Ciel is the Limit

Visual storyteller tackles issues with art

By Jessica Laskey
February 2021

It seems like a happy coincidence that Jessa Ciel’s last name means “sky” in French. The sky is truly the limit for this creative force who is a photographer, filmmaker, professor, activist, Black Artists Fund board member, and owner and founder of visual storytelling agency IAMCIEL. And she’s just getting started.

“I often feel like I’m a late bloomer,” admits Ciel, 36, who went back to school at age 30 to earn her MFA in photography from the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. “But I want to have the time to come to the choices that I come to and know that they’re mine. That I’m not doing it for somebody else. I’m doing it for me.”

Ciel was raised in Boulevard Park (three blocks away from her current home) in what she calls a “matriarchal household.” Both her mother and grandmother were poets who instilled in Ciel a love of words and the social conscience that guides much of her work. The two women founded one of Sacramento’s earliest poetry open mic series in the 1990s at Carol’s Books and Things on Freeport Boulevard. Much of their work dealt with issues such as incarceration and Black men being shot in the streets—poems that Ciel points out could have been written today.

“What’s happening right now is not surprising. It’s the outcome of anger and injustice in our country that’s boiled over,” Ciel says. “For non-Black people, this is something they’re just starting to be cognizant of. For a lot of us in the Black community, we’ve been in this space of mourning our Black brothers and sisters for our entire lives—it’s a normal part of what it is to be Black in America.

“For me, what’s interesting about this particular moment is to try and see it through other people’s eyes. Everyone is still not on the same page, so we keep coming back. It’s a circular narrative. We have to confront that this is not how humanity should operate. That we deserve better.”

It took Ciel some time to figure out her own narrative. After graduating with her BA in film from Cal State Los Angeles and finding work at a documentary film studio, Ciel realized that her dream of making blockbusters at Sony Pictures might not be what she wanted after all. She found the film industry toxic and unwelcoming to her voice as a Black female artist, so she left LA and decided to regroup in Sacramento. Through a photography class at American River College (where she now teaches as an adjunct professor), Ciel met professor Jodie Hooker, who gave her the advice that would prove to be a turning point.

“Jodie said that I have a really strong voice, but that I need to channel it into things I care about,” Ciel says. “That’s when I started to learn to express issues I care about visually, and people really responded to it.”

After freelancing for a while, Ciel decided to further hone her skills at art school—which proved to be yet another turning point. Cranbrook Academy of Art is located in Bloomfield Hills, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country just north of Detroit, one of the most economically depressed cities in the country. The culture shock of overt racism and classism Ciel encountered there strengthened her resolve to carve out her artistic identity.

When Ciel returned to Sacramento in 2016, her visual storytelling agency IAMCIEL was born. The one-woman company produces all kinds of projects, including documentaries, videos and visual art installations, live streaming and social media content. One such project—a livestream conversation series called Lift Every Voice—introduced Ciel to Faith McKinnie, founder of the Black Artists Fund, who tapped Ciel to sit on the advisory board of the organization that raises money on GoFundMe to support local Black artists.

“Now I approach every project by asking, where can I be of most service?” Ciel says. “You can decide what your life is going to be. The less you’re attached to other people’s visions and outcomes for you, the more you can have the life you want. It’s worth it.”

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Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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