An idea that Brian Voice Porter Hawkins conceived more than a decade ago as a way to bring color and vibrancy to the neighborhood where he grew up stands tall and colorful in downtown Ensley.
The mural at the Bethesda Life Center, 321 20th St. Ensley, is phase one of Hawkins’ idea, The Color Project. Hawkins, an Ensley High School graduate, is director of the initiative that will use public art, gardens, light and sound to encourage pedestrian traffic and address issues of health, safety, crime and violence in Ensley. The artist, Ukuu Tafari, also graduated from Ensley High.
The birds on the mural, symbolizing peace and rebirth, openly contradict how Ensley is often perceived.
The neighborhood west of Birmingham is seen as an unsafe place, and Hawkins said inaccurate news reports characterizing west Birmingham crimes as crimes committed in Ensley have contributed to the distortion.
But crime statistics indicate Ensley is a safe neighborhood, he said.
Ensley is also in a food desert, meaning grocery stores offering fresh and affordable food are scarce, Hawkins said. The 15 neighborhoods that lie west of Birmingham from Ensley to Five Points have three grocery stores. Comparatively, the three neighborhoods in the suburban city of Homewood have access to eight grocery stores, he said.
One of the aims of The Color Project is to unravel the perceptions that discourage residents from walking around their neighborhoods, getting to know their neighbors and doing what they can to maintain and improve their health.
Residents of Ensley and many of the surrounding neighborhoods have high rates of obesity, Hawkins said. Being overweight or obese are risk factors in heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, each of which affects Alabamians in great numbers.
A colorful start
Hawkins’ idea was to address his community’s well-being with public art.
His interest in public art started in 1990. When Hawkins was 11, his cousin, Sherman Benson, was working on school murals as part of an outreach effort of the Birmingham Museum of Art. Benson is now a tattoo artist in Atlanta.
“There are a lot of great visual artists in my family, but I didn’t think I was one of them,” Hawkins said, adding that his prior experience had been limited to stick figures and paint-by-numbers kits. His focus was music, but when Benson asked for Hawkins’ help he agreed.
With his cousin’s encouragement, Hawkins’ skills improved. “I tried it and I was not great, but I wasn’t horrible, either. I kept painting more and more, and I got better until I was a decent muralist.”
He went to Mississippi State to study architecture, then changed his major to civil engineering. After 3½ years he left school to take a job at the Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center.
After four years, Hawkins returned to Birmingham in 2004 with some health issues. “Working three jobs, trying to collect all the money I could to go back to school, my body acted out,” he said. He decided to come home, where he could get “the best medical care.”
Wherever he landed he would have pursued a career in community development, but landing in his hometown made a difference. “I think it’s great for the kind of work I’m doing it here instead of somewhere else,” Hawkins said.
Seizing an opportunity
The museum’s outreach program had lost funding over the years and had become a volunteer-only project, so Hawkins’ idea needed a home.
A couple years ago, while talking with Bettina Byrd-Giles, CEO of the Bethesda Life Center, Hawkins got an opportunity.
Byrd-Giles received a mini-grant announcement from the University of Alabama at Birmingham about a health-related project, and Hawkins happened to be in the office, she said. When she asked if he had any ideas, he came back the next day with a proposal for murals, parks and other public art.
“I thought it was exciting and timely,” Byrd-Giles said.
Hawkins talked with residents, whose concerns included vacant lots and abandoned buildings. “We felt The Color Project could address these areas,” Byrd-Giles said.
They were awarded a $14,500 grant, which funded the mural and garden alongside the Bethesda Life Center. Because it has 501(c)3 status, the center serves as fiscal agent for the project, receiving, disbursing and managing grant money.
The grant has been spent and the first phase of the project is done. Several other phases are planned throughout Ensley, but the project will need additional funding.
“There is a synergy going on on 19th Street,” Byrd-Giles said. “There are multiple projects going on to build downtown Ensley. The mural is the most visible. Based upon comments I have received, comments on a questionnaire that we handed out and the response from passersby, the initial mural and garden installment has exceeded our expectations.”