My conversation with Shaina McCoy happened about a week after Father’s Day. I had spent that previous Sunday morning going through old pictures, aiming to find that idyllic shot of my dad for an Instagram story commemorating the yearly occasion. It turned out to be the perfect way to prepare for our interview. A 1990’s kid like McCoy, my family photos are a collection of faded polaroids and wallet-size portrait studio shots. There’s lots of feathered bangs, GAP hoodies, and overalls, reminiscent of a time when these portraits were the art that tightly lined the crannies of our living room walls. And, if you’ve visited your parents recently, this fact likely still holds true.
These snapshots are the catalyst for McCoy’s colorful, charming portraits, which feature memories from her own family’s photo albums. With thick dollops, richly textured, she caresses Black familial intimacy in moments that are beyond tender. Immersed in her work, I’m transported to Saturday get-togethers with my own family… when Pac fades to Stevie and the cigarettes burn slow.
McCoy’s subjects eschew distinct facial features, an invitation to reminisce in the felicity of memory. It doesn’t take long before these dreamy portraits begin to mutate before your eyes, transforming her family’s portraits into reflections of one’s own, prompting the urge to pull out old photo albums and dive head first into nostalgia.
Shaquille Heath: How are you utilizing Black girl magic to take care of yourself right now, and where are you finding your joy?
Shaina McCoy: I think it's just staying rooted with family and checking in on everyone. When everyone else is good, I'm good. Just being a part of nature… disconnecting from the internet and being more present. Definitely working out has been a huge therapeutic part of my life recently.
It's kind of a day-to-day thing, finding balance and making sure that I'm taking care of my body and having a clear mind. It's not always a priority to make art, because it's most important that I take care of my body so everything else can happen.
Speaking of… your work centers so much around your family. Thinking of this past year, so many people have had to be away from theirs. Is your family closeby, and were you able to stay connected to them?
I saw them every now and again, but I was very serious and on top of my testing, ensuring that I was in the clear before I saw anyone. Especially like my grandma, my grandpa… I did have Covid last May. And so I was being super careful around that and I stayed home. I didn't do any work. I wasn't separated from them as much as other folks were, which is a very big privilege to have.
My family lives here in Minnesota, on both sides, and so if it wasn't FaceTime, it was a phone call. If it wasn't a phone call, it was a drive by hello. I can always call up my family and say, “Hey, what's happening in this photo? What's going on? Who's that person?” And they’re always happy to share stories with me at any time. I have been blessed to be able to stay connected with them through this time.
I wondered if you typically knew who everyone in the photos you selected to paint? Or are you more like, “This is a dope picture, but who are these people?”
Ha ha, not all the time. Sometimes I gravitate towards a piece because of the way someone is holding a child or an elder. And I sometimes don't know who those people are, so I have to ask, like, “Hey, who is cousin Sean holding? What's going on there?” And I'm lucky enough that the family knows who is who. There was one time where I thought it was a cousin of mine; it’s in this piece titled Great Aunt Dorothy and Mel… and we all thought that was my cousin Mel, and then they came back to me and were like, “That’s Marlene!” I was like, oh my gosh, no! It's out there in the world already!
Ha ha, oh no! Well, it’s the essence of both of them together, right?
The genes are strong!
One of my favorite pieces is Self Portrait Number 9, which is a picture from when you were a little girl. I was wondering, what are the kinds of things that go through your mind when you paint a past self, and reflect on this little girl?
It's kind of… strange. It kind of feels like an out-of-body experience, because I look back and I say, “Oh, I want to hold that little girl!” But, that little girl is me. I mean, I know that she'd be so proud of where I'm at today.
I look at all these little self portraits, and I'm like, “Oh my gosh!” I look forward to having all these little children and little mini-me’s. It brings me back to my purpose as to why I do these things. And why I have to continue to press on with my art for my future family. You know, I want to be able for them to have everything they want and need from a parent.
It's always so fun to look back on “baby you” and to think about where you were and what you wanted. What were your aspirations growing up? Did you always want to be an artist?
From a very young age, I always had an interest in creative activities. But, growing up, I remember around the fifth grade, I wanted to be an art teacher. And then art teacher became fashion designer. Fashion designer became artist, and artist became painter, ha ha. So, it just became more defined into the area I really wanted to focus on. I remember, in high school, I was like, “Wow these art teachers are super influential to youth,” and, “If I could only spark that level into another person as an adolescent in the arts, I would love to do that!” To pass on the baton. But I realized I actually really do love painting, so let me go ahead and dive into that. I don't know if teaching in the arts can be a thing for me, but if I have a community willing to make space, I know I can always fit in there and share my knowledge to the best of my abilities.
Speaking of kids, I feel like so much of your work reflects childhood, particularly Black children. Is painting children something that was intentional, or did you discover yourself naturally drawn to the subject?
In my high school years studying art history, I always gravitated to the images of the mother and child. And then, throughout my family's history, and looking back on photos, again I saw the mother and child, like this proximity to parents just really rang true throughout the generations. I love that for our family and I wanted to be able to recreate those images of Black children… Black girl magic… Black boy joy. And also the parenthood throughout, especially because my parents were teen parents, and I hold on to that childhood.
