Art in the Hands of Men conveys black male experience through art

Baltimore artists convey black experience at Reginald F. Lewis Museum.

There's a familiar character at the center of Jerrell Gibbs' paintings: Franklin, the silenced African-American character in the "Peanuts" cartoon.

Franklin was a strong presence Saturday at a children's art workshop and panel discussion at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. The event was held by Art in the Hands of Men, an organization of which Gibbs is a member that works to unify black male artists and promote arts education to young people.

"We give them a place where they can come together and be dealt with by older male artists that can help them cultivate their talent, and create opportunities for them to display their work and sell their work," said Shawn Kwofi Holmes, the organization's founder and curator.

The organization displayed about 10 paintings alongside literary works at the museum Saturday as the backdrop to a panel discussion surrounding the art, much of which touched on the experience of black men in Baltimore.

Before the talk, Gibbs spent the afternoon working with a handful of kids who came through the museum, providing each with a coloring sheet of Franklin and asking them to color him as they imagine themselves when they grow up. It was the second "I Am Franklin" workshop the museum has held.

Gibbs said he uses the Franklin character as a vessel to convey that they can aspire to become whatever they wish, and tries to support their goals through art.

"I just want to reiterate and instill that within them," he said.

The Lewis Museum is celebrating its 11th year. It is calling 2016 the "Year of the Black Male," a theme on which the institution is centering programs and exhibits. Current exhibits include "Question Bridge," a video exhibit, and "BMore than the Story."

Terry Taylor, the museum's education program coordinator, said the museum is working to create more in-school programs in addition to the workshops it hosts in-house. Saturday's workshop was the museum's fourth since February.

"It gives children a chance to develop their skills," she said. "Sometimes kids don't have the opportunities to be able to take formal lessons, and this gives them the opportunities to do that by offering these workshops on a regular basis and developing their thirst."

Art in the Hands of Men is also working to develop more outreach to budding young artists. The organization will offer after-school programming in 10 city schools and five in Baltimore County starting this fall. Holmes hopes the programs help develop children as artists, give them role models and provide them with outlets to display and sell their work.

"We're gaining momentum," Holmes said. "My whole idea was for us to do unified shows to present ourselves as a package."

Their presentation Saturday showcased work from two visual artists, Gibbs and fellow painter Bryan Robinson, and two writers, Tariq Toure and Dejuan Patterson. Gibbs opened the talk explaining why Franklin became such a prominent figure in his work beginning last August.

"I feel like he's a representation of myself and my community and my culture, just in terms of voice," Gibbs said. "He touches on a lot of experiences ... what it is to be black in Baltimore City."

Although his work uses "Peanuts" characters, it explores deeper themes drawn from Gibbs' experiences in Baltimore, including the city's broken education system, gentrification of neighborhoods, children's interpretation of the concept of race and the murder of his father.

Each artist displayed or read his work and discussed it with about 25 audience members.

The Art in the Hands of Men exhibition, which features about 50 works by local black male artists, first opened in February at the Incredible Little Art Gallery. It is also broadening its reach with a show planned for September at the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in Washington.

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