“Growing up, it never dawned on me that I could have a career in art,” says Jermaine Bell, a graphic designer who was born and raised in Baltimore. His father, brothers, uncle and grandfather all are truck drivers and his mother works for the state of Maryland.
He went to college straight out of high school but didn’t finish. He ended up working a series of jobs, mostly in call centers. While on the phone, explaining Medicare Part D, he found himself looking at expensive magazines and stockpiling images that spoke to him.
In 2008, he decided to enroll at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). “When I started back at community college, I knew I wanted to express myself in a way I couldn’t with words,” says Bell. He maxed out on credits at CCBC before enrolling at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where he studied graphic design.
After graduating from MICA, he took a job at an advertising agency but soon realized it wasn’t a good fit. So, he left to pursue his passions, being creative and opening access to Baltimore’s art institutions to people of color.
“Sometimes, you hear the artistic community say we need to make our own space, but that’s not that easy,” says Bell. “People are trying, but we need the help of a community.” In his work with Exit The Apple, an art studio and community space run by local artist Pierre Bennu and his wife, Bell hopes to do just that: create a community that supports the many talented and diverse voices in Baltimore.
Last year, Bell worked with Impact Hub Baltimore, where he was a Baltimore Corps fellow, to offer innovative programming, connecting the community with local artists. Almost every week, Bell organized a cultural experience to showcase voices from the local creative community, ranging from yoga with Justin Temple to a fun take on “sip and paint” with multi-media artist Brianna Faulkner to a series of conversations on art and activism in Baltimore with author D. Watkins and other “artivists” (artists/activists).
Building on his work at Impact Hub Baltimore, Bell hopes to engage the communities around Exit The Apple, which is located in the Barclay neighborhood, and create a system that supports black artists and allows their ideas to grow and thrive. He is excited about his partnership with Exit The Apple, which already has established a great reputation within the community. He will develop the programming with community members.
“The need is there, the want is there,” says Bell, “But we need to develop the capacity for both artists and art spaces.” In his work with local artists, he found many didn’t have professional portfolios or CVs. Without these in place, it’s hard for them to get into a gallery. And many galleries currently approach diversity as an afterthought.
In Bell’s experience, artists of color are forced to confront issues of race and identity every day and want to bring that into their art. But to be commercially successful, many feel they have to create “neutral” art. And, conversely, Bell says “a black artist can’t just paint pictures of daffodils because people expect them to be making a statement.”
By engaging the community in meaningful conversations around race, culture, art and whatever else is important to them, Bell hopes to change the way people interact with each other and local arts institutions.
“I understand my role in activism,” Bell says. “I may not be rallying in the streets; that’s not my personality. But I will be hosting thoughtful conversations about these issues.”
Listen to Bell talk about his project on WYPR’s On the Record.