Last week, Easton saw the unveiling of a 21×16 foot mural of Frederick Douglass. It was created by Park City, Utah-based artist Adam Himoff, whose hope is that the modern rendition of the famous abolitionist will stimulate timely conversations about race, justice, and Douglass’s enduring connection to the Eastern Shore region.
Located next door to the Out of the Fire Restaurant on Washington Street, the project was conceived by Richard Marks and Amy Haines with support from Talbot Arts and Dock Street Foundation. “In 2016, my wife, Amy (owner of Out of the Fire), and I purchased a property on Washington Street in Easton,” said Marks. “Since we love art and particularly enjoy seeing how art displayed publicly integrates with the surrounding community, we recognized the brick wall facing south would be an excellent place for a mural.”
Also in a contemplative state was Himoff. He’d decided to close his finance firm to concentrate on his work as a linocut artist. In this printmaking technique, a design is carved on a linoleum block, from which prints can be made. To critical acclaim, Himoff had been creating colorful representational images of iconic figures (such as Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol) but began to wonder how he could bring historical figures into modern times. One of the people who came to mind was Douglass. As an undergraduate English literature major, he had been impacted by the biographies and speeches written by the abolitionist.
Modernizing Douglass juxtaposed against the backdrop of contemporary issues felt like a compelling creative challenge for the artist. “I wanted to capture his essence, but not necessarily the literal details of his life,” Himoff said. “What was available to me was his expression–seriousness, courage, fearlessness, and confidence. Then I created these other elements–he’s in the suit, crouched down, wearing Converse shoes and a nice watch.” Also, unlike his previous work, this was created in black and white. This depiction of a contemporary Douglass, Himoff felt, would allow the viewer to imagine Douglass’s role and life if he were alive today and wonder how his influence would impact the current struggle for justice and equality.
Himoff knew it was the right person at the right time, yet once completed, he wasn’t sure who would be interested in the project beyond his immediate network of friends and family. So, he shared it on social media. Almost immediately, he heard from an African-American music teacher. “She said she loved it and asked if she could share it on her Instagram feed. Within a short time, people in her network reacted. And the feedback was very validating.”
Then, someone who knew someone who knew Marks shared it with him. Seeing the image inspired Marks to commit to the project and the artist.
But before it became a mural, an art consultant, who also found the image on social media, reached out to Himoff. The ACLU in New York City wanted one of the original 40 print editions for their headquarters. The same image is now part of the ACLU permanent collection.
Of course, Easton is also the perfect location for such an impactful public art piece and as discussions began around bringing the project here, Himoff started revisiting more of Douglass’s biographies and exploring the more profound history and connection to the area. The artist was moved by what he learned. “I get the sense of responsibility that people feel this need to maintain his legacy,” he said.
The revealing of the mural along Easton’s historic architecture has certainly sparked reaction and discussion, just as the artist anticipated. Himoff has received positive feedback from many in the black community who felt a connection to this contemporary portrayal of a legendary leader. This was the case the Spy observed as we waited for the artist to join us for the interview.
A woman named Lisa Taylor walked into the building looking for more information. She is from DC and was in town for the Waterfowl Festival. Her husband had seen the mural the night before and had been touched by it, and since Taylor’s mother attended the Frederick Douglass High School in Elm City, North Carolina, he knew it would be of great interest to her as well. Taylor took several pictures, bought a poster and t-shirt (merchandise is available for sale with proceeds to benefit the Frederick Douglass Honor Society scholarship fund) and then said:
“So the story in this mural is about how the then transforms into the now. And an artist brought it all together today so that young people can say, ‘Okay, well, maybe I don’t know who this guy is, but he sure as hell is cool–with the watch and the Converse high-top sneakers. Let me pull out my phone and find out who this dude is.’ When they do that, it brings previous generations to today’s generation. Hopefully, it gets people thinking about what liberty means. So it’s like a rediscovery of him and his legacy from older people like me to young folks who would recognize the shoes and the watch. And the artist, Adam, yeah, he literally knocked it out of the park.”
Not that there haven’t also been disagreements and uncertainty about Douglass being depicted in a modern style. But Himoff welcomes these discussions as part of Douglass’s legacy of free speech and empowering marginalized voices. “Frederick Douglass would believe that that is an important and healing conversation to have,” he said.
Ultimately, the power of public art is bringing people together for dialogue and change. It is something that Himoff hopes to inspire through his creative work as he takes on more public art projects. Said Himoff, “I think it transforms communities, transforms neighborhoods. You’re not just creating something for somebody’s living room; it’s something that is eliciting a reaction. I love that dynamic; I love this notion of just creating a conversation about important issues.”