From the Guest Editor, Carla Bristol
Our Guest Editor this month is Carla Bristol. Bristol is a curator and gallerist of St. Petersburg’s Gallerie 909. However, both Bristol and her gallery have grown beyond those titles. She can honestly be called a community leader, actively participating on many projects simultaneously, thoroughly invested in her arts community and neighborhood. The theme for this month’s issue of Our Journal, as it is for our conversation, is Diversity in Thought. We spoke a weekday morning in her gallery, our conversation below.
What thoughts and events in your life led you to opening this gallery?
Clearly, it was a dream deferred that I put away on a shelf and didn’t pull out until the moment it became absolutely necessary. So probably back in 2001 I took the Entrepreneurial academy while I was working a full-time job, because somebody said, “I see you more as an entrepreneur; you need to open your own business.” I was working in corporate America at the time, so I just blindly took it [the academy]. To take the Entrepreneurial Academy you had to present some business. So at that time I thought, “Oh, I’ll open up an art gallery, it’ll have home furnishings and art from Africa and the Caribbean and things that I like” because I was already an art collector at that point. It seemed natural that I would want to open up a gallery to expose others to what my kids were exposed to. But back then down town was like boarded up back then and my thought was that I’ll open up this art gallery on Central [Avenue] and it went on the shelf.
Then what happened was several years ago when I was actively engaged at the [Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American] Museum and there were issues with the museum possibly being acquired by St. Petersburg College, that made me feel really concerned. So I actively engaged in making that not happen because, from my view point, it would no longer remain a community asset. It would then become something different. There would be open doors, yes, but for community events it might be difficult to attain. It was somewhere in that process that one day I was in this space, talking to the owners about hiring a young lady to work in their store two doors down. In the middle of that it came back to me. “What would you do with this space?” The walls were yellow, the floors were black. It had yellow outlines on the floors . There were two outdoor light fixtures. It looked very different. No track lighting. There was a walk in freezer just out in the open. There were a lot of things for a restaurant in this space. I had a corporate job, working for an international IT company and I said, “What do you plan to do with this space?” They said they would rent it. I asked how much, they told me and I felt like it was a number I could manage while keeping a fulltime job. At that time they were going to do a market. The market was starting April 6, so I said I’ll open April 6. They looked at me and said it’s not possible. At that point, my driving force was just thinking about the kids in this community and what if they no longer had access to fine art, if they were no longer exposed to it? This was my way of ensuring that did not happen. If I did it myself I figured I’d know for a fact they’d be welcomed in and that’s what the environment would be about—having an elevated level of art that kids in our community could be exposed to.
So your decision to have the gallery here in this location was very intentional. Could you speak more on the relationship between the art gallery and the surrounding neighborhood and community?
When I decided to put it here I had the relationship with the Woodson Museum. The college wasn’t here yet, there was no Chief’s Creole at the corner. Across the street there were still iron bars, it was closed up with drab paint. So it wasn’t any of those things. I didn’t even know the history of this community at that point. But the more I found out about the area, the more excited I was about the fact that this was the area. The narrative just got sweeter.
The first part of the narrative was that I’m located near the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. Then in August of the following year is when the African American Heritage Trail was opened. Now I was just footsteps from the African American Museum and just footsteps from the African American Heritage Trail. Then Chief’s Creole opened up and it’s a black-owned restaurant. But that Heritage Trail began to educate me on the history. It felt like as much as I was making a deliberate attempt to put something here for the youth of the community, the history was here all along. All I was doing was just a being a part of a renaissance or a revival of that history.
Part of running a gallery, of course, is selling art. But beyond that what do you aim to accomplish or what are your aspirations for the gallery?
Like this Sunday, I had some people come in because they saw a poster that said that day I was having spoken word. They were a week off but I still invited them to stay. It was a mother, her daughter, and she brought friends and they came because her daughter began writing at school. She goes to a Montessori school and they thought this would be a good platform for her public speaking and experience to share her work. We ended up getting into a conversation about the city, the dynamics of the city.
I call this a safe space. I don’t know if it’s the art around that makes it comfortable, I don’t know if it’s me, something in the walls, the history of this place, but people feel comfortable having uncomfortable conversations and that’s important. For me art and culture go hand-in-hand. So it makes sense to me that this would be the site for the first night of Kwanzaa for the city, because that’s the type of cultural heritage that gets lost if somebody isn’t preserving it, if somebody isn’t continuing it. Drum circle: People might say, “What does drumming have to do with it?” But people still need spaces where they can meet and celebrate cultures and drumming is huge part of the African culture. I feel that drumming, too, brings people together. We may be different but we’re sharing this one beat. Being able to be in an environment where diversity is celebrated and people are welcomed: I couldn’t ask for more.
That brings to mind the issue of Our Journal this month which is focusing on diversity of thought. Why do you think that diversity of thought is important, in art scenes as well as the larger community?
Art is about telling stories, whether it be through dance or through painting. It’s about telling your narrative. I think people get into a pattern of wanting to repeat somebody else’s narrative but it’s really at its core about telling your narrative.
For me, I’m from Guyana, and lived in New York, and living her now and coming into a community you almost have to ask permission for the right to be there. Yeah, you’re paying rent and that’s one component. But the important component for me is to make the community of the value that you bring and get to know the community. There’s so much reciprocal growth that can happen.
If we walk out the back door right now, we’ll see several old men sitting under trees. All I have to do is raise my hand and they’ll raise their hand and that’s our way of saying hi. They follow everything I do. If an article is written about me, they’ll say, “I didn’t realize you were so old.” [Laughs] They’re watching. When I was going to paint the building, I said to them, “Here’s the color.” I didn’t have to ask permission; I can’t paint it any color I want as long as I and the neighbor agree. But I think there’s a respect in engaging the community and saying, “Here’s what I’m thinking about doing—what do you think?” Now with the color, they didn’t agree with me. They said, “You’re wasting your money. The sun is not going to keep the building that color. I wouldn’t do it.” But if I didn’t respect even those opinions or even value that, even when we started to do murals: “Which ones do you think we should do? Which stories do you think we should tell?” I just think it’s better to have the support of the community and the different thinking about how you approach things.