Jakayla Holmes, age 9, was feeling a little bit sorry for the visiting stranger because he wasn’t getting the same chance to be creative that she was enjoying.
She was having so much fun silk-screening T-shirts and tote bags that bear an image of a lightning bolt. But the tall man in black didn’t get to have his hands covered in blue paint as he pulled the squeegee over the printing press in the Greenmount West Community Center. He didn’t have adult helpers Bernadette Smith or Sylvia Butler guiding his hands, showing him just what to do.
He didn’t get to see the image emerge crisp and precise against the beige background, or watch while the handbag was baked in the drying machine. And it wouldn’t be his creation sold for $30 in a pop-up store at the Baltimore Museum of Art, making money for the Community Center.
So Jakayla walked up to Mark Bradford, held out the tote she had just made and said, “This is for you.”
The grown-ups in the room knew, even if Jakayla didn’t, that Bradford is an international art superstar who represented the U.S. in the 2017 Venice Biennale, often described as the art world Olympics. They were aware that the Los Angeles-based artist is in town for the opening of his exhibit, “Tomorrow Is Another Day” at the Baltimore Museum of Art and that his abstract expressionist canvases are sold for seven-fiigure sums.
“That’s real nice,” Bradford told Jakayla. “What does that lightning bolt mean to you?”
“It means superheroes," Jakayla said. “It means power and strength.”
Jakayla also didn’t realize that it was Bradford’s money that had purchased the four-color press, the flash dryer, the exposure unit, the computers and enough equipment to provide weekly silk-screening workshops for 40 youths ages 5 to 18 at Greenmount West. Silk-screening classes began in March; after six months, enough merchandise had been created to open the pop-up store, which launches this week.
Bradford is known for launching social service programs in cities with major exhibitions of his art. In his native Los Angeles, he created a nearly 20,000-square-foot community arts center that works with youths in foster care. In Venice, he set up a storefront where current and former inmates could sell the wares they made while imprisoned. In Baltimore, he has launched the Greenmount West Power Press and has committed to providing the funding and on-site support for three years.
“Do you have enough ink?” Bradford asked Kirsten Fonseca, 8. “I used to do silkscreening when I was your age. I loved it.”
The Power Press is a collaboration between Bradford, the museum, the community center and the grassroots community organization Noisy Tenants. The youngsters receive free after-school and summer programs that help them build leadership skills and learn self-sufficiency. The kids will demonstrate their silk-screening expertise from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the museum during public festivities celebrating the opening of Bradford’s exhibit.
Teens 14 and older and the five adult participants in the program are paid $15 an hour to supervise the younger children, according to the center’s president, Kisha L. Webster.
“We believe,” she said, “that everyone who works should earn a living wage.”
Within three years, the museum hopes to come up with an operating plan to sustain the Center and silk-screening workshops. That will involve developing other funding sources and earned income from merchandise sales. In addition, the facility may eventually become available to the wider community and generate fees as a maker space.
“This can be so much more,” Noisy Tenants co-founder Nicholas Mitchel said.
“Kids who want to start a lawn-mowing business could use this as a resource for their uniforms. Someone from the community could use it to create their own clothing line.”
There’s some indication that the pop-up store at the museum could become a steady income source for the community center.
Bradford has a close relationship with the BMA’s director, Christopher Bedford. For the past year, the Baltimore museum has helped Bradford with another of his social service projects by selling totes, wallets and other items made by the Italian inmates. Proceeds go to Rio Terà dei Pensieri, the organization that helps the prisoners find jobs and housing and obtain health care after they are released.
Greg Ferrara, director of the museum shop, said that he’s sold more than 1,000 items made by the inmates, ranging from change purses to gym bags.
“They’ve been a consistently good seller since last year, and I expect to continue to carry them for the foreseeable future," he said.
It’s clear that this project is close to Bradford’s heart. He’s hugely busy and in constant demand, jetting off for one international destination after another. Yet Wednesday was his fifth visit to Greenmount West.
“I was a young, sensitive, creative boy, and I didn’t have a safe space where I could do this,” he said.
He turned to Jakayla.
“This is a great center,” he said. “This is a great bag. Can all you guys sign it for me?”
“I’m going to pay for it though,” he said.