The Tools That She Has: Questions with Jessica Gaynelle Moss

Monday, 11 January 2021 09:55 AM Written by 

Extensive data has illustrated the numerous ways in which Pittsburgh is one of the worst places in the country for Black women to live. Jessica Gaynelle Moss, an artist, independent curator and arts consultant, uses art to develop innovative, ethical, and responsible solutions to improve the conditions that directly affect Black people, women, and underrepresented artists in Pittsburgh and beyond.

“The projects that I am most invested in are rooted in the liberation of Black people with the tools that I have,” says Jessica.

Through Jessica’s projects with Sibyls Shrine, creative placemaking efforts, and work around the country, she is creating unparalleled impacts in our backyard and beyond.

Jessica Gaynelle Moss. Photo by sarah huny youngPhoto by sarah huny young

What advice would you give to aspiring artists and administrators?

Our job as arts administrators, curators, and people who work with artists is to always be in service of the artist. Make sure they feel nurtured, prepared, and set them up for success with all the tools they need to execute the work to the best of their ability. Be mindful that everyone, including yourself, is growing and learning. Be patient. Be kind.

Is there a residency that you managed that had an overwhelming impact on you? What did the artist create, and how did it affect you?

Sibyls Shrine is a first-of-its-kind artist residency program for Black women, womxn, trans women, and femmes who are mothers and identify as artists, creatives, and/or activists in Pittsburgh and beyond. The program, created by local artist Alisha Wormsley in 2019, supports a population that has been faced, for centuries, with the intersecting oppressions of racism and sexism, on top of the rigors of motherhood and childcare. 

The urgent need for Sibyls Shrine is underscored by the release of the “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race” report by the Gender Equity Commission of the City of Pittsburgh in 2019. Irrefutable data across multiple categories showed the numerous ways in which Pittsburgh is one of the worst places in the country for Black women to live. When compared to white men and women, life is exponentially more difficult for Black women in Pittsburgh, a reality that has long been experienced by many of us. As a Black woman and a mother, I can personally attest the validity of this data. By providing financial support, funding for childcare, groceries, cleaning assistance, opportunities for skill-sharing, self-care, safe spaces and mutual aid, this project creates a structure that directly addresses the systemic and structural factors that oppress Black womxn, promising to positively impact a population acutely in need. 

If you're interested in seeing some of the work created by mothers of Sibyls Shrine, I hope that you'll be able to join us for an exhibition that I curated, opening this January 18, 2021 at Silver Eye Center For Photography (4808 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15224). Featured artist include Kameelah Adams, Nakeya Brown, Tara Fay, Tsedaye Makonnen, Alisha Wormsley, and sarah huny young.

Jessica Moss, photo by JGMPhoto courtesy of Jessica Gaynelle Moss

What project are you currently most excited about working on?

North Carolina Black Artists for Liberation (NCBAFL) is a collective of Black makers, performers, and artists who are committed to building an equitable arts and cultural sector for the state and beyond. While we understand that culture alone cannot fix systemic racism, culture is strongly connected to racism's material effects and the violence used against us as Black artists and makers.

We created a petition that includes three very clear, tangible, and realistic measures that institutions of any scale and size can implement in an effort towards dismantling racist paradigms, systems and structures within our field. Whether you are an artist, from the state of North Carolina, or neither of these-- if you agree with the sentiment, please consider joining us by signing the petition here:

How has your work changed during the pandemic and social transformation in 2020?

For many Americans, the pandemic brought light to the structural and institutional racism embedded in the fabric of our country. For others, these injustices have been glaringly obvious for centuries. Racism was not born in 2020; it was here long before the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery or any of the other 226 Black men and women who were killed by police this past year. 

We're still dealing with many of the same issues that my parents, grandparents, and generations beyond were having to work through. The work hasn't changed - pandemic or not. Black people are continuously underserved, underrepresented and disproportionately affected by the many plagues that have haunted us since we were involuntarily brought to this country. Those of us who are committed to dismantling these structures, creating our own spaces, and liberating our people have to use the tools, skills and experience that we have to do what we can. 

The projects that I am most invested in are rooted in the liberation of Black people with the tools that I have. In 2007 I transformed a dilapidated residential space in a previously vibrant, culturally rich Black neighborhood (Pittsburgh's Hill District) into an affordable housing solution for artists in the community. Building on this creative place-making work, from 2013 to 2015, I worked on the senior leadership team of Theaster Gates' Rebuild Foundation, operating out of The Stony Island Arts Bank - a 1923 savings and loan bank turned into a world-class arts center in a greatly under-resourced Black community (Greater Grand Crossing, Chicago, IL). Immediately after, in 2016 I acquired another neglected property in a predominately Black historic neighborhood (Camp Greene, Charlotte, NC) and converted it into an artist in residency program called The Roll Up CLT. 

The Roll Up CLT is committed to creating access, providing support, and building community through every step of our process. Each year, this neighborhood-embedded program, invites Black artists of any discipline to stay for six months to one year. We provide free, safe housing accommodations, a space to produce and exhibit work, an unrestricted honorarium, a transportation stipend, food and meal stipend, and a supply and material budget. While in residence, artists are supported with opportunities to build relationships with their new neighbors, develop programming in partnership with local arts organizations, and are encouraged to collaborate with our community of local artists.

 Jessica Gaynelle Moss

Photo courtesy of Jessica Gaynelle Moss


You’ve done a lot of creative work outside of Pittsburgh. What is something that you think Pittsburgh’s creative community could learn from outside the city?

I'm less interested in assuming what any community's specific needs are and more interested in listening and hearing directly from Pittsburgh artists themselves about what they believe will strengthen our local arts community. What are your needs? Where are the gaps? Who isn't included in the conversation that should be? What can I do with my skill set and experience to better serve y’all? How can we work together to build the cultural landscape we envision for our future?

Keep up with announcements, upcoming exhibitions, talks, projects, and programs by following Jessica online.

Jessica’s Instagram: @jesseplane
The Roll Up CLT: @therollupclt
Sibyls Shrine: @sibylsshrine
North Carolina Black Artists for Liberation: @ncbafl


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