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Studio Magazine

Studio Check In With Jeary Payne

Studio Museum

Studio Check In was born from a desire to tell the stories of the people who work behind the scenes at different arts and cultural institutions. Institutions are defined by the people who work within them, but they are equally defined by the community members, artists, and audiences that intersect and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive. In this edition of Studio Check In, I speak with Jeary Payne, an educator at The Met and artist who participated in the Fall 2019 session of Museum Education Practicum.

Jeary, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I always begin with a simple question to introduce our interviewee to our readers. Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?  

I was born in Arizona and I just celebrated my seventh anniversary of being in New York. I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be here and the journey it has taken me on. I'm an interdisciplinary artist, educator, and storyteller. I had to grapple with what being an artist was for me—I held tightly to one way for so long. I moved to New York intending to make music, but instead I started making daily visual journals and documenting my days and time with pictures. By virtue of being here and exploring the city or not having access to music or performing or recording or even creating in the same ways I was used to—because I lacked familiar resources and connections, these other creative mediums came into play and started intersecting. Because of that, I was able to find myself creatively, and more of a sense of who I am and what kind of artist I want to be. That period expanded my definition of what it means to create a thing and offer it to the world. I decided I wanted to tell stories, regardless of the medium, and I don’t know if I would have arrived there, when and how I did, without moving here.

What inspired you to want to work with young people? Do you have an approach to teaching you’d like to share?

My inspiration to work with young people was born out of a desire to be a mentor that I didn't have, or didn't have access to. I want to talk with young people about following their passions and what they’re most interested in. Those are the things I cared the most about as a young person but didn’t feel as though I had an outlet or a place conducive to developing and exploring my interests and passions. 

I teach and engage young people from a place of vulnerability. Being able to connect with young people on a human level first and not treat them like children because I learn just as much from them. They bring so much information and knowledge, and oftentimes they know things that they don’t know they know. I want to make sure I'm creating an environment for them where they feel like they can be vocal, where they can advocate for themselves. Wherever I am in my professional world, I think young people will always be connected and at the center of that work.

Sometimes we don't have the answers that younger people are after. How do you deal with that uncertainty?

Being honest, vulnerable, transparent, creating those dynamics with the groups of young people you work with on a consistent basis. I like to have this approach where it's like, I may be at the front of the classroom but I'm not ahead of you. This relationship is reciprocal. There may be moments I don’t have the answers, but those are the things we can investigate and interrogate together as a community. I think that’s the ebb and flow of creating a symbiotic relationship. It starts with me as the educator, creating that environment of honesty, integrity, and vulnerability. I have to be willing to give of myself to expect that same in return. I don't ask anything from them that I'm not willing to contribute and give as well.

What was a recent lesson a young person taught you? 

A lot of the young people I work with are getting ready to transition into the next phase of their academic career: going from high school to college. I was talking with one person about her experience of creating the application, writing a personal statement, and reflecting on her experience with me and within the internship program. I'm also in the process of trying to go back to school and get a graduate degree and, you know, I have my own fears and apprehensions around that. To hear a young person talking about that process helped remind me that I have experiences, I have value, I have things to also give and contribute. That puts me back in that mindset of a student and learner. I can do something scary and still do it. She didn’t know I'm applying to school, but I needed that extra light push.

Tell me about your connection with  New York City. 

I've always known I was going to live in New York. I came here when I was six years old on a family trip walking around Harlem and I'll never forget the feeling. Even at that age, I may not have known what I wanted to do, but I knew energetically this was a place where I needed to be. 

Growing up in Arizona shaped me but New York refined me. It gave me confidence, a community, it helped curve my direction toward the things I want to do and explore. Had I never moved here, what I wanted to do creatively would feel so much more narrow. But, I had to earn it and work for it. 

When folks back home ask me about my experience living in New York, I quote Jean Grae: “Not Brooklyn I was born, but Brooklyn I was formed.” It’s a lyric from a record called Brooklyn in My Mind, with 9th Wonder, Memphis Bleek, and Mos Def. I remember hearing that growing up before coming to New York and being like, yo, I feel that. Then living here and seeing myself develop and how I have formed to the point where folks are telling me “you look like you belong there.” “You move in a way that represents the feeling of this city.” I carry that and it means a great deal to me. 

In 2021 the Met acquired the archive of James Van Der Zee, in partnership with the Studio Museum. Van Der Zee was a prolific artist but before becoming a professional photographer he was an aspiring musician. Can you tell us more about your relationship to music?

Growing up in a small town, and we’re talking before the internet, but growing up with magazines like Word Up, Street Beat, XXL, the Source, these magazines were a keyhole view into a world outside and miles away.