I didn't grow up going to art museums, and I remember when I did see art, it was just never reflective of me. I love that today, and particularly in your work, these little Black kids are going to grow up and completely see themselves.
Yes, I love when the kiddos interact with the art! I was able to see that in-person during the Pandemic. I had a soft opening at the François Ghebaly Gallery in L.A., and the kiddos came through. I wouldn't let anyone else touch the pieces, but if they wanted to touch the paintings… I didn’t see a thing!
I love when they interact with the work. It means a lot to me when they can see themselves that way and realize they can be anything they want to be. You can be an artist, you can be the person in this photo that looks really cool. That’s really reassuring.
I imagine that our readers may want to hear a little bit more about your choice to not paint faces. I'm wondering if you would share more about that?
Of course! So, I went to the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Minnesota. It’s a high school for the performing arts, and they had all these different programs, from the visual arts to theater. In my junior year, we studied all the different kinds of mediums in visual arts, and in twelfth grade, you got to choose what you wanted to focus on. I chose the drawing and sculpture course, but I found myself not knowing how to use this medium. I didn't have access to oil paint and it was super expensive.
A guest studio teacher, Megan Rye, came into the classroom and said, “We're doing 30 paintings for the next three weeks.” We were like, are you nuts?! She meant these little five by seven paintings. They were for a benefit for the houseless community here in the Twin Cities, to be sold at $30 a piece. It would help a person stay in the shelter for the night and get them their necessities, and to feed them. That meant a lot to me, and it still does. I'm currently a part of the Art4Shelter committee, and we're still doing this thing.
So, at that point, I still didn't know how to paint faces. I wanted to—so bad! I could execute and draw very realistically with charcoal and graphite. But then when it came to a new medium I'd never used before… ya know, I didn't know how to clean my brushes. The colors were muddy…
There were about 12 students in that class, and every week we would put up our 10 paintings and speak about them. We were so good to each other! So kind! We would never tear each other apart, ever. But one of the class critiques—I think one of the first ones that I had were from Megan Rye and Karen Monson, who were our studio arts teachers at the time. They really enjoyed my work and Megan was like, “Continue to do this thing, it's uniquely you. It's beautiful. Even if it doesn’t have features, there’s something very angelic and refreshing about it.”
I was dang near about to cry in class! I was not confident in the work at all, because I wanted to paint realistically like my peers. You know, I wanted to be able to paint what was from a photograph and I simply couldn't. And so, to hear those words in that time was super meaningful, and they stuck with me. And so I always give my thanks to Karen and Megan for instilling that confidence in me, and I could carry on. I don't know what I would be doing today if I didn't attend the Perpich Center, or if I didn't hear those words from those two women. They believed in me when I didn't believe in myself, and I'm super glad that I had them—and I still have them!
That's so dope! It's really interesting that it was kind of kismet. And that it has this “turn a weakness into a strength” vibe. But it's not even a weakness, it’s just honing in on what makes you, you! I'm very into the universe and that it knows what's best for us before we do. And because you paint in this very specific way, it enables even more people to envision themselves in your work.
Yes! And I didn’t realize that until folks started really interacting with it. Folks would gravitate towards it and say, like, “Oh my gosh, this looks like my granddaughter! This looks like my dad!” It's really good that the community can share such language… that unknown language that I created between the viewer and the artist. I didn't know I could do that.
Your paintings look so much like ’80s and ’90s portrait studio photos. Is that what they are?
Yes, that’s exactly right! Okay, so my grandpa, his name is Steven Smith, and he’s a photographer. He loves his family and he loves the work that he does, so he’s always bringing his camera with him. So, back in the day, he used to work at… I think it was a 24-Hour Photo or something like that. When he was out taking his pictures, he was getting them developed the same day, so we have countless albums that we share with each other. He'll bring something to me and say, “I got a new one for you!” and I'm like, “We got fresh material... Let's go!”
So, yeah, there's photos from Polaroid to long film pieces. My grandpa still has all of the negatives from his original photos. He’s provided so much material over the years. Because of his passion…. because of his eye… because of wanting to capture that moment, even if people are never ready for that photograph, he's always snapping. I'm so thankful that he was a creator, and still is a creator, and has that specific eye. We call him Pop Pop. Or Pop Pop Chicken Foot, and he’s such a goofy goober! I don't know what I would be painting if I didn't have those people behind the cameras on my mom's side, and my dad's side. But a lot of my paintings are based off of photography that he's done over the years.
I'm sure he must be so proud! Because it's not just, I'm watching my baby girl grow up and become this incredible artist, but that she's finding her inspiration because of MY own work.
Yeah, he's so happy. He definitely expresses to me that he feels blessed and he's thankful that we're able to have this kind of lifelong collaboration. I'm super thankful for that.
I get asked a lot like, “Are there any other painters in your family?” And I'm, like, no, but we have a quilter... My great grandmother was a quilter. My grandpa was a photographer. My great grandmother and her children were all crocheters. So we’re all very tactile. Yeah, and my dad’s a barber, so he's got the eye for detail. Sometimes I find myself holding a paintbrush like clippers. It's just really funny. I'll be doing the lineup.
In my head I'm singing the Sly song, “It's a family affair.” So much creativity in your genes.
Ha ha, yes!