2021 Recipient of the Lynn and John Kearney Fellowship for Equity
At age 20, Kay Reese, an award-winning visual artist/photographer, became a Franciscan nun: coming of age in the civil rights, Vietnam, moon-landing era. She studied liberal arts at Fordham University before leaving the convent to follow her muse and studying fine art at the College of New Rochelle. After stints as Art Chair at Cathedral H.S., and Career Development Specialist at NYC’s Department of Employment, as Project Director at Parsons School of Design, and as Director of Internal Communications at the YWCA, Reese opened Design Media, a consulting firm. After the trauma of a breast removal and re-construction, and on her first attempt receiving the Bronx Council of the Arts, BRIO Award in 2000, she decided to continue her life’s journey of being an actively practicing artist.
In 1999, learning of her great, great, grandmother’s emancipation from a Georgia plantation, and witnessing the NYC police killing of Amadou Diallo an innocent African immigrant in her former Bronx neighborhood, inflamed Reese’s personal experience of racism. Her social voice, now urgently re-awakened, race became the guiding principle in her life-long commitment to exploring issues of identity, race, power, and the effect of their “accepted” social constructs and contracts. Guided by an innate curiosity, sensitivity, concern for people and for observing the human condition Reese began using photographs, objects, and collaged digital and mixed media strategies to expose and challenge prevailing oppressive social and political belief systems in American society. In 2021 Reese received a residency at Gallery Aferro in Newark NJ, her current home base. Reese exhibits and has works in private collections throughout the U.S.
Kay Reese believes most people possess unique intellectual, spiritual, and moral qualities, positive social values, and physical assets. However, the one visibly distinct physical characteristic of Black people is their hair. Specifically, its kinky texture; brilliantly designed for the exigencies of warm climates, but easily functional in colder ones. It is, notably, the oldest, most unique, flexible, and genetically advanced hair on earth. It represents who Black people are and have been for centuries. Yet, despite major contributions to humanity Black ethnic characteristics have been judged, and most consistently targeted for discrimination, abuse, rejection, and attempted holocaust by various societies and other ethnic groups.
Today, Reese’s artistic language embraces the natural texture of Black hair as a foundational artistic element within itself. It is visually transferable within her surrealist and abstract narratives as a pure entity aside from its historical relevance. But even more powerful because of it. For Reese using this texture articulates and reframes conceptual references of the Black experience. Her uncompromising viewpoint is reflected in “scenes” or active landscapes that convey their universal struggle for freedom, recognition of accomplishments and contributions to human prosperity and well-being. From the Trans-Atlantic trade to surviving in hostile cultures with forced identities reshaped by brutal supremacist regimes her narratives ironically challenge the values of both Blacks and whites. Her observations can be as raw and honest as “black coffee with no sugar.” However, Reese also “portrays” the Black spirit in its triumph over evil even though embracing it might ensure its survival. Her abstract and/or surreal portrayals of Black life and history tell their objective story yet are nonetheless evocative; eliciting emotional response which she believes is the purpose and value of art. Reese’s work is meant to be seen and experienced emotionally which she believes is the key to human understanding.