About Kisasi Ramsess
RICH MAN, POOR MAN
By LYNELL GEORGE, TIMES STAFF WRITER – JULY 26, 2000
In a city known for its transitory nature, it’s rare to find a neighborhood with a vibrant center, an energy that circulates freely within and then radiates out. Rarer still is there someone within it who serves as its eyes and ears: the repository of the story.
For almost two decades, multi-media artist Kisasi Ramsess has sunk roots deep at the center of a short block of Colonial-style storefronts on Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park committing everything to memory–then to paper, tile, etched glass or canvass.
To the right of his storefront gallery and studio is the World Stage–musician Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daaood’s one-stop fix for the late-night jazz jones; to the left, the stylish Elephant Walk Cafe with its airy interior and pressed-for-dinner table linen. There are artisans and curators, story-weaving griots and off-the-cuff jive-talkers who people this block, and Ramsess has, from beneath the generous shade of his sun-worn awning, seen as many go as he has seen come.
But he sits tight, through the city’s booms and busts–because, he believes, someone has to. Someone has to tell the story–and pass it on.
These lessons come through his images–abundant and widely viewed but somehow still not in the foreground of the larger art world’s consciousness. His murals and mosaics that bloom within South Los Angeles’ not always picturesque landscapes; prints and posters of his black and white ink drawings of jazz musicians, blues singers and political leaders tacked on classroom bulletin boards or peeking out as backdrops, lending a dash of verisimilitude, to movies and prime-time TV shows.
Ramsess, 43, amasses his artistic legacy within his live-in, ground-floor studio. A sturdily compact man, he moves deliberately about his compact space–an explosion of ideas, memories and color. The walls double as an address book and bulletin board: Top-to-bottom crowded with photographs and quickly scrawled phone numbers of neighbors, clients and friends. This is where a community’s memories are on public display.
In the chaotic jumble of his studio, Ramsess has been steadily working with a clear sense of focus: some years better than others, some months making the rent on time–sometimes not.
For Ramsess, who chooses his words as carefully as he does a canvas’ palette, the role of self-appointed “community artist” is not only full time but multipronged.
There is history to augment, which he reanimates through a series of portraits of black historical figures, many of whom often fall outside the margins of school curricula. These images appear on frameable cards, prints and calendars that he distributes–often free of charge–to students in the community. There also are mural and mosaic projects that take him from neighborhood to neighborhood, commemorating black leaders, social movements and the power of community organizing, and amid it all, he makes the time to use the power of his brushes and felt tips to call things as he sees them in the public realm.
“What continues to excite me is social consciousness and his awareness and that he maintains the history,” says artist John Outterbridge, former director of the Watts Tower Arts Center. “American history is never absolute, and his art illuminates the different complexions of its social fabric.”
But now, after two decades taking it all in, he and his neighborhood are having a chance to look back at the big picture. A 20-year retrospective of his work–from political cartoons and pen-and-ink portraits to stained glass and etched glass pieces–runs to the end of the month at the William Grant Still Community Arts Center on West View Street, just a 10-minute drive from his front door.
‘Making it’ Means Helping the Community
In a society where “making it” is a mantra, Ramsess has quieter but equally high-flown aspirations. He has channeled his energy–keeping his prices low ($1 per card, $20 per matted print), his profile within the neighborhood high. “Making it” for him has a much more broad-based, inclusive meaning: It extends to helping his community foster a stronger sense of self.
“He’s held on to the old ways,” says his friend and mentor Theresa Jones, who had known him since he attended Los Angeles High School. “There’s a lot of old wisdom floating in that young man.”
Ramsess sees the role of artist as much more complex than an exercise of mixing color and perspective grids. He understands the impact of images is something much more powerful. He sees public art and community art as a strong political and educational tool. To him it’s a raised voice, wry and wise, eloquent and thought-provoking.
And he knows its power to lure.
A restless teen back in the ‘70s, fresh from a summer hitchhiking trip, Ramsess was ready to drop out of high school and get a job.
