Beautifully Black in Red and Green: A Youth Art Installation
I cannot think of another project I was involved in that came together so quickly. In spite of being in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, requiring the wearing of masks and social distancing, the partnership between The Frick Pittsburgh and Voices Against Violence came together seamlessly. At the beginning of this project I had been contracted to work with the longtime summer camp organized by Voices Against Violence. Voices Against Violence is an organization that puts youth first and empowers them through meaningful activities. This free summer camp has been a staple of the South Hilltop community for twenty-five years. Each summer, McKinley Park is filled with 100–150 campers between the ages of 4 and 14, with additional junior "Learn & Earn" counselors aged 15–19. In the summer of 2020, the number was cut in half by health guidelines, put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even through strict requirements, forcing most of the camp activities outside, the camp carried on. I began to provide educational assistance to the art class, led by Mr. Ernest Bey, and offered the possibility of a partnership. The educational department at The Frick Pittsburgh was searching for a community organization to partner with for a possible summer project. Some emails were exchanged and a meeting on zoom was quickly organized between Dr. Marueen Anderson, VAV Director of Programs, and other pertinent members to discuss opportunities.
There were many moving parts in the partnership, but both organizations quickly agreed it could not exist without the engagement of the youth in this project. The next step was to share with the campers our ideas and create a space where they could work through their thoughts and feelings. It was important for the campers to visit the Frick so this project didn’t happen in a vacuum. During a socially distanced visit to the Frick, the campers experienced a mini-tour of the Frick grounds and took part in a small creative writing workshop. The students were given a chance to find positive thoughts and words that they associate with being Black. This led to our main theme of Black Is Beautiful. Mr. Bey brought this idea back to his art class to continue the work and began to develop the structure and message of the project. Stacey McSorley, a Frick art teacher, joined Mr. Bey’s class to assist in the collaboration. The students and the educators worked on creating the images for about three hours a day over a two week period.
One of the most challenging aspects of this project was developing confidence in our young people. Mr. Bey and I selected 5 of the most creatively inclined teenage campers. Even though they were all interested in drawing, painting, and creative writing, none of them had ever worked on canvas or within the scope of this project. The 6x3 foot canvases were intimidating. They all felt that they couldn’t do it and that they were not worthy of such a responsibility. I had to spend a lot of one-on-one time with the students outside of the workshop sessions to build confidence and empower the campers. They really felt that their drawings and creative ideas were not sufficient to be exhibited in a “big time” museum. By the second week, they took ownership of the images and messages of the paintings. The words and ideas had all come from the campers. This project could not have existed without them. By the end of the second week of working on the project, the instructors and I noticed how the project had become a therapeutic process for them. There are so many creative young people who don’t have access to any structured programs that can enhance their abilities and confidence. They came to a decision on the images based on the theme created by them, and with a little help from Mr. Bey, Ms. McSorley, and myself, we were able to complete it by the end of camp.
The result is the Black is Beautiful theme depicted across three canvases. The images and words painted, written, and drawn across the three canvases come from each of the campers involved in the project. The selected images were thoroughly discussed by the campers and teaching artists, who also provided additional assistance in painting. The full layout of all the canvases tells a cultural story of how African American youth view themselves and their history. The result is titled Beautifully Black in Red and Green. The artwork is exhibited on The Frick Pittsburgh grounds near Reynolds Street. The grounds are free and open to the public Tuesday–Sunday, 10 AM–dusk. It is also visible from the Reynolds Street sidewalk.