Fighting Crime & Addiction with Art: Community Murals in the Miami Valley
James Pate designed the mural that's going up on the side of the Wesley Community Center in Westwood, and he's got a team of teenagers painting it.
The mural is part of a program called HAALO. It's a partnership between the K12 Gallery and the Montgomery County Juvenile Courts, and it gives kids who are caught up in the court system a chance to express themselves.
Vasio is one of these teenagers.
“The last time I got in trouble because I was hanging around with the wrong people,” he says. “They decided to break into this house, and I was with them. I did it and everything. But, even when I got off probation, I was still coming here because this is something I like to do, and it keeps my mind occupied. It helps me maintain and stay focused—stay out of trouble.”
Staying out of trouble can be a challenge for some of these kids, and many of them have complex home lives.
“My parents just got a divorce recently,” says Leo, a 14-year-old. “And my mom has been stressed out. She's been going out a lot more. Like, even going home today, I've gotten a text from her saying, ‘backdoor's open,’ meaning, she's not going to be there. And so, usually by the time I fall asleep, which is 2:30 in the morning, she's not home or she's home and she's passed out.”
Leo wants to be an artist one day, but her teachers at HAALO say she already is. They’re also quick to explain how murals help both the kids painting them and the communities they’re painted in.
Brittini Long is a Community Engagement Coordinator for the Juvenile Court, and she’s wanted to see a mural go up in Westwood since last year, when she read an article about the neighborhood in The Dayton Daily News.
Long notes that “young people in this zip code specifically—Westwood, 45417—have the odds stacked against them. They are more likely to be victims of crime, victims of violence, more likely to have incarcerated parents, drop out of school, teenage pregnancy, all of these awful statistics.”
What really got to Long was a 9-year-old boy who told the newspaper how his mother had taught him to "get on the ground" and "stay low" whenever gunfire breaks out.
“I really hope he comes,” she says. “Because he’s the one that inspired this. He’s the reason I said, ‘I’m going to paint that little boy a mural.’ You know, if anything, he has something pretty to look at when he walks down the street. But the first day we painted, two blocks from here, a little girl was stabbed on the playground while she was playing with her friends.”
Long wants this mural to “give hope to those young people,” and she wants them to know that people are “trying to make this a better place for them.”
"What tools do you need to get to where you want to be?"
James Pate had the same idea in mind when he designed the mural. His work “depicts images of people in the community rebuilding and reconstructing. So, the imagery conveys this mad rush to reconstruct. They’re using tools: saws, hammers, painting”
And it’s not just construction tools. Pate drew images of caps and gowns and diplomas. He’s also left some empty space in the design, so the students can collaborate with him. He’ll ask each one to paint a tool of their own creation, and he’ll ask them this question: “What tools do you need to get to where you want to be?”
Pate says “it’s a kind of like a sneaky way to make them realize that getting an education is a tool—when you think of tools in a broader sense. So, I’m going to sneak through the backdoor on them.”
The artistic skills Pate is teaching could be a good tool for the future, too. Local artists are painting murals and making money at it, like Tiffany Allyn Clark and Christopher “Etch” Weyrich, who have a business called Mural Machine.
They’ve done work on the Mendelsons building, the Old Yellow Cab building, a micro-brewery, and yoga studio, but the piece closest to Clark’s heart is one in East Dayton, on the Cornerstone Outreach Addiction Facility.
“It looks like the building has been broken away by lovely poppies and a sunrise,” she says. “You see very poster-ized, Banksy-esque people on there. And, if you are just someone in the community, hopefully you see it as beautiful poppies. And if you are a member of the junkie club, you know that that’s heroin.”
The mural became a community project, with people from the neighborhood and facility helping out. It’s become a memorial, too.
“We had lost one of the people who helped us paint it maybe two weeks before we were finished,” Clarks says. “So, I put a picture of him up there, as well as someone else I knew and loved who passed away.”
From the East End to Westwood, murals are telling the city’s stories. And, hopefully, helping it heal.
The HAALO program will be hosting a mural dedication this Friday, June 17th, at 4PM, at the Wesley Community Center, which is celebrating its 50th year of serving West Dayton. The Center is having a Juneteenth Celebration on the same day, and it begins at 2PM.