But then he happened to run across an animation class on L.A. High’s fall schedule. “I always wanted to find out how cartoons were made,” he recalls, “and about the patience it takes doing cel after cel.”
After graduating, he enrolled in art classes at Los Angeles City College. But those were quickly eclipsed by an unexpected apprenticeship: “I was working on the loading docks at the Los Angeles Times because I could work it around my school schedule,” he recalls, “One day while loading the trucks, I saw a cartoon by Pete Bentovoja and called him up.”
The illustrator invited him to chat and introduced him around. “He told me, ‘My desk is open. Come up and sit down.’ That’s how it pretty much started. I didn’t quit art school. I kind of just stopped going.”
From there, he quickly learned a range of techniques: painting, illustration, political cartooning, all of it reflected in his work today. “But what they also taught me,” he explains, is “that there are no limitations. That there’s really no boundaries.”
For years, while working at The Times printing plant, he wrapped his pad into the folds of a newspaper to sketch, during lulls in the day, or during breaks when his colleagues were napping.
“I thought he had terrific potential,” recalls Bentovoja, who is now retired. “He’s really bloomed. He’s doing terrific work.”
But it was after attending a community art show, in 1981, organized by the Baldwin Hills Art League, Ramsess says, that he began to think seriously about branching out–to explore art’s broader possibilities.
After watching a documentary on actor and activist Paul Robeson something settled in and took hold: “Here was a man who had lived an amazing life, and I had grown up in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s and never knew who he was. So I found a picture of him as Emperor Jones. And that was the first drawing, portrait-wise, I’d ever done,” he recalls. “That’s what actually started me. Finding people who had done great things in history, black history, but weren’t mentioned in the history books I was given in school. I wanted to make it possible for students to have images and a story to go along with them.”
From that epiphany bloomed a roomful of figures–artistic and political–Robeson, Bob Marley, Martin Luther King Jr., John Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, pages and pages.
“A year later I came back to [the art show] and showed them what I had–about 80 drawings 24 by 30. ‘How could you draw all of these in a year?’ I told them: ‘Well, nobody told me I couldn’t.’
Considered a Symbol of Continuity, Perseverance
No boundaries, no restrictions, has been the way Ramsess has approached life’s many forks in the road: “I just went out and started using what was given to me . . . but becoming more of the community-based artist trying to put the art back out into the public.”
That gesture hasn’t gone overlooked, says writer and neighbor Lee Williams, whose daughter spent many hours in Ramsess’ studio watching him work. “I think he is a great symbol of continuity and perseverance for this neighborhood. He represents the fact that art is not necessarily about financial gain. It’s what you are driven to do. And even though he hasn’t gotten the due, I think, he deserves, it has not stopped him from continuing to work or stopped him from creating. And the community is greatly benefiting from that.”
Next-door poet Daaood calls him “just one of the hardest-working cats I know.”
“There aren’t very many resident artists who live on the block, with a work studio,” Daaood says. “I think that that is really a strong image for the neighborhood.”
Ramsess also sells his wares at jazz and blues festivals across the West, carting canvases and mosaics, stained glass, acrylics. His body of work has grown from a 60-notecard impulse rack of portraits, first installed at the now defunct Aquarian Bookstore to more than 2,500 note cards and print images, and three popular commemorative wall calendars. Motion picture set-designers sometimes trundle by on late-afternoon shopping sprees and pick out pieces. Some of it he’s seen in the background on shows including Moesha and Seinfeld, while flipping channels. He has a mail order catalog that pulls in some income. Then there are various multimedia commissions–from mosaic work to etched glass to paintings–that pay the major bills.
He’s done specialty work for actors Blair Underwood and Anna Maria Horsford and can count Diane Reeves, Sam Jackson and Branford Marsalis among his collectors. But Ramsess’ priority remains free-of-charge community projects with children: a roving artist, spreading the power of the succinct visual.
By now, the father of three boys figures, he’s given hundreds of workshops at more than 60 campuses across the region. Teachers meet him at local art shows and ask him to speak. He never says no–and always leaves each member of the class a little something to remember the day by. Most recently he visited Compton Community College, where he led African American and Latino students in piecing together a mosaic of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.
