CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) – Young minds are like sponges or a blank canvas. That’s why on this Black History Month, teacher Jamil Steele of Shamrock Gardens Elementary challenges his art students to make a statement as they create something beautiful.

“I get a lot of comments about socially conscious art and, ‘How does it feel to be a person that is using his art to teach, to motivate, and inspire?’ And it feels good,” he said.

His lessons about socially conscious art include an homage to a Charlotte legend and Steele’s own body of work.

Honoring Black History – Importance of Black History Month

“Who’s the artist that we’re learning about right now? TJ Ready,” he told his 4th graders, showing them a palette of possibilities.

Honoring Black History – Importance of Black History Month

Steele gives them lots of motivation to draw from, by teaching them about notable names in the African American art world.

“TJ Reddy was very concerned with making sure that African-Americans were portrayed in a positive light,” he explained.

Reddy was an activist as well as an artist, poet, and musician. He died in 2019, but his art still speaks to people during Black History Month and all year round.

“Because of gentrification, they were pushed out of our community. He also wanted to show African Americans in a positive light,” Steele told the class.

“(Steele) teaches you great things and you can learn a lot from him,” said student Victoria Roary.

The lessons don’t stop in the classroom. Steele has seized the torch passed by artists like Reddy and taken it off campus.

Just about every day after school, he practices what he teaches.

“I come here and I paint when the weather permits,” he told us last month, working on a mural at the I-77 underpass on West Trade Street.

“This is essentially the gateway to the Historic West End,” he told his art students.           

His goal is to capture both the past and present of the West End’s black community.

“Charlotte’s going through a big growth, there’s a lot of gentrification happening. So, I’m trying to preserve the history,” he told Queen City News. “On this side of the mural, is about the present day of the corridor. So, you have images of Johnson C. Smith University. I’m painting the West Charlotte marching band right now.”

Steele says he’ll likely finish the Historic West End mural sometime in May. He plans to embed a QR Code in the piece that links people to more information about the images and go on a community walk, or explore the neighborhood.

“And so, I want them to see themselves reflected. I started this mural off with a young black boy because I wanted him to represent the youth of Charlotte,” he detailed.

Jamil is known as Dyair Steele in the Charlotte art scene.

He painted this Black Lives Matter mural after the death of George Floyd in midst of citywide protests. It’s now on display at the Mint Museum Uptown.

Steele also contributed a powerful image to a West End mural, a commentary about gun violence called “Stolen Moments.”

“What it means to use your art to advocate?” he asked his class.

“Raise awareness about a social issue,” he continued. “So how many people know that that’s what Mr. Steele does in his work?”

That call to artistic action touched on all kinds of possible issues.

“Maybe you know about a certain group of people that you know have not always had the same rights as other people,” he says, listing examples. “Maybe you want to bring awareness to animal rights.”

You never know who might be poised to be the next TJ Reddy or Dyair Steele. But a lesson during this Black History Month might spark something down the road, he hopes.

“Art is one way to express what is happening in life and how you feel,” student Andrew Kutny says.

And when inspiration strikes, it’s a moving medium.

“Everyone’s story has a right to be told. Art is a great way of visual language to tell that story,” said Steele.

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