Artist Keith Ramsey grew up in Williamsburg. Having come of age in a town that symbolizes the American Revolution, perhaps it’s not surprising that Ramsey’s work is very political. His thoughtful paintings are currently showing at Tea-Co Cafe, near VCU. Ramsey is outspoken and opinionated, but he as easily offers admiration and enthusiasm for what’s right, as he does criticism for what he sees as unjust. The multi-faceted Richmond resident is likely to conclude a heated conversation about City Hall, to launch into one about his love for the Argentinian tango and foxtrot. But he’s always genuine.
Why did you decide to become an artist?
I asked the question when I was little, “Why not me?” And my mom was an artist at the time. I continually ask myself that question. I really wanted to do it after watching the movie “Beat Street.” I used to go to the library and pick up books on drawing. The kids I hung out with were already into break dancing and deejaying and rapping. While I was sitting there, they had RAYMO doing graffiti and doing burners on the trains. I was just floored by it. I didn’t know you could do that with letters. I knew about graffiti here and there, but I never really saw it. It just flipped my wig. As soon as we got out of the movie theatre and went home, I sat down and tried to do it. Especially in high school, people would pay me twenty five cents or fifty cents to draw their name in graffiti. So that’s basically how it started. [Then] I kind of started looking into graphic arts. I used to actually sit down and draw the Anheiser Busch logo, you know the eagle A. I used to hand draw it.
I kind of set a path for myself. [I knew] what I wanted to do and I asked myself, “Who’s to say I can’t do it?”
Which painting or series are you most proud of?
The Diluted Loss Series, because it was so much involved with looking up stuff about black soldiers of World War II and what they had to go through. Not only that, it was at a time where I lost a studio at Shockoe Bottom Art Center because they closed. So essentially, the Diluted Loss series was done in the back of my pickup truck outside my apartment.
What do you think of graffiti art today?
If it’s really well done and it’s in an appropriate place, I’m like, Sweet! That’s hot! But if it’s just somebody’s name done out of vanity… [shakes head] You have all this opportunity to say something with all the political stuff that’s going on and it’s affecting our lives day to day and you choose to write your name really illegible?
There’s some graffiti that’s just, Wow! Over off of Hull Street toward Jeff Davis, there’s a building over there that has a long burn up along the side of it. They used to have Ned Flanders from the Simpsons up there. There’s talent there. It’s really actually adding something to the environment. But when it’s just somebody scribbling their name somewhere, what’s the point in that?
Do you like Richmond?
Richmond is a really sweet place to live. Me and my girlfriend or just me myself will go out and hang out somewhere totally not knowing I’ll see someone I know, and I’ll see someone I know. If people would open themselves up to smiling a little more and saying hi a little more to familiar faces, everybody would be doing that here. It’s really small and really fun.
Which artists would you most like to see your artwork hung next to in a museum, or in a text book?
More than anyone, Edward Hopper.
What’s your sound byte?
People need to wake up and pay attention really to what’s going on, and not sit back and complain. [They should] get their news from different sources and not the for-profit media. People need to wake up and look around and get involved.
Artists and musicians need to start singing and painting more about the issues of the day. There’s not a whole lot of political art out there. We have the opportunity to be the markers and the historians of this time and visually and audibly. We need to start thinking, “Paint about what you see going on that you disagree with,” whether it be anything. I mean, I don’t know if there’s any out there, but even if there’s a conservative artist out there, I’d like to see some work from them