Anyone who knows Jolene Mechanic, art activist and director of the Phil Mechanic Studios in the River Arts District, knows her dedication to children. Since early December 2013, Mechanic has been creating art with kids at the Burton Street Community Center in West Asheville. Building upon their interaction with the Community Peace Garden — the home of Dewayne “B-Love” Barton whose backyard displays paintings of nearly 20 prominent faces in African-American history — Mechanic wanted to take his work a step further.
“I knew most of the kids could visually recognize the images of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, for example, but what did they really know about what their contributions to our history and society were?” says Mechanic. Collaborating with local artists Margaret Curtis and Linda Larsen, they started by bringing the nine children in the program, whose ages range between 2nd and 5th grade, to the Peace Garden. After selecting a person who appealed to them in some way, the students then researched their historic figure to create a collaborative painting in the style of celebrated artist Jean Michel Basquiat.
“He was so influenced by the work of children, and I think children find the energy, looseness, and familiar visual language of his work very freeing,” says Curtis of Basquiat, friend and mentee of Andy Warhol. The kids worked in an unintimidating “drawing” method of laying down pieces of masking tape on black paper, painting over the paper freely, then peeling off the tape to reveal crisp black outlines which delineate the figures, playing off the look of Basquiat’s mark-making.
Keeping within Basquiat’s style throughout the series, students have also created portraits through collage, though the person’s face is never used. The kids use other imagery and writings from the person to create the portraits, leaving the viewer to guess whom the person is. “Harriet Tubman might be represented by images of slaves walking, images of railroads, maps of the South, and of course her own writings. Wilma Rudolph could be depicted by gold medals and images of the leg braces she wore as a polio victim,” offers Curtis.
The series ended in late January, with a final self-portrait project. “After focusing on the Black History Project, I want to finish with the understanding that portraits aren’t just limited to other people, portraits include themselves,” says Mechanic. “It’s been an incredibly fun project, and the kids really have learned a lot.”
The childrens’ work will be on display through February 28. Opening reception on Friday February 7, 4-5:30pm. Flood Gallery Fine Arts Center, 109 Roberts Street, Asheville, floodgallery.org.