Susan Goines: In ArtCenter’s 90-year history, only 300 Black alumni — how does that make you feel?
Elizabeth Gray Bayne (MFA '11 Film): I was surprised that the school was that old. But when I really thought about it, it made sense. There’s not a lot of marketing in the Black community about ArtCenter. I didn’t know about the school. I’d never heard of it.
SG: Do you think it is a good thing or a bad thing?
EB: I felt like it was a good number considering how few people were here when I was — at least it's consistent every year. It definitely could be better. I'm a big believer in marketing. That's actually how I found my way to ArtCenter. I was working in public health for the federal government and outreach is very poor in that industry. I started getting into social marketing and understanding how advertising psychology and image-making shapes culture. I realized that Black people have really bad PR. When people come here from other countries, they have preconceived notions about who we are and what we're about. If we want to change that, we have to have more folks of color, more Black people creating those images. That's why I felt really motivated to become an artist.
SG: What do you think is the perception of art as a career choice in the Black community?
I'm from Hampton, Virginia. We have Langley Air Force Base and NASA. I grew up with science and technology being something that was pushed, especially if as a Black person you wanted to make something of yourself. Art was something that was taught in grade school; it wasn't necessarily a viable career path where I'm from.
SG: How did you find out about ArtCenter?
EB: I literally Googled a combination of terms like film, public health, PSA, design, art and communication, and by some miracle, ArtCenter popped up. I was like, "This is where I want to go."
SG: How could ArtCenter improve recruitment?
EB: When doing outreach, people just post to the places they know of already. You can't just do the typical email or social media blast because the people you're trying to reach might not be in your social network. In public health communications, we have to think a little deeper: who are the people we want to reach? Where are they and where do they receive their information? And who are the trusted voices they're going to receive that message from? We have to find people where they're at; we can't be lazy about it.
SG: Is that how you decided to be a creative? You wanted to reach more people?
EB: I took painting and illustration classes when I was a kid. When it came time for picking a major in college, people told me, "Oh, that was just a hobby." I never actually took it very seriously. I just minored in it because I knew I needed it in my life. When I was in public health, I got this really phenomenal opportunity to volunteer on a PSA program. We came to Los Angeles and I saw Joe Pika direct a PSA for us. Seeing all the people on set, the way he worked with actors and realizing that this is a health message that we’re communicating using media, I was like, " I want to be on that side of it." I'd always loved film; I'd always loved art. But I finally found a reason or justification for it. The next year I enrolled at ArtCenter.
SG: Would you say that was a hard decision for you to make?
EB: It was. There's this responsibility you have to do better than your parents, to pick a really practical field. That's what I'd done. I had a good government job and the idea that I would leave that behind to do film, specifically PSAs, I didn't know how I would make a living. But I felt really strongly that if I wanted to be able to communicate to my community, I needed to learn those skill sets.
SG: Why was communicating with certain communities important to you?
EB: In public health, I learned about racial health disparities and how African Americans and Latino Americans are disproportionately affected by diseases like cancer, chronic disease, asthma, diabetes. Not because it's genetic, but because they're not getting certain health information or equal treatment. How do I communicate that to the people who are being affected? I saw art and storytelling as a way to do that.
In ArtCenter's 90-year history there have only been approximately 300 Black alumni. Impact 90/300, a documentary by Elizabeth Gray Bayne, profiles 25 of them. This series revisits each interview from the film, originally created for ArtCenter DTLA's 90/300 Exhibition.
This [group of 300] is a legacy. Instead of thinking of it as a deficit, I was like, "This is a great club to be a part of; I look forward to expanding the membership."Elizabeth BayneDirector, Producer, Founder
ArtCenter's Commitment to Black Lives
SG: What was your first impression of ArtCenter?
EB: I remember the air smelled like flowers, like honeysuckle. There was this cool breeze coming off the mountains. I was like, "What type of utopian place is this?" Then walking into the building and the walls were blank white, like open canvases. But the student gallery was really what sold me; I knew that this was where I wanted to be.
AC: Were there many Black students?
EB: During orientation, there was one Black student in the parking lot. He saw me and was immediately relieved, and we walked to orientation together. Then during the orientation in the auditorium, there was one other Black girl across the room, and we did the nod. There weren't that many of us, but we found each other right away. We gravitated toward each other like life rafts.
SG: Did being Black affect your experience at ArtCenter in a negative way?
EB: If you had asked me that two days ago, I would've said, "I was good." There weren't a lot of people who looked like me, but I was fine. I was here to learn. In hindsight, I've realized that there probably were some experiences where I might have been treated differently that I set aside because I didn't have time to deal with them. People may have behaved inappropriately. That's the thing with being Black — you never know if it's because of you or your race.
SG: Did you have a favorite instructor?
EB: Ron Osborne. He was a breath of fresh air. For graduate film, they weren’t very hard on us. But Ron would tell you if your work wasn't strong; if he was bored in certain places. It reminded me of my coaches when I used to run track. I was like, “Finally, someone’s going to tell me the truth.” I TA-ed for Ron for as long as they let me; I still talk to him today.
SG: How about a favorite class?
EB: My favorite class was actually not a film class, it was Pauline Sanchez’s Critical Theory. One assignment really struck me: You had to pick a piece of art or photo and write something crazy, like 1,000 words on it. We really had to learn to see. When you have to write that much about one object, it makes you really start to break it down in terms of the shape, color, texture and symbology. That was a really good exercise that still helps me today.
SG: What does it mean to be a Black female artist?
EB: There are different fields of thought: There's the responsibility you have — Or is it a burden? Or a box? I feel like it's all three — as a Black artist, as an African American woman who has the opportunity to create art. I think of it as an opportunity to expand the identity of what we consider Black, what we consider Black culture, that there's no one way to be Black. I think beyond that is where the responsibility ends. After that, you can just express yourself, and create the work that speaks to you and your experience. That's what it means to me. One day, I would like it to be where it’s just, “You’re an artist and that's what you can lead with.”
SG: What words of encouragement would you have for a Black artist who wants to pursue art as a career?
EB: Don't wait for permission. If that's something you want to do, then do the research, do your homework. Make sure you're the best you can be at it; make sure you understand the craft and then go for it.
SG: What have you learned in the process of producing this project?
EB: That every single person had a very different answer. In terms of their favorite moments, their worst moments, how they define themselves as artists. But everyone believed firmly that there should be more representation. A lot of people took personal responsibility and that was surprising. I thought most people would say it's ArtCenter's fault. But I think a lot of people took responsibility, in terms of what they could do, like showcasing their work and being more visible in the community, so young people could have role models or examples. This [group of 300] is a legacy, and I'm proud to be part of it. Instead of thinking of it as a deficit, I was like, "Oh, this is a great club to be a part of and I look forward to expanding the membership."
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo credit: Everard Williams