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I had the privilege of sitting down and getting to listen to insight from this year's four Newell Flather Leadership in Public Art Awardees. Marquis Victor, founder and executive director of Elevated Thought, shared so much insight on the power of art making, youth involvement and community voice. I hope you enjoy a closer listen to my conversation with Marquis.
Kamaria Carrington (KC): Well, I am so excited to be here with you. Marquis Victor, husband, father, cultural curator for public art in Lawrence, and of course awardee for this year's Newell Flather Award for Leadership in Public Art. So thank you for agreeing to spend some time with me and to share your work and more about you with everyone else. So thank you.
Marquis Victor (MV): Yeah, I'm grateful to share space. Thank you.
KC: I'm just going to throw a bunch of questions at you, and you take them where you want to. Okay? So what do you want us to know about you as a person? Not the résumé, but you. What has shaped your understanding of what public art is or what public art can be, and who shaped your leadership style?
MV: You've got some good questions. I think just creativity is an access point for me to better understand self. And once you begin that journey of self-discovery, which is never ending really, you find strength in that, and it provides this foundation in which you can put your mind and eyes towards the social landscape. And when you do that, I believe through my own experiences and through the work Elevated Thought and what young people are capable of, just avenues in which that creative foundation and strength can move towards social progress. In little itty-bitty amounts, right? Not crazy, in one fell swoop upending these oppressive systems. But I think when that creativity that has grounded one's self, then seeps out into the community, and people can see that power and resonate with it, and begin to ask questions again about themselves, about the world around them. Then that's how you create this domino effect if you will, where it heightens consciousness and desire for something different.
For me, creativity at its core is just something a little different. It's not necessarily original, because we're always learning, taking from different sources. But when we see ourselves in the world differently, we just can't exist the same anymore. You know what I mean?
MV: This doesn't feel right. This doesn't look right. There has to be something else. That's something that I thrive on, is just the creative pursuit, finding something new, challenging self, challenging beliefs of my own and of the way things are perceived to be.
KC: Since you threaded in some pieces of your work with Elevated Thought, what is your leadership style when you're talking about working with young people and really building imagination as a muscle, as a tool? How do you support their growth through your leadership?
MV: When you're doing this work right, it's not about what we're doing to young people that's causing them to do all this. It's already in there. They already got it. It's just about creating a space and nurturing that process of that being revealed to themselves. And I think when it comes to leadership, there's a lot of my DNA in ET, but it can never ... That's not sustainable, one person or two people, or a handful. Encouraging avenues where young people especially have voice and the work that's being done, the creation's being made, but also just in the practices and the culture of the organization, too. It's not always easy. You get humbled real quick. This work, as gratifying as it is, it can turn into the same hamster wheel type site. You're running a million miles an hour. You're going, going, going, going. You got to do this, do that, do this. Thinking about progress, expansion, capacity. All these things.
But I think with young people in particular ... And by young people, I'm talking about out of our 11 full-time staff, eight are 25 years old and younger that have had critical impacts on our organization for a long time. It's given them space to grow, to have a voice, to impose their will if you will, their creative magic, and provide feedback and nurture that, and listen, especially. That's not to say that everything goes, like every idea it goes through, right?
MV: But I think you got to create space where people know that they're going to be heard and that they can create something that's meaningful, whether an actual physical piece of art or creating a structure or a program. Just anything when it comes to the organizational development in the creation development. That's what I focus on. Listening, providing platforms, and providing avenues where people can grow.
KC: That's beautiful. I mean, it sounds like you're making ecosystems where young people can step through a threshold of imagination creating and just ... or creativity and materializing that, and testing that, and being in a feedback loop. So again, not just like a top-down structure, or not just every idea's good, but there are like real feedback loops so things can be tested and tried, and folks can really see themselves succeed or fail with support or whatever, whatever the terms are that you use for those assessments and care. It sounds like a lot of care.
MV: Yeah. And I think knowledge sharing, too. I think when you're receptive to people's experiences and insights, just wisdom which is different with every person. We have folks that might have come from the same place or similar place, but every individual experience is an individual experience. There's a lot of wisdom and knowledge to be gained there. So I think when that space is provided, especially a creative space, then folks are more willing to internalize and be receptive to other people. You know what I mean?
KC: Uh-huh. Yeah.
MV: If they know that they're being heard, it's like, "Well, I'm being heard. I'm going to listen, because look what I'm getting. Look what I'm getting right now from sharing. People are taking that. I bet if I do the same ..." It's this reciprocal aspect of knowledge sharing is a real necessity for collective growth, for sure.
