KC Cancer survivor is empowering women of color to celebrate their natural hair

Photography by Laura Morsman.

KC native and artist Crissi Curly, née Christa Rice, started exploring her artistic abilities over seven years ago, when doctors feared she had a cancerous tumor while pregnant with her son.

Curly had never explored her artistic talents until she had a vision of a Black woman with hidden messages in her hair. Because Curly couldn’t be active after her post-cancer surgeries, she decided to use her time to make her vision a reality. She began creating art focused on Black women using mixed mediums and everyday objects with various textures like plastic water bottles and yarn.

“Art is a story,” Curly says. “My art is going to live on when I am not here anymore. For me, being scared with the whole C-word of cancer, art has still been in the forefront—even in the traumatic last few years. Art has helped me stay focused on my mission, especially when you’re threatened that life may end.”

For Curly, a behavior specialist that incorporates art therapy at Raytown High School, the mission is to help people express themselves. She also aims to empower people through her celebratory art and through KC Curly—an annual event that brings together girls and women of color to celebrate their natural hair.

Tell us about the beginning of your art career. I couldn’t walk for some time without having chronic pain [post-cancer], and I had to sit down. That’s when the art started to grow. Art helped me regain my confidence and realize I can create something from my head and put it out on paper. I started teaching other people those ideas through my mobile paint and sip [classes]. I have art classes for any age. Once you learn the basics of art, I believe that you can do anything. Eventually, my family and friends started coming with me [to showcases at First Fridays in the Crossroads]. I love curating art events and helping people of color to be represented in the Crossroads.

How does your social work background affect your art practices? I believe art therapy is a great way to open up people’s minds and help them express themselves when they don’t know what to say. Art helps people put their feelings on paper without actually writing it. When it comes to art, I can help our community understand or process some of their feelings before they react. I help them to recognize [their feelings] and how to cope. 

What inspires your art? I want to show that natural hair is actually very beautiful. When I go to a museum, often it’s not a representation of Black women in a beautiful light. Instead, they’re in a cornfield or enslaved and their hair is covered. Growing up, I had very thick hair and to certain people it would be [considered] unmanageable. I grew up insecure, thinking that my hair needed to be straight, and a lot of us in the community have felt that same way.

Tell us about KC Curly. It started with the first art piece [a mixed media portrait of a Black woman]. Then I started wearing my afro and I didn’t feel like I was pretty. So I put a status on Facebook that I was going to have a photoshoot to uplift everybody that is transitioning to natural hair. Once I started talking to more women, they were feeling the same way I was feeling. Hearing their stories of them transitioning to natural hair and how their boss said it wasn’t professional—this is not just me, this is our whole community feeling like this. I love the fact that I can bring the community together because of something that society has made us feel as if we were not beautiful for—showing little girls that you are beautiful. I wish I had that when I was little.  

Follow @crissitheartist on Instagram for events or to book a paint-and-sip party. Visit kccurly.com to learn more about KC Curly.

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