Yvonne Hardy-Phillips and You Are Here, A Collaborative Mural Project
by Angela N. Carroll
You Are Here, curated by Yvonne Hardy-Phillips, is a socially engaged curatorial project designed to research and map the rich, multicultural story of central East Baltimore. Once home to Irish and German emigrants, this architecturally significant, urban landscape captures the essence and resilience of an African American community that has survived systemic hardships for more than 50 years. The vibrant communities of Oliver and Johnston Square act as both a geographic landmark and focal point that gives voice to the personal narratives of its community members by utilizing oral history interviews and group forums.
You Are Here proposes the eastward expansion of the Baltimore City Heritage Area map, in order to include the historically overlooked African American neighborhoods of East Baltimore. The project hunts for hidden cultural and community legacy treasures within the center city boundaries of North Avenue, Broadway, Eager Street and Greenmount Avenue.
Yvonne Hardy-Phillips grew up in East Baltimore where her family owned property at the intersection of Harford Avenue and Biddle Streets for generations. Hardy is a 2017 MFA candidate of the MICA MFA in Curatorial Practice program and You Are Here functions not only as her thesis project, but as an ongoing site-specific collaboration. Although the building on the property is currently empty, Hardy-Phillips would like to eventually rehab the space and convert it into a social services facility to provide job skills training for the community.
The mural project commemorates the contributions of the Hardy family and the communities of Oliver and Johnston Square. You Are Here is a monument honoring Baltimore’s legacy and restorative possibilities. The mural serves to beautify the region, and Hardy-Phillips’ goal is to acquire additional partnerships and sponsors towards creation of a community center. Artist contributors and collaborators include Joyce J. Scott, Gaia, Chris Metzger, Nicole Fall, Deb Jansen, Megan Lewis, and Tiffany Small.
Angela Carroll: Can you tell us more about the ideas behind the mural and those represented by it?
Yvonne Hardy Phillips: These two communities [Oliver and Johnston Square] are making major strides in redevelopment and community engagement. I’m third generation. I’m here to stay. I decided to use the buildings. The first artist invited was Christopher Metzger, a photography teacher and photographer. Everyone you see on the wall are community members; they live here, they work here, and that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to commemorate the community members and talk about what they do and who they are.
This mural (pictured above) is called I am that I am, and is an homage to the 1968 sanitation strike and march in Memphis Tennessee. It had marchers carrying the signs that say “I Am A Man” photographed by Dr. Ernest C. Withers. This project is a takeoff from that.
When we photographed them, Chris asked subjects to describe themselves beginning with “I Am”. One artist said, “I am true to myself.” Mr. Skip Barby says, “I’m a historian.” They’re artists, historians, community activists, and even the Vice Principal of Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School, Mark Collins, is on the wall. The school is very important to the lives of young people in our community.
I’ve always had the intention of doing a public service with the building. We need more space for people to gather and to talk and commune and plan for the community. But it was too difficult and expensive to rehab the inside first. With the small stipend that I got for my thesis, I used that to hire artists to work on the outside. The mural on the other side of the building is by Gaia, an amazing internationally recognized muralist.
What’s cool about the project is that it will eventually evolve from a vacant building into a facility that provides social services to the community. Most mural projects function solely to beautify but not actively provide resources for basic community needs. You Are Here provides is a special example for the possibilities of publicly funded mural projects in long-term revitalization strategies.
The city becomes more responsive to the neighborhood when there’s art and investment put into the community. There’s more accountability. Of course it signals to developers that there’s viability, which could create another kind of trajectory for the neighborhood, but I’d rather deal with that than leave things as they are.
Nicole Fall will create a major sculptural piece. Joyce Scott will contribute some mosaic medallions and a huge installation on the building. The door will be framed in glass mosaic. Gaia will contribute one more mural, a portrait of my mother. It’s all about family, community, legacy, remembering. We are getting ready to go through a whole new phase of revitalization.
This project maps the multicultural story of the historically overlooked African American neighborhoods of East Baltimore, while proposing the eastward expansion of the Baltimore City heritage map. For years the whole east side was omitted from the heritage area map, a major oversight.
I also wanted to commemorate Henrietta Lacks and Johns Hopkins. I wanted to create a space where we could have another conversation about Hopkins. Henrietta Lacks needs to be commemorated. Jonas Salk created the polio vaccine from her cell line. That means so many of us have some of her DNA in us, across the planet. And we still barely know who she is.
Art has transformational properties. We’ve seen that here in Baltimore. Look at Station North, all of the investment because of the art focus and inclusion. And that can be used wherever people are interested. I think that we are off to a really good start with the murals. We need the kind of support that comes from outside to sees the value of the whole city.
These are disturbing and fascinating times. The reclamation and beautification of abandoned dilapidated space is a political act; affirming, potent and deeply needed.
Author Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of contemporary culture.
Yvonne Hardy-Phillips: You Are Here
April 2016 – ongoing
Venue: Central City East Baltimore Communities bounded by North Avenue, Broadway, Eager Street and Greenmount Avenue, Baltimore, MD, 21213