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John Whipple

Yacob Williams sees art as a means to inspire, uplift and unify his community

On a cold, sunny Friday afternoon on North Swan Street in Albany’s Arbor Hill, artist Yacob Williams walks across a field of crunchy snow to show his work to an out-of-town friend. The mural artist has, with community support, created a series of works meant to spark renewal on these notorious blocks—the same area where drug dealers once lined both sides of the street, and customers from the suburbs lined up daily, as if it were a fast-food drive-through.

Tucked away on a building just around the corner from where their car is parked, on Ten Broeck Place, is Williams’ haunting evocation of Mother Africa. This is the bright bit of color on that gray corner. On the west side of North Swan itself, there’s another mural depicting a group of people joined together under the words “United We Stand,” and another work at the end of the block, on a structure at the corner of North Swan and Livingston Avenue. Returning south on North Swan, between Ten Broeck Place and Second Street, is Williams’ grandest work in terms of both scale and impact: a luminous image of a black angel, painted on the side of an equally grand-scale 19th-century brick building. Words of peace, contributed by children, are inscribed on the wall below and to the left of the angel. Facing a vacant lot—one of many that mar the streetscape in this old Albany neighborhood—the angel is a beautiful and hopeful vision on a weary thoroughfare in desperate need of beauty and hope.

As his friend clicks away, taking photographs of the angel, Williams recounts the recent, tumultuous history of this now-quiet street. It’s a story of open drug markets, violence and murder—and a subsequent botched attempt by the city to forge a revitalization plan without, many argue, properly listening to the wishes of the residents. Despite this, Williams prefers to focus on the positive, scouting out possible locations for additional murals, and speaking in glowing terms about the community involvement behind his public art.

Later, at his Livingston Avenue home, Williams explains how the mural project came to be. Helen Black, president of the Ten Broeck Triangle Preservation League, had the original idea of creating murals on North Swan Street. Black brought the idea to Isla Roona, restorative justice community coordinator for the Albany group Social Capital Development Corporation. “It is hard to recall exactly when we began discussing the development of the murals,” remembers Roona, “but my first conversations were definitely with her.” Black and Roona discussed the idea with Williams; as their original press release explained, the three knew each other through community meetings and neighborhood social events. A partnership was created.

Roona sees a direct connection between her work with restorative justice—in which the victims of crime meet with the perpetrators to work out an alternative punishment as a means towards healing and understanding—and the effect these murals can have on the neighborhood. She explains: “Restorative justice is about repairing the harm on the individual, group, community and societal levels. Public art helps repair at the community level. . . . [It] can be utilized to pull youth and young adults off the streets, particularly those that may be getting in trouble with the law, and get them involved in neighborhood beautification through the arts and hook them into needed services.”

Roona notes that the idea behind the North Swan Street mural project is along the same lines as a successful program begun in Philadelphia in 1984 by then-Mayor Wilson Goode. The original idea grew out of the desire to eliminate graffiti by redirecting the talents of “tag” artists in a positive direction. A formal program, backed by the city and intimately involving the community, now offers free art workshops, tutoring, and apprenticeships with local artists for at-risk youth. As Jane Golden, one of the original artists behind the Philadelphia program, told ABC News on July 28: “Murals often become a catalyst for positive social change. We do a mural and then people start thinking maybe we can turn this into a garden, we could sweep the streets.”

This is also the aim of the folks behind the murals in Arbor Hill. They work as a team: Roona is in charge of raising funds and securing the support of local businesses and anonymous donors. Black sees that the permissions and paperwork are taken care of. Both have put in countless hours on the project. “Isla sacrificed a lot, Helen Black sacrificed a lot,” Yacob Williams says.

As for his own efforts, Williams keeps a careful tally. “It took me [more than] 240 hours to complete the murals,” Williams notes. “There was a lot of stuff I didn’t anticipate. . . . In one week I put 80 hours in, and my coworkers put 70 hours in—that’s 150 hours of work [just] from Aug. 9 though Aug. 17.”

An Angel over Arbor Hill: one of the North Swan Street murals. Photo by John Whipple

The concepts for the mural themes came from Albany city school students. “We had a block party at which we chose the top four contestants from the school district, and working with them, chose the themes [for the murals],” Williams notes. Then the proposals had to be put in front of the city of Albany’s Historic Resources Commission for approval. Williams laughs, remembering the moment: “I must say that when they saw the illustration I did of the black angel, the whole room went quiet. And [later] when they saw the final product, they were impressed. Everybody was stunned when they saw that black angel.”

Working with students, like those who participated in the mural project, is deeply important to Williams. It relates to the future work he wants to do with at-risk inner-city youth, and relates back to the guidance and help he received as a young man. “I grew up in the Gloversville Enlarged School District,” he explains. “I knew I wanted to be an artist since I was like 5 years old. The interesting thing about Gloversville is that even though the black population is a minority, I felt like we got a very good quality education.”

