You might not know the muralist Ernest Shaw Jr., but there's a good chance that you have seen his work. Long before the city's Open Walls project brought murals and street art to the forefront of the city's art scene. Shaw was hard at work creating large-scale murals for some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. Through his murals, Shaw made sure that communities remembered the heroes of black history such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. City Paper caught up with Shaw to talk about his work and what it brings to a neighborhood.
City Paper: How did you get into mural painting?
Ernest Shaw: Mural painting was a required course for my undergraduate work at Morgan State University; I took that course in the mid-'90s, taught by professor Guy Jones. I was contacted by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture in the late '90s to paint my first mural for the city. That committee merged with [the Baltimore Office of Promotion of the Arts] some time ago.
CP: Which artists are you influenced by?
ES: I admire many artists from different periods and styles. The artists that have more of an influence on my work are Charles White, John Biggers, Pontella Mason, Dr. Luke Shaw, James Phillips, Michael Platt, [Edgar] Sorrells-Adewale, Paul Cézanne.
CP: What do murals like the ones you paint do for a community?
ES: Seeing is believing. The large-scale aesthetics of a mural can contribute greatly to the raising of the collective conscience/consciousness of communities.
CP: How was the community involved with your murals. Did they help paint?
ES: No, however, they very often offered constructive criticism, as they should.
CP: How did you feel after completing your first mural?
ES: I was a bit overwhelmed because I had to get over a fear of heights to paint the mural. It was an accomplishment to just be recognized as someone who could do such a thing.
CP: I've noticed a decrease in so-called RIP murals, yet the homicides are up. Do you have an opinion on why that type of murals has been in decline?
ES: People, all people, partake in ritual and ceremony. The RIP murals are just one form/type of ritual. What I have seen is an increase in the street-corner shrines/altars. Those creations are three-dimensional and, I feel, are richer from a spiritual perspective.
CP: How are your murals funded?
ES: The city, mainly BOPA.
CP: Can you give us a peek into your creative process? When you get to a blank wall in a neighborhood, how does the subject matter and style take shape?
ES: First, I take notice of the history/culture of the people living in that community. Second, the actual shape and dimension of the wall has influence on the composition. And lastly, but actually primarily, I give thanks to the creator for the opportunity and gift, then begin to remember that whatever happens is not about me, it's through me. I'm just a vessel.
CP: Are there any murals in the city, besides your own, that you're particularly proud of or like to look at?
ES: I like all the murals I see, because they are examples of what the human element is capable of. Having said that, Pontella Mason painted a mural in West Baltimore on the side of a school of African-American heroes and "sheroes." His honoring of those ancestors is similar to the RIP murals you mentioned.
CP: What advice do you give to the next generation of muralists?
ES: Know thyself. Recognize that artists are responsible for socially documenting their times, raising the collective consciousness of society, creating places where people can connect with loved ones (living or transitioned), and spearheading movements. Our gifts are not for our benefit solely.
CP: What's your opinion on graffiti-art murals as opposed to the more traditional ones?
ES: Murals are murals. Paintings are paintings.
CP: Are you working on any big projects? Is there a historical figure that you would like to put up that you haven't yet? I love your Hendrix painting.
ES: I'm currently creating work, multimedia work, that deals with the identity crisis of young persons. As an educator, I have studied the impact cultural identity crisis has on academic achievement and social development. I'm also one of seven artists honoring 49 people over 50 [in the Autumn Leaves project at Bruun Studios in Greenmount West].
Shaw's murals can be seen at 1207 E. North Ave. (created in 2002), 106 S. Calverton St. (2000), and 2174 Hollins St. (1999).