Storyteller in the Sun

Masterful San Francisco artist Serge Gay blends dreams and reality into his unique, personal narrative paintings
Serge Gay
'End of an Era,' from Serge Gay's 2019 15-piece acrylic-and-graphite project focusing on Palm Springs. "All the people shown are friends," he says.

Multitasking has always come easy for Serge Gay Jr., though it hasn't always been satisfying.

He's a painter who's worked in a series of shifting looks—apocalyptic, claustrophobic canvasses one season, Palm Springs mid-century modern poolside fantasies another.

He also has a parallel career in film, painting backgrounds and other designs for music videos, one of which was nominated for a Grammy. "We lost to Lady Gaga," Gay says.

In San Francisco, Gay, 37, is winning fans for murals both street-side and inside businesses, and working full-time as a fine and commercial artist.

He has been known to model fashion on occasion, and he serves on the committee overseeing the remodel of Harvey Milk Plaza in the City's Castro District. He also creates art for events put on by Juanita More, the famed San Francisco drag queen, who did much to make Gay part of an artistic scene.

"Being a visual artist, it doesn't matter to me what the material is," Gay says. "I'm always happy."

Serge Gay
Another view of Palm Springs through the eyes and art of Serge Gay. Above: 'Flamingo Party.' "I know for sure I'm going to get a place in Palm Springs in the future," Gay says of his new love.

What ties Gay's personal art together is his commitment to storytelling. And behind that, friends and family say, is the artist's devotion to friends and family, relations he works on as fervently as he works on his art.

"I take people's stories and make a painting that intertwines with my story," Gay says. "It's only people that I know—it's friends, it's family, it's relatives." It is also Gay's imagination. "It's a mixture of memory and fantasy," he says.

Being gay, Black, and Haitian has had "everything, literally everything" to do with the development of his art, Gay says. But it took him a while to figure that out.

A decade or so ago, Gay was taking any art or design job he could get. T-shirts were a specialty for years. He did graphic design, logos, and websites, and was exhibiting canvases in group shows. "I was doing art to fit in, and it helped get me a lot of shows. But it was not me," he says of his earlier work.

"Three years ago I had an awakening. I needed to stop pleasing others and start doing work for myself. I had to incorporate those things—where I'm from and who I am."

Gay was born in Haiti to a prosperous family. His father is a ceramic artist who owns a workshop creating pottery and other ceramics. The family immigrated to Queens, New York, when Serge was 3, and they later lived in Miami.

  Serge Gay
Gay pictured here in his San Francisco studio.
 

Gay studied art at an arts high school in Florida and at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. He was counting on an internship at Disney that would lead to a full-time job—but a fellow student with connections nosed him out, Gay says.

Instead of a design job in Hollywood, Gay opted for freelancing in San Francisco, a city he had visited and fallen in love with. The City didn't fall in love with him back, at least not immediately. At one point Gay was selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door all the way in Novato. "How did I end up in this?" he thought.

Life is more comfortable today for Gay, who lives with his husband, Michael Piscitelli, in a Twin Peaks apartment with a home studio.

Gay isn't the sort of artist who mines relationships for his art while turning his back on people who inspired his stories. What impresses Piscitelli is how many friends Gay retains from his past and how he goes out of his way to keep close.

"It's very nice and it's very selfless," Piscitelli says, adding, "He talks to his mom all the time."