San Diego Museum’s ‘Keepers of the Culture’ Event Honors Local Black Artists Uplifting Community

In considering how to honor the artistic and cultural work of community elders, the Board San Diego Museum of African American Art started on “Keepers of Culture” event four years ago.

“(We) really wanted to do something for these people who helped keep black culture alive in San Diego. We really try to recognize some of the alumni and we want to make sure we highlight people who have been doing their job for a long time. Those two things really guide us in terms of choices every year,” said Gaidi Finnie, the museum’s executive director.

“San Diego has changed, as far as black people are concerned. When I came here, there was black radio, there were nightclubs, there was more than one black newspaper, there were places where people went regularly. Now, depending on where you live, you might not see Black at all. We really want to… be a place where people can learn more about African American history in this area. It’s really important that we point out these people and that we point them out every year because there are more and more people who need to be recognized.

This year, “Keepers of the Culture” will take place at 5 p.m. Friday at the Quartyard in downtown San Diego. Winners include storyteller, actor and writer Alyce SmithCooper; Nathan East, jazz musician and founding member of contemporary jazz band Fourplay; visual artist and playwright Calvin Manson; and painter and sculptor Andrea Rushing. (Although this free, ticketed event is sold out, people can still donate to the museum to support its work.)

Rushing, 64, is from Chesapeake, Va., and has lived in San Diego for more than 30 years. After a few years of Navy service as an aircraft structural mechanic, painting logos and insignia on aircraft, he worked for General Dynamics and Rohr before returning to art and graduating from the San Francisco Academy of Art. He has since had his work featured at San Diego State University; California State University, San Marcos; the San Diego Museum of Art; the Michael J. Wolf Gallery; Sparks Gallery; and others. He currently teaches art to his San Diego Academy of Fine Arts at Liberty Station, and took the time to talk about his work and what it means to be honored as someone who uplifts black culture in San Diego. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: What does it mean to you to be recognized as one of the “Keepers of Culture” this year?

A: I am particularly happy with this award. I feel like my efforts have not gone unnoticed. I certainly try to uplift people of my race, but also people in general, to give them a better understanding of their place in the universe.

Q: Can you talk about what black culture has meant to you as an artist and also as an individual?

A: I was thinking about it this week. I was lucky to grow up in a community where the education system taught black history when I was a kid, so I grew up a lot more knowledgeable, unfortunately, than a lot of people. I really try to spread this knowledge and remind everyone, especially black people, of their history and their place in the world.

Q: Are there examples of your work that you can point to where you have done it? Can you tell us about your approach in the selection and the process of creating these works?

A: Without trying to be too political, I would say that for the past five or six years I have focused on the black man. I think he is the most disenfranchised in society and continues to be. I tried to paint the black male in a way that shows strength, beauty and intelligence, all things he possesses. I think the black male is, in some ways, a threatened part of the culture, of the country, and I just like to help correct that, correct some of those misunderstandings.

Q: The museum’s executive director was quoted as saying that the winners are selected each year because of how you are all leaders in expressing black culture, nurturing it, keeping it alive, expanding it and, in some cases, the fondant. How do you see your own work in this context?

A: I just try to always portray black people with positive images; this is a personal point for me. I’ve never painted black people negatively, I won’t, I don’t know why I would. That was the main thing. I always try to paint us as we are.

Q: What do you hope people take away and understand from your work?

A: I think my work is really based on just wanting people to think. I don’t want to tell people what to think, I just want them to see my work and be a starting point. A place where it triggers thinking and where they look around, see the world and try to understand each other a little better.

Q: Your website indicates that you have a deep interest in the human condition and the insights that arise from how people respond to this condition. What comes to mind when you think about what “the human condition” means?

A: Basically just being human and how we react to the world. I taught elementary school for many years, and I now teach high school (at SCY high, an Orthodox Yeshiva boys’ high school in Clairemont), and I don’t think age is the true measure of how people relate to the world around them. I came to see how you see the world, how you react to stimuli, how you see it and how you relate to it.

Teaching at my own art school, the San Diego Art Academy, gave me a better understanding of people and how they think and react. I think I have succeeded in teaching adults, certainly because I teach personality, I don’t teach in a unique way. Everyone learns in their own way and assimilates knowledge in their own way.

Q: How have you seen yourself evolve and grow as an artist over the years?

A: I try to stay a student. I think successful people in all professions and all the things you do, I think they try to stay in a student mindset and learn every day, gather information and try to improve and improve themselves. ‘to evolve. I just work every day. I consider myself pretty lucky to be able to do my life’s work, the job I chose, so I’m working really hard at it.

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