Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mural of Princeville, NC

Visions of Renewal and Spirit in the Community
Mural of Princeville, NC

In 1885, Princeville, North Carolina, became the first incorporated African American town in the United States. Initially, ex-slaves established the community as Freedom Hill in 1865. In 2008, few recent citizens and young people in the region knew the narrative of the historic event (Blue, 2000). The 1999 Flood, a five hundred-year flood created by Hurricane Floyd, destroyed much of the town and called public attention to the notable past of the Princeville community and, simultaneously, initiated a debate about the viability of rebuilding the town in the flood plain of the Tar River. As the conversation continued, it became apparent that many citizens wanted to remain in the historic town regardless of the effort it would take to restore their homes and businesses. Princeville was their home, and they wanted to rebuild their town and celebrate their unique heritage. “An examination of Princeville’s history reveals that it had both similarities and differences with other black towns founded after the Civil War (Mobley, 1986, p. 340).”

As a former visual art teacher for three decades and currently an assistant professor at East Carolina University in the School of Art and Design, I wanted to work with the surrounding counties to realize the goals of reconstructing the town and celebrating the historic roots of the community. I thought of the REPO history movement of New York City, an artists' movement of the 1980s and 90s. This “group of artists, scholars, teachers and writers focused on the relationship of history to contemporary society. It grew into a forum for developing public art projects based on history and a platform for creating them (REPO, 2000, p. 1).”
The idea of a mural project was that a group of East Carolina University art students and I would retrieve and relocate absent historical narratives and present the visual story in a public location. Three School of Art and Design graduate art students and I utilized the methods of the Repro to gather the hidden history of Princeville and create an outdoor mural at The Heritage Park location in the town of Princeville, NC.

The Princeville Mural project involved the creation of a 48-foot, twelve-panel mural that visually represents the important events that occurred from the founding of the initial Freedom Hill community in 1865 by free black slaves to the present Princeville. Part of the projected included interviews with residents of present day Princeville by the university students and local school students to obtain the oral history of Princeville families. The research also included locating information about families that have left the community. Nearly 20 families in the present town can trace their family history to the early settlers of the town of Freedom Hill.
The stories of the people of Princeville helped the university students compose scenes that reflected the memories of the community. During this process the university students began to understand the importance of the artist's role in shaping public consciousness. The students saw themselves as visual story reporters. Since the founding of Freedom Hill in 1865, its people have endured the hardships of flooding from Atlantic storms and the loss of community employment, homes, and businesses. The current residents hold dear the hallowed ground left to them by early community founders (Blue, 2007). Gathering the hidden narrative of Princeville and representing elements of that history in the mural allows a re-reading or investigation of significant events, people, and issues of the life of the region.

The three African American graduate students who collaborated on the mural project are natives to this region and are gifted, creative artists who have had academic success. Their diligence and dedication to personal studio work and academic course work has yielded positive results in their careers. Randall Leach, Cameron Johnson, and Dazzalla Knight painted the mural. Two of the students Knight and Leach have become licensed to teach art. Knight, who grew up in Princeville, teaches art in Tarboro High School, NC, a town near Princeville, and continues in her education practice to involve her students in the process of visualizing personal and community narratives. Randall Leach teaches art at Rose High School in Greenville, NC, and uses the idea of visualizing personal narratives in his classes. Cameron Johnson has become an Assistant Professor of Art at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC. His art has been described as "examining the systems used to establish value within art and our own lives (Meredith College, 2007)."

The efficacy of the pedagogical model I employed to realize the mural project uses various perspectives combining educational theory and life configurations to inform the art making process. The three graduate art students and I continue to make inquiry into the unseen history of Princeville.

The creation of a visual history of Princeville as public art created widespread community awareness of the Princeville's historic past. For young children, the public, visual image engenders questions about the town’s history and stimulates more interest in learning about the past events that shaped the community's heritage. The visual arts are essential for disseminating and fostering individual and societal cultural identities and helping individuals find their place within society. The mural is located at The Heritage Park in the town of Princeville, NC. Has become an important centerpiece of show casings the towns renewal.

For more general information, photographs and a song about the town of Princeville and an article about the mural project visit the Princeville MySpace page http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=107733904
In 2007, Golden Artist Colors of New York provided a materials grant and technical information for the creation of the outdoor mural.

The artists received a 2008 North Carolina Arts Council/Edgecombe County Grassroots Grant for work on the project.

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