Nyannah Jackson, 19, paints a miniature canvas with the image of Malcolm X as part of a Black History Month event at Everett Community College Wednesday. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Nyannah Jackson, 19, paints a miniature canvas with the image of Malcolm X as part of a Black History Month event at Everett Community College Wednesday. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Greats become art in EvCC’s African American history project

“Celebrating Black Excellence” event brings students together to paint and highlight contributions.

Nurnissa Rozi isn’t studying art. She’s an Everett Community College engineering student. Even so, on Wednesday the 19-year-old applied paint to canvas, creating a colorful image of a powerful quote: “Black history is American history.”

Attributed to actor Morgan Freeman, the quotation and similar thoughts are echoed by many as the nation observes what federal agencies now call African American History Month.

In an art room at EvCC’s Whitehorse Hall, students put creativity to use at an event called “In Living Color: Celebrating Black Excellence.

No artistic expertise was required. The acrylic paintings were made starting with sketch templates of important figures in history and American life — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Barack Obama and more.

Other small paintings incorporated the words of notable African Americans, including Oprah Winfrey and Kobe Bryant. “The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do,” was one quote attributed to the Lakers basketball legend killed in a helicopter crash Jan. 26.

The celebration continued Thursday when the paintings were displayed together as a mural in Whitehorse Hall’s critique space.

“We have a focus on diversity and justice,” said Katina Brown, Student LIFE programs board manager at EvCC. Describing the project as “not fine art but fun art,” she said it was the third Black History Month event held recently on campus.

Dayana Del Villar, 19, works on a painting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Wednesday during a Black History Month event called “In Living Color: Celebrating Black Excellence.” (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Dayana Del Villar, 19, works on a painting of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Wednesday during a Black History Month event called “In Living Color: Celebrating Black Excellence.” (Dan Bates / The Herald)

On Feb. 4, Jordan Peele’s movie “Get Out” was shown followed by a discussion in the Jackson Center Wilderness Auditorium. DeLon Lewis, from the college Diversity & Equity Center, was on hand as students talked about the film’s story and symbolism. It begins with a white family’s reaction to a daughter’s interracial relationship, but the plot takes horrific turns.

A week later, hip-hop performer and TEDx speaker Shaun Boothe brought his “Unauthorized Biography Series” to EvCC. Through rap songs, Boothe has told the stories of Dr. King, Bob Marley, Muhammad Ali, Malala Yousafzai and others.

Student painters said the drop-in event was a relaxing break in their day. It was also a time to cast a light on the contributions of African Americans.

“I wish we didn’t need to have a Black History Month, but we do. The rest of the time, there’s not enough focus on it,” said Sarah Davies, who’s part of the Student LIFE programs board and a Western Washington University student.

Nyannah Jackson, a 19-year-old studying sociology, painted an image of Malcolm X. “His speeches are amazing,” she said, adding that she learned little about African American history until high school. “It’s incredibly important. I think there’s a serious need.”

Jessica Aceves finished off her depiction of Obama, painted in blue, yellow and red. At 19, she’s studying graphic design. “I’m usually working on a computer,” she said. “This is nice to take a break.”

Wednesday at EvCC, students created inspirational artworks carrying the words of noteable African Americans. The small canvases were combined into a mural that was displayed Thursday in Whitehorse Hall on campus. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Wednesday at EvCC, students created inspirational artworks carrying the words of noteable African Americans. The small canvases were combined into a mural that was displayed Thursday in Whitehorse Hall on campus. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

The painters, at least 30 of them, were a diverse group.

“We figured this was a great way to celebrate Black History Month,” said Samantha Pettiesgrove. The 19-year-old sat painting with several other members of EvCC’s Triangle Alliance, the campus LGBTQ club.

At another table, physics student Mubina Sabir worked on her Maya Angelou painting. “I used to read all her books,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to be able to share. We never have a chance to talk about politics. Being here, we have that opportunity.”

It was also a chance to learn — especially for me. One image available to the painters was of Madam C.J. Walker. Who? I had no idea, but soon found out.

A daughter of freed slaves in Louisiana, she was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867. An inventor of specialized products for African American hair care, she became a wealthy businesswoman through her Madam C.J. Walker company. Before her death in 1919, she had become a major donor for the construction of the Indianapolis YMCA. A civil rights activist, she also visited the White House to petition President Woodrow Wilson to make lynching a federal crime.

Brown, 29, recalls learning about Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman in high school at Marysville Pilchuck, and getting the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday off.

We should all know more.

“We need to educate ourselves and keep the conversations going,” Brown said. “And for different communities it’s important to come together.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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