The Queer Healing Art Center buzzed with excitement this past Saturday as artists prepared their bright white canvases, paintbrushes, and acrylic paint for an Art Battle.  

This was the Queer Healing Art Center’s one-year anniversary of hosting Art Battles—live competitions where artists paint blank canvases while surrounded by an audience. About 100 people attended Saturday’s event.

The audience watches as artists battle outside the Queer Healing Art Center. Credit: Florence Middleton

“As soon as the paintbrush hits the canvas, everyone is electrified,” said Kin Folkz, né Monica Anderson, co-founder and executive director of the Queer Healing Art Center.

There were three 20-minute rounds. Six artists competed in the first round, followed by another six in the second. Guests used their phones after each round to vote, and five artists advanced to the final round. 

Monica Anderson, who goes by Kin Folkz, welcomes the crowd to the first-anniversary Art Battle. Credit: Florence Middleton

Artist Juliette Leong immediately stood out, in part because of her big yellow bow and light-up shoes that sparkled as she approached her canvas. Leong is Art Battle’s youngest-ever competitor at age 6. But she was not nervous, she said. 

When asked what she was going to paint, Leong replied, “You just have to wait and see.”

Juliette Leong paints her first art piece of the night. Credit: Florence Middleton

Juliette painted a cityscape with fireworks in a black sky and people wearing glittery dresses. 

The Art Center, located in the heart of Lakeshore Avenue’s commercial corridor, opened as a brick-and-mortar in 2020 just weeks before shelter-in-place. 

“This pandemic was, for many of us, one of the latest in a long line of various pandemics,” Folkz said. “Everyone was experiencing heartache.” 

Rosa Adams, left, and Wendy Trattner, right, compete in the first round. Credit: Florence Middleton

The Art Center’s members wanted to find ways to support their community. They started a trans and non-binary caravan to circle Lake Merritt with their art-adorned vehicles and bring awareness to their COVID experiences. They served close to 20,000 meals to unhoused and housed people. And in 2021, they started Oakland Art Battles. 

Rosa Adams’ paint, before and after the competition round. Credit: Florence Middleton

Shortly after 8:00 p.m., the artists dropped their brushes and the audience inspected the art and cast their final votes. 

Diego Gomez, 40, of San Francisco captivated the audience with two monster-themed masterpieces that night. Gomez walked away with gold, qualifying for the Art Battle regional competition. 

Oakland Art Battle’s winner, Diego Gomez, works on his final art piece as the audience watches. Credit: Florence Middleton

The evening ended with a silent auction of the freshly painted artwork. 

Summar Abdallah, 28, of Oakland competes in the final round. “I’m nervous,” she said, before the event started. Credit: Florence Middleton

Diane Chan, 72, reflected on the paintings. “None are alike. They’re all beautiful,” she said. “This is my very first event and it will not be my last.”

For Folkz, these art competitions are about community, art as healing, but also, survival. 

Tara Rocker-Bates focuses on her art piece in round one of the competition. Credit: Florence Middleton

This past year the Queer Healing Art Center struggled to keep its doors open. The revenue from Art Battles helps to pay the rent. Saturday’s Art Battle raised about $2,000 from ticket sales. 

More than anything, Folkz says, the events are like a family gathering.

Tajae Keith creates a painting in just 10 minutes as part of the event’s opening activities. Keith was the first-place artist in the last Oakland Art Battle that took place in July 2022. Credit: Florence Middleton

“It’s an environment of collective self-care. We’re all in it together. It’s less about the creation itself and more about the process of [making art] together,” they said. 

The Queer Healing Art Center has two upcoming exhibits: Marsha Marsha Marsha and Bejeweled. The next Art Battle is scheduled for Dec. 3, 2022.

This story was produced by and co-published with Oakland North.

Florence Middleton is a visual journalist based in Oakland, California. She joined The Oaklandside as a photojournalist intern through a partnership with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she is pursuing a master’s degree. Florence’s work focuses on themes of community, women, and culture, and she has covered stories both locally and globally. Florence is the recipient of the 2023 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellowship and the 2023 Dorothea Lange Fellowship honorable mention.