Last I spoke with Ya La’ford, she was planning a patchwork quilt design for her latest community mural project in St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District. Each participant—children from St. Petersburg’s Mt. Zion Christian Academy and Pinellas County Foster Care—was to paint a 6-by-12-inch square inspired by today's movement for equality and justice. The mural was set to debut Aug. 28 on the 57-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Then the pandemic delayed school re-openings throughout Pinellas County; 2020’s double crises strike again. Like twin tornadoes, the coronavirus and incidents of police brutality took turns upending everything in their path. What should we talk about today, America’s great struggle to control the coronavirus pandemic or America’s great struggle for equality? On Wednesday Sept. 23, Breonna Taylor’s killers got off. On Friday Sept. 25, Florida entered Phase 3 despite a 5-11% state average infection rate (depending on who’s calculating it). What do we speak to? What do we paint to today?
You can imagine my surprise when I pulled into St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District and the mural in progress was not patchwork at all. Instead, I saw the beginnings of a beautiful sunrise.
Was this a new dawn kind of hopefulness?
“It was,” says La’ford. “And like a coming out of sorts. [These kids have] been trapped. They haven't had any field trips; they've been in their houses; and the one thing that was consistent is the fact that a day starts and there's a sunrise every day."
IF YOU GO
Warehouse Arts District at 515 22nd St S, St. Petersburg
There’s going to be a virtual opening with the kids, the art and the music sometime late October, but the Florida Orchestra hasn’t confirmed the date yet.
Diagonal lines of blue, yellow, neon orange and pink climb a third of the way up the wall—as high as the children, ages 8-11, could reach. Usually, La’ford has local kids place their hand print upon her community mural projects; then she layers her artwork over this. But this time La’ford asked each child to paint a line, guided by a strip of green painter’s tape. Paint intentionally drips from the lines.
“They went from putting their hand on a space to now literally dripping hope, and dripping the rays of the sun, and dripping these ideas of what it means to them,” says La’ford.
She pointed to a key taped to the wall. Each color has meaning. Blue is the ocean, yellow is the sun, orange is the sunrise, and pink the horizon. Above this, La’ford is adding the wind in purple and the sky in a darker blue color.
“The piece is called ‘Woven’ because we need to be patched together, says La’ford, “and piece by piece, I think there's hope.”
The last-minute design change isn’t the only thing that’s new about La’ford’s latest project.
La’ford started writing songs during the pandemic, and she’s adding music to “Woven” in collaboration with The Florida Orchestra.
“I love working with the orchestra as we find the intersection between art and music,” says La’ford. “They were with us at the school on Wednesday [via Zoom], teaching the kids what an orchestra is, the instruments that are played, and the families of instruments.”
The students also learned about overtones. When you pluck a string on an instrument, it produces more than one tone. The vibrations of the string also produce sound octaves higher than the main tone. These are called overtones. When you play a note on an instrument, all these tones come together in harmony to produce the sound we recognize as a note. The idea that one note could be composed of many interdependent tones really resonated with La’ford, who’s been exploring interconnectivity through art ever since studying sociology and anthropology (in addition to art) in college.
“I think it's been a life's journey—even more than just college,” says La’ford. “I'm a first-generation American; I'm Jamaican. I grew up with Bob Marley in my ears. So it's a lot of different things. Bob Marley kind of singing in my ears, over and over again, that we need each other, that we're one.”
She quotes the refrain from Marley’s “One Love”: One love, one heart. Let’s get together and feel alright.
“These are the things that have been deeply rooted inside of me,” says La’ford. “There's value in each other, in understanding we're all essential, in loving each other, and in knowing that every single mark, every single drip, every single mistake, every single genius move…Everything is considered essential and filled with love and purpose.”
In America, we don’t celebrate human connection as often as we should. It took a pandemic and social distancing for some of us to finally realize how important human connection is, but La’ford knew it all along. These human connections are part of what’s made her so successful in the Tampa Bay area. The relationships she’s forged through her community projects keep the work coming.
“[This project] was born from the community,” says La’ford. “Smith & Associates Real Estate, who houses our community, wanted to again work with me, [along with] the Lovelady family and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about La’ford’s work either. I’ve followed her to Fairmount Park Elementary School, Tempus Projects, and Al Lang Stadium over the past couple years, because I know the work will always be good and La’ford will always have something interesting to say.
Two days before I drove down to meet with La’ford at the mural site, people protesting the Breonna Taylor verdict clashed with restaurant-goers on St. Pete’s Beach Drive. Driving back home after my visit, I passed another group of protestors. This time they were lining Beach Drive with “Ron DeathSantis” signs. These are the days the kids worked on their sunrise.
Much has changed in 2020, but much has stayed the same. As long as the Earth continues to spin on its axis, there will still be a sunrise. And as long as America continues to fuck up, there will be people protesting in the streets and artists painting messages of hope on the walls of St. Pete.
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