Milwaukee artist Vedale Hill helps students represent themselves through art

NOW: Milwaukee artist Vedale Hill helps students represent themselves through art

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Public art is popping up all over Milwaukee, and many new pieces have a message about social justice and equality. One piece unveiled this week is focused on diversity, and it was created with help from children across the city. It’s called “Our True Colors,” and the artist who brought it all together helped the kids to show their true colors.

In his studio in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood a few months ago, artist Vedale Hill made some quick adjustments to the panels of the “Our True Colors” mural.

“When we put it together, it'll be the city scape, and we'll have the night sky,” he said with a critical eye.

It’s a diverse collection of figures he collaborated on with kids.

“And you my lady, are part of history,” he said to a painted mannequin as he drilled it onto one of the painted panels.

Each piece is painted to represent who the kids are and how they see themselves.

“Your kindness, your athleticism, your academic prowess,” Hill said, giving examples. “So all of those things are covered in this piece.”

Some of the pieces are simple.

“The whole idea behind it is that half of it is who you are and that's the most important part, but the other half is what you look like,” he said.

Others are a little more elaborate, he explained, showing one doll with a matching dress, shoes and face mask.

“Beautiful, black flowing hair, created by this young person,” he said, the awe apparent in his voice.

Still other pieces impressed him with their empathy.

“That was one of those things that was beyond a college level of comprehension of expression,” Hill said.

One child chose to represent a family member who’s an amputee.

“Intentionally, they wanted to represent someone they feel wasn't being represented in their community or in their family,” he explained as the pointed out the mannequin.

Each one is placed on the mural to show togetherness.

“I've got them in dynamic poses. They're together. They're clasping arms. They're holding hands. They're dancing. They're standing there proud,” he said, giving examples of the poses.

Hill finds the results inspirational.

“This is looking forward, not looking backward,” he said. “This is looking at the best of us.”

These big ideas were made possible through SHARP Literacy, Inc. Kids from four schools picked up kits containing the mannequins, paint and instructions this summer. Hill helped teach them the creative process. But they also used other skills. SHARP uses S.T.E.A.M learning, which is science, technology, engineering, art and math.

“Teaches them how to blend and mix colors. It teaches them the different ratios,” he said. “The mathematics when it comes to the portions of colors.”

They used the paint and the math and science behind it create colors that match their skin tones and their favorite colors.

“Fifty percent red, fifty percent yellow, and you got the orange you're looking for,” Hill exclaimed.

“S.T.E.A.M. is something we need to be a proponent of, using art along with math and science and technology,” said Dr. Robert Davis, president and CEO of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

“What better time for us to do this than now? America is the most challenged it's ever been in our history,” Davis said.

SHARP President and CEO Lynda Kohler said Hill is the perfect artist for the project.

“He grew up knowing it's not so much where you live, or your zip code,” Kohler said. “The color of your skin doesn't define you. What defines you is what you're about.”

Bronzeville is home to Hill and the mural.

“I didn't see many teachers that looked like me,” Hill explained. “I didn't see many artists that looked like me. So I had to create that reality until it became true.”

He graduated from the Milwaukee High School of the Arts and then The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He’s left his mark on public art all over the city, recently creating the Black Lives Matter mural.

“I grew up below the poverty line here in Milwaukee so the idea for me was, it was an escape,” Hill said. “It was an expression and for me, it was my own thing. There was no wrong answer to what I created.”

In college he was also diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia.

“I had to find ways to spell things phonetically,” he said. “I had to find ways to represent myself well without being able to put it on paper.”

So now, helping kids learn how to represent themselves through art feels natural.

“It's so simple, but so elegant to me,” he said, surveying the finished product.

The mural is an eight by 16 foot physical manifestation of the city’s diversity.

“When you feel like you can just make a color,” he said with a pause, “There is some power in that.”

True colors for all to see.

“Ideally, they're going to do a lot better than I ever will,” he said of the students who worked on the mural. “And that's, I'm just trying to leave it better than I got this world through creative means.”

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