Work in Progress
Evolving with Barbara Range
Published July, 2021
Throughout my life, I’ve had to work through a lot of my anger, my hate, and my racism.
Even today, when someone walks into the Brickhouse Gallery and assumes there must be a white person in charge, puts me on guard. After realizing it’s my gallery, they’ll often ask, “so do you only show black art here?” And that fucking offends me, and I’ll explain to them that I’ve never, ever, walked into a gallery and approached the proprietors, who are white, and said, “oh, so you only show white art in here, huh?”
This serves to remind me that I’m still a work in progress.
Along the Wayward Path
I was brought up in a black middle-class family and community in Compton, California.
I was the eldest in my family, and the most rebellious. I was 10 when my mother died, becoming the caretaker for my two brothers and seven sisters. Honoring her wishes, I made sure every one of my siblings finished college.
But I didn’t do the things I was expected to do. I was supposed to get married, be a wife, and a mother. But I was none of those things. I was defiant, I guess you’d say I was the black sheep in my family, and the Watts Uprising made me realize that I was also outraged. I was very angry with my parents for not talking about it, for not sharing their feelings, and for not letting me go out and participate in it. I was furious.
Racism and politics are things I learned through my community outside my family. We would come together to have these critical conversations about movements in activism. How art and poetry were part of that; your clothing–how you dress, how you wore your hair–were all part of that.
There was also something else going on in my youth. Something that I didn’t realize was important until much later. There was a white man who walked along the railroad tracks, picking up seemingly random objects to use in the creation of the Watts Towers.
There were few whites in Watts at the time, and when you don’t know someone or understand them, then they’re odd, they’re strange, they’re weird. What is this man doing picking up stones and pieces of broken glass? My friends and I would make fun of him, though I also recognized that there was also something magical about him. Whenever we’d go by the tower, I’d see things continually being added. The glass colors would sparkle among the rocks, and it was something of awe and beauty, yet also mysterious, something I did not understand.
Why was he doing this? What drove him to do that?
I look back on this whole experience of the Watts riots and martial law, with all the unrest and understand that at the same time, a community was coming together. A community rich in the arts, theater, and poetry, it made me realize that this man, Simon Rodia, was a gift. He led me to realize that, in the moment, you can never know why you are in that particular place at that specific time.
My parents didn’t believe you could make a living from art. They thought it’s not a real career or practical. To my parents, going to school for business was what you were supposed to do. They would never say, Barbara, this is great, yes, go out there and pursue art. That was considered very rebellious. As a result, I didn’t paint until I was 27 when I fell in love with abstract art because it was action-oriented and defiant.
I dropped out of college. You have to remember that you didn’t necessarily need your degree to get an entry-level job back then. Instead, my education came in the form of positions Ihad, the people who mentored me, and offered opportunities for me to learn and grow through working with my mentors in my chosen field of financial accounting.
I worked for savings and loan institutions, managing a lot of money. I was very good at it, they used to call me the “Cleanup Woman” because I could find money anywhere. My first job was with US Life Savings and Loan in Southern California. I managed the disbursements for contractors and developers when they completed various phases of a project.
Even when I was in corporate, I was very anti-corporate. I had a nose ring and wore a very short natural and was never one to bite my tongue about anything. One of my mentors was a terrific woman, she taught me everything I know about the business and how to assert myself with the white males in the industry. She never tried to take away my personality or the fire in me. She encouraged me to keep it and showed me how to use it, how to wield it when it was needed.
At one point, I gave up a good position when I met this dancer from Senegal. He was a master drummer and dancer, and he was amazing. His drumming made my spirit soar, almost like a holy-ghost effect. Anyway, I got caught up with him, helping him design the costumes for the dancers, but then I got bored, and after my minute with him, it was like, okay, well, now it’s time to go back into corporate. I saw this little tiny ad that said entertainment insurance company, Albert G. Ruben (AGR), searching for a senior accountant.
I went in for an interview and got hired that same day. My life has been that way. I think that there’s been spiritual stewardship of some kind guiding me on this path to abundant gifts. I think I’ve always had that but didn’t begin to understand and practice it until later, probably in my late forties. I believe that I wound up where I was meant to be— manifesting without realizing it.
Eventually, I realized corporate life didn’t agree with me, I found that I was compromising myself. I was compromising my life, and I remember I was home for about a month, really pondering what I was going to do next when I decided to try teaching. I thought, perhaps, I can make an impact there; so, I went back to school to get emergency credentials.
Because I approach life with the pure thought of creating change and making the impact that matters most, I felt like this was the place I was supposed to be.
