After two years adorning the walls of Rochester’s R-Centers under the theme of Growth, the murals of Roc Paint Division Season 3 will have a new theme- and this time around we are happy to say that it was chosen by the youth artists themselves, through a series of brainstorming sessions and in-depth conversations. Read on to hear what our two program veterans, Mei Stephens and Nzinga Muhammad, have to say about the meaning behind and the accompanying ideas for this year’s thoughtfully selected theme: Representation.
How did it feel to have the opportunity to choose the theme this yourselves year, rather than being told what the theme was right from the beginning?
Mei: To have the opportunity to choose the theme this year was great. Definitely last year it was hard to just sit back and be told what the theme was, and what we would be painting. To be a part of the theme-choosing was really interesting and important to us. It also was nice to see the everyone’s different ideas and what’s important to them.
Nzinga: Having the opportunity to choose the theme as the youth muralists this year feels like we are even more incorporated in the painting process. Giving us the opportunity to choose a theme makes it feel less like we are coming in as employees without a lot of say in what we should paint about, in terms of an umbrella theme. It gives it more of a sense that we are coming into a space and are asked to paint what we as employees feel is best for an audience. This gives us more sense of ownership of the murals.
What did you feel were some of the important criteria in picking the theme that we’d be using all year?
Mei: Some important criteria in picking this season’s theme include: Would kids be able to understand / enjoy looking at the murals and having them at their R-centers?; Can we represent the theme in a lot of different ways?; Is it age appropriate for young children?; and of course Is it interesting / inspiring?
Nzinga: I felt that some of the important criteria in picking a theme that we would be using all year was that it had to be relatable to our lives and the lives of our audience; whether on a personal level, or on a communal level. I think generally themes in R-Centers should reflect the children in those spaces because at the end of the day, whatever we paint becomes part of their upbringing within the R-Center.
We narrowed it down to Love, Imagination & Possibilities, Transition, and Representation. At that point, did you feel strongly about any of them? What is the significance of the chosen theme in the context of the R-Centers?
Mei: I felt strongly about the theme being Culture / Representation. Representation of course has always been a theme of Roc Paint because the R-centers are filled with kids of races underrepresented in the media. They don’t often see black and brown faces on these massive, beautiful walls. They see white faces. And it’ so important to show them that they can be beautiful, too; that they are beautiful. The aspect of culture in the murals I thought was important because it would be awesome to paint, and for the kids to see, different cultures. A lot of kids aren’t exposed to other cultures until they are older; so to be able to see other people’s cultures represented in an interactive visual is extremely significant. This also happens to be a theme that we can show through animals, plants, people, architecture, clothing, hair… the list goes on. The theme of Culture / Representation I think also represents the Roc Painters this year. Between the eleven of us there are so many different cultures and personalities. The theme this year is perfect.
Nzinga: Because of the diversity within the group,— whether its various cultures, religions, or even languages,— I felt that Representation would be a good way for the group to collectively and individually connect to the theme. I felt strongly about Representation because within the past year, that subject has shown up in my life many times. Whether it was the Wall Therapy mural we did this past summer, or discussing what representation and diversity means in certain classes I have, I have been talking about and delving deeper into the topic of representation, culture, diversity, etc. it is important for me–as someone whose identity itself is diverse as a Black Muslimah– to keep the conversation going.
Representation is important for our audiences at the R-Centers because of the demographics in the majority of city R-Center are people of color, especially black and brown children. Though these children are the majority in R-Centers, they are the least positively represented in mainstream media. When children from underrepresented communities come into a safe space from worldly pressures and discrimination, it is powerful for them to see a change in harmful narratives on walls and the side of buildings. I like to see children of color and their faces light up when they are portrayed on a wall as art, and not as a stereotype.
This year’s team looks at the panels painted by Season 2 Roc Paint Division at the Humboldt R-Center, which served as an early exploration of the concept of representation through last year’s theme of growth.
What does representation mean to you? What are some of your initial ideas ?
