Gary-Paul Barbosa Prince Raises Awareness Through Art

The Oakland artist seeks to produce art that raises awareness and advances critical thinking.


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Photos courtesy Gary-Paul Barbosa Prince

Oakland artist Gary-Paul Barbosa Prince has an inexhaustible wellspring of ideas that play out in a variety of expressions and media.

The youngest of six, he grew up in San Antonio, Texas, surrounded by his father’s collection of objets d’art. His parents were Mexican nationals and immersed him in the bicultural experience of living in a border state. He was mentored by close family friend, Bobbie Greathouse, a painter who discussed art with him and took him to visit local artists in their studios.

“San Antonio is very supportive of the art community, and I learned early on that art raises awareness and advances our critical thinking,” Barbosa Prince said.

Every summer he stayed with his grandparents in Muzquiz Coahuila, Mexico, a small pueblo with dirt streets in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Oriental, where locals gathered on the plaza at night and artists sold their wares. Barbosa Prince imagined himself as becoming one of those artists one day.

Barbosa Prince lives in East Oakland in the Vulcan Studios, moving from San Francisco in 1990 after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute.

“At that time, the Vulcan was just getting started after Oakland created the live/work designation to allow artists to occupy buildings that were not meant to be used as residences,” he said.

The Vulcan is in the Melrose neighborhood, and Barbosa Prince loves how the area is bustling with grocery stores, restaurants, and businesses with Hispanic flavor. “The Bay Area was a home in my heart before it became the physical place where I lived. I was meant to be here,” he said.

A day in the life of this artist is full but not routine. He may stay up all night working or start his day at 4 a.m., writing and drawing before venturing onto the streets. He carries a camera with him at all times, obsessively collecting content for his photography and video work. Back in his studio, which overlaps with five other artists, he aims to create work that is poetic and decipherable; he wants viewers to “get it.” In recent paintings, he has added voice balloons to imbue the work with the ability to speak. “Even when the work is deep, I want there to be an opening that the viewer can enter into,” he said. 

His work is by turns political and spiritual and certainly he is a skilled draftsman. Regarding genre labels, Barbosa Prince said he never wanted to be a political artist. “My education, background, and what is important to me are things that fall into that realm. It isn’t planned; it’s just what I am compelled to do,” he said.

Studies of Nietzsche and Marx left an impression as did courses he took from Angela Davis, who embedded “power to the people” and an acknowledgement that people must look out for one another. “What we do affects everyone else. When one of us hurts we all hurt, and when we have joy, it is shared by those around us,” Barbosa Prince said.

His time in northeastern Mexico finds its way into his work, too. “That part of Mexico is mystical with a great many stories of caballeros and indios meeting with spirits in the desert. All those things had an impact on my creative development,” he said.

He also cites MAD Magazine, which he discovered at age 4, as an influence, copying all the cartoons with Bic Banana Ink Crayons. The magazine’s cartoonists were his Picasso and Rembrandt. He includes artists Frans Hals, Hans Holbein, Gustave Courbet, Diego Rivera, and Andy Warhol among his later influences.

A founding board member for BridgeMaker-ARTS, a nonprofit gallery and arts center in Richmond, he also curates shows in Oakland and helps to mentor young artists. In 2004, he opened Inferno, the gallery space within the Vulcan, and runs it still.

“Everybody told me I was crazy, but I didn’t care. The big secret is you don’t open an art gallery to make money but out of a love of art and a desire to build community,” he said.

He is also working on several film projects with a group of creative partners, including a documentary on Sir Thomas More and a film on the history of the Vulcan. Barbosa Prince produces movies through his production studio, Swirlpop, and shoots and edits a YouTube show called Populence, based on his creative life.

His studio in Oakland has been the most productive space he has ever worked in, which he attributes to his connection with the people here. “Rich or poor, there is a light inside Oaklanders that shines brightly,” he said. And a daily walk at nearby South Shore Beach in Alameda brings peace and spiritual balance to this busy life.

Besides his Oakland space, he keeps an “art parlor” in Alameda, fashioned on the bottegas of his childhood summers.

Barbosa Prince has exhibited his work since 1985 and it is in private collections in the United States and abroad. A solo show at Autobody Fine Art (1517 Park St.) in Alameda opens Aug. 3, with a reception 6-9 p.m., and runs through Sept. 7. For more information, visit BarbosaPrince.com.

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