What was once considered an eyesore on South Pearl Street is shaping into a sweeping mural, featuring mountains, trees and a bold sign declaring “Black Freedom,” with winding roots and roses blooming from it.
Mentoring artists and young Black students from a group called Amplified Voices started painting it on Thursday and once it’s completed, the mural will cover a boarded up McDonald’s, stretching out over 12 by 45 feet.
“This is a blight on the community…Why not use it to beautify your community? Why not make it a piece of the community instead of just an abandoned McDonald’s?” said Jade Warrick, the founder of Amplified Voices.
The Albany artist started the group after seeing murals painted over boarded up buildings in Troy surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests. Warrick said that many featured phrases like “Love in all colors” and were created by white artists.
“I was like ‘That doesn’t really connect with what Black people are feeling right now.’ To me, that was slightly insulting. To see all these artists not of color just show up. . . they were basically gentrifying a protest and a revolutionary moment and trying to take advantage of it without really caring or giving space to Black artists,” Warrick said.
She reached out to Tony Iadicicco of the Albany Center Gallery about getting Black artists together to create public art in Albany. He was on board with the idea and helped bring in collaborators like Albany Housing Authority, Albany Barn, Downtown Albany Business Improvement District, Youth FX, A Block at a Time, Inc., Central Avenue Business Improvement District, and Young Futures Inc.
Through their support, and the support of other mentoring artists Danielle Colin, Eugene O’Neill, Chloe Harrison, Sion Hardy, and Vanessa Gray, the mural project kicked off on Monday, not with visual art, but with a writing workshop.
“It was interesting. It got you thinking about what the whole purpose of this was. It kept you on track,” said Starr Rodriguez, a 16-year-old artist involved in the group.
Warrick and other mentors followed it up with a storyboard workshop on Tuesday and a concept-planning workshop.
“I just didn’t want to have us going up and painting some boards. I wanted this to be something where the kids could gain value, [to] really understand that they are validated and that they matter and no matter what’s happening politically don’t let it affect them,” Warrick said.
During the writing workshop, students were asked how they felt about their community and what they wanted to see changed. Of the eight students involved, ranging from age 6 to 16, the most popular answers were “No more deaths” and “No more gun violence,” according to Warrick.
South Pearl Street, where the mural is located, has seen several recent shootings and homicides.
“The South end is in a very sensitive state. . . . it’s not only gang violence, [but] it’s also police violence that’s heavy there,” Warrick said.
While working with students to create a concept for the mural, many of them gained confidence not only in their artistic skills but in sharing their perspectives. Each part of the mural stems from an idea from the students, said mentor Eugene O’Neill, and each holds meaning.
Rodriguez came up with the idea to have The Egg featured in a mountainous landscape, representing the importance of making nature available to urban students. Another student, Rhianna Walcott, came up with the idea to write “Black Freedom,” and others built off of that, with the idea that roots representing their ancestral history should be stemming from the phrase.
“It’s nice to be able to show them that art isn’t objective. It’s been able to open them up and be more confident because there are students who wouldn’t talk and then all of a sudden they’re raising their hands and wanting to talk,” Warrick said.
It’s part of the reason why she wanted the program to focus on youth, a group whose voices often go unheard.
“I don’t think youth voices are ever prioritized. When I was a kid, at 15, I was saying the same thing that I’m saying today and everybody just kind of looked at me or laughed at me and was like ‘Well, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re like 15.’” Warrick said.
“That’s what I want to change. I want this program to make them understand that their voices matter, their lives matter, their homes matter. They need to feel validated.”
Students like Walcott and Rodriguez hope that people will see the mural as a symbol of unity and the power of young voices.
“I hope they see how much it matters for people to see what kids are doing for Black lives,” Walcott said.
They hope to have the mural completed by Sunday, however, that doesn’t mean the end of Amplified Voices.
Warrick plans to treat the curriculum they used as an open-source program, making it available to people in other communities.
“I don’t want to go to Schenectady and bring artists from Albany. We don’t know Schenectady’s pain. We don’t know what Schenectady’s been going through. That’s a whole other city,” Warrick said, “I want to give them the resources and provide the platform to work with their people to do it themselves.”
For more information about the program and to see the group’s progress on the mural, visit Amplified Voices on Facebook.