Andrea McCoy Harvey submitted two paintings to "The de Young Open's" call for artists: “Afro Goddess” and “Perceptive Leader.” She stands here with the winning image, “Afro Goddess,” created with soft pastel, oil pastel, acrylic and charcoal stick on matboard. (Courtesy of Andrea McCoy Harvey)

When it’s time to paint, Emeryville artist Andrea McCoy Harvey sets aside the brushes. She prefers to use her hands, dipping her fingers into soft pastels and oil pastels — her favorite painting media — to build the rich depth and colors that bring her portraits of African American women to life. She dots acrylic paint on matboard to create texture in her subjects’ hair and jewelry. The results are striking. And big — most of her paintings range from 3 1/2 to 5  feet high.

McCoy Harvey’s work has captured the attention of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and starting on Saturday, her painting “Afro Goddess” will be on view at the museum as part of “The de Young Open.” The juried community show, which runs until Jan. 3, celebrates the museum’s 125th anniversary and includes the work of artists from nine Bay Area counties.

“The de Young Open’s” call for artists came out in March, and 6,190 Bay Area artists submitted their work, says de Young communications manager Shaquille Heath. A group of seven jurors that included well-known Bay Area artists Enrique Chagoya, Hung Liu and Mildred Howard narrowed the field to 762 artists who will be featured in the show. 

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An artist’s journey

McCoy Harvey’s journey to this moment started when she was a child growing up in Little Rock, Ark. Her father Olen McCoy, an art teacher and an artist who still works in Arkansas, was her role model. McCoy Harvey started teaching art as a long-term substitute at an elementary school in Little Rock while she was earning her bachelor degree in art education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The elementary school hired her full time after she graduated. She got married and had four children. For years, there wasn’t a lot of time to make art. 

In 1997, she left Arkansas for California, and she settled in Tracy. She continued to teach art. Three years ago, she moved to the Bay Area and started teaching art with the Emery Unified School District, where she continues to teach, via Zoom for now. Soon after she arrived in the Bay Area, she started her own business — Avant-Garde Art Studio by Andrea in Emeryville — where children and adults can make art. By then, her children were grown, and she found herself with more free time than she’d had in years. She started painting again.

New opportunities started to find her after she opened her studio. She started showing her pieces at Bay Area exhibitions. The Booker T. Washington Community Center was one of the first locations in San Francisco to showcase her work. She was also invited to show her art in corporate offices such as Facebook and Square. Her paintings have been exhibited at Impact Hub Oakland, now known as Evolve Oakland. And, she has been the featured artist at District, a wine bar in Oakland, since August 2019. 

“Perceptive Leader” was the second image that McCoy Harvey submitted to the de Young call. McCoy Harvey created this artwork with soft pastel, oil pastel, acrylic and charcoal stick on matboard. The subject’s jewelry includes a touch of gold leaf. (Courtesy of Andrea McCoy Harvey)

John Marsh, the general manager at District, says there are five artworks by McCoy Harvey hanging in the space. The venue is not seating people inside for now, but the paintings are visible from outside. It’s been well received: People often comment on the work, and a few of her pieces have sold. 

“Her artwork has been a wonderful addition to our venue,” Marsh says. “We’re happy to support local artists.”

She has arrived

“Afro Goddess” is part of a series by McCoy Harvey that is inspired by the beauty and strength of African American women. The subject of her painting is calm and present; she has arrived, McCoy Harvey says. Light bathes her face and body, imbuing the artwork with a sense of warmth and peace.

In this painting and others, McCoy Harvey has made her subject’s hair the dominant part of the composition. It’s a response to the criticism African American women have endured for years over their hair, particularly in the workplace. With her work, McCoy Harvey wants to show the beauty of her subjects’ hair, their bone structure and skin tone. To create the afro on “Afro Goddess,” McCoy Harvey layered acrylic paint and charcoal stick and used a flower stencil to create a glowing, shimmering effect.

“We are beautiful beings,” McCoy Harvey says. “We can wear our hair in braids and still be corporate, and be the CEO and own our own businesses. Girls need to see that. They need to see paintings where women have the same hair as they have.”

McCoy Harvey remembers visiting museums when she was growing up and never seeing artwork of women who had her hair and her skin tone. And she remembers the morning she received the news that her work was going to be shown at the de Young. She was getting ready for the day, and there was the email! 

“It was one of the best feelings,” she says. “It made me feel recognized as an artist.” 

What’s next?

More projects await McCoy Harvey. She was recently approached to create an artwork as part of the Jackson Park renaming project in Alameda. She’s thought a lot about what she will create and finally landed on a concept.

“I’ve decided the work will be about unity as a people and everyone coming together and understanding we are here to work together, not separately,” she says. “I’m taking the approach of being inclusive.” 

The de Young Open,” featuring 762 Bay Area artists, debuts this Saturday and runs through Jan. 3, 2021. The museum is open 9:30 a.m.-5:15 pm. Tuesdays-Sundays, at Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., San Francisco, (415) 750-3600. Admission is $15 for adults, and free for everyone on Saturdays.