KC: Why Lawrence? What's your relationship to Lawrence?
MV: Yeah. I like to call myself an adopted son of the city. I grew up all around the area of the Merrimack Valley area, and I went to high school in Lawrence. I played basketball, and I had a lot of good homies on the team that were from the city. They exposed me to the beauty and the culture, the vibrancy, the love that was in the city. It was the only place that I ever felt like a sense of community when I was younger.
MV: Fast forward a little bit. When I was getting this thing off the grounds, I used to talk to my homie, Alex J. Brien, a lot about bringing Elevated Thought back to Lawrence and focusing it there. Because I love the city. I thought it was small enough where ... There were already some organizations and individuals doing some great work there in different realms. The thought always stuck to me that the city is small enough that if we were to create something, access and exposure to creativity leads to all these opportunities on an individual and in a community vantage point. Then we build and we grow, and young people are empowered and creatives are empowered. Then we can do something that's so dynamic here that we can essentially open up the playbook to other communities that are like Lawrence. Like, "Hey, it happened here. Your city's small enough. You have this type of makeup similar to Lawrence. If it can be done here, it can be done there. So the question is, why isn't it happening?" That was the real impetus for me to focus the work in Lawrence.
KC: Can you share a moment of community connection you experienced in Lawrence with your art making and with that practice?
MV: I guess, I would say we have a mural at the Lawrence Public Library. I'm a little biased. It's mine. It's my favorite. It's my favorite of all the, I think, the ET public art murals, and largely because of the process. We did this community engagement aspect to the mural where we asked young people in elementary school, middle school, high school “what does the past, the present, and the future of Lawrence mean to you?” We asked for submissions. You could just write it. You could write a poem. You could draw. Whatever.
So we got hundreds of submissions from young people across the community, and it was beautiful. You had to prepare yourself when those submissions came in. You'd need that tissue box. You need a blank canvas ready, because you'd be inspired. There was all these different emotions that would come in through this process.
At that same time, are young people working with our art director, Alex J. Brien. They were organizing some of this, translating the submissions into a mural format, mural design. So the end result was this massive –I think it's like 40 feet high, 9 feet wide – installation mural on steel beams. And it said "create your future" at the top. And then it goes and you'll see throughout the imagery, young people of Lawrence, spots of history throughout it. Right? Lawrence history, how did Lawrence get to where it's at today, and what does that mean to young people? And then the center of the focus of the mural is a young girl. It was the younger sister of one of our youth organizers, right? Maryanne was her younger sister. And one of our other youth took the picture of her sister. So you have all these young people that are part of ET, all these young people that weren't part of ET but contributed. It was installed. It was installed with the local steel company. It was crazy.
So we had the grand opening and ribbon cutting, and young people were just so excited. The young woman who was featured in it, she had a bunch of friends there. She was getting interviewed by the newspaper and stuff. It was wild. And this abuela comes up to me, she talks to me in this really broken English, but somehow she hit on all the potent words. She's like, "You did this mural a couple years ago downtown and I didn't like it. I thought it was street art, vandalism. I hated it. You don't remember that?" I'm like, "Oh, yeah. I do remember that." She came out. I remember one day I was taking photos and filming. She came out. I think she double parked and got out of her car and was just mad, like tight that there was just this big mural. Her perception of public art was like the vandalism that she was getting on the side of her building. Right?
KC: Hmm. Mm-hmm.
MV: She saw it that way. This, for some reason, exacerbated this hate that she had for it. And then at this ribbon cutting, this beautiful installation, printed on these aluminum DIBOND panels accentuated by spray paint. She was like in tears and telling me that it reminds her of her granddaughters. The main photo, it reminds her of a photo that she had of herself that her grandfather ... She had all this story. She gave me a hug and she said, "This is beautiful. Do more. Más más más all over the city."
So that kind of, that circle, that full circle, like everything. It really emphasized the work. Yeah, it's focused on young people, but creativity just opens up people's perception. And I think what public art can do is ... Yeah, it's tied to things that we don't like. Gentrification, all these things. But what does public art look like when it's really driven by the community and the voice, and people can see themselves in the work? And see the stories in the work? I think that's always been important for us. And I think now I'm grateful that we're able to do that more and more.
KC: Thank you for that story and that reflection. I just feel like so many things can happen. Can you share more about why it's important to you, or maybe some things you've learned recently about why it's important? And has anything in there that important shifted or expanded for you over time?
