When Christopher “KOLPEACE” Johnson was growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, he relied on physical activity and sports to help process his emotions. He never found the sense of calm he was seeking, though, until he discovered art.
“I realized through art that I was able to create spaces, create moments of peace for myself,” Johnson said.
Now a community artist in Baltimore, Johnson hopes to help other Black youth harness the power of creative expression.
“I want to give them the chance to work through their personal lives through art,” he said. “I want to give boys who look like me access to more spaces in Baltimore City, places they might not have been before, like museums, galleries, and workshop spaces.”
As an OSI fellow, Johnson will establish Gentleman’s Graffiti as a safe, nurturing, collaborative space for about 20 Black male youth ages 10–16 in East Baltimore’s Greenmount West and Barclay neighborhoods, so they can learn about art and engage in leadership development opportunities. These neighborhoods have historically experienced a lack of investment, and residents experience violence, substance use, financial strain, and other stressors on a regular basis.
“I want the boys to feel like they don’t have to be guarded all the time, and to get to know them as human beings, as kids,” Johnson said. “Some of these boys actually take care of their siblings, and they don’t get the chance to just be kids. But this can be a place where they can be kids.”
The eight-month program is designed to teach youth the importance of establishing a disciplined art practice, supporting and respecting the community, and utilizing their creativity in order to build a better world. There will be regular outings to visit galleries, museums, and other arts-based events. Youth will have the opportunity to try their hands at a number of different styles and mediums, including photography, ceramics, painting, drawing, and graffiti.
At the end of the program, participants will create a public mural in Baltimore.
“These young people are going to be the next lawyers, doctors, or maybe the next artists in the city,” Johnson said. “It will be good to see them express themselves.”