Initially, I went into early childhood education, then moved into a third-grade classroom where I grew frustrated because the children did not know how to listen. I was not prepared for that. The school, in East Oakland during the early ’90s, had a very high turnover of teachers, it was during the crack epidemic and was riddled with gangs, drugs, and murder.
My 3rd-grade teaching experience made me realize the place I could make a difference was in State Pre-K and Kindergarten education. I could prepare children to listen and learn. I immediately started problem-solving outside the box because I’m not your orthodox teacher. It was like, how am I going to get my students involved? How am I going to get my parents included, as well?
I decided to spend the first two to three months acclimating the students and myself to one another. After gaining mutual respect, I’d go to work on the parents and earn their respect. I’d do this before even touching the curriculum.
I held parent meetings to garner their support and respect, which helped me to help them with their children, and help them find their community voice because they were not being heard or allowed to participate when there were issues that needed addressing.
Assessing children who had attention deficit disorders and children who had autism was vital for me in addressing the needs of all the children. There’s no way I could have done that without the parent’s support because the teaching staff, and the administrators were attacking me and my style of teaching—not jumping into the curriculum until three months into the school year.
In that time, I’d gotten the children to be able to know how to sit with one another. They were able to respect one another, hear and engage with one another, so we could have better reading circles. We could then have better lessons when we’re talking about teaching reading, writing, and math. There were also a lot of things that I did to make the curriculum relatable to the children. I brought in meditation, classical music, and reggae. I even brought in musicians to perform in our classroom and curators from the Oakland Museum to do art projects.
When children got to design a mural together, participating in that process taught them how to work together effectively. Oh, somebody wants zoo animals on this part of the building, somebody wants a garden on this part. Well, how does that look? What kinds of flowers are going to be in the garden? What types of animals are going to be in the zoo? Can you name some?
The same thing with music. Having singers and poets come to class to perform and teach the children was really beneficial. Connecting to our culture is essential, and drumming circles are another way of tapping into our history. I developed many programs to help the children find inspiration in their roots.
We also took trips to the Temescal Public Library every Wednesday, and then had the librarian visit us. So, we were able to have library visits twice a week, while other classes had none at all.
Everything I taught had a scientific and math component to it, including art. I believe that art and creative problem solving are essential to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs. An example of this is the artist Milton Bowens, and the way he can take colors and use them in proportion and intensity. Art is the connector that is key to developing a holistic experience in education. But there is a bias when we talk about STEM and especially when we talk about it in poor communities.
To counterbalance that, students fresh out of college with degrees in technology are coming back to their communities and creating independent programs. It’s like hey, you know what, education is failing our children, we need to bring them up to par through the creation of community education. This kind of programming is created as an investment in our community to empower our own.
My work is in service of the arts to the community; of working with others, whether with different organizations, groups, or individuals aligned with the core values of the Brickhouse Gallery. I believe in serving and giving voice to the community as well as giving voice to artists, and it’s also about social justice and equity for black artists and black people in America. We do that work by bringing in artists, politicians, and educators to share information and facilitate conversations that are relevant to our community.
It’s vital to work with groups that share the same ideology and purpose as I do. Those who are doing authentic work in addressing equity and racism in America while addressing racism in art.
We need to educate the community about art activism (artivism). If we look back through history, we see that art has been at the forefront of just about every social movement, not only here in America, but throughout the world.
Poets, authors, painters, dancers, and theater all play a role, and that’s artivism. It’s meant to motivate the public at the consumer level. It’s intended to provoke thought and activate an understanding that something’s not right. To create a path for people to get involved in helping create necessary change.
That’s not just with the artist, it’s with you and me as well. It comes with the community understanding how to support a movement because movements require money.
While the activist voice may sometimes be too strong for the public, artists have a responsibility to activism more so now than ever. Art affects everyone, your class or social status is irrelevant. One of the things that we were trying to share about art is where it originates. When you look at art and artists, most artists come from poor communities.
So, ask yourself, how do you determine who deserves art and who doesn’t deserve art? I’ve never understood that concept. I can walk around in communities, even here in Oak Park, and see artists everywhere. It might be with the style of their clothing or their hair. It might be in their voice, the cadence of their conversation, or it might be the way they walk.
I see art in everything, and I never see art as a representation of class, who deserves it and who doesn’t deserve it. I’ve never viewed art as a device to use as racism. For instance, our art carries the label of black art or primitive art rather than art. It’s ART!
