With Black Is___365, Ricky Parker of Dream For Purpose and Art 180’s Atlas teen art center are working together to spread the message that Black history deserves way more than just one month of the year.
If you have recently taken a walk by the Atlas teen art center and gallery located in Richmond’s historic Jackson Ward neighborhood, a new installation might have caught your eye. Across four large gallery windows, imposing black letters read an inviting message: “Black is__365.”
The window installation was designed by Ricky Parker, creative director at creative firm Dream For Purpose, in partnership with Art 180. It is a part of a year-long project challenging the idea that celebration around Black History Month should only last the 28 days of February.
Black is__365 is a statement, an affirmation, but also a question for the community to answer and determine what it means to them.
“Black History Month is not, you know, 28 days… Yes, we’re taking the opportunity to start the conversation in February, we feel passionate about Black History Month,” said Maurice Jackson, Art 180 Atlas program manager. “But with that, we’re also continuing that conversation to be celebrated for our brothers and sisters, our youth of color, Black and brown people, that it’s not just 28 days. It’s 365 days a year, 24 hours, you know what I’m saying? Every minute.”
The installation, unveiled on Feb. 1, will stay up through January 2022.
The Black is__365 campaign is the continuation of a conversation started by a Black is Beautiful traveling billboard installation last summer. Parker and his wife, Whitney, erected Black Is Beautiful billboards in Richmond, Norfolk, and Charlottesville. Just as with the billboards, the purpose of Black is__365 is to not only empower the Black community but also to educate others and urge them to join the conversation around race.
“Just as much as this is a conversation for people who are Black, I think is a conversation for people who are non-Black, where, I think, in dialogues we have to become more open,” Parker said. “And just because it may not be who you are, who you were born as, or how you identify, it doesn’t mean this is not a conversation you should be a part of, or even be actively listening, so you can learn.”
To deepen that conversation and create engagement for the community, Art 180 will be offering youth programming and public art events. Among them are Art 180’s bi-monthly Open Studios – free, virtual art events hosted by local artists.
For artist Jowarnise Caston, leading a workshop with this mission was a no-brainer. She and musician Calvin Presents led the first open studio on Feb. 9, a painting workshop with music.
“For me, it was exciting, because it’s a sentence that challenges you to define it. And not in a way that critiques another individual, but to challenge you to realize that Black is a multitude of things, it’s diverse,” Caston said. “[There’s] no one way to describe Black.”
And diverse was her audience at the workshop. Attendees’ ages ranged from five-year-old children to people who lived through the Black is Beautiful movement in the 1960s, Caston said. While eager children were enjoying the painting experience, the workshop offered a platform for some of the older attendees to share memories from when the Black is Beautiful movement first became prominent.
“I heard words like resilient, of course beautiful, … Black is joy,” Caston said of the workshop. “It was such a warm and happy kind of atmosphere in explaining why Black comes off in meaning to you in that way. It was really a mixture of nostalgia, learning, [and] education.”
“It was so amazing,” she added. “There’s no way you can plan for the conversation that comes out of a workshop like that.”
To further Art 180’s mission of empowering Richmond’s youth, the organization is also launching its first artist residency program for students from Richmond Public Schools – with applications opening on March 1.
The Edward D. Robinson Artist Residency will provide youth of color an opportunity to work with nationally recognized professional teaching artists while developing their artistic skills and building a portfolio. This year, the selected students will study under Chris Visions, a local artist, graphic novelist, “picture maker and ground shaker,” according to his website.
Parker said he hopes the project can create more inclusive places and spaces within Richmond. He also hopes to bridge the gap between Black history and American history. In fact, he insists, Black history is American history. If these stories were better integrated, he says, “I think we would have a better understanding of where we’ve come from as America, [and] even get a better understanding of the things we need to do to move forward.”
Looking forward, Parker remains intentional about celebrating Black people and cultural heritage year-round. The question isn’t what can we do next February but rather, what can we do next month?
For Jackson, when asked how he would fill in the blank in Black is__365, he burst out laughing. “Really?” he said, “I don’t know if I can put it in one word.”
But then, with almost no hesitation, he answered, “Today, I will say Black is future 365.”
Photos via Maurice Jackson/Art 180