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Artist Keisha Finnie illustrates the world beyond her canvas

Keisha Finnie

Keisha Finnie, pictured with her work, "The Journey." Photograph by Lunga Bechtel

Artist Keisha Finnie has never been more grateful for her air conditioner.

Finnie, 28, recently finished a mural for Music for Everyone on the Penn Square Garage on Duke Street, which she brought to life over a series of days filled with punishing heat.

“I would have to start at 3 and sometimes 5 p.m. to work on that,” Finnie says over the phone. “One of the days I could only work for an hour because of the heat. It was bad.”

In the last several months, Finnie has left her mark in a huge way in Lancaster city by way of a handful of public art pieces. Some, like the Music for Everyone mural, with its wavy piano and city skyline, portray light and joy through vibrant colors. Those same vibrant colors, a hallmark of Finnie’s work, also mark pieces of public art that served as COVID-19 warnings and tributes to Black Lives Matter protests.

‘The Journey’

Though the checkered walls of the city have been her canvas most recently, Finnie is far from limited to the medium of murals. She has worked with everything from acrylic and oil paints to henna tattooing.

“With someone like Keisha, it’s not hard when they have the hardworking passion and desire,” says Matthew Lawrence, a longtime art teacher at McCaskey High School who initially inspired Finnie to work at her art. “With other kids, I just try to show them my love of art and hope it rubs off.”

With Lawrence’s initial spark, Finnie continued to create in the years following high school. She finally began selling her artwork — paintings depicting foliage, space and, on one occasion, the cover of Childish Gambino’s “Because the Internet” —online and in local art markets.

“I feel like my use of color and subject matter (defines my work), and I guess the feeling that I try to put in every piece,” Finnie says. “I always try to resemble myself in any kind of way, whether it’s women that kind of look like me, or things that I like, nature, hiking, other artists who inspire me.”

In 2016, a car accident left Finnie unable to create art for several months. As that pain gave way to recovery, so did Finnie’s unintended stagnancy lead to more assurance as a blossoming artist.

Titled “The Journey,” Finnie’s first painting back is still a favorite of the artist three years later. “The Journey,” with its swirls of yellow, orange and purple, represents the promise of growth, in its arresting image of a colorful, crying face and words such as “The light … after the darkness” and “Live free, cherish life.”

“It’s the first piece that I feel like I really put my all and my emotions into, and I think you can see that in it,” Finnie says of the 2017 painting.

Around this time, fellow artist Adam Serrano met Finnie through her art, as well as being a fellow McCaskey High School graduate.

“Being a young woman of color who absolutely owns her artistic ability, that to me is so impactful,” Serrano says. “I’m Puerto Rican, but I look white, so I spend a lot of my life putting people that I grew up with either ahead of me or next to me. It’s easy for a gallery owner to listen to me and understand what I’m saying, and then when they’re not looking, I sneak in some of my brown friends.”

With the assistance of illCurrency, a Lancaster clothing brand, and encouragement from Serrano, Finnie began selling shirts and other merchandise featuring prints of “The Journey.” As with henna art, Finnie used apparel as a way to make the human form her canvas.

Mural making

When COVID-19 quarantining began in March, Lancaster Public Art put out the call for artists to contribute temporary murals to help spread vital information to fight the virus. Nearly 75 Lancaster artists answered the call, and Finnie was among 10 who were chosen.

Outside of a larger work she had done for the Annex 24 gallery in 2017, Finnie did not have the experience of creating a work on the scale of a public, 8-by-8-foot mural. And what’s more, each artist had only 10 days to bring the task to completion. Serrano, himself a mural and public art veteran, as well as one of the 10 artists chosen for the project, helped Finnie with finding specific art supplies and supersizing Finnie’s art.

“There was a selection team of seven folks who picked the artists for the (public service announcement) murals, and one of the things that they were debating was, ‘Well, she didn't have any large-scale works to show.’ So it became, ‘Do we take this leap of faith to say that she'll be able to complete a work of this scale with only a week to do it?’ ” says Jo Davis, public art manager for Lancaster city. “But knowing her, I was really excited that they were willing to take the leap.”

The mural is displayed outside Ross Elementary School, where Finnie took her first art class as a child. The image portrays a Black woman, head in hand, with colorful flowers blooming from her head next to the text “Nurture your mind.”

“I wanted to not only make something to remind myself, but to remind other people about their mental health, especially during these times,” Finnie says.

