DAAP artists paint hope in the streets with Black Lives Matter mural
UC talent plays integral part in sharing important message in downtown Cincinnati
While cities across the country are alive with the sounds of change, many streets are also chiming in through art. Arising from the pavement in major parts of urban America are bold, bright messages roaring the words "Black Lives Matter."
But a monochromatic missive wasn't enough for Cincinnati.
"Our moving mural does more than shout Black Lives Matter," says Adoria Maxberry, a recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). "Each letter tells a story of hope and social justice. Inspired by the movement organizer and Urban League board chair Alandes Powell's poem, titled 'We want what you want,' our team of designers created individual messages within each block letter touting, 'Reflections on the past and hope for the future.'"
UC artists go to work
Within two days, teams of painters turned black pavement into a display of bright red, green and black color and form — portraying poignant reflections of a past that should have never been and new messages of hope, equality and social justice.
"The whole project was fantastic," says Flavia Bastos, UC distinguished professor of DAAP's arts education program. "During the two days of painting, the street was calm, prideful and there was such incredible energy in the air.
"Everybody was so focused and the designs were so different, but they all complimented each other. It was like a beehive of activity that energized my day and made me so proud of our students and alums," she adds.
Bastos only learned about the project after her research assistant for the year, Ryan Tinney, mentioned how he would be busy for a few days on a side project.
"When I heard about the project I reached out to Latausha Cox, my former classmate and lead artist on one of the letters," says Tinney, a DAAP master's degree student in arts education. "While assembling her team of painters, she asked me, as well as my brother Ross, a 2017 DAAP grad and Lincoln Heights elementary art teacher, to join in.
"Seeing all the different colors, styles and ideas behind the different designs unfold before my eyes was awesome."
1) To raise my kids in peace
2) To provide for my family
3) To live in peace free from unjust prosecution
4) To be treated equally, fairly and just
5) For rules that oppress people like me to be lifted
6) For any system that negatively impacts my family to be eradicated
7) To truly see this as a land of opportunity
8) To witness my children grow into adults
9) To play with my grandchildren and celebrate as they graduate from college
10) To walk into a place of education and know it is truly used to educate
11) For others to see the males in my life gentle Men with kind hearts and not thugs and criminals
13) Equal pay, equal opportunity, and to know you desire my presence at your professional table and not just tolerate it.
14) Gun control
15) Silence is complicit
16) A safe space for Black artists
In what seemed like a whirlwind to the artists, the project — supported by the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, ArtWorks and ArtsWave — went from its initial idea on a Sunday to laying down the first splash of paint on a Wednesday afternoon.
Two days after, in front of city council members, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and hundreds of peaceful supporters, during the city's Juneteenth celebration, a "Black Lives Matter!" street statement was unveiled ringing loud and clear through bright motifs of colorful expression.
"What makes our Cincinnati mural different from all the others across the country is using each letter to portray a unique design," says artist Cox. "Instead of solid colors, we designed figures inside the block letters to portray a poignant message."
Cox received a Director's Choice Award this spring for her final DAAPworks project titled "Illustrative Becoming." In a series of sketch illustrations, she portrays her experiences with microaggressions growing up to now being very proud of being a Black arts educator. "A positive characteristic I want to lead with instead of relegating it as just a small part of my identity," she shares.
"My letter 'E' from the word 'Lives' represents education. As an art educator, that is important content to me."
So much of the way we have structured the philosophy of the arts education program is to think of educators as agents of change. We talk about race and social issues and the integrity of art, so it’s really lovely to see these recent grads taking on the responsibility themselves to do the work that we have in many ways taught them is important to do.
Flavia Bastos UC distinguished professor of DAAP arts education program
Art as impact
As project manager over design teams and on-site logistics, Brandon Hawkins, a 2008 African American Studies grad with a certificate in fine arts from DAAP, wanted everyone to have equal opportunity to express themselves about their individual designs but was careful to make sure the mural's visual content was uniform.
"Since no one has ever done this in any other city, I felt we should create the mural in Pan-African colors that all Black folks can relate to, which defines red as representing the noble blood that unites all people of African ancestry, the color black for the people and green for the rich land of Africa," says Hawkins, also co-owner and lead teaching artist of Soul Palette. "From a distance, viewers will see one color flowing into the other with only slight accents but won't really see the detail until they get closer and the unique details and accents come into view."
Art is a visual catalyst to get the mind thinking, but he says it needs to go farther than that. This mural, and art in general, is really about starting conversations.
"If you can get a person to walk up to this mural or a work of art and a conversation happens, then in that conversation the fear of the unknown can begin to break down," says Hawkins. "These conversations are where the stereotypes, prejudices and assumptions about people you don't know begin to stop — where people start to understand each other and stop being in fear of the other, and that's really what this whole movement is all about.
"We want to get folks to open up to one another and to realize that 'what I want is what you want,' and here, we're doing this through art."
Hidden within the other letter "E" from the word "Matter" are designs from Cincinnati artist Cedric Michael Cox, another former student of Bastos and no relation to Latausha. After graduating DAAP with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1999, he has enjoyed a 20-year career exhibiting paintings and drawings that fall between surrealism and representational abstraction.