MV: Yeah, I think quite a bit. I mean, the emphasis on community voice is something that has always been at the forefront, but it's just been more of a critical component with rapid development, because public art can get confused. Oh, this place is going up. They have some extra dough. They're going to have artists come in, whip something up that's disconnected from the community and be out. And there's a lot of work to be done in that and having conversations, creating space for conversations. And not just in a performative way, but allowing ...
And again, it's a balance, right? Because you can't have a million people contributing to the content or a theme. Nothing will ever get done. And I failed at that. I tried to do it in extreme way in the past, right? As many people as possible, let's get them in there. You know what I mean? Let's get the whiteboard. And you have people talking about, "I want a jungle. I want the space. I want a fashion." And all these things. It was just too much.
So I think if you ground it in conversation, and there's a specific theme that can generate ideas in a meaningful way, and connect it to something that's relevant. Not just in the community, but in a real human way, too, so people can respond to it. And how do you do that also without creating prompts that are real triggering and bringing out a bunch of trauma, which is difficult, too? You know what I mean? So you tend to focus at like light, almost like corny. You know what I mean?
I did a mural a couple years back, and the prompt ... It was a small ... I think it was a community with the YWCA, with some young people, too. There were some parents involved, some community folks involved. We just asked a prompt like, "What reminds you of a beautiful day? What's a beautiful day to you?" You know what I mean? They'd say, "Oh, that's light. You know what I mean? That's cool." But then, because it's light, and maybe you can bypass some of ... We've done prompts before that's like, "What does home mean to you?" And people had to leave because it brought up so much. You know what I mean? So like, "Oh, it can't go in like that." You need a group that you get to know for a little bit and get a sense of where everybody's at before you do this kind of deeper dive.
So something like that. Like, "What does a beautiful day look like to you?" And people are just sharing stories. You're taking notes, and you're able to highlight common themes, and then the young people contribute. It's done in this real holistic generative way, and at the same time, able to pull themes together to make a really dope, unique mural. I always say this –we try to stay away from the Papa Gino's murals, right? Because the Papa Gino's like ... I don't even know if Papa Gino's got a mural. I don't even know if Papa Gino's is still open. When I was working in Boston, and lived in Malden. It was a Papa Gino's we used to go to sometimes, and there was an Italian dude on the mural. He had his dough and different points. He's walking to his little oven. And it's cool. It's better than nothing on the wall. But this dude's going up and making pizza, and that's it.
So we like to make murals that keep in public art ... I won't just say murals anymore, because we do photos. We're doing more work with photos, as well. But you want these public art pieces to open up avenues of thought and internalization where individuals keep on going back to it because they see something else, or they have a question. It's not just so on the nose that this is what this is. Right? You got to keep coming back to learn more, see it differently.
Yeah. I think that was a long-winded answer, what I learned making these conversations and the contributions to public art accessible.
KC: Can you share who your mentors are, or the leaders who impacted your cultural curation process for public art making?
MV: There's a lot of people that inspired me and supported me. But honestly, from a public art perspective, I got to say Charles White. I never knew Charles White. Charles White passed before I was even born. But Charles White was one of the first artists that ... You know the coffee table books? It was one of the first artists I had a coffee table book of, and his work really resonated with me. Partly because he uses a phrase, like he creates "images of dignity”. And I love that.
He emphasized that you cannot divorce art from the political struggle in the liberation of Black people. That was a difficult conversation, especially in the '60s and '70s. He was on point with, I think, a lot of what he was saying, not just in representation, but when people see themselves in a different light. It's going back to the mural that I was just describing. The young people in the mural, but also the OG who came up to me and she saw herself in all these different ways. That's been a critical component for our work. This is you, this is us, and this should be here. You know what I mean? This is part of ...
We got pushback early on about like, "How y'all doing all this art in a city that needs so much? You're doing these big murals. There's so many other social issues." That was a valid, valid discussion. And it's like, "Well, we have an avenue to get resources in this realm." And what we can do is we can make these images of dignity that further dignify this beautiful city, and this is our contribution to that. Yeah, we can't solve the homelessness crisis, right? We can talk and advocate, but we can't upend the system on our own, right? But we can leverage art to address those things. We're going to create these images of dignity and purpose, and broadcast the need of acknowledging the human need to create and what that can do.
And that's just not through art making. The human needs to create, to create space for community, to create realms of progress. There's just so much within that. So Charles White was ... I think from him in one way or another, this idea of access and exposure equals opportunity. That was the first time that understanding struck me when I was studying, analyzing, and appreciating his work.
KC: Thank you so much for sharing so much with me.
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