Black History Month Mural Project, 2016

Portrait 1 of 29: Mary McLeod Bethune

Portrait 1 of 29: Mary McLeod Bethune

The Black History Mural Project was an idea I had, stemming from the desire to paint portraits of important black figures who were both widely recognized and perhaps lesser known. I wanted to paint people who had struggled to make a difference; I wanted to celebrate those who had fought during slavery and civil rights times and those who had made important contributions in education, music, art, literature and the sciences. I wanted to paint a portrait a day for the entire month of February. The idea for project was also an idea I had only one week before the start of February. 

Before I knew it, it was February 1st and I told myself, "it's on...pick someone significant, grab your paint and go." I knew I just had to get stared even though I had no set schedule regarding who I was going to paint or even where I would  paint. I did not have enough paint or other art supplies. 

There was no funding for this project; everything came entirely out of own my pocket.  It was a real challenge from the start, not only to pay for it, but also to find the time to paint daily while keeping up with my other obligations and to find locations where I could paint.  I'm a hungry artist, though, and I knew I had to be resourceful with everything. 

During the project, I did a lot research nightly on who I was going to paint the next day. There are so many amazing stories and choosing who to paint was another challenge for me.  During my research I stumbled upon people I never knew of.  That was an amazing experience in and of itself for me personally. A mentor of mine, Eric Norberg, who's art is very powerful and culturally rich, took notice of what I was doing early on.  He shot me a calendar of black history month that had birthdays and historical events by black people.  It's was very helpful and educational for me. 

I started most of my portraits in San Francisco's Mission district where there are a handful of sanctioned alley ways I knew I could paint in without being hassled by the cops, property owners, tenants, etc.  I didn't want to paint all of the portraits in the Mission, though.  I wanted to spread them around the city even though I knew that was going to be a challenge because there are not a lot of other places to paint freely in the city.  I had to step up my hunt for spots to paint.  I didn't want to paint over murals that I had already done, so that added another layer of challenge in finding places to paint.  I was scoping everything out--every bit of wall space around the city.

I did a portrait a day, straight through February 14th.  By I the 15th I couldn't find a wall but I got permission to paint on a moving truck. It was next to a junk yard; I painted Larry Doby, the second negro behind Jackie Robinson to play Major League Baseball, that day. I learned Mr. Doby and Jackie Robinson were actually pretty supportive of each other in the struggle of being black in an all white league in that era.

Portrait 15 of 29: Larry Doby

Portrait 15 of 29: Larry Doby

After February 15th, I got sick for three days.  The streak was over but the project wasn't. I had to just change the goal from painting a portrait a day for 29 day to painting 29 portraits over the month- somewhere, somehow, no matter what.  

When I got back to it, I had a little catching up to do but I had already learned a lot from the first 15 days. I learned how to paint faster and I developed some new techniques. For example, I would roll out the face with bucket paint so I didn't have to spend much time filling the face in with spray cans.  Then I would just come in with the spray paint for shading.  The faster I worked on illegal spots in broad daylight, the sooner I would be out.  There was no time to create masterpieces, so I learned to let go of that need for perfection, too. 

Portraits 19-21 of 29: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes

Portraits 19-21 of 29: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes

Besides a few rough days, I receive mostly positive feedback while out painting over the month.  There were nice reactions from the communities I painted in and  good feedback on social media.  I love celebrating my culture, which is African American and Filipino, through my art. I think It's good to know about our past so we can use it to help us for the future.  There are some beautiful people out there that have left the world better off.  I'm glad I could share some of them over Black History Month, one portrait at a time.