by Jessica Harris
Photography may be a hobby to some, but to Jay Simple, it serves as a compass for navigating life’s terrain.
Recently appointed Executive Director of The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative (PAI), a Charlottesville-based community arts organization, Jay is a photographer whose craft serves a twofold purpose as mirror and magnifying glass.
“As an artist,” he shared, “my goal is to find ways of communicating to an audience my experiences, and to do that not in a way that’s self-serving – but to find these throughlines that resonate in the world around us.”
“I operate in this world as a Black man, and that brings with it its own particular outlooks and experiences. So, my artistic endeavor is to contemplate, to look at, to question those experiences – to create space for others to contemplate themselves,” he said.
The Bridge PAI is “a cultural hub, offering dynamic, inclusive, and accessible opportunities for creative thinking and artistic pursuits.” The organization focuses on exhibitions, workshops, artistic production, and community partnership. These values align well with Jay’s desire to foster creativity, enthusiasm for education, and passion for connection.
Jay is no stranger to the arts, having been immersed in creative expression since a young age. He has followed his creative passions throughout his career, receiving a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Fine Arts in photography and subsequently holding teaching positions at Longwood University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and The New School in New York City. A prolific artist with a sharp eye and keen vision, he’s exhibited at numerous galleries and is well-known in the arts field. You can view his portfolios at www.jaysimple.com.
Yet his artistic practice is not relegated to frames and gallery walls; it extends into community organizing and advocacy. As burgeoning interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) spread amongst white arts groups in the summer of 2020, they often turned to Jay and his fellow photographers of color to solicit how-tos on inclusive practices. The groups would ask “‘Hey, how do we become diverse?’” – or, even more transactionally, “Can we pay you to diversify?”
Thus, to support photographers of color navigating this world of white artists’ increasing awareness, he and his colleagues created the Photographer’s Green Book (PGB). PGB was inspired by the Negro Motorist Green Book (1936-1966) which offered a list of safe spaces for Black motorists to stop during the era of segregation in the United States.
In a similar vein, PGB provides a list of spaces across the US that are supportive of diverse artists. It includes a list of questions on DEI work that organizations can ask themselves so artists of color are not taxed with the burden of educating. It is a resource guide for photographers filled with articles and books that utilize scholarship outside of the white lens (no pun intended). And now, the group even runs a residency program for artists of the global majority.
Jay notes how PGB, which he continues to direct, is a microcosm of the world that non-white folks charter. “Whether we know about [the Negro Motorist’s Green Book] or not…we have to create systems to navigate rough terrain every day….”
He’s carried this understanding with him throughout his life and artistic career. However, it is not only Jay’s artistic excellence and sociopolitical focus that seem to make him a great fit to serve as Executive Director of The Bridge. It is his passion for collaboration, representation, and connection that make him well-suited to run a nonprofit designed to “bridge diverse communities through the arts.”
Upon his arrival in July of 2022, Jay named listening to the needs of the community as a primary focus, and The Bridge has certainly gone above and beyond in doing so. For starters, the organization recently offered a survey, asking the Charlottesville arts community to share their top needs and desires. Space to be and create art was named as a primary need. Funding resources, equipment, and professional development, as well as a more interconnected artistic community followed closely behind.
Towards that end, an exciting point on the horizon is the opening of The Bridge’s new space, planned to launch by April 2023. Soon to be positioned off the Downtown Mall at 3rd and Water St, this new studio and coworking space is designed specifically for collaboration. It will provide essential and high-tech tools needed for creative work and the opportunity to connect and collaborate with other artists.
A key theme of this space is accessibility. Rather than a high cost for studio space, which Jay says can run around hundreds of dollars a month, The Bridge will offer studio space through a membership program they are fundraising for to be free of charge to artists and creatives. And, as part of its focus on education and professional development, The Bridge will also provide accessible workshops and courses on various topics.
“We want a space where reducing the barriers of cost for a studio and a need for creating community can be brought together,” Jay stated.
Other things on The Bridge’s horizon include an artist award with Live Arts’ New Works Festival WATERWORKS in collaboration with Adrienne Oliver, Director of New Work, and the Unsettling Grounds residency with artist Marisa Willamson. In this new space, The Bridge plans to partner with over twenty community organizations – ranging from arts groups to education nonprofits to entrepreneurs – all of whom Jay hopes can utilize The Bridge to create a “community space where we are mutually benefiting one another.”
As for the future? Jay remains humble about his position and work, sharing that we can “expect for The Bridge to continue its effort of being responsive to the needs of our community.” Jay also shared that the organization continues to expand its definition of “artist” and seeks to include communities that have not been as deeply represented in the arts world. His hope for five years from now is that the organization can pause, reflect on its progress, and ask: “what’s next?”
In the meantime, Jay will use his artistic practice and administration to support others as they move through their journeys. He hopes the Charlottesville community will continue to connect with The Bridge and with one another in the new space, and thus we all might more creatively navigate this world together.
To get involved with The Bridge, you can subscribe to their newsletter by visiting https://thebridgepai.org/newsletter, donate to help support their new creative center at https://thebridgepai.org/support, or email Jay at email@example.com.