Art as activism

As spring gave way to summer, concerns over COVID-19 were compounded by anger about the police killing of George Floyd, as well as untold other Black men and women, in a tide of racial violence.

“Activism was something that we kept bringing up because Keisha wanted to do more for her community, but didn’t know how,” Serrano says. “I told her, ‘Look, if art is your only weapon, then you have to figure out how to cause some damage with it.’ ”

That advice aligned with Davis’ hopes for the city’s public art program.

“We were looking for ways for demonstrators to have a pathway through expression, especially in that first week of June, to express their pain, anger and demands in a way that could be marked in public and learned from,” Davis says.

Finnie participated in the protests in Lancaster city in late May and early June. On the fourth day of protests, Finnie went to the Art Park, wedged between the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design and the Lancaster City Police Bureau at Chestnut and Prince streets. She sketched George Floyd's face onto a vinyl banner duct-taped to the concrete divider between the park and police station. After working on the sketch, Finnie was approached by the city and PCAD to help create some sort of collaborative piece for the park.

“It’s kind of like we’re giving it new life and making it part of the movement,” Finnie says. “I love that PCAD is giving over the arts space for any kind of local organization to do that type of thing, so for them to give me permission to sort of do whatever I wanted with that space was really great.”

Within days, Finnie had an idea and a small group of collaborators. After crowdsourcing the names of several dozen Black and brown people who died in police custody, Finnie reached out to Serrano to find the images and backstories of these people for a collage-based mural.

“We had originally intended for it to go on the wall that borders the park and the police station, but then after further conversations, it felt like the timing wasn’t right,” Davis says. “But luckily, we had the giant wooden board there and the artists were able to use that.”

With an assist from Two Dudes Painting Co. and Benchmark Construction, Finnie and Serrano, as well as artists Kaya Hobbs and Kearasten Jordan, were able to pivot quickly to creating the work on a large wooden board.

The finished piece, “Say Their Names,” invites onlookers to do just that. While the pictures themselves are black and white, Finnie once again added flourishes of color, most noticeably with bright yellow crowns above the heads of Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and others. Additionally, photographers around the city donated images of protests in Lancaster city. The piece was completed in four hours.

“There’s something strange about visiting the site the next day and seeing an entire family praying at it like a vigil, crying and lighting candles,” Serrano says.

With an additional push from PCAD, Finnie and the artists, this time joined by artist Eleazar Jimenez, returned the next week to recreate the “Ampersand” structure in the art park, similarly collaging it with images of protests and unrest.

“Your medium as an artist shouldn’t really define you,” Lawrence says. “So if you think about Keisha, she’s not really defined by a mural, or by her henna hand paintings. I think in this moment, she was very quick to stand up and say, ‘Well, this is wrong and art is going to show you why this is wrong.’ ”

‘Broad range’

Some artists would look at several defining works in different mediums as a good excuse to rest, but commissions continue to pour in.

“Keisha deserves every ounce of attention that she’s getting right now,” Serrano says.

That’s how Finnie found herself on Duke Street in 90-plus degree temperatures painting piano keys for Music for Everyone. With the nonprofit’s Keys for the City initiative canceled this summer due to the impossibility of keeping public pianos sanitary, Music for Everyone recruited artists like Finnie to spread a musical message at a time when it’s in short supply.

“It’s a different subject that I’ve never done before, and I’m using some new techniques that I’ve been playing around with, like spray paint,” Finnie says. “I’ve been having fun with it.”

Davis believes this is just the beginning for Finnie.

“It’s been fun to see her take these opportunities as they come up,” Davis says. “I think she has a broad range, and I think there’s so much more to see. I think she’s just getting started.”

Serrano, too, says he’s excited to see what the future holds for Finnie.

“I want Keisha to represent the next generation of artists that are wanting to make noise,” Serrano says. “Keisha represents young, Black female artists that are truly what Lancaster represents. Lancaster isn’t the retired homes, the coffee shops and new buildings. Keisha is what Lancaster is now: a young, millennial girl of color trying to basically make a living off of who she is as a person. It’s more important now than ever to lift someone like that up and give her her dues because she is going to be one of the people to pay it forward.”

Now that the Music for Everyone mural is completed, it’s back to working on art at home for Finnie. She hopes to continue to let her activism inform her art, and vice versa.

“Before this, I never used my art in this way, as activism, you could say,” Finnie says. “So it’s something that I didn’t think I could do. But I’m also really proud of myself for being a part and stepping up.”

More info: To see and purchase Keisha Finnie’s work, visit