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Brown Skin Girl: A Q&A with Lancaster artist Keisha Finnie

Keisha Finnie (Source: Provided)

Keisha Finnie’s artwork can be seen all over the city of Lancaster.

Finnie is one of the four featured artists in YWCA Lancaster’s 2023 Black Artist Waystation program. An exhibition of her art, “Brown Skin Girl: The Evolution,” is on display at the Regitz Gallery of The Ware Center through the end of the month.

Her mural work, both public and commercial, catches the eye with its vibrant use of color.

One United Lancaster recently spoke with Finnie about her journey as an artist, the visibility of Black women in art history, and how the COVID-19 pandemic propelled her into the spotlight.

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

One United Lancaster: Tell me a little about yourself.

Keisha Finnie: I’m a local artist born and raised in Lancaster. I’m self-taught. The only training that I had was in grade school. I did take a class when I was in high school at PCAD (the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design), which was actually a black and white class. I couldn’t use any color at all. It’s funny that my stuff is so colorful now, which is the total opposite.

I was finally able to make art my full time career in July of 2021. The pandemic was really great for me as an artist, despite everything else that was going on in the world. I did the George Floyd mural, which skyrocketed my career, and I’ve been super busy since then.

“Say Their Names,” Keisha Finnie, 2020. (Source: Provided)

OUL: “Say Their Names,” the mural you mentioned, came in the wake of Black Lives Matter and a surge of political activism. Do you see your art as a form of activism?

Finnie stands in front of her mural, “Say Their Names.”

Finnie: I always created art for myself. Using art for activism was never really how I thought about it. I had never protested a day in my life! But I realized, through that work, how much of an impact my art actually does have. It was really moving to see the community come together in that way, with art being at the forefront.

OUL: What do you hope viewers take away with them after seeing your art?

Finnie: “Brown Skin Girl: The Evolution” is based on Black women in the community who are doing amazing work that people might not know about. I wanted to shed light on those women. I always paint people who look like me. That’s not something that you see too much in the history of art. I just got back from the Philadelphia Museum of Art; I didn’t see too much Black art in there. That’s what I was thinking about when I was walking through — that I want someday for that to change. I want to make that stamp in history and show the strength and beauty of Black women.

OUL: Tell me about some of those women.

Finnie: A lot of the women that I painted in my exhibit have inspired me on a personal level. I painted Hawa Lassanah, who really pushes and challenges me to be my best. I painted Evita Colon, who owns A Concrete Rose, with whom I used to play basketball. Now she helps me with some of the business aspects of being an artist.

Kyonna Bowman supported me and a group of my friends from high school, encouraging us as young women to do the things that we’re all doing today.

OUL: Moving forward to the next generation, how do you hope to inspire today’s young girls and women?

Finnie: Over the last few years I’ve been doing a summer camp with the YWCA and that’s been really great. I wish I would have had that as a kid. I want to get more into School District of Lancaster schools where I was a student, talk to students, so that they can see somebody that looks like them doing what I do. I think seeing that in person makes a big difference.

OUL: How do you balance your time?

Finnie: Sometimes that means doing contract work through periods that are slower. So, I was recently doing some scenic work at Tait Towers, saving all this money so that I could paint over the winter and do my solo show. Or it could mean blocking out parts of the week for administrative work.

As an entrepreneur, you have to do everything yourself, but I can’t paint one day and then have to go do business stuff the same day. My mind would not be in the right headspace to create. It’s a balance that I haven’t perfected yet but I’m getting there.

Keisha Finnie (Source: Provided)

OUL: What is it like to exhibit in Lancaster?

Finnie: A lot of the galleries are hard for artists like me, who have no formal education, or are still making a name for themselves, to get into. That process is one I’m still learning to navigate. But having The Ware Center, which is a beautiful space close to Gallery Row, and the support they give to local artists to use that space, has been amazing. I’ve received a grant from the Lancaster Equity Fund, and I’ll be curating my own BIPOC Gallery Row show this May. I’m glad to be in a position to give back to other artists who are in the same place that I was a few years ago.

OUL: Apart from traditional exhibitions, social media have opened up a huge space for engagement with art and artists. What role has it played in your own journey?

Finnie: The first few sales that I ever made of my art were from Instagram. I was actually making sales out of state before I was really selling here in Lancaster. It’s a great way to be engaged with the audience I have, post new products, and relay information about my shows. But it is like another job that I have to keep up with, constantly putting out new posts. There’s always that little thing in your mind — if I disappear, they’ll forget about me.

OUL: How does it feel to walk around Lancaster and see your work?

Finnie: It still feels surreal to me. People say “Oh you’re famous!” But I just feel more like me. I’m thankful that people accept me for me and that they want to have my art in their establishment. It’s really cool.