By Patanisha Alia Williams
It is my extreme honor and pleasure to share the story that I call, A Labor of Love about my village Mother, Oakland’s very own Joyce Gordon.
Her gallery, the Joyce Gordon Gallery is a Social Enterprise. It will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year. This is in Downtown Oakland, a place that has only become known for its art scene in just the last 15 years. Artists from all over the world, both famous and up and coming have exhibited at the Joyce Gordon Gallery. What has made Joyce a local Icon is a combination of her beauty, style, fabulous events, and fierce passion for community and Black people as a whole. Her gallery has been the host to many schools, non-profits, politicians and individuals with dreams of helping others. Being one of her Village Daughters, I can personally attest to the support she gives so many of us. I have a new sibling each month.
Most of the Black people in this village are either from the South or descendants of Southerners. Ms. Gordon had the unique childhood experience of moving here at the age of four from Zachery, Louisiana. She returns annually to her birthplace because it was important to her parents that she keep in touch with her roots.
She has beautiful memories of lots of family and lots of land.
Ms. Gordon recalled the train station her family arrived at, in that important move. She also remembers Harbor Homes, the first place they lived. Harbor Homes was on the land that we now know as the Port of Oakland. She and her immediate family shared an apartment with her Aunt and Uncle. They were only there a few months before moving to Albany and eventually the home she was raised in, in Berkeley.
Ms Gordon graduated from Berkeley High School. She enjoyed hanging with the artsy crowd. She would hang out, share their work, philosophies… and she loved to watch them philosophize. Not so much to participate. But at home, her room was her solace.
“I would be in my room,” she remembers when she describes these times. I recognize it as the beatnik era. It is very well possible that these are the seeds planted for her future gallery.
Ms. Gordon chose Cosmetology as her first career. This allowed her resources to provide for her two children and also space for events.
While working as a traveling hair platform artist, she finally was able to see galleries across the country. She sadly didn’t see any for Black people. She saw spaces and art but not Fine Art galleries.
“There seemed to be an invisible barrier keeping us off the wall,” she recalled. Joyce was determined to not just sell art but to make exhibiting art accessible to talented Black artists.
In a brave move, without any art management experience, Joyce opened her gallery in Downtown Oakland, at a time when there was a lot of danger and not much else around. She had a vision. Joyce wanted Black People of all walks of life to have access to fine art. She opened her doors, and her gallery has become home to so many. Now, downtown Oakland has a gallery on every block but none with as much respect.
Oakland is known for its activism and also its crime. The two actually go hand in hand. Art is a tool to heal from grief and trauma. It also is a way to pass on our stories and wisdom. Joyce Gordon Gallery is a space for artists and young people to share their crafts, organize and grow.
Joyce’s labor of love has been twofold through her business. Many have started their careers in the gallery. So many more have found love in stopping by for one of her talks, partying at an opening, or seeing her show up to support them, wherever that might be. She can be seen all over town “checkin her kids out.”
Five years ago she founded an official non-profit organization, OYAE. Which stands for Oakland Youth Art Explosion. Being Downtown, she’s gotten to know a lot of young people and always wanted to be able to offer them more than her talks. OYAE is an Art Youth Festival unlike any Oakland has ever seen. It happens the first weekend in August to coincide with Ms. Gordon’s Birthday. The blocks are blocked off and filled with youth performers on multiple stages, youth art venders and fine artists, like the sculptor Chukes, teaching children for free. OYAE also provides coats during the winter for children in need.
“There are so many festivals in Oakland, but how many are just for our babies? Most festivals have a small children’s area with jumpers and coloring. That’s not what they deserve,” says Ms. Gordon on the reason why she started her festival.
The OYAE Festival brings art workshops, youth curated art exhibits, youth vendors, mural making, roller skating and skateboarding just to name a few activities that happen that day.
Ms. Gordon’s desire is to consistently provide art training to children who would not otherwise have access.
“They don’t have to want to be an artist, to get the benefits of art,” says Ms. Gordon. It is workforce development at its finest. Young people are loved when they come to OYAE. They usually love the workshop instructor but really are most inspired by Ms. Gordon. Our children need those soft skills that come best when learned in a village space.
Ms. Gordon says she’s ready for her babies to step up. She wants to give them everything she has to offer because they are worth the investment. It is truly how to build a community… invest in the youth. I strongly believe this is a trait from her Louisiana roots. You can take the girl out the country, but you can’t take the country out the girl.
Joyce Gordon is the curating Big Momma of Oakland, and we appreciate her Labor of Love.
By Patanisha Alia Williams
Patanisha Alia Williams was raised in Oakland, CA. She is the co-founder of the creative enterprise Pata Ali Love Club. She is a cultural curator, photographer and beloved urban art fairy. Through the Love Club, Patanisha collaborates across business, art and government sectors to promote Love as a culture. Her programming is art based with an emphasis on cross-generational connection for individual and community healing. Born into a family of creatives, activists, entrepreneurs and village servants, she is the niece of both guitarman Leadbelly and civil activist/entrepreneur, Jake Simmons Jr. Patanisha knows her ancestry is a gift. She is most proud of her Media Production company, Alice Gee Productions, named after her Great Great Grandmother, an enslaved Woman who never had the chance to tell her story.