Art Works Blog

First Person with G. Byron Peck of City Arts DC

Washington, DC

City Arts DC's Duke Ellington Mural was installed at 1200 U Street, NW in 2007. Photo courtesy City Arts DC

I founded City Arts DC in 1997 in order to continue the work I had begun under the auspices of DC Artworks, a nonprofit arts organization that supervised the District Mayor's Summer Youth Program for the arts in conjunction with the Department of Employment Services. In 1996, DC Artworks closed its doors and City Arts was established to continue serving the District's young people. Our goals are to give underprivileged young people the opportunity to experience a structured, professional, hands-on art making process in order to broaden their visions of career and leisure-time possibilities; steward at-risk youth toward interpersonal and team skills needed to function as productive members of society; and serve as a catalyst for community pride and neighborhood revitalization.

Our plans for creating and installing a mural depend on the visibility of the location, the ease of assessing the wall, and gaining permission from the owners to create artwork for that site. It also involves general outreach efforts to involve the public via the Advisory Neighborhood Commission or other local community groups regarding images, or feedback as to the selected theme of the mural.  This is usually achieved through monthly meetings, with the opportunity to post notices throughout the neighborhood so there can be a response to the suggestion of an artwork.  Lastly, we must determine if there are any legal issues with securing permission for the appropriate historical images and building permits to install the mural.

It's always important to engage the community since they are the audience which is both most exposed to the artwork, as well will be the primary respondents to the impact of the mural within its environment. Unlike a painting in a gallery, museum, or residence, public artwork is a shared vision and engages conversation about the topic and about the process of creating the artwork, as well as participation in the creation of the artwork.  Public art benefits the community because it provides a sense of shared ownership, promotes mutual awareness of a community's history, and simultaneously encourages both diversity of expressive voices as well as a sense of shared identity.   

The Duke Ellington mural came about through my response to a phone call from the owner of the original property site, Mood Indigo.  We discussed the possibility of doing a mural of Duke Ellington. Our process included going to the Smithsonian/Duke Ellington Archive to obtain permission to use the featured image of the Duke, as well as communicating with the Ellington family, before creating the design.  We were fortunate to have received substantial funding from Mobil Oil.  Supplemental funding was supplied by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the DC Department of Parks and Recreation. 

To create the mural I invited several artists and 12 students working with the Summer Youth Employment Program to assist in creating the work over a six-week period.  Subsequently, in 2004, the mural, which has been painted on panels, was moved from its original site (pictured above) to its current location on the wall of the True Reformer Building at which time it was extended by 12 panels, for an additional 384 square feet.

For me personally, both the Duke Ellington Mural and the Columbia Heights Community Mural (located at 14th and Clifton) are my favorites because both integrate elements of the neighborhood's history, current visual landscape, and also abstract motifs and designs to create a impression of visual vitality and unity. 

What keeps me doing what I do? I am always interested in seeing how a community responds to the ideas presented to them, as well as constantly moving around a city to see landmarks I know, introduce the concepts to our students and fellow artists, and continue to come up with new and unique designs for each project as called for by the specific circumstances of each individual commission.

Don't miss the latest issue of NEA Arts in which we turn the spotlight on the arts in the nation's capital. And visit our audio library for our latest podcasts on Duke Ellington and DC's historic U Street neighborhood.

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