Guadalupe — was a costume designer for cabaret dancers. Dawkins studied the way she chose fabric, cut, sewed and created fabulous outfits. At the age of 10, the the family moved to England, where her mother placed her in a boarding house for the children of artists.

“I stayed there till I was 22, when I went to university,” said Dawkins. “ ... We were exposed to a lot of art: Artists would come, and we had workshops; we would always be going to museums.”

In the 1970s, Dawkins moved to the United States to attend the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis. She learned the "fusible web" technique, where a type of glue was applied to the back of fabrics, making them easier to work with. Dawkins soon made this technique one of her media, combining her skills with the artistic sense she had developed watching her mother work.

In 1987, she moved to Glens Falls, where she raised her children. Being a native of another country as well as a biracial artist wasn’t something that was problematic for Dawkins.

“I have to say that with the help of Black Dimensions in Art, and people who were motivated to really put me in the limelight, I haven't done too bad. The Post-Star always gave me attention when I was in Glens Falls,” she said of the local newspaper.

Dawkins, who also teaches French and folk dance, said her sense of the Capital Region's community is a primary influence on her work.

“I have a series, for example, where I represent people — I call it the Community Gathering series — and I'm lining up characters, you can really see people,” she said. “First of all, it's very interesting to me that people always say, ‘Oh, these are women’ — and it's not true; I'm not representing women. I'm using pieces of fabric of all shades of color. But somehow people always think it's very old-world and very African. It's interesting: People see what they want to see.”

Dawkins has experienced episodes of alienation — people have looked at her as if she doesn’t belong or stepped away from her at the grocery store. She knows that there are people who don’t understand her background or way of life. But she still has hope.

“I was in the street the other day, and my car stopped. And I'm like, 'Oh no, there’s a storm coming.' And I had to change my battery. But there was this young man that I saw with his car across the street. I say, ‘Sir, excuse me, could you give my car a jump? Do you have what it takes for that?’ And he was with his father, and these two gentlemen stayed with me for a whole hour, and then took me to the place where I could change my battery. And I didn't know them. And then I was thinking: I don't know how that happens.”

Clifford Oliver

Originally from the Bronx, Oliver moved to Troy in 1988 to take a photography position with the New York state Bureau of Historic Sites. Along with his commercial work, he began to use photography as a medium of art and expression, eventually earning himself a seat on the board of the Saratoga County Arts Council. Falling in love with the charms of the region's rural areas, Oliver settled in Greenwich in 1990 and hasn’t moved since.

“There's not many Black people here at all," Oliver said. "And yet ... there's a racial awareness, a vigil held in the town park every Saturday at noon. ...  It's all white people. It really makes me feel quite optimistic."

As an artist, however, Oliver feels that the arts have a long way to go — not in terms of art itself, but in terms of appreciation and support.

“I think arts in general kind of protect Black people," he said. "The world of art definitely has its Americanisms, too, you know. I don't think anyone's immune or totally protected from racism; it's part of our makeup, it's part of America. I don't dwell on it. I just deal with it.

“If art were given more value, I think a lot of things correct itself — like racism, like social inequality. You know, art is so subjective, but so are people. And if you can be open to art in all its different forms, you can be open to people in all their different forms."

Miki Conn

Conn's family moved to Delmar from Alaska when she was in middle school. She said they were the first Black family in the suburb.

“It was not the greatest experience," she said. "This was in 1957, and to put it mildly we were not welcomed with open arms."

During her freshman year at Howard University, Conn joined the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. It was also where she met her husband; after graduating, the couple moved to Kenya. They lived in the sprawling city of Nairobi, as well as in a farming community in the bush.

In 1986, the couple moved to Conn's childhood home. Coming back, she said, provided some interesting surprises.

The neighbors on one side of her parents' house had not spoken to them three decades earlier, "and in fact were very harassing, calling the police if my father's car tire was an inch over the end of our driveway,” she said. “So when we came back, to my shock, I saw the father, older, but he had a little brown boy by the hand and was taking him for a walk and was very tender with him. And at another time, I ran into him in the supermarket, and I said, ‘Who was that little boy you were with?’ And he said, 'Oh, that's my grandson.' And I thought that he learned by having a brown grandchild, that the things he had assumed were not true.”

Conn works as a multidisciplinary artist, using media like paint, woodcuts, pen-and-ink and colored pencil. Much of her work is depictions of Black life and artifacts.

The reception of her work, she feels, has been mixed.

“When I first came to the area as an adult, I found that people felt that — when I say 'people,' I meant white people — my art was for people of color, but not for them,” Conn said. “And so there was maybe an academic interest, but not something that they would want in their house, or to own.”

But she found a lot of support from within the Black community. Conn noticed that they were interested in realism, as opposed to abstract images. She also felt that Black people had a need and a desire to see themselves portrayed in a positive way.

“And that's what I did.”