“There is a certain sense of stability and consistency in how he approaches life,” says longtime friend Andrew Henderson, executive director for Families for Children, a youth service agency in South Los Angeles. “We’ve gone through some pretty dramatic changes in the urban life of L.A., and he remains consistent–in his personality, in his artwork, his work is always authentic.”
Using Art to Address a Controversy
Ramsess’ life and his community studio are both, in many ways, ongoing public art projects. He uses his pen and position as community fixture as potent tools of agitprop–to animate, inform and inspire. He likes to stir it up a bit, as he did a few years back with Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas over a controversy between Leimert Park merchants and the city over the installation of parking meters in their already struggling business district.
Without the platform of a camera, microphone or orator’s podium, Ramsess instead quickly sketched a few cartoons addressing the controversy. The works made their way into community papers and were photocopied and posted throughout the neighborhood and beyond. When the meters stayed up, he hung a life-size caricature of the councilman (who also makes his home in Leimert Park), outside his studio to try to garner a response.
“He’s fearless,” says Lee Williams. “He’s taken what we feel as a community and haven’t been able to say ourselves. The merchants have suffered, but he didn’t back down from what he felt was right. He got him to come out and talk to us.”
Ridley-Thomas did not return calls for comment.
Ramsess has used canvas to tip the balance as well. A painting hangs in the William Grant Still show that raises ire no matter where it’s shown. “Water Melon Ball” is a pull-no-punches commentary on who pulls the strings in the basketball world. The piece depicts Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson in minstrel show caricature, the rafters crammed with fans drawn in wild-eyed blackface, the floor-seats inhabited by a pink-faced elite.
“When I first saw it,” says William Grant Still director James Burks, “I thought, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ But it’s a powerful and important piece. It’s commentary about how those athletes are governed. The limits that fame allows. Ramsess is not just a community-based artist, he’s really one of those community-based politicians.
“If we did more of that with our leaders–religious and political–stayed on them, we’d be a little bit further along. We shouldn’t keep it in. Somebody needs to say it. And he does.”
Sometimes It’s Hard to Say No to Projects
On a quiet afternoon, as a lone woodwind makes idle doodles next door at the World Stage, artist Outterbridge pulls up in a VW bug, then peeks inside the dimness of his studio to check on a stained-glass piece he’s commissioned.
It isn’t quite finished. Actually, he hasn’t had a chance to start it. But it will only take an hour, Ramsess explains. The men part with a smile and a wave.
“I’ve fallen in love with his ability to handle lines,” says Outterbridge, who has made a point to support Ramsess and other Leimert Park artists who have attempted to ride out the community’s ebbs and flows and to remain a constant in the face of the unexpected.
Ramsess settles in for the duration, perching atop on one of his workbenches, letting his legs dangle then sway in time with the scattered notes next door.
“Sometimes,” he admits, “I overextend myself with projects because I can’t say no.”
If he accepted proper compensation for everything he did, friends tell him, “added the extra zeros or put a two or three in front of the price,” he wouldn’t have to scramble. He wouldn’t have to worry about the lights or the phone or whether the rent will be on time or not.
“People keep telling me about the money that’s in it,” he explains, “and I know it’s eventually going to be there–the money– but I try not to think about that because . . . I don’t want that to interfere with the true essence of what I’m trying to do. It’s not that I don’t want to think about money, it’s just that sometimes I see the excitement in people’s faces when they see something, and it’s the [same] excitement that I feel when I’m doing it.”
It’s just like this woman in the neighborhood, just up the hill who collects art, says Ramsess. “She has Picassos and Jacob Lawrences that she bought decades ago. . . . . She told me that she liked to collect artists’ work who are more into their work instead of just trying to sell it. She says it was more about trying to collect the energy of that person . . . that it reflects what that person is about. The energy, the love and the compassion of what they do. It’s like when you go to a concert and you immediately want to buy the music you’re hearing because you are caught up in it. That’s how she felt when it came to artists.
“She really made me feel good when she bought one of my originals.”
5435 9th Ave.
Los Angeles, California