Music, specifically hip hop, is a culture I always identified with and connected to. New York, specifically the Bronx, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue is the birthplace of this culture that means so much to me. That's the music that moves me. Q-tip says “hip-hop is and always will be a socio-political movement.”

When I moved to New York, one of the first things I did was I went to the birthplace to pay homage. Mos Def was like, “I'm blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle'' and then finding myself on Broadway and Myrtle; that’s a moment for me. Making those kinds of connections as an artist, a fan, and participant. I was an indie artist traveling, performing, which is what ultimately brought me to New York.

I wanted to push myself and my art further, to be in a place more conducive to the kind of hip hop and messaging and storytelling I was trying to create. I was able to do that and to connect with other like-minded artists who I followed on social media for years who, to me, are heavyweights. To be in conversation and be in the same room with them, and learn from them and see how they rock a crowd or see how they make music, I don’t think I could have experienced that anywhere else. That continues to play a consistent role in my practice—music as a soundtrack to living in, existing, and moving here in New York. 

How does your love of hip hop play into your role at The Met? Is there any tension there? 

Hip hop deserves a place within these institutions. I think the tension, and the dichotomy, is that hip hop is also anti-establishment. It doesn’t require the validation of these institutions, but at the same time, it deserves to be heralded and acknowledged. 

For example, discussing in detail the works of  Kendrick Lamar and comparing him to the French painter Honoré Daumier and how they both created works with social and political commentary. How can we have a conversation about culture and not talk about hip hop? I don't know if you remember the Picasso Baby mini-documentary by Jay Z. I would show that to my young people and we’d talk about that connection of music, hip hop, gallery spaces, of art, posing the question of what belongs in a museum? Does this belong in an art space, who controls art, who decides what is palatable and what's not? Getting young people to talk about and think about music critically and as also a culture. Not just the lyrics and the bars, but as a cultural entity.

Let’s talk about you as an image maker. How would you describe your visual arts practice? 

I would describe my work as archiving and documentation. Something that's been sticking in my mind for a while now are the words “historical record.” Being able to create images that hold moments in time for the historical record. A lot of my visual work is about Black life and Black experiences in New York, in Brooklyn, but also my experiences as a Black person living in Brooklyn but not being from Brooklyn. 

That's where the archiving and the documentation come in, where I’m a part of the culture and at the periphery of it. I think one of the best ways I can use my abilities and skills is to showcase what I'm seeing, what's important to me, and what's of value to me within the communities I'm orbiting in Harlem and in Brooklyn. 

As someone who’s not from here, I want to make sure I pour things in, not just take things out. So I want to make sure there's a historical record, an accounting and collective memory of the people, places, and things here. A lot of time it's the mundane, the unknown in the community or neighborhood, or the street signs, graffiti talking about gentrification or poverty. It's the street hieroglyphics or signifiers all over the city and making sure I photodocument all that so whoever comes along next, they can see what was here and who was here, and that it mattered.

It's a difficult question to unpack or answer concisely, but who or what taught you how to see? 

Music and hip hop created a viewpoint and a language for me. It's the lens through which I see the world. Through this hip hop cultural context. That plays a role in how I document images when I'm out on the street. Aside from that, my oldest sister, Ess, is one of my greatest influences. She's an incredible visual artist. As a younger sibling, that person who trails on the coattails of someone else, I saw how she saw the world visually and that helped define my own eyes, to see the world in a way that was authentic and unique for me. Having the relationship we do, that kind of encouragement she gives me, and as someone who I can bounce ideas off of, she's contributed a great deal to how I visualize and communicate the kind of things I want to create.

Also, geography aids my ability to see the way I see. It’s being here in the city, being in Brooklyn; I see the world differently now. New York is this high energy, high intensity, overstimulating visual place. By living here, it's helped me to have a more expressive and expansive visual language. It’s something I’ve nurtured and when I visit home now, I see Arizona in a fuller way. I see its hues and tones and timbres differently. 

What was the last moment you had in New York where you were awestruck and you needed to stop to take it in?

There was this moment during the “first season” of the pandemic when everyone gathered at the park in Fort Greene. It was beautiful. It was like a sea of Black folk on the hill. I don't know that I've ever experienced a moment like that, or at least I don't know that I would have experienced a moment like that in Arizona. Of course, there are a lot of things at play. We had been in the pandemic for some time and there was this lack of connection, being unable to talk and be with your folk, there was something about it. To be there, in Fort Greene, and considering the historical context too, like Nelson George’s Black Boheme, right? There's something about that. I was like, yo, I live here! I get to live here and hopefully contribute to it.

Thank you very much, Jeary. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you. 

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