On a late February afternoon, Gallery CA's bright white room is full of splotches of color—and lively activity. A student stands on a black chair to reach the top of the mural with her paintbrush. Several others stand on the ground, all working together on a mural in the middle of the gallery. Students get up to refill their paint cups and mix new colors; some talk while others paint quietly. The sense of belonging among the eight students is palpable as they paint the story of April's uprising, and their city, and their world. After months of being talked at, talked about, and excluded from a conversation that directly affects their lives and futures, these young people are deeply engrossed in creating art that expresses their reality.
"The city's been turned upside down and so the city needs hope. I just want to see it get better and stop seeing all these filled up graves," says Artemis, a deep-voiced seventh-grader.
"Rising Up," a complex installation at Gallery CA through March 1, features the work of students from the ConneXions Community-Based Art School; the show came together in collaboration with teachers Ada Pinkston and Christine Stiver, who are both active in the arts in Baltimore and wanted to give students an opportunity to express themselves and their relationship with the city.
"[It's] mostly about how we feel or how we're gonna be treated in the future," says Tyquwon, a 10th-grader at ConneXions, which is located in Greater Mondawmin, near where the riot broke out on April 27. "This shows basically how other people want to feel but just don't know how to show or say it. And this is giving them the push to come out to use your words, or use your creativity."
A timeline on the gallery's back wall begins in 1492 when "Columbus 'Discovers America'" and walks us through to the present day in 20 or 30 different key points in black history in this country, including slave revolts, abolition, and legislation around the war on drugs and prisons. The timeline also highlights prominent black figures with connections to Baltimore such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, John H. Murphy Sr. (who founded the Afro-American newspaper). Quotes from black figures like Nina Simone and Martin Luther King Jr. are stationed along the outer walls, their placement alone making their statements bold and direct.
A student-led video piece on a small screen in one corner lets students share their opinions about Freddie Gray, the uprising, and police-community relations. "Some police protect and serve, and some police collect and swerve," one student says. Another says she doesn't really like Baltimore because there are so many problems; she also thinks the police are helpful, she says, "They hide behind their badges."
All around the gallery are drawings and paintings that reflect the protest dynamics between residents and police. Students drew and painted on top of printed out photos that were taken during the uprising: In one painting a protester holds a "Black Lives Matter" sign; in another you see the intensity of a standoff between protesters and police in riot gear. The word "destruction" is written on top of another image of riot police in front of CVS—which could be interpreted in a number of ways. Another photo, painted over in bright colors, shows Center Stage's "Marley" performers at Penn/North singing with their fists raised. There is no universal sentiment. The words "I hate the Police" are scrawled in crayon on one; the one above it says "we can change" on top of a photo of a young girl standing in front of riot police.
The teachers began preparing for this show with the students in January, and the students have worked on the mural together each week throughout February. One side shows a street scene, with several people running down the street, rowhouses behind them. Across the street there's a person held up at gunpoint (and in a great and curious moment of levity, there's a green Hulk-like figure rising out of him; "I think they showin' the boy toughness as the Hulk," says Carl, a seventh-grader.) Behind these guys, there's another building with a winged Freddie Gray mural. In the clouds above the scene are portraits of Angela Davis and Martin Luther King. Wrapping around to the other side of the wall is a huge close-up of a young woman's face, her hair in dreads, with a third eye. "I feel like the three eyes are showin' that everything is not the same through everybody's eyes," says 10th-grader Asia. "Everything is not what you see, it's what other people see."
One student begins to notice that some of the painted areas are dripping down the wall, staining areas that have yet to be coated. "Dripping is good. We want it to drip," says Christine Stiver, as she begins to tell the student about the importance of paint's ability to drip and layer.
Even as Pinkston and Stiver both allow the students to paint without interruption, their feedback brings forth even more creativity as the students think out their color schemes for particular sections of the mural.
"Visual art is a bit easier to maneuver than spoken art," says William, a seventh-grader, which several students echo. "Art can describe many things or a mindset," 11th-grader Allison says.
Tyquwon says he wants people to take away some "allusions" when they come to see this show: "'Cause it kind of seems like the whole painting, mural, the things that might be out of place but also can hit you in the right spot, like 'oh, I never thought about it that way.'"
In one corner of the gallery, on a low, square pedestal, is a memorial for those who have died. The memorial is covered in white and canary-yellow sheets and empty bottles with fake flowers. Stiver says that the students at ConneXions make community memorials every year, "to commemorate ancestors, those lost to violence . . . people we want to honor." They learn about the roots of memorials, the significance of the open jars. At the school, they're building a memorial for an eighth-grade martial arts student, Kevonte, who recently died very suddenly. They plan to transport that memorial to the gallery for the closing reception—which will also feature performances and music—on Feb. 26.
There is a lot to take in here, just as there's still so much the city—its residents and leaders—is learning from the uprising. "Hopefully people will understand everything that's on the timeline there leads up to what happened last year, April 27," says Romell, a 10th-grade student, as he builds up the brown skin tone of the girl on the mural.
Roshay, a 10th-grader, believes that along with the events that transpired leading up to and during the uprising, the mural is also an ode to Black History Month. "Writing is not the only answer," she says. "There are other ways to showcase our love for the community."
A closing reception for "Rising Up" will be held at Gallery CA on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. The show is on view through March 1.