Cedric's silhouette of a family arising from the horizon thoughtfully aligns with line two of Powell's poem, "To provide for my family." The sun's rays intertwine within the tree of life and the figures and invoke a sense of fertility, ongoing life and lineage, he says.
"The compositional breakup of space helps to create an all-over climax of parts and shapes everywhere," says Cedric. "The designs within the whole pictorial space are reflective of my art, which has the same kind of vibe and vibrant colors I carefully weave into my abstract paintings."
The silhouettes are especially important, he says, as they represent anyone from any culture being able to put themselves inside those people and relate to what they are looking at.
Believing strongly in dialogue and conversation, Cedric says he is frequently asked by his non-Black friends why Black lives matter.
"Our response as African Americans is to say, 'All lives cannot matter until Black lives matter,'" he says. "At the same time, the conversation still continues about the ongoing perception that our opinions don't belong and that they do not matter."
There is still a feeling of disenchantment when it comes to police brutality, he says, and the solution has a lot to do with our communities and our education system.
"I just want people to understand who we are and how we think and to not marginalize us into an unwanted demographic or one that doesn't exist."
Promise of new life
On the other end of the mural, Adoria Maxberry, a recent graduate of UC DAAP arts education master's degree program, took the lead on the enormous "M" from the word "Matter," choosing it because it signifies her last name and company logo.
"Throughout my design, figures pop up through sunflowers that represent new life, such as the symbol of a woman with a seed within her womb," says Maxberry, the director of her own arts organization called Most OutGROWing.
"The importance of family is depicted as human figures throughout, each containing hidden symbols, such as my husband and father's initials woven into the male figure and my son's fascination with Spider-Man portrayed in the webs hidden in the child's arm," says Maxberry. "The roots of the sunflowers portray my ancestors, and hidden inside the lines of the large tree are the initials of all the artists on my team who helped me paint my mural."
Maxberry shares hope through the praying hands in the center, punctuating the figures facing the sun who portray "generations and legacies to come." In placing sunflower seedlings along the bottom, she represents the promise of the future and says she incorporated her company tree logo as the female figure on the left.
"In honor of Alandes Powell's father who had passed away a year ago, I added his initials in the upper right arm," says Maxberry. "He had done so much work in civil and human rights and always inspired her to see a project like this through."
As an art educator, Maxberry hopes to cultivate a respect for diversity that will encourage the discussion of culture, identity and their relation to art making within the classroom.
Time for change
Punctuating both the "T" letters in the word "Matter" are UC alums Kate Tepe and Asha White. Tepe, a Cincinnati based artist who creates work related to group and personal identities, interpersonal relationships and community networks says she toggles back and forth from design and fine art.
"But I enjoy opening my practice to develop collaborative projects that encourage participants to take as much ownership in the work as I do," she says.
After receiving a bachelor's of fine arts degree form the School of Art Institute of Chicago, Tepe came to UC where she completed a master's of fine arts degree from DAAP in 2011.
Her interest in community engagement and the power of material exploration to push boundaries led to tackling the design challenge with the power of words in mind.
"Overall, my letter feeds into the mural as a tool to normalize a demand to protect the most vulnerable citizens," says Tepe. "I'm urging those citizens, whose voices often go unheard, to use their words."
White, who graduated UC in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in communications and minors in both women's studies and public relations, titled her theme "We are you." Portraying Black women as equals within her green motif, White, also co-gallerist of the Mohawk Gallery located on the top floor of Robin Imaging Services, depicts Black women of different ages and occupations with their hair depicted in a variety of styles. While aligning with her typical design work as an artist, White's letter "T" connects people to shared stories and experiences.
Crafting the letter “K” in the word "Black" is fifth-year DAAP fine arts student Tamia Saunders. Portraying a theme of “Freedom from unjust persecution,” Saunders, also an accomplished anime artist, depicts a human figure who breaks free from handcuffs.
“The human figure is designed as no particular gender or sex, rather it represents all people,” says Saunders. “As Sparrows carry the broken cuffs away, half of them are lost forever as they fall into a free-flowing pool of water below."
Saunders says she designed the patterns strategically to evoke a therapeutic sense of movement so the viewers not only see the scene but feel the emotion of freedom.
"So much of the way we have structured the philosophy of the arts education program is to think of educators as agents of change," says Bastos. "We talk about race and social issues and the integrity of art, so it’s really lovely to see these students and recent grads taking on the responsibility themselves to do the work that we have in many ways taught them is important to do.
Just like the seeds in Maxberry's sunflower motif, Bastos looks at teaching the same way.
"We plant the seeds in our students, and we want them to grow in directions that we can't even see yet," adds Bastos. "With students like these, we are constantly surprised and feel like our work is resulting in the potential to promote the change that is so needed in our communities right now."
Black Lives Matter mural videos:
Featured image at top: Recent UC DAAP grad Adoria Maxberry pauses from her work painting the "Black Lives Matter!" mural that stretches across Plum Street directly in front of Cincinnati’s City Hall. Maxberry graduated from the art education program in 2020 and was honored as one of DAAP's outstanding students. Photo/submitted
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