After spending a week in the unseasonably hot sun, international artist Charles Jean-Pierre still manages to set up a 3-story scaffolding, two rows of paint, and speakers blasting his signature playlist of A Tribe Called Quest and Common. Now, he’s all set to begin another day of mural painting for the Holy Rosary Church. The Chicago-native is usually traveling–from Detroit to Chicago, from Haiti to London painting murals in communities–but this time, he’s back in Washington, DC where he now lives. His current project, a 22 x 28 foot mural, is to commemorate the first Mass of the Roman Catholic church.
Although this mural is paid-work, Jean-Pierre says his heart is in his more expressive and collaborative pieces–particularly his community art that allows local residents to contribute. It’s through this passion for community contribution that he says he uncovered the solution to neighborhood violence. Today, he travels around the world painting murals in dangerous neighborhoods in an effort to curb the levels of violence and encourage a more unified sense of community.
“A lot of the things that I’m doing is a little unorthodox but I think it makes sense,” he says. “We’re losing a lot of love and we’re not really respecting the things around us. When you have a beautiful esthetic in things that are centered around growth and positivity, I think it gives you more humanity and that humanity is what we need in order to not kill each other. That's why I’m building walls of respect.”
Upon first thought, his philosophy seems a bit impractical and melodramatic. His old neighborhood in Harvey, Illinois (just outside of Chicago) still has a violent crime rate that’s more than double that of the national average. Amidst a desensitized media culture, it has become a norm to associate places like Chicago with violence and social disorganization. The last thing these communities need is a candy-corn-rainbow philosophy as a solution.
But Jean-Pierre isn’t the only one who believes in the strength of murals; Dr. Felton Earls, Harvard University research professor of Human Behavior and Development, agrees that murals can be tools in building community camaraderie.
“I do think that painting murals can generate a sense of collective efficacy (just as community gardens, street fairs, block parties, etc. can),” Dr. Earls says. “The challenge is to include adolescents and young adults into such events in authentic, respectful ways.”
In his 1997 study on Chicago neighborhoods and violent crime, Dr Earls, along with two other researchers, found that “collective efficacy, defined as social cohesion among neighbors combined with their willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good, is linked to reduced violence.”
Whereas Dr. Earls and his colleagues proved the theory on a more scientific level, Jean-Pierre’s anecdotal accounts provide the experiential proof. Born in Chicago to Haitian parents, he has seen the turmoil and tragedy of neighborhood violence first hand. So when he saw the community’s reaction to his Chicago mural, he was amazed.
“I had different gang members painting on the same wall together. Staying out of trouble. Building relationships,” he said. “Officers would constantly come by. I would play music and you’d see all these strollers–stroller after stroller after stroller.”
The “Bronzeville Noir” mural at 47th and Calumet in Chicago, is 20 x 50 feet–two stories high. Dionte Williams, 23, contributed to the mural and says “it brought a lot of people together. It made a positive impact on the neighborhood.”
The native Chicagoan and former gang-member was just walking by the incomplete mural last year when Jean-Pierre stopped him and asked if he wanted to paint.
“I had a lot of stuff on my mind that day and it helped me. I just kept coming back every day until it was finished,” he explained. “Now I feel like I’m a part of history because that painting still gonna be there. That day changed me man. I really wish I could just…keep it up.”
Dr. Earl's attestation that young people have to be more involved is something that Jean-Pierre reinforces every day. He takes his passion to the classroom, teaching 6-8th graders art and photography at McFarlane Middle School in Washington, DC.
“Art can be a tool to educate people,” he says. “I think art humanizes people and gives them an outlet and ability to see their potential. Art in itself, the picture, has meaning and impact but the actual process of going through the art and creating the art gives us our humanity.”
Jean-Pierre’s “walls of respect” are popping up all over the world. He’s already painted murals in Haiti, London, and Chicago. This year, he’s taking his philosophy even farther, hoping to get the communities of Detroit, West Africa, and Montreal in on the painting.
-Riley S. Wilson