Note: 'The Hustle' is a KQED Arts series exploring how artists make ends meet in the Bay Area. After an exodus of artists priced out of the region, every Thursday in March and April we talk with a different artist about how they're able to stay in the Bay Area through cost-cutting measures, side gigs, and sacrifices.
At The Universe Is Lit, the black and brown punk festival that took place last August, Sasha Kelley sat in the crowd of a scrappy backyard show in Oakland, watching the singer of a hardcore band yell into the microphone as dreadlocked and blue-lipsticked fans moshed around her. From behind, she blended right in with the other twenty-something-year-old attendees. But in her lap, she held her dimpled three-year-old daughter Ameenah, happily bobbing her head along to the music.
Being an artist and entrepreneur in Oakland takes a lot of networking, and multitasking childcare and events is something Kelley, a single mom, has become quite good at in recent years. She’s a photographer with her own practice (most recently, her work was featured in the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive's Way Bay exhibition). But much of her other, community-based projects are rooted in the "it takes a village" mentality — not just toward raising Ameenah, but in her entire business approach.
Kelley is the co-founder of House of Malico, an activist-oriented creative agency that presents events like the recent Spectrum Summit, a community discussion on black mental health that took place in March at BAMPFA. House of Malico’s work spans many disciplines, but its core principles hinge on creating paths to financial solvency for artists and alternative wellness practitioners, whether through events, marketing, other creative services, or workshops.
“The House of Malico exists to create jobs for women of color,” says Kelley, “And more specifically, to give these creatives market-rate or above-market-rate opportunities to fulfill their passions — not the starving artist idea.”
But that goal has come with its challenges for Kelley, who makes roughly $18,000 a year through a combination of grants, freelance work, and government assistance. Getting by on that income, let alone with a child, might seem impossible at a time when living expenses are skyrocketing across the Bay Area. But Kelley is incredibly resourceful, and taps into a like-minded community of artists to make her life manageable as she works towards creative goals.
“I see my long-term goal: I’m working towards my retrospective show, and working from when I’m 75, chillin’ on the beach and drinking lemonade,” she says. “I see the bigger vision. And I also am very adamant about working for myself and taking the sacrifice.”
'We have to be incredibly resourceful. There’s not really any other way.'
Those sacrifices come in many forms. Kelley and Ameenah live in Pittsburg with Kelley’s grandmother (where rent is $800), but nearly everything else in their lives takes place in Oakland, the heart of the East Bay’s art scene. Pittsburg is a two-and-a-half hour commute from Ameenah’s private preschool in the Oakland hills, which would ordinarily would cost the family $1,200 a month, but is free thanks to a scholarship.
After taking Ameenah to school, Kelley then commutes another hour by bus to her job at Alena Museum, an art gallery and event space in West Oakland. The mother and daughter often couch-surf with friends during the week to save time on the commute.
An added challenge is that Ameenah’s dad, with whom Kelley typically co-parents, recently moved to L.A. to pursue a music career, meaning that Kelley has their three-year-old full time. As another money-saving move, Kelley recently began doing photography for one of her friends, another young mom, in exchange for free childcare.
“It’s actually been really good,” she says. “I’m able to get the time that I need to sleep and do whatever adult things I need in that time. And it’s also propelling my photography practice.”
Kelley relies on work-trades to afford certain necessities, one of which is her art studio at Alena Museum. As the executive assistant, she organizes events, writes grants, and takes care of strategic planning, cleaning, and whatever else needs to get done in exchange for her studio space, which would otherwise cost $250 a month. (She does, however, spend $150 a month on film for her camera.)
Government assistance helps provide some stability, but Kelley is actively working towards the goal of getting off welfare, which currently provides her with $580 a month in cash assistance and $300 in food stamps. She has an upcoming meeting with a social worker from Contra Costa County to examine ways to make House of Malico more profitable.
“For these last few years of me figuring it out, things have been really tight. But it’s starting to feel like it’s paying off,” she says. “Things are getting more clear with House of Malico and business, things are starting to align, people are starting to reach out to us.”
While many young artists in the Bay Area have parents helping pay their rent, relying on family for financial support isn’t an option for Kelley. “[Ameenah’s dad and I] both come from families that were heavily impacted by the crack epidemic in different ways,” she says. “It’s just a blessing that we are sane and following our passions, and within that, we have to be incredibly resourceful. There’s not really any other way.”
Cultivating sustainable sources of income
Most of Kelley’s income-generating gigs come through the House of Malico. She received a $2,500 stipend from the San Francisco Foundation for House of Malico's latest project, Elements, a retreat for artists and activists of color to strategize for social justice and practice self-care. House of Malico also does marketing for local small-business clients like Sumi’s Touch, Oakland activist Sumayyah Franklin’s midwifery business. And freelance photography gigs also come in occasionally. Kelley estimates that about $12,500 of her annual earnings come from art-related work.
Contract gigs for House of Malico tend to come in spurts, so Kelley has to budget carefully to prepare for dry periods between jobs.
“Last year we got a good-sized contract with East Oakland Building Healthy Communities. So I was like, ‘Dope! I have my goal monthly income,’” says Kelley. “But usually a lot of the clients we have might be for three to four months, so just figuring out that gap of like, our needs are met — and now we don’t have any clients, so what does that look like? I’m teaching myself how to save and getting a little more financial literacy so that when those gaps come, I’m not shit out of luck.”
Kelley has been trying to move to Oakland instead of crashing with friends during the week, but her housing search hasn’t been fruitful; it turns out most single people living with roommates don’t want small children around. So alongside three other single moms, she’s looking to start something called Mom House, a co-op for fellow single-mom artists who share childcare and domestic duties so that they can have time to work on their various crafts — and eat and shower in peace.
Kelley says she’s considered taking a more traditional full-time job, but she’s worried about how being an overworked, stretched-thin single mother would impact her relationship with her daughter.
“I did that growing up with my mom, and two decades later, we’re still healing our relationship from the time we missed when she was working to provide a house and food for us,” she says, narrowing her eyes with determination. “I don’t want that. I want to be present for Ameenah.”