QCA’s Community Outreach Coordinator-Samantha Inniss sat down with two members (Rejin Leys and Sherese Francis) of South East Queens Artist Alliance (SEQAA) to talk about how joining together as artists, sharing the same visions, living in the same place, brought them closer to the changes they wish to see in their community.
1) Samantha Inniss: How was SEQAA founded?
Rejin Leys: Four artists and myself had been in a QCA Peer Circle. We got a lot out of the experience, felt very supported professionally and got along well personally. At the end of the year we were not ready to stop meeting, but wanted to extend that support to more artists. That was the seed of the Alliance: we decided to try to develop the kinds of resources we needed that weren’t available for artists locally, while not trying to replicate what an organization can do since we don’t have a budget or a staff. Besides myself, the other co-founders are Margaret Rose Vendryes who is a painter and the Chair of the Art Department of York College; Shervone Neckles is a mixed media artist that works in arts administration at a foundation; Ify Chiejina who is a mixed media artists and art educator; and Elizabeth Velazquez who is sculptor, mixed media artist and also educator.
Sherese Francis: I, then, came along a few months later, after I met Rejin at a meeting about an arts initiative in Jamaica Queens. We felt it was important to think about what the alliance could do for writers as well. The arts initiative was to develop arts and cultures in our community but we felt it wasn’t tailored towards the artists here in SouthEast Queens, so we wanted to do the alliance together to focus more on the specific artists who are working and living here. I joined because, similar to the visual artists, I felt that literary artists here really did not have a platform to voice their needs and wants. The main Southeast Queens’ cultural community is mostly oriented towards performing arts -- dance and music. So I wanted to join other artists in the neighborhood that felt neglected and wanted a bigger platform.
Rejin Leys: And there are a number local initiatives that include arts and culture, but artists are rarely consulted in developing those plans. People who represent organizations were brought to the table, so we thought it was really important to be organized, otherwise our voices would never be heard.
2) Samantha Inniss: What would you say has been the success or challenges of forming an alliance?
Sherese Francis: I feel like people listen to us more now. When we were just individual artists and would present something to cultural organizations in the neighborhood, they would be like “Oh ok…”. They wouldn’t take us seriously because we weren’t “known” to them. So now that we are organized as a group, people are like “Ooh, who is the SouthEast Queens Artists Alliance, ooh what is that?” They want to find out more about us and find out more about what we are doing. They are more willing to hear our proposals that we offer to them because they think of us as organized.
Rejin Leys: When an opportunity comes up, they are more likely to reach out to us. Our biggest success so far was in our first year forming as an Alliance, we were awarded our first grant from QCA for our upcoming festival -(C)Art Festival Pop-Up Art in the Park, which will take place on September 1st at King Manor. That gave us a big boost, and our kickstarter also got fully funded. This all lets us know that people support what we are doing.
Sherese Francis: The other success we had was the Southeast Queens Biennial that was at York College and the Queens Central Library. Most of us had artwork shown in there and as for me I did a reading at the Chapel of the Three Sisters on the York College campus.
Rejin Leys: It was organized by No Longer Empty. A lot of us were included because when the curators asked “Who should we talk to?” we referred them to so many of the great artists we had met through organizing SEQAA. They thought it was amazing how everyone supported each other, helped spread the word, and did the research to find other people. In the past, there had been opportunities that have come up and no one knew who the artists were in the area, or someone knew one person, and there wasn’t a way to identify other people. We really needed this network.
3) Samantha Inniss: As as an alliance of artists, does that affect your process of working as individual artists when you are working in such a large group? For instance, in your last project was there a certain theme you all were working towards, did that affect individuals as you put together your pieces?
Rejin Leys: We don't currently work as a collective that collaborates on making art. For the Biennial, the curators had a concept and ideas for the show, and they did studio visits and looked at our individual work and selected from that.
Sherese Francis: But it is a chance for all of us to see each other’s work and support each other. Sometimes we get small influences from other artists in the group. For example, when I saw Shervone Neckles’ work, I liked it so much I told her that her art pieces are going to be the cover of my next poetry book. Being a part of SEQAA gives me a chance as a writer to be influenced by visual artists and vice versa.
Rejin Leys: We do have a proposal out for a group residency where we could share a studio and develop some work together. The first space we proposed it to didn't come through, so we are still shopping around for the opportunity to do that.
4) Samantha Inniss: What do you hope to achieve with SEQQA in regards to a community that is going through such major economic changes? Do you feel that arts and culture in South East Queens will be effected in a good way?
Rejin Leys: Particularly for the initiatives that talk about the need for cultural activities for all the audiences here (local residents as well as commuters and tourists), we feel it’s important to develop funding and other resources for arts and culture, not just pay lip service. We want to be a voice for that and provide an avenue for that to happen, as well as support our community and cultural institutions that are already here. I feel like the Alliance is a voice for how do we not just USE arts and culture but how do we FUND arts and culture for the neighborhood that we want. Also thinking about in a lot of neighborhoods, the arts are used for gentrification purposes. We feel that it’s important for the arts to be funded here because people in the neighborhood need cultural enrichment as well but we feel it’s really important to be thoughtful about how it happens. Just because something may seem good for us as artists we don't want to jump on every initiative that later we may realize is not good for our neighbors, so we feel it has to happen in a thoughtful way.
Sherese Francis: Yeah, our mission is to do more public art programming that is affordable for the neighborhood. So, not just for someone who has the money to access these art programs but everyday people who may not have that money can access art as well. That is part of the reason why we are doing our upcoming festival, because it will be all of our art projects engaging the entire community and it’s free.
5) Samantha Inniss: Based on your experience in SEQAA and with QCA, do you have any advice for other artists outside of your own community that want to engage with the public where they live but struggle in finding ways to do so?
Sherese Francis: I would say get to know your community. For example, I lived in Jamaica, Queens since I was two years old and didn’t know a lot about it. It wasn’t until about a few years ago I started to really explore my neighborhood, explore all of the art organizations and then I realized how much is already here. And that made me want to meet other people, network, find other artists and join together to do more here.
Rejin Leys: I would also say support each other. This is our shared interest…to support each other and to help each other to achieve our professional goals. In making your work and sharing your work, you need to be supported so you can provide what you do for the community. If you’re not supported, then there is nothing you can give for the audience. This is really how we started…by supporting each other. We expanded that to our Facebook group to share opportunities, share advice…if we help people to take their career to the next level then that would bring more attention to where we live and bring more resources. If we are not professionally prepared to go after the opportunities, all the resources will go to other places outside of our community. We need to support each other to get our work done, bring those resources here, as well as share—if your profile goes national, that reflects on the neighborhood too!