Often splashed across 50-foot walls in brilliant, hard-to-miss hues, the paintings of Mike Alewitz are hard to ignore.
But Alewitz, an internationally known artist who has painted murals in Chernobyl, Baghdad and Central America, wasn't quite expecting the attention his Harriet Tubman projects have garnered in Maryland.
The first mural, proposed for the headquarters of the Associated Black Charities in downtown Baltimore, was rejected by the group last month because Tubman was depicted with a musket. The second, at a Harford County middle school, was nearly complete when vandals painted over it last week with swastikas and racial slurs.
He has three more Tubman works to complete as part of a statewide art project commissioned by Baltimore Clayworks, a Mount Washington arts center. The undertaking is part of "Artists and Communities: America Creates for the Millennium," an initiative of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
"This attack [in Harford] and the inability to get a wall in Baltimore has set the project back," Alewitz acknowledged last week while trying to repair the damaged mural at Magnolia Middle School in Joppa. "But I feel I have a responsibility."
His sense of social justice started early.
"I am a product of my times," says Alewitz, 49, who grew up in a working-class environment in Wilmington, Del., in the 1950s.
He was one of three children, and his parents both worked - his mother as a factory worker and secretary and his father was a plumber, although he returned to school and received a doctorate in history when he was in his 60s. Both were involved in labor organizations before he was born.
Alewitz came of age during the Vietnam War protests and became a student leader on the campus of Kent State University in the anti-war movement.
"You had to question the war. It was easy. You didn't want to be killed," he says. "Then you had to ask why the U.S. was involved."
In May 1970, he witnessed the shootings there that left four people dead and nine injured during a demonstration to protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.
"It was horrible, of course," he said. "A close friend of mine was killed."
Tom Grace, a union leader who lives in Amherst, N.Y., recalls university classmate Alewitz from his student activist days.
"I remember him as a very bright, intellectual individual," says Grace, who observed Alewitz distributing leaflets around campus and speaking at student rallies. "He was extremely well-read and a good mobilizer of a large number of students."
Alewitz didn't finish college at the time. Later, working as a machinist, he became increasingly involved in the labor movement. He eventually decided to express his activism through art, he says.
He returned to school in his mid-30s at the Massachusetts College of Art. Because he had worked as a sign and billboard painter, he gravitated toward painting murals and never looked back
Now, Alewitz is teaching a mural painting class at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
He often champions the little guy in his murals. His imagery includes shackles, bright sunshine, dreamy nights, war-torn countries, immigrant workers, twinkly stars, downtrodden laborers.
His mural in Chernobyl, painted on the 10th anniversary of the accident at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant, commemorated the workers who died there.
"I was very struck by the imagery," says Deborah Bedwell, executive director of Baltimore Clayworks. "The thing I loved about his works was the way he illustrates his values, his choice of subject matter and the way he portrays his subjects."
Alewitz was chosen from a pool of 200 artists for the Tubman project, she says.
"I've learned more than I thought possible about mural painting and history," Bedwell says. "Mike has deep political convictions."
Labor and strife are recurring themes in the murals. A book of his works titled "Insurgent Images: The Agitprop of Mike Alewitz" is to be published in the fall.
Alewitz calls himself an agitprop artist. He views "agitprop," a combination of the words agitation and propaganda, as art used in a utilitarian way.
"I was determined to bring out a book of his works," says Paul Buhle, a professor of American civilization at Brown University and labor historian who is writing the introduction and a historic overview for "Insurgent Images." "The issue of public art and its role in American life is very important."
He points to an Alewitz mural on a Teamsters union building in Chicago, which shows Albert and Lucy Parsons, early labor organizers. "As a mural, it's a way of reminding people of the way amazing things get done."
Despite the serious topics depicted in many of Alewitz's works, Buhle describes the artist as a gregarious man who is usually prepared for a struggle.
"He's always involved in a controversy," Buhle says. "Part of his stance is not only to defy official images by example, but to encourage other artists also to do this and re-envision history."
Alewitz's current works championing the life of Tubman, a former slave who led other slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, reflect his passion.
He says he doesn't feel compelled to change the proposed mural showing Tubman with a musket. "Art should be the freedom to create," he maintains. "It can't be decided by committee, only in the heart and mind of the artist."
He has painted a smaller, portable version called the "Baltimore Image," which is being exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Next month, he will take the 7-foot-by-20-foot piece to a national conference at the AME Zion Church in Greensboro, N.C., where Tubman worshiped in Greensboro, N.C.
"Harriet Tubman was a great revolutionary leader and a leader for all working people in this country," Alewitz says.
"She was created by a movement. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when part of a movement."