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Arts and Culture Public Officials Breakfast 2015

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Arts, Youth, Neighborhoods: A Conversation with Donald Black Jr.

A few weeks ago, we had a premiere event for our short documentary, At Its Very Best. The work was created by local artist, Donald Black Jr., and shares on the impact of violence and what the arts can do in the lives of those affected by trauma. This is shown in the short piece through interviews with youth, educators, healthcare providers and public safety experts.

After the 13-minute video was shown at the event, Black spoke on his experience creating the video and then asked for audience members thoughts on the piece.

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The first person to share was a woman who grew up in poverty. She spoke on how she drew quite a bit when she was growing up and that the arts kept her and many other youth in her neighborhood out of trouble. She told a story of a time she, as an adult, worked with a group of troubled, ‘bad’ kids. The kids were given paintbrushes and a wall and asked to paint a mural for a daycare center. She had her doubts that this project would work out, but noticed these kids from different gangs, areas and backgrounds working together on this project with a camaraderie she hadn’t expected to see. 

More comments led to the question of how Black decided on the name, At Its Very Best. In response, Donald shared that while editing the documentary, he was continuously listening for something to hit on a very personal level inside of him as an artist. What ended up sticking out was something said by Toni Starinsky, who was  his photography teacher in high school. He took special interest to what Toni Starinsky was saying because “she is a white person who has really been in the mud.”

In the documentary she says, “If arts does anything, it should teach thinking, empathy, and give children hope. That’s what it does at its very best.” This really stood out. Black reflected on art as the counterbalance to what violence did to him. He didn’t realize at the time that he was healing himself with art because it was happening in a very subconscious way. But the longer he has created art, the more he has realized its impact on his life.

“For Starinsky to say that at its very best, art can heal some simple ails, that’s what this is all about.”

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One of Black's desires as an adult was to be an artist in the neighborhood in which he grew up, even though he was being pulled in other directions including his life in New York and other neighborhoods of Cleveland he called “white bubbles”. 

As a kid, Black grew up on the southeast side of Cleveland. From 7th grade on, he had to ride the RTA from his neighborhood to Cleveland School of the Arts, where he was a student. “There was a huge divide between what was going on where I was living and what was happening where I was going.” Black wants to make the community where he grew up a place for people visit to see artwork, and a place for black kids growing up in urban communities to see and experience artwork. Strategically he put his art practice on Kinsman because he wants to be walk-accessible and there when people want him. He is trying to pay it forward. About his murals that stand roughly 20 or 30 feet tall, he shares that he wants his little cousin to feel as big and tall as those murals they see themselves in. “Kids say, “That’s me in the mural.” There are lots of young people showing up.”

At Its Very Best will be shown at CAN Journal during Third Fridays in January. Contact us if you’d like to screen the 13-minute video in your space.

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