The mural, over 100 feet long, stretches along the barrier of the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway where Ellsworth Avenue meets Shady Avenue, in East Liberty. Bright, vibrant colors and smiling faces cover the wall, with images including a small jazz band. The mural has a professional look. But it, and 25 others that are in the process of being painted all along the busway, were created with the help of 100 local teens.
Kyle Holbrook says that was his goal with the National City Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway Community Mural Project.
“I want to put the talent of the youth on display,” says Holbrook, the project’s director, about the kids ages 15 to 18 who helped with the enormous undertaking.
Holbrook and Ashley Hodder, the project’s education director, went to the high schools in the neighborhoods where the murals were planned to find budding urban art students. The team wanted to give these kids an opportunity to learn and participate in a positive summer activity, Holbrook says.
“We work in at-risk-neighborhoods where kids need something to do,” Holbrook says. Sponsors include the Laurel Foundation, the Heinz Endowment, the Multicultural Arts Initiative, the Grable Foundation and the Pittsburgh Foundation.
But it is not just the kids who represent the neighborhoods where the murals are being painted. The murals themselves depict the neighborhoods that they are located in, says Chris Savido, the project’s art director.
Project staff say they want the murals to be about the kids painting them and the communities that they are painted in, rather than the artists who organized the project.
“When you paint something about the neighborhood, then the ownership is not the artist’s, but it transfers to the community,” says Edward Rawson, the project’s Web designer and photographer.
Besides being a great summer activity for the kids involved, the mural project also bridged gaps that exist between many Pittsburgh neighborhoods. On the last day of the first session, kids from different neighborhoods — neighborhoods that might harbor animosity toward each other — were giving each other hugs and exchanging phone numbers, Savido said.
“Things that are in the arts are universal,” says Savido.
Holbrook is well known for his own murals in Pittsburgh and for organizing other community-based projects; a banner that hung the length of the Andy Warhol Bridge during last year’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game was also partly completed by area kids under his supervision. Holbrook says that using young artists will encourage some of them to pursue careers in the field. He adds that that’s good not only for Pittsburgh, but for everyone.
“Innovators who change the world come out of Pittsburgh,” Holbrook says.