Mei: To me, representation means speaking for the oppressed / underrepresented / those incapable of speaking for themselves. We have this great platform at Roc Paint to do that in a unique way. The majority of the people at these R-centers we go to fall under this category of not being represented. It’s as simple as searching ‘portrait’ on Google Images and not seeing a single face that looks like yours for hundreds of white people’s faces before. We have to specifically type in “black portrait” or “asian portrait” or “hispanic portrait” to see ourselves. I think that’s the simplest way to put it; to get across to people why representation is so huge and needed and necessary. Some of my initial ideas include of course showing different races in each face for representation. As for culture, this can range from different significant cultural celebrations to the different plants / animals / foods / clothing / etc. you might see in another country or culture. It also would be cool to showing different cultures interacting somehow, though this could be confusing.
Nzinga: Representation to me means shining light on underrepresented peoples, cultures, and ideas. Representation is often associated with those who are not shown positively in the media. Negative connotations given to groups of people are the ones whom I believe should be given a space to be celebrated.
I think that in ROC Paint Division, our different perspectives are respected and the opportunity of dialogue is encouraged. My perspective is that I cannot stress enough the importance of raising awareness to oppressive systems such as colorism, racism, sexism, etc. If I have an opportunity to actually give appreciation and representation towards the despised in society, I would love to do so through art.
About the artists…
I am a senior at The Harley School this year. I enjoy painting and sketching portraits / the human body, and different forms of life in nature. I also enjoy spending time with family and friends.
As a second year returning artist this season I feel extremely capable, which is not at all how I felt last year. I knew that I had some drawing skills, but I had never really used anything except for graphite and paper. Roc Paint developed my skills as a visual artist; from how comfortable I am with the different media I now use, to the type of images I’m working from. As a second-year artist, I can help other roc paint artists who maybe feel lost like I did. For example, when we were painting the bathrooms the other day, I saw a girl dripping paint everywhere. The problem was that she was dipping her brush too far in the paint. This was an easy fix but I enjoyed helping her develop her basic painting skills. Also, there is a Roc Painter this year who is from Puerto Rico, Alex. He has only been in the States for a year, so his English isn’t that well-spoken. Myself and the other returning artist, Nzinga, have taken him under our wings. We have gotten to know him really well, and we try our best to make sure he feels comfortable here. We also have been teaching him English, while he teaches us Spanish. He is great to talk to, and we quickly found out that despite coming across as quiet, he has a lot to say. Coming back this year with more experience I am more comfortable, and I can help him become more comfortable as well.
Roc Paint has made such a huge impact on my life. Even just the basic skills you learn here about how to go about painting murals and different ways to use paint or represent a concept. I knew I loved visual art, but I didn’t know how much until this program. I found myself always creating art. I also organized my schedule this year so that I could spend more time doing the things I enjoy like social justice and art. The skills I learned / am learning at Roc Paint allow me to lead a lot of projects this year. For example, I am working on several murals outside of Roc Paint currently. I am painting a solo mural of important women in my history teacher’s classroom; I am also leading a mural at Mount Hope Family Center, with help from my art teacher and student volunteers; and I am applying for a grant by the Gandhi Institute to lead a mural project with LawNY to help create an informational mural for those (very generally) affected by poverty that doubles as a piece of art for the community. Without Roc Paint I absolutely would not have the skillset to do this work. I am so grateful for this program.
I am a homeschooled senior in my third, and last, year of ROC Paint Division. Being back is exciting; new participants with different skill sets is each year is refreshing to see. In my experience, I can see myself taking on a leadership role, because of the experience I have had as somewhat of a veteran in this program. I evolved from never picking up a professional paint brush, to helping with creating murals.
Because of ROC Paint Division, I have had wonderful opportunities with sharing my artwork. Last year, I won first place in the ROC Stars Talent Showcase in the category of Visual Arts. This summer, I also worked with two other members of ROC Paint Division during our local Wall Therapy Week.
I am excited for the various interpretations of our new theme: Representation. Ironically, we as a program grew out of our previous theme, “Growth”. I am also excited for fresh perspectives on this theme, the message we could send with the murals, and the talent of the participants to shine through for an amazing experience.
In other news……
The first official painting project of the year- updating the colors in the lodge- has been completed.
And with that, the collaborative creative process within the group has begun. We’ll be going more into the detail about this next week….Stay tuned.