Local artist Herb Massie and Baltimore Clayworks community arts manager Nicole Fall gasp with joy when they see the area of Shirley Avenue Park cleared from the displeasing overgrowth that previously covered the Northwest Baltimore environment. The sun now shines through the remaining tall trees, creating a perfect, inviting area with great potential for the local community to come and enjoy.
Now, the ceramic arts center has partnered with YouthWorks, Safe Streets, and Park Heights Renaissance to take the next step in making this park even more beautiful by adding a new community mural. The organizations see it as a way to represent the city standing up for itself in the wake of President Donald Trump’s recent negative comments about Baltimore.
“Certainly similar comments have been made about neighborhoods targeted by neglect and judgement by the government,” said Kaliq Simms, director of education programs for Park Heights Renaissance. “So everything that we do at Park Heights Renaissance is meant to be that creative renaissance in a neighborhood that has been underserved.”
Park Heights Renaissance is a local non-profit corporation in Rep. Elijah Cummings’ seventh district that works to shape a better future for the area. Every summer, it partners with the city’s employment program, Youthworks. And this summer, Baltimore Clayworks joined in to create the mural. Simms’ team also collaborated with Human Family Tree Publishing to give Baltimore youth the opportunity to reflect and write about their personal family stories.
“The overarching goal is to give youth agency to express their feelings and ideas about their community,” says Falls of Clayworks, “and to present them in an impactful way.”
Since July 1, the community groups have worked collaboratively to showcase the youth’s unique and meaningful stories using a tile mosaic mural themed around anti-violence and hope. Youthworks students are being taught by Massie as they create the work that will feature the Safe Streets slogan, “There is Hope in the Heights.” Other sections will read: “Keep the peace,” “Stop the violence,” and other messages that the youth want to reinforce.
Simms believes that the project will have a great impact. “They kids are taking on the opportunity to do something to beautify the entire community,” he says, “It’s something that would be an external and very visible symbol of what we aspire to be.”
The program has also been beneficial to the local youth as a place where they can openly express themselves through writing and artwork. According to Simms, it has always been “geared toward trama-responsive education.” He adds that working with clay offers “a very therapeutic experience for youth who have experienced trauma of all kinds.”
The initiative started with about 25 participants, and now, through Youthworks’ extended paid work, there are six exemplary students still working hard and forming strong bonds. Participant Brandon Green says he has come to see his fellow students as not just co-workers, but family.
A former Clayworks employee himself, Massie took on this particular project because he “wanted to do something to benefit the lives of the young people” in the high-crime-rate area of Park Heights. Through pursuing his passion to be an artist, he has become a role model to the students.
“Mr. Massie is like the most inspirational person I know,” says youth member Taniyah Kutcherman, as the other students nod in agreement. And Massie responds with one of his inspirational life lessons—“You don’t want to surround yourself around people who will tell you how good you are, you want to surround yourself around people who will say that’s good, but this is what you should do better. Figure out what you want to do, what your craft is, and start pursuing it.”
Through the gathering of community, the writing of personal stories, and the creation of a hopeful mural, these Baltimore programs have come together to shine a light of the brightness and “re-establish that hope in our neighborhood,” says Simms.
As Massie says, “This is a wall of hope.”