Pittsburgh project uses art to spread Martin Luther King's message

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. referred in speeches to a "beloved community" that would result from a culture of nonviolence and reconciliation.

It's another societal goal he set for us that we haven't reached.

The Union Project in Highland Park, a community and arts advocacy organization, encourages the public to strive toward that end at its free annual celebration of the late civil rights leader's life and dream -- "Share Your Voice" from 3 to 6 p.m. today at the Union Project, 801 N. Negley Ave.

St. Paul Cathedral honors MLK

Hundreds gathered at St. Paul Cathedral to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. (Video by Nate Guidry; 1/19/2014)

The event will interpret the significance of King's efforts more broadly than racial equality, using art as a bridge to connect all people who struggle for inclusion. It will begin with a discussion among Anupama Jain, an educator and diversity consultant; Evan Church, the Union Project's artist in residence; Tirzah DeCaria, founder of Creative Citizen Studios; and Jonathan Reyes, art lending facilitator at the Carnegie Library of Braddock.

Afterward, volunteer ambassadors will help unacquainted participants meet and communicate, either through discussion, drawing or poetry. A community meal will follow, after remarks and a vocal rendering of "Lift Every Voice in Song" by Anqwenique Winfield.

The Union Project has held a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration for the past 10 years.

"We wanted this event to have a longer lasting effect than a one-day celebration," said its spokeswoman, Michelle Clesse.

The Union Project drew on the experiences of Mr. Church, who grew up in Africa, and Ms. DeCaria, who uses art to help adults who have developmental and intellectual disabilities communicate. To lead the discussions, the Union Project called on Ms. Jain, who teaches literary and cultural studies at the University of Pittsburgh, moderates the Pittsburgh Coalition on Racial Justice and consults on diversity with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

She said she is interested in making art "a more central part of the [King] celebration, in addition to paying attention to the serious issues of equity and exclusion. We want to create through our event the notion of the beloved community by encouraging people to get to know people they might not normally encounter in the recognition of our collective humanity and recognize each other for our character, not just the color of our skin."

Mr. Church, the child of white missionaries in Africa, grew up in Malawi and Zimbabwe and went to boarding school in Kenya. He has been an international aid worker in various African countries and traveled in Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan and Tanzania.

He has devoted his work in oils and watercolors to images of Africa that the Western world doesn't get from the media.

"My experience with Africans and Africa was different," he said. "Of course, famine, disease, civil war and poverty exist. I am fully aware of that. But that's not the everyday Africa."

He said he sometimes gets the "Who are you?" treatment in this country for depicting black people, "but I am reflecting the images of people I grew up among. I am bridging my two worlds. I want to show Americans images they don't see of Africa and for my art to say to Africans, 'Your lives are beautiful.' "

At the Braddock library, the goal of the art lending collection is to make art more accessible and less intimidating. The collection went public in October to let library visitors check out artworks for up to three weeks, with the chance to renew, Mr. Reyes said. It is also being showcased at the 2013 Carnegie International.

"More than going to a museum and putting your hands behind your back and staring at it and walking away, you can look at it in your house," Mr. Reyes said.

He has been serving on the committee of the Summit Against Racism, to be held Saturday at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, "to show how art can advocate for social change," he said. Ms. Jain is also on the summit committee and introduced him to Ms. Clesse for inclusion on the Share Your Voice program.

"We have collectors who donate art, and we connect with artists to have them donate art," he said. "It comes from all over this country and parts of the world. We are also encouraging the community to use our art lending room for social outreach."

Ms. DeCaria, who has a master's degree in arts management from Carnegie Mellon University, rents her studio space at the Union Project, where she said her students have "an easy learning environment to practice social skills. We're working with folks who don't have a lot of language, so drawing is a great outlet."

She said she wants to open the world of arts advocacy to disabled people, many of whom live segregated from others.

"We're looking at the vision of Martin Luther King from a different perspective," she said.

"The vision of the beloved city includes everyone," Ms. Clesse said. "And it's fair to say that everyone has a lot to learn."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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