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In D.C., Art Program Turns Boys' Lives Into 'Masterpieces'

This is the third in a three-part series about the intersection of education and the arts.

Life Pieces to Masterpieces is an arts program that's not entirely about the art. It's an after-school program based in a struggling neighborhood in Washington, D.C., that teaches black boys and young men what they call "the four C's": "Connect, create, contribute, celebrate." From ages 3-25, they learn to express themselves by conceiving their paintings together. And those paintings will often reflect what's going on in their lives.

Mary Brown is the co-founder of Life Pieces to Masterpieces, an art program that serves the Ward 7 neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
/ Courtesy of Life Pieces to Masterpieces
Courtesy of Life Pieces to Masterpieces
Mary Brown is the co-founder of Life Pieces to Masterpieces, an art program that serves the Ward 7 neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Maurice Kie, 26, is a mentor with Life Pieces. He started with the program as an "apprentice" when he was 9-years-old. "It's the whole thought that you went through something in your life and I support you," says Kie. "Or you went through something and I also embrace the same idea, canvas and paint brush."

Take a series the boys did called "Walk A Mile In My Shoes." Each painting is different, but they all have a pair of tennis shoes as the centerpiece. One painting is black with brightly colored flecks, like stars. The tennis shoes sort of emerge from the center. According to Kie, the shoes could represent anything from the death of a community member to a marker of drug territory or prostitution. But in the series, the shoes have a deeper meaning:

"For us it was more like, 'Could you walk a mile in my shoes?' " says Kie. "Could you experience some of the things that I experience? Could you embrace me as I experience these things?"

Kie often talks about the "brotherhood" that forms between boys who learn to talk about these experiences with each other at Life Pieces. The art, he says, is the means but not the end. They also write songs and poems together:

All these odds
If I do well in school, can I jump over jail?
If I pray every night, can I jump over this hell?
If I run past time, will time really tell?
Or will these shoes turn to boots
As I write this next poem from a cell?

Life Pieces to Masterpieces is in Ward 7, a neighborhood that has some bleak statistics. According to the Urban Institute, 23 percent of the young people in juvenile detention in D.C. come from Ward 7. About 40 percent of children live in poverty. Most of them are being raised by single mothers.

"The little boys and young men [have] been exposed to all types of horrific things," says Mary Brown, a co-founder of Life Pieces. "And being the natural little boys and young men that they are, they swallow it all."

So Brown and the mentors and an in-house counselor try to create an environment where the apprentices feel safe to express themselves.

At a recent brainstorming session — the first step in the art-making process at Life Pieces — a group of 11- and 12-year-olds are working on a project about goals.

Most of the boys dream of becoming pro athletes. Kie still does. "Myself, I just knew I was going to be a four-sport athlete," he says. The mentors at Life Pieces want the boys to feel that it's OK to share their aspirations with each other, even if it doesn't come naturally.

Robert Taylor, 11, draws a doctor as his dream job during a brainstorming session with mentor Maurice Kie. His two brothers are also in the program.
Lizzie Chen / NPR
Robert Taylor, 11, draws a doctor as his dream job during a brainstorming session with mentor Maurice Kie. His two brothers are also in the program.

After more brainstorming and refining, the boys sketch out what their paintings might look like.

The style of art is distinct, and fairly simple to create. From scraps of canvas, the boys cut out shapes that will form whatever designs they've come up with. Those pieces are painted and then sewn onto larger canvases.

Life Pieces to Masterpieces has its own color wheel, with each color representing a positive value. For example, navy blue represents "giving." Brown is "discipline." Green is "meditation." Kie says the mentors teach the apprentices how to meditate.

"Our meditation process, it starts off with simply being quiet." Kie explains. "I think a lot of times, growing up in the city, everything is loud, everything is moving, everything is go, go, go, but no one actually sits down to be quiet. I think that's the first step, getting our guys to understand it's a time to reflect, a time to rejuvenate yourself."

Eleven-year-old Robert Taylor is an apprentice at Life Pieces. He recently did a painting that was part of Meditation Month.

"I made me sitting on clouds with candles around me, meditating." Robert says.

The paintings are not the masterpieces. Our boys lives are the masterpieces.

Robert's painting is both vibrant and tranquil. He used bright red, brown, yellow and white for himself and the clouds and candles. The background is a breezy turquoise. Robert has two brothers who are also in the program. Their father, Robert Taylor Sr., says Life Pieces is no ordinary after-school program.

"Life Pieces is doing something I've never seen before," Taylor Sr. says. "It's like they take a personal interest in your child, and we have young men teaching younger men how to be men. And I love it."

Life Pieces to Masterpieces feels very much like a family, and since its founding in 1996, there have been heartbreaks. Two apprentices were killed and two were sent to prison. But of the estimated 1,000 young men who've completed the program, nearly 100 percent have graduated high school and gone on to college or vocational school.

Brown considers every one of them an artist.

"The paintings are not the masterpieces," she says. "Our boys lives are the masterpieces."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.