My conversation with Shaina McCoy happened about a week after Father’s Day. I had spent that previous Sunday morning going through old pictures, aiming to find that idyllic shot of my dad for an Instagram story commemorating the yearly occasion. It turned out to be the perfect way to prepare for our interview. A 1990’s kid like McCoy, my family photos are a collection of faded polaroids and wallet-size portrait studio shots. There are lots of feathered bangs, GAP hoodies, and overalls, reminiscent of a time when these portraits were the art that tightly lined the crannies of our living room walls. And, if you’ve visited your parents recently, this fact likely still holds true.
These snapshots are the catalyst for McCoy’s colorful, charming portraits, which feature memories from her own family’s photo albums. With thick dollops, richly textured, she caresses Black familial intimacy in moments that are beyond tender. Immersed in her work, I’m transported to Saturday get-togethers with my own family… when Pac fades to Stevie and the cigarettes burn slow.
McCoy’s subjects eschew distinct facial features, an invitation to reminisce in the felicity of memory. It doesn’t take long before these dreamy portraits begin to mutate before your eyes, transforming her family’s portraits into reflections of one’s own, prompting the urge to pull out old photo albums and dive headfirst into nostalgia.
Shaquille Heath: How are you utilizing Black girl magic to take care of yourself right now, and where are you finding your joy?
Shaina McCoy: I think it’s just staying rooted with family and checking in on everyone. When everyone else is good, I’m good. Just being a part of nature… disconnecting from the internet and being more present. Definitely working out has been a huge therapeutic part of my life recently. It’s kind of a day-to-day thing, finding balance and making sure that I’m taking care of my body and having a clear mind. It’s not always a priority to make art, because it’s most important that I take care of my body so everything else can happen.
Speaking of… your work centers so much around your family. Thinking of this past year, so many people have had to be away from theirs. Is your family close by, and were you able to stay connected to them?
I saw them every now and again, but I was very serious and on top of my testing, ensuring that I was in the clear before I saw anyone. Especially like my grandma, my grandpa… I did have Covid last May. And so I was being super careful around that and I stayed home. I didn’t do any work. I wasn’t separated from them as much as other folks were, which is a very big privilege to have.
My family lives here in Minnesota, on both sides, and so if it wasn’t FaceTime, it was a phone call. If it wasn’t a phone call, it was a drive by hello. I can always call up my family and say, “Hey, what’s happening in this photo? What’s going on? Who’s that person?” And they’re always happy to share stories with me at any time. I have been blessed to be able to stay connected with them through this time.
I wondered if you typically knew who everyone in the photos you selected to paint? Or are you more like, “This is a dope picture, but who are these people?”
Ha ha, not all the time. Sometimes I gravitate towards a piece because of the way someone is holding a child or an elder. And I sometimes don’t know who those people are, so I have to ask, like, “Hey, who is cousin Sean holding? What’s going on there?” And I’m lucky enough that the family knows who is who. There was one time where I thought it was a cousin of mine; it’s in this piece titled Great Aunt Dorothy and Mel… and we all thought that was my cousin Mel, and then they came back to me and were like, “That’s Marlene!” I was like, oh my gosh, no! It’s out there in the world already!
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