In those days, Gloversville had a thriving industrial sector, which helped provide a solid tax base to support public education. It was the 1960s, and Williams remembers his time there with fondness.

He tells about the moment he recognized what he wanted to do: “When I was 5 years old, in the first grade, [the school] had an open house, which was how I knew I had talent. Me being a short little kid, you know what I’m saying. . . . I saw this whole group of people, like in a movie theater, all crowded around looking at something on the other side of the room. So I had to try to get through that, through skirts and legs and all that, to see what they were looking at. They were looking at a picture I had colored of a swan.”

The school recognized what he was capable of. Williams remembers with pride, “Not that my head got big, but the teachers always told me that they could tell that the way I used my imagination, interacted with other people, and played with toys, that I was imaginative and creative. . . . Then once they could see me draw, they definitely identified me, by the age of 9 or 10, as being talented and gifted.” The result went beyond the usual tracking into more advanced classes. Williams was actively mentored: “As a matter of fact, for at least two years—fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade—every other week I would get out of school an hour and a half early. Mr. Frizell, who was my art teacher and mentor and friend, and who passed away two years ago, lived out in the country. We’d go out to his studio, and I’d work side-by-side with him painting.”

Williams stresses the importance of this learning style: “It’s very important for the students to work along artists while they’re working, because they’re gonna be picking up things that you may not realize. I think they learn a lot from observing.”

Williams graduated from Gloversville and went on to SUNY New Paltz, where he majored in black studies and fine arts. There, he was shocked to find an approach to teaching art that was antithetical to all of his previous experiences. “There was no warmth, no sensitivity,” he says. “It [was] like cold academic instruction: ‘Do this.’ ”

Confronted with a seemingly arbitrary system in which goals and objectives were not clearly spelled out, and within which there was no way to guess the criteria used for evaluating and grading his work, Williams began to feel alienated and disillusioned. He lacked confidence in his professors’ abilities as well: “To have a teacher teach you about art, and never see them producing art themselves, leaves a lot to be desired. . . . You don’t know if the guy’s a quack or what.”

Williams claims there were other problems as well—related to race and religion. “I really should have left New Paltz,” he muses. “They tried to fight down the black studies department.” Williams quit a program in arts education over the hostile reaction to his dreadlocks. The art department, he says, was equally insensitive. In 1978, when Williams wanted to attend an international arts conference in Senegal, and asked the head of the department about earning credit for the experience, the reaction of the department chair was negative and blunt: “The first thing that came out of his mouth was, ‘What do you want to go to Africa for?’ ” As Williams remembers it, the art department was not willing to acknowledge, let alone validate, the African- American experience.

Williams looks back at that time with some regret. “I wasted a lot of time and wasted a lot of money there,” he says, but then explains how he turned this into something positive. “I decided that life was gonna be my teacher, my school, and that God was gonna be my teacher. . . . I had to deprogram myself from all the negative bullshit they taught me.” Summing up those years, Williams affirms the place spirituality has in his life: “Can’t leave out God. . . . I’m a person who’s very spiritual, and have overcome a lot. What I’ve been through has made me stronger.”

A positive image: the Livingston Avenue mural. Photo by John Whipple

As numerous artists and musicians will attest, making art pay is a difficult proposition. Williams did his time in the wilderness, making a livelihood in the human-services field. While he never stopped making art, Williams spent more than a decade working for agencies dealing with brain-injury victims, the developmentally disabled, and the mentally challenged. He has a music degree, but he never earned a degree in social work—and so, inevitably, hit a glass ceiling in the profession. Also, he remembers, many employers were reluctant to place him in more visible positions because of his dreads. Finally, three years ago, Williams decided to strike out on his own. “I realized that as long as I was working for somebody else,” he explains, “I wasn’t gonna have that energy left over to do what I gotta do.”

The first year, he says, was difficult. Williams had to learn how to market himself while facing the difficulties of raising two teenage sons. He was determined, however, to be “audacious and persistent” in the quest to make a name and career for himself. In the last year, he says, he has started to reap the benefits of that effort.

Now, he is working with Roona on a project to open a cultural-and-arts center in Arbor Hill, based on the hands-on type of learning by example that served him so well growing up. (A method, he argues, that has more in common with African rather than Western learning traditions.) And, Williams says, the need for such a place is clearly evident: “An African arts-and-cultural center is really needed. We’re a neglected race, a neglected people. We don’t have time to wait, to debate. We’re taking responsibility in our own hands, through the grass roots. . . . [We want to] take the kids off the streets, and help them identify the talents they have within themselves.”

It’s an ambitious vision, based on the idea of the arts as an empowering and transformational force. Williams sums up his faith this way: “Art sets people free, you know, helps you create beautiful things. That’s why I’m trying to take my philosophy and incorporate it into an arts-and- cultural center. I personally feel that God knows I’m talented, that I have something to offer the community.”

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