Here, organizations market artists as a commodity. I don’t see art as a commodity. I think that separates cultural art and artists. I want to see more appreciation and recognition of African American art and the voice of African American artists without it being judged or stereotyped.
The Brickhouse Gallery
While I was still teaching in Oakland, I was introduced to a group of women who called themselves “The Grandmothers.” We were about the same age, getting ready to retire and on similar spiritual paths, asking questions like, what am I going to do? How am I going to live my best life in this journey of becoming an elder? What is my purpose?
Some of this group grew up in Sacramento. Some had very prominent parents. Some worked for the State of California, in healthcare, while others were writers, and we were all trying to discover our purpose. Ultimately one person said okay, we want to work in the arts, and we know we want to work with children, but we need a space. So, a member of our group was sent out to find a space and comes across the Brickhouse.
The next thing I knew, I’m here, standing outside this building that was initially built in 1924 for the Sirocco Sheet Metal Works Factory. I’m looking up at the awning, with a big smile on my face, I was like, “oh, my God, this place is fantastic!”
We prayed and spent almost a year manifesting on this space before we even stepped into the studio. Sometime after we moved in, David DeCamilla, the Brickhouse Gallery founder, approached me with the idea to curate an art exhibition for Juneteenth. That was scary because I didn’t know any of the artists in Sacramento… yet. Fortunately, there was a woman in our group that had a friend whose husband was an artist, Gerry Otis Simpson, known as GOS, who helped with introductions to the black art community in Sacramento.
I found the first two years here very challenging, very hard, and then after that, I began acclimating myself to the community, learning how to communicate and work with my neighbors. With the support of my spiritual group, who, with their love and prayers, gave me the conviction that I could do this work.
Oak Park is an active and robust community. I guess it’s because this space can’t exist without the support and understanding of other groups and people that represent the broader community outside of the gallery.
I’ve had very few bad experiences, but they opened my eyes to racism in art. Racism is here because we, in America, haven’t learned how to embrace our cultural differences. Or even admit to the atrocities that happened as the result of slavery.
With that said, I appreciate this community. The patrons who understand that the different exhibitions, and our various activities and events, make this a house of education through art and social justice work through art.
Gentrification is an ugly word to describe the influx of wealth and the displacement it causes. The main reason gentrification washes away the existing community is because the incoming population does not necessarily understand the importance or relevance of local history.
With the influx of newcomers to Oak Park, the original community is losing its leverage because it can’t financially support the new businesses coming in to meet the needs of the new residents. The new residents are often young and have the means and longevity to sustain our evolving community.
I’m not against change, and I’m not afraid of change. What concerns me is when change comes in and erases the experience of historical value to a community of color. Small African American Churches were part of the historical fabric defining this community, and the city would often complain about them not paying taxes, ignoring the intrinsic value they bring.
As that community fades into the background, it becomes invisible, much like the community of color we have in Oak Park that you don’t see during the day. What you see is the white joggers or the moms with baby carriages.
Mom and dad with the kid in the wagon, or walking the dogs is all good. But the integration of the rest of the community is missing. Without helping the original residents integrate into this emerging community, they fade into the background. They get lost, and when that community gets lost, tension begins to rise. You start getting friction, and friction erodes and divides a community. The original residents, because of economics, lose their voice in the public decision-making process. Even though they want and deserve good schools, clean streets, and beautiful retail spaces along with events that represent their culture.
Inclusion, I hate that word. It’s overused: community inclusion, equity inclusion, diversity inclusion. It’s used but not being exercised in a way that it should, and, if we’re going to use these terms, we need to be accountable.
Take our homeless community—them, they, those, the others—a community stigmatized because they live on the street.
And why do they live on the street? What happened in their lives to cause them to live in that way? And where do they go when there’s no place to house them? They are homeless. So, where do they go? They go where they can find shelter. That might be outdoors, it might be under a freeway underpass, on a riverbed, or it might be behind a warehouse, it might be where you live, look around.
A voiceless community attacked for the way they live. Well, when there are no toilets, there’s no place for them to wash and bathe, they take care of that wherever they can. Are we trying to solve the problem of homelessness? I began to work in that community in the early ’80s and looking back at 30 going on 40 years, I see no real accomplishments.
Yes, there has been progressive work done by the founder of a non-profit homeless union. He organized the homeless community as unions like the AFL-CIO, they learned how to organize with the help of existing unions, owning their buildings, and governing themselves.
That gave them a voice, but at the same time proved to be too progressive because we always need to have oppressed people in America. That’s how capitalism works, that’s how it functions, and this impacts us on so many levels. It doesn’t matter where you were born; I’ve met people within the homeless community that came from very well-to-do families, and highly educated.
