Students paint town with community culture for the MLK Community Mural Project

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Jerea Horton enjoyed drawing when she was younger but has found less motivation to practice without being in an art class.

She now paints and draws every day, and is paid to do it. 

Jerea, 14, of Mount Oliver, is among Pittsburgh students painting murals for the MLK - moving the lives of kids - Community Mural Project this summer with funding from the Pittsburgh Summer Youth Employment Program.

The students are painting the back and side of the second story of a business at Beacon Street and Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. Other students are in Oakland and the North Side. They work 9-to-5 for six weeks, but start every day with a class led by site managers where they learn basic art concepts such as priming, color theory, typography and patterns. Jerea said she has learned how to draw people and bone structure, something she had difficulty with. Once she leaves the site for the day she said she continues to draw in her sketchbook.

Wednesday‘‍s Squirrel Hill class focused on color and layering to coincide with the leaf pattern they painted for the rest of the day.

MLK was founded in 2002 by artist Kyle Holbrook, originally from Wilkinsburg, as a way to teach young people ages 14 to 20 about art through community work. Since then the organization has produced more than 250 public art pieces in Allegheny County, according to its website.

Gene Ojeda, mural coordinator, said working on a mural not only teaches students about art, but gives them ownership of something they made in the community.

Once an area is selected and a business is onboard to have the mural on its building, designs are submitted for the community members to choose from.

Mr. Ojeda said it is important the pieces reflect the community or history of the area. This summer’s Oakland mural features oak leaves while the Squirrel Hill site incorporates the words Murray and Squirrel.

Micci Hutterer, who is a site manager for the Squirrel Hill mural, said the program also allows the students to incorporate something from their own lives in the piece.

“At the Strip District (last summer) there were 10 posts they individualized for themselves while at the same time working on a painting about Pittsburgh jazz musicians,” she said.

Ms. Hutterer is an art teacher at Woodland Hills High School. She said for many of the students, the mural could be their first experience with art since elementary school.

“I’ve taught for 35 years and I think if a program like this could be implemented into schools and communities where art is being eliminated, it’s a very comparable alternative,” she said.

Emily West, 17, of Squirrel Hill, has taken art classes in high school and was previously enrolled in the Pittsburgh Center for Arts, but said during the school year she does not have time to dedicate to painting or drawing.

“It’s nice to just have time in your day to sit down and make art,” she said of the summer program.

She said painting is more of a hobby she enjoys rather than something she would study, but she enjoys a summer job where she can be creative.

For many of the younger students, the program is also their first job and it pays minimum wage. Mr. Ojeda said the students pull ivy from the site, pressure wash the wall, prime the wall, and then the bulk of the project is adding texture and painting.

He said he focuses on teaching students what kinds of art-related jobs are available. For instance, they might not think about such jobs as key grips on a movie set.

“This really is workforce training,” he said

Sarah Schneider: or 412-263-3066.

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