Kyle Holbrook has been creating and coordinating large-scale public murals in Pittsburgh for two decades. He’s done them around the U.S. and around the world. But seldom has the area native’s work seemed more visible in his hometown – or more timely – than during the past few months.
In July, amidst local and national protests for racial justice, Holbrook completed what he touted as Pittsburgh’s largest mural, a celebration of Black history on the sidewall of the Community Empowerment Association, in Homewood. More recently, Holbrook expanded that sprawling artwork as part of an ambitious, 10-mural initiative he calls Pittsburgh Solidarity for Change.
The $300,000 project by Holbrook’s nonprofit group Moving the Lives of Kids is meant to unite the city in opposition to police brutality, systemic racism, and gun violence. The project, which Holbrook announced in August, employed dozens of artists and teams of volunteers. Holbrook and other artists designed the murals with input from the community.
In Homewood, for instance, the Community Empowerment Association gave Holbrook a list of prominent Black activists whose portraits it wanted to feature in the three-story-tall Wall of Liberation. They ranged from famed local labor leader Nate Smith to scholar and activist Angela Davis, and from Pittsburgh activist and addiction counselor Dawud Akbar to Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton and South Africa’s Winnie Mandela.
“It’s all people who were instrumental in fighting for liberation,” said Holbrook, who was at the Fleury Way site on a recent, gray Saturday morning to lead volunteers in adding colors and abstract shapes to the lower portions of the mural.
Work on the murals began in late September. The first of the 10 to be completed adorned a long, low retaining wall on Bouquet Street, in Oakland. Done in bright yellow, orange, blue, green and pink, it’s dominated by three words in big block letters: Equality, Accountability, and Action.
The words were chosen by MLK intern Kara Byer, a senior criminology major at Carlow University who grew up in the Hill District.
“Hopefully with these words, this can be some type of solution for change,” said Byer, who was helping paint. “Especially action. If we do something, there could be some type of change hopefully going on around the world. Accountability -- if people take knowledge of what is going on in the world, … then maybe there’ll be change. And equality, that’s what everyone wants: To be equal to everyone around the world.”
“This whole project is about solutions,” said Holbrook. “We know what the issues are going on, we got an election coming up. … No matter who gets elected, people are going to have to work together to be real change. This is a humanity issue."
Matt Speck, 23, was the lead artist on the mural on a Strip District building owned by Enrico Biscotti at the foot of the 31st Street Bridge.
“What we want to do is create something that can unite multiple sides and show that Pittsburgh is one whole city,” said Speck, a few days after painting began. “Basically it’s gonna be a lot of hands. It’s very symbolistic of unity and coming together. So there’s going to be different skin tones, different colors on the wall. … There’s gonna be fist bumps down there. Then the main center piece of the mural’s going to be hands coming together to form a heart.”
“I see it bringing light to the situation,” said Dana Morris, a 2019 graduate of Westinghouse High School. He spoke at the Strip District site but has worked on most of the murals. “I don’t see it as solving the situation, ’cause we got a long road to go in order to solve our justice system. But I feel like it’s gonna open people’s minds up to the point where they be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t see it that way.’”
One of the more striking murals is on a building on Granville Street, in the Hill District, owned by Center That CARES. Designed by the artist Lil Baby Artworld and painted by Holbrook and artist AmunRay, the three-story mural depicts two towering Black women in colorful dresses and headwraps.
The Center That CARES, a social-service nonprofit, recently acquired the building to house violence-prevention efforts and trauma therapy. To Center founder the Rev. Glenn Grayson, “these two women represent life. We’re birthed from women, so they represent life.”
Many of the volunteers who helped complete the murals had little or no art experience, but participated for other reasons.
“These are issues and stuff we feel strongly about,” said Jennifer Roberts, who was working on the Homewood mural. Her husband, Joe Roberts, is a Carlow University psychology professor who’s been bringing his students to help on the murals. As she paused from filling in a swooping arrow shape with turquoise paint on a recent Saturday morning, Roberts admitted that staying within the lines was about her skill level.
The couple’s children were also helping.
“We brought our kids just to do a couple of these [murals], just so we could have better conversations about these issues, and we wanted to just kind of show our support for this,” she said.
The murals are also winning fans. Eric Williams visited the Homewood mural in his role as a community liaison from the office of Mayor Bill Peduto. He was especially impressed with Holbrook’s portrait of the late rapper, activist and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle.
“He was definitely important to the black community,” said Williams. “He was a symbol for generational wealth, a symbol for progress, and being heard. And he preached that through rap.
While Williams was admiring the painting, Holbrook asked him if he wanted to add some brushstrokes alongside the other volunteers. Williams agreed.
“I didn’t know I was gonna paint today. But … if I could touch this in some type of way, I feel better about it. I feel good about that. If I could like, put a little bit of paint on it. 'Cause it’s so beautiful."
Pittsburgh Solidarity for Change was funded by local philanthropies including the Hillman Foundation, the Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation. Additional mural sites are on Locust Street, in Uptown; on Main Street, in Sharpsburg; and at another site on Penn in the Strip.