For local artist James McKissic, the arts have always been an important cornerstone of his life. Growing up in a home surrounded by visual art, his parents encouraged his artistic expressions by providing art supplies and taking he and his sister to museums. This early exposure to the arts and an influential teacher set the stage for the evolution of his career as an artist and advocate for the arts, education, and equality.
“I had an amazing art teacher in high school, Martha Kidwell, and she is one of the most influential people in my life,” says McKissic. “She introduced me to art history and also taught me the fundamentals of drawing and painting. I always knew that I wanted to spend my life making art, traveling and helping people, and that’s what I have been able to do.”
As Director of Multicultural Affairs for the City of Chattanooga, McKissic is contributing to a more inclusive and vibrant city supportive of all cultures—a theme that often makes its way into his work, which has been shown in a variety of galleries and shows nationally, including Atlanta, Nashville, and New York. One of McKissic’s paintings, purchased at a Nashville show, even made its way into poet and author Maya Angelou’s personal art collection at her home. Locally, his work has been featured at the North Shore Gallery of Contemporary Art, Association for Visual Arts 4 Bridges Art Festival, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, and several special exhibitions.
“The arts are an outlet. A positive outlet and way through self-expression to work through life’s challenges,” says McKissic. “I often have told people that I don’t think I would be alive and where I am in life without the arts—sometimes I have to paint through personal challenges, visiting a museum for me is like meditation, and studying art, music, and literature has opened so many doors for me and helped me to understand life’s challenges.”
As an arts advocate, McKissic has worked locally to help expand awareness and support for the local arts scene, including organizing Friends of African American Art five years ago to bring more black artwork to Chattanooga and working with Shane Morrow to launch the Jazzanooga Mu- sic Festival in 2011 to celebrate the city’s rich music heritage. The one-day festival has evolved into a cultural arts and education nonprofit that offers year-round programming and a month-long celebration during April in honor of Jazz Appreciation Month.
“Chattanooga has such a rich arts and cultural heritage, and Jazzanooga’s mission is to promote and preserve that artistic heritage—with a special focus on the MLK Boulevard neighborhood,” says McKissic. “Many people know us for our annual music festival but we offer music education in schools and youth development centers, provide opportunities for up and coming musicians, and engage in broad community efforts like the Chattanooga Choo Choo song anniversary celebration.”
Jazzanooga festival events include large shows, intimate performances, food events, educational activities, and more. The final week in April brings national and international jazz headline acts to perform in Chattanooga. This year’s lineup featured multiple Grammy award winners Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Octet and the Christian McBride Trio, as well as Grammy-nominated jazz guitarist and composer Julian Lage. The festival and year-round music performances organized by Jazzanooga help to raise funds to support the organization’s youth programming.
“Youth are not only the future of our country, they are the future of arts and culture,” says McKissic. “By educating and involving young people we hope to build the next generation of Chattanooga arts and culture practitioners and advocates.”
In December 2015, Jazzanooga’s Arts SPACE opened on MLK Boulevard to support continued expansion of educational, arts, and cultural events for youth and the community. Youth programming includes the UrbanArts Youth Collective Project, a summer arts education program for youth that exposes participants to spoken word and storytelling, DJ skills, urban dance, and instrumental and vocal instruction, and the Youth Music Academy, a year-round music education program providing out-of-school time opportunities for music instruction and performance. Founded in 2014, Jazzanooga’s Animate MLK/Live on the Big Nine’s initiative engages performance artists, musicians, businesses, and residents of the neighborhood to promote the Boulevard as a cultural, artistic, and historic destination for both locals and visitors. The Jazzanooga Experience radio show airs every Sunday at 7:00 pm on WMPZ Groove 93.5 and is one of Chattanooga’s only locally produced jazz, blues, and world music shows.
“Jazz is an equalizer. It is the only truly American art form and draws audiences from all racial and cultural backgrounds,” says McKissic. “Many shows in Chattanooga are so homogeneous—performers and audience—and I think it’s wonderful that Jazzanooga has a diverse, broad base of support.”
For McKissic, the arts remain a central inspiration for all of his community work, which includes serving as a board member of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, as a
founding member of the Sankofa Fund for Civic Engagement, and as a volunteer with La Paz, Public Art Chattanooga, SPLASH Youth Arts Program, and many other organizations.
“It is our legacy; it’s one of the only things that says we existed—it’s how we communicate who we were to future generations,” says McKissic. “That’s why the arts are important to me and why I work so hard to support the arts in our community.”
To learn more about McKissic’s artwork, visit www.jameshmckissic.com. For more information about Jazzanooga events or community programming, please visit www.jazzanooga.org, like Jazzanooga on Facebook, or follow Jazzanooga on twitter.