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Conversations with Mensah Bey

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mensah Bey.  

Hi Mensah, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today.
My journey began in Richmond, VA where I was born and raised. My father was my earliest inspiration in art making. I would keep sketchbooks of illustrations from anime characters to portraits and anything else I found interesting. I would take art classes all through grade school and eventually go to college to get my Bachelor of Arts from Hampton University. After graduating I spent 5 years working in construction before pursuing my Master of Fine Arts degree from Norfolk State University where my art career would begin to blossom. 

I lived in Norfolk for 5 years getting to learn the ins and outs of the art world. I worked at the Chrysler Museum, volunteered and many other museums, taught classes at the collegiate level, and participated in exhibitions, residencies, and created murals. 

At the end of 2020, I had created enough of a cushion to bring my talents to California landing in San Diego. Within a year I was able to secure a job at Quint Gallery as an art handler which helps support my career as a fine artist. The power of working within my discipline has granted me a wider network and opened up many opportunities for developing my business as an artist. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
It has definitely not been a smooth road but I’ve always had a mindset of acknowledging challenges and facing them. Spending five years working in concrete construction certainly wasn’t a part of the plan, it was just there. Grad school pushed me beyond my limits to be able to see my potential and gain a much better comprehension of art. 

Some of the main struggles I believe any artist will face is believing in themselves. Having applied to so many exhibitions, programs, and open calls, I faced being told “NO” a lot. At one point I even approached the application process hoping to receive “No’s” so that I could face whatever might have been holding me back artistically. 

Lastly, moving across the country with no job lined up in the midst of a pandemic is also a major risk. That challenge helped me to better define the quality of life I wanted, not having to clock in every day for a job. 

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
My focus as a visual artist is in painting, printmaking, and illustrating. My work explores the juxtaposition between physical and virtual reality via the use of social media. With influences from Afro-surreal and abstract expressionism, new worlds are navigated as chronological tales. Over the past 7 years, I have worked diligently to develop a niche style that is easily recognizable. That in itself is something I am extremely proud of and continue to have fun experimenting with it. 

Additionally, having traveled to Cuba for an Artist Residency in 2019 was amazing. I recently opened an exhibit in Norfolk, VA presenting works I created based on that experience. Working on a project for the last 3 years was so fulfilling and I was proud of the depth of the work. 

In 2020 I completed a large-scale asphalt mural through Bloomberg Philanthropies which has received a lot of coverage from the New York Times and The Washington Post. I say it’s my gift that keeps on giving. This was the last major project I did before moving to California and felt like my gift to the city (Norfolk) that birthed my art career. 

Having developed a strong work ethic, I have instilled that into all of my work as an artist. Because of this, I am very process oriented where I learned to create my own rules to art making and often break them in order to expand my abilities and visual language. One thing that I hear consistently is that people have never seen work quite like mine. I attribute that to my years of schooling, practice, and study. I certainly draw inspiration from other artists but the way I imagine and create is certainly unique to me. 

Can you talk to us about how you think about risk?
As mentioned earlier, I moved to San Diego with no connections within my field of art and also in the midst of the pandemic. Prior to this, I had such a great network in Virginia where opportunities seemed boundless. I had to trust myself and my ability to take what I had learned in the 5 Years I spent focusing on the arts and apply it in a completely new space. 

It was the same type of risk I had to take when I was accepted into graduate school 2 weeks prior to classes starting. I had been promoted at my construction job, was going to be making decent money, and I was good at the job. Financially, I would have done just fine but my heart wasn’t in it. I remember going to a J. Cole concert just before I got the news for Grad school and he spoke about taking a leap of faith. 

Risk-taking is just another way to encounter failure and from what I learned in grad school, failure is the key to success. At times you just have to bet on yourself and recognize the ability within yourself to see an idea through. 

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Mensah Bey

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