BY CHRISTINA STURDIVANT
Editor’s Note: Published concurrently in Capital Community News’ December East of the River Magazine.
When residents in close proximity to the Benning Road and Minnesota Ave. corridor shop for sneakers, groceries and necessities at the East River Shopping Center, they are greeted by faces of iconic black figures from various walks of life. Sammy Davis, Jr., Billie Holiday, Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune are included among profiles in a 130’ x 56’ mural painted by Alex Mattison in 1990.
“It’s really great. They use art to depict famous black figures in our culture,” says Irwin Royster, who often challenges individuals to name all 12 of the iconic figures in the mural. “That’s always a good assignment.”
Although he isn’t an artist himself, Royster recognizes the importance of utilizing art as a gateway to educating youth. When he worked at the Ophelia Egypt Program Center on Minnesota Ave. NE as Director of Outreach Services at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, he learned that conversations around public health weren’t necessarily appealing for neighborhood young people.
However, through a partnership with the Ward 7 Arts Collective, he was able to infuse information with opportunities to create, and the story changed.
“We can have a room of noisy kids and give them an [art] assignment and you’ll be surprised how it will quiet down,” he says. “Kids can really relate to art and I’m learning that art should be in everything that we do.”
Offering outlets for art and creativity to youth can be relatively simple, as students often congregate in recreation centers, schools and after school programs. However, it is a challenge to continuously feed art into the lives of adults in Ward 7.
Photographer Raegan Mathis moved to Ward 7 from Petworth over three years ago. She found an apartment with ample square footage, a galley kitchen, washer and dryer–all at an affordable price. Her neighbors include elderly residents and families with children who have lived in their homes for decades. Everyone travels the main corridor, which sits conveniently between two metro stations–Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road.
“I didn’t know what I was missing; I think the neighborhood is amazing,” says Mathis, who plans to purchase a home nearby in the future.
While her community has proven to be better than expected, Mathis is among a group of artists who have to go elsewhere for their art fix. She loves cultural centers like the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum and she recently gained exposure as a selected artist for the August 2014 Cheap Thrills exhibit at the Anacostia Arts Center. She frequents THEARC on Mississippi Ave., SE to attend plays, performances, galas and workshops.
But while these spaces lie east of the Anacostia River–certainly not far from home–they’re not close enough for Ward 7 artists who wish to congregate, create and be showcased in spaces that don’t require traveling in a car.
“There are phenomenal artists in our community, however, we don’t have spaces like those in northwest and at this point even in southeast,” says Kimberly Gaines, founder of Sondai Expressions Creative. “It’s not like we’re not producing art or programming, but we want to do it closer to our home, for our neighbors.”
Through her company, which focuses on photography, graphic design and arts consulting, Gaines hopes to bring more programming to underserved communities.
“I think my goal developed out of living in a community that is disjointed when it comes to the arts,” says Gaines, a New Jersey native who came to the District to attend Howard University. In 2003, she purchased a home in Ward 7.
While arts spaces and events for artists have existed throughout the ward, says Gaines, the efforts are sporadic and thus it is difficult to build artistic momentum in the ward.
Both Gaines and Mathis recall the Tubman-Mahan Gallery at the Center for Green Urbanism on Benning Road NE. Named after Harriet Tubman and Dennis Mahan, it featured a variety of shows highlighting local artists. The physical center closed in May 2014, but “the mission does not need a brick and mortar foundation,” according to the center’s Facebook page.
Gaines has also participated in arts events at The Riverside Center on Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave. Owned by Washington Parks and People, the space is “active sometimes and inactive at other times,” says Gaines.
Using spaces like the Marvin Gaye park, she’s hosted events to generate the creative economy in the ward, if only temporarily.
“I live in this community and I want to see the things that are going on across the city happen on this side of town,” says Gaines. “So wherever I can help to facilitate that happening, I kind of go for it.”
The Senator Theater opened at 3946-3956 Minnesota Avenue NE in 1942. Today, the building is leased by a Subway eatery and beauty supply store. Gaines hopes that entertainment spaces like this will emerge once again.
While it is but a dream at this point, Mathis believes the resources for artists in Ward 7 may not be too far off. “It has to start somewhere,” she says. For now, that “somewhere” for east of the river is Ward 8. But decades ago, Dupont Circle was the primary destination for art galleries. Now, galleries, cultural centers and theaters can be found along the U St. corridor, in Mt. Vernon, Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, Georgetown and even into northeast.
“It’s coming [and] this is a good time to jump on it and be able to say, ‘Hey, there are artists who live there—they’re not just in Ward 8.’ I’m one and I’m sure there are others.”
Access to art is an important aspect throughout one’s life. “From social justice to the sidewalk on the street,” says Gaines, “artists make things beautiful. You want things that inspire you to create, inspire you to live your best life—having those spaces increases the quality of life and we definitely need that within Ward 7.”