The common thread is that something has happened in their lives that caused this situation. And we don’t have the appropriate services, like therapeutic healing services, to help when someone falls into whatever depression or mental panic that comes into their lives.
How are we going to be productive when you start taking away things that support people in our country? How are we going to be whole? How are we going to be healthy if we don’t have the tools and the necessary resources that acknowledge and help the working-class people who create wealth for others?
There can be no institution in the United States of America without the worker. And the worker doesn’t have the power that it once had. When I was brought up, it was the unions who gave people a voice and the support they needed to establish the middle class with the ability to support their families.
It’s important to remember that any movement of change has included artists. Artists have helped overthrow whatever it was that was condemning and controlling the thoughts and the voice of humanity.
I’ve worked with organizations dealing with working on mental illness, organizations that work on health in communities of color, and the politics of providing health coverage, and health education.I worked with Bay Area Women Against Rape, overseeing the teen adolescent TAAP program, empowering and creating change through working with the gay, lesbian, and transgender community. We’d teach about protecting yourself against AIDS and HIV while also working with the gay and lesbian community to combat sexual abuse. I wore a beeper and was on call 24/7. There was always some pressing issue to resolve, or a trauma that had me running out to hospital emergency rooms to be somebody’s advocate. Or if someone just needed to talk, I was there to listen.
I’m still connected with those organizations because, for me, art is about humanity. It’s how I reflect on my work outside of curating art exhibitions and community conversations.
Collectives come with their own challenges. There’s a hierarchy to the decision-making that can become very dictatorial. There comes a time when we have to let go of our egos. That’s hard for an artist because ego also provides the confidence you need to produce art.
I also believe that there is a humility that comes with being an artist, especially when you’re an artist of social justice. There’s a balance you need to find when you’re representing the voice of the people. We need to create with ego AND humility because you need to be present all the time.
You have to check yourself all the time. And so even within a collective, there is a hierarchy. For me, that’s ego. How do we begin to understand the ego and the purpose of the ego? How do we begin to understand humility, and how those go hand in hand with one another? How do we balance the two to move forward as a collective?
More importantly, how does an organization come together to create a voice and a sustainable economic base for its members to develop their art? It’s hard.
Creative Edge Plan
It’s too early to say if the Creative Edge plan will succeed. Especially when the vast artistic community is underrepresented, there are concerns about equity, that there wasn’t a diverse representation at those planning meetings.
I started going to those meetings and hearing the same thing over and over. It felt like decisions were preordained within the committees. The artists, who are out working in the communities are not at these meetings because they’re not really given a voice. They can’t express an opinion because they’re being talked at and not heard. Also, I’m still not seeing this trickle-down effect that should be happening within the arts community, so a lot of artists I’ve met are leaving Sacramento and going elsewhere to create art.
Advice for Artists
You need to understand that making a living from your art is challenging, even with affordable housing, just living day to day is a struggle.
I tell artists that patience is required. Putting the work in and practicing patience. I don’t know how much more I can stress that. I encourage artists to show in their community and to also show and network in other cities. You need to get outside of Sacramento. Hit Oakland, hit LA, wherever you can go. Network with artists in other cities because this is how you build credentials, while also building up your connections to artists and communities where you can show your art.
It’s for the artist to create their path. That’s inserting yourself in as many opportunities that you can; you might get turned down five, six, seven times, but you keep applying until you get a win.
The key is to do so without losing your soul. You don’t want to compromise your soul, or your artistic voice and value. The moment you think you are compromising yourself is when you stop, reevaluate, and redefine how you want to show up artistically here or anywhere else.
I feel that I am rich, and I define that richness through the experiences that I’ve had in my life and the people who imparted mentoring and wisdom. For me, this abundance is not measured in dollars. The Brickhouse Gallery contributes to this wealth because of whom I get to share it with, and who have shared themselves and their art with me. Who have shared their voices and their hearts and their souls with me. This place is abundant, and I am truly blessed. It keeps me humble, and it keeps me eager. I am ready for whatever that next level is.
I’m blessed to have wise and influential mentors in my life. Half the time, I didn’t even realize these people were imparting and sharing this information with me. I believe that whatever given to me is not mine to hold; I have a responsibility to be that for other people who cross my path. Ultimately, it is the understanding of how to be, and that’s being in my beliefs in everything I do. How do I stay authentic to that?
Sometimes it’s hard, that’s why I’m still a work in progress.