Story By: Veronica Foster
Featuring: Clarence Edward
Nashville Design Week 2022
We had the pleasure of interviewing Clarence Edward Simpson, owner of Cë Gallery in Madison, and new project, Cëcret, in Wedgewood Houston. What’s unique about his gallery experience is all about the “experience”. While curating shows seemed to be a natural evolution for Clarence Edward, it’s not just about the art on the walls. He makes art both elevated and approachable by first, setting the scene around a show and then hosting accessible pop-up events inspired directly by the essence of the artist. From regular sound bath meditations to unique events, like “Prosecco & P Funk” to go with the renowned funk musician, George Clinton’s, visual art showcase, Cëcret is clearly burgeoning into a special community. We know our Design Week community will want to join in to see “What’s New.”
It was a joy to get to know Clarence Edward, and I am just as excited to share an excerpt from our interview on July 25, 2022
Tell us a little bit about yourself! Since you’re a Nashville native who has lived out of state for awhile, how did you make your journey back home?
I am a Nashville Native, but I knew my goal was always to go to New York City. I was like, Nashville was not for me. I left Nashville right after high school at 17 and went to college in Memphis to study Communication and Fine Arts.
During my senior year, my advisors said, “you’re not going to graduate unless you do an internship.” In Memphis at the time all I had was Nike and FedEx. And I was like, I’m just too fabulous for this! Like, I cannot do it! I’ve always thrown underground parties, so I literally rented out a vacant space and just put all my friends’ artwork in one space. My family always had art around for sure, but I didn’t have a formal gallery or museum experience until I did it for myself. I had no idea. I had no idea I was doing shows, but people came in and bought work. My beginning phases were natural and just happened out of nowhere.
You said Nashville wasn’t for you, so why are you here? Why are you back?
I would do shows when I came home for the holidays, so I was doing shows in vacant dive bars at Printer’s Alley for locals. My family was like Nashville is growing, Nashville is progressing. During the pandemic, I was doing my research and I’m like why is Nashville popping up on Buzzfeed, why is it on everybody’s top 10 lists, so I’m like something has to be up. After year one, year two into the pandemic, I went to check out Atlanta for about three weeks. Studied. I’m like, Atlanta don’t need me, they got enough Black gay dudes. There’s so many of me here that I’m gonna just go home to Nashville. I hadn’t even realized SoHo house had opened in Nashville. And I was like, hold on, something’s happened. So let me just take this shot on this venue that I found.
So you just got back and last year, you already jumped right into Design Week to host an event. Clearly you’re thinking, “I just got home, we’re just gonna dive in”. You’ve been diving in since the beginning of time. Tell us about a special memory from the Design Week event you hosted.
I felt like I wasn’t ready for Design Week. To be honest. I remember when Hunter Claire and I first met and she was like, “You should do Design Week” and I’m like, “Girl, I just moved back home”. Like, I opened my business in February . Then I get an email from this girl named Camila who signed me up for Design Week. She said, “The program got chosen. We got work to do”.
I had to get a crash course on that in preparation for this event for design. Then in the midst of that I’m learning, the metaverse is becoming a phenomenon. It was definitely a challenge for me. But to see the gallery in the metaverse, in action on the wall, is still, to this day, one of my favorite videos on my Instagram page. I’m fortunate and thankful for Design Week putting us on the map on that level. Because after that, I feel like I have to maintain the standard. As Nashville grows, I know that Nashville Design Week is going to be something that people in other countries are going to look at as a source for design when they’re coming to Nashville. I’m just proud.
The theme for Design Week this year is “What’s New”, so what feels new for you? Since you’re coming home does it feel new?
Oh, everything feels new, actually. I mean, I drive around and I forget some of the things that were there before. I spent years in New York just hoping and wishing and dreaming for like this moment. And in New York, it would have taken me 20 years to get to this level. The Nashville community is so welcoming and so open. As soon as you come here and you say, what you want to do, the resources start coming. It’s in your hands, whether you make it happen or not. If you’re authentic, you bring your role, then the arts community will support you. I want to say in terms of newness, it’s just inspirations that I’ve seen in other places that I’m excited to bring home to a lot of new people.
That’s really good insight. Do you feel like the welcoming aspect of Nashville is what’s so unique about the art scene? Or do you think there’s something else there?
Yes, and it’s not common, especially in the art world. I mean, it’s a gatekeeping industry. Because art is a luxury, you know, it’s not a necessity. It’s something that you know, you got to be in rooms, you got to be in a certain space, speak certain languages, and it can be it can get to a level of pretentiousness, but Nashville because it has such a small art community, but it’s very, very vibrant. And I think music has a lot to do with that as well. And I think that because music and art are not too far from each other, that it’s an easy flow. It’s a genuine flow. And I love that about Nashville specifically.
You also have this background in communications and it’s clear your space is so much more than just curating the art on the walls. We walked into the space and there was music playing that created this funk vibe that set the tone before you even processed seeing George Clinton’s “Grooves from the Deep” show on the walls.
The experience is very important to me. Every artist that I work with, it’s almost like we start with a therapy session. I ask, “when you created that piece, what mood did you have, what candle did you have on or what music were you playing,” because at the end of the day, it does matter. Artists feel fulfilled when whatever they were trying to express is related to the audience.
It’s my job as a curator to make sure that when you walk in here, you feel like you walked into the artist’s thought process.
That’s so special. I want to sit down with you and be a fly on the wall when you’re having those conversations.
It’s my job as a curator to make sure that when you walk in here, you feel like you walked into the artist’s thought process or their studio. With George Clinton, he wanted minimalism, and he wanted the art to be the focus in the funk, because everybody ideally sees him as a legendary musician when he’s actually more than that.
You know, what I love is that within these pieces, people who are diehard George Clinton fans see the connection, they see the mathematics, the atomic dog, the spaceships, the Funkadelic part of it, and then being able to, like make these connections.
Do you think the general public is more appreciative of art and getting to do these moments now?
I’m literally getting bombarded. If my sign’s out there, they’re coming in. Nashville is just not accustomed to a Black man gallerist. There’s only two Black-owned galleries in the city that are already very eclectic. I don’t like the level of being intimidated by gallery experiences. I bring in a very underground view. I love to have music. I love to have DJs and parties, date nights, and meditations amongst the work.
I’m bringing in underground artists who honestly probably have never been to Downtown galleries or some have never been shown in galleries before. It’s just the world that I’ve liked being in and been intrigued by, just educating people on having an artist statement, having PDFs of your work, the commission process, the measurement of how your work should be displayed, etc.
I also tell every artist that I work with, “your work is going to be on display, but be prepared for your work to be an interactive experience.” I want galleries to be very accessible, like I want to be open at midnight amongst the mecca of creativity rather than close at 5 pm on a Saturday.
Is there anyone who’s inspiring you right now?
One of my best friends just opened a coffee shop called No Free Coffee right down the street. His name is Mario Christian and was doing very very well and people always wanted to have coffee dates with him just to like, pick his brains, and he was just like no more free coffee dates with people, so that’s where “no free coffee” came from. He just moved back home to open his coffee shop and to see people’s reaction and then being receptive to it… it’s almost like an out of body experience.