Murals give youngsters chance to shine, memorialize Pittsburgh playwright

| Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, 10:10 p.m.

Fashion lover Rayonna Woodson finds a lot of similarities between unique clothing pairings and the August Wilson mural she is helping with in the Hill District.

“I like it because it's so creative. So many colors and it's expressing,” said Woodson, 18, of Beltzhoover.

Woodson is among 10 teens and young adults creating segments of the mural in honor of Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright from the Hill District, on a building on Centre Avenue. The students are working under the direction of the Moving Lives of Kids Art Center, or MLK, a nonprofit that works with youths to provide them with art education and paint murals.

“Oftentimes, they're neighborhoods that really needed some beautification,” said Kyle Holbrook, 36, a Wilkinsburg native and muralist who founded MLK in 2002.

MLK has enlisted about 5,000 teens and young adults to produce murals in 17 states and nine countries. In each city, local professional artists are brought on to work with young people.

By October, 87 young people will have created 15 murals on buildings and other sites in Pittsburgh, including the back of a bank on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill, Mad Mex restaurant in Oakland and at the North Side Coalition for Fair Housing on Brighton Road.

“The idea is to keep kids busy, also creating a positive peer group,” said Holbrook, who received a bachelor's degree in graphic design from The Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 2002.

With the Wilson mural, each of the 10 muralists will paint a section based on a play in “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of 10 Wilson plays that chronicles the black experience through the 20th century.

Darrick Ambush, 20, of Homewood is basing his segment on Wilson's “Seven Guitars,” a 1995 play set in the Hill District in the 1940s.

“It's my first mural. … It's turning out good right now,” he said.

MLK introduces youngsters to careers they might not have considered, such as graphic design or working behind the scenes on movie sets, said Matthew James, spokesman for the group.

All young muralists participate in daily classes in which they learn art fundamentals from professionals and sketch their work before applying it to the murals, Holbrook said. For four to six weeks of work, most of the students receive stipends ranging from $700 to $1,200 each through the assistance of McAuley Ministries, The Heinz Endowments, Pittsburgh Summer Employment Program and The Bridge of Pittsburgh. Classroom space is funded by the Grable Foundation.

The work has taken MLK global. In the past year, Holbrook and two Carlow University professors worked in Uganda, where Holbrook led mural projects, using color and art therapy, with mentally and physically disabled children at eight schools. The professors assessed the impact of the work he was doing.

He also traveled to Portugal, where he spoke at a conference about his work in Uganda and was commissioned to produce a mural.

“I was really inspired by what we did in Uganda and Portugal and really looking at a deeper impact that we can make through public art and starting to look at how art … and education can really empower some of these communities,” Holbrook said.

Holbrook was on the advisory board for the founding of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, a performing arts center that opened to great fanfare Downtown in 2009 but is now $10 million in debt and up for sale.

The Wilson mural has significant meaning for him.

“Considering all the things the center is going through added to the importance of this mural,” he said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or

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