Painting Pride

Park Heights mural project aims to encourage community involvement

Neighborhood Decor


Painting one of the city's newest murals on a wall in central Park Heights, Pontella Mason hangs off the end of his scaffold like a slightly off-balance acrobat. He lays on rich yellow paint with a thick round brush. His half-finished mural with its golden-yellow background is already lighting up this dingy corner at Virginia Avenue and Reisterstown Road.

And that's the point.

"The idea is to beautify the community and to encourage the people in the community to get involved," Mason says.

His mural is one of two now being painted in the city under the Baltimore Mural Program. The other is on the columns under the Jones Falls Expressway where the downtown farmers' market is held every Sunday.

Mason's wall is not quite 40 feet high and 35 feet wide. He's painted a portrait of a beautiful Ethiopian woman in all her colorful finery and adornments. She's on a panel between scenes of a beach stretching away to infinity in blue and green and beige under an unclouded vault of tropical sky. It's a lovely vision to encounter driving north on this forlorn stretch of Reisterstown Road.

On three panels below, he'll paint Adinkra symbols from the Akan people of Ghana, with their meanings explained in English script: akoben, a hornlike emblem, with the words "readiness, volunteerism, a call to action"; fihankra, similar to a Maltese cross, "solidarity, completeness, brotherhood and security"; and bi nka bi, leaf-shaped, "unity, freedom, justice."

Mason, 57, seeks in his images to reflect the African and Caribbean heritage of most of the people who live in the neighborhood.

"There are a lot of West Indians in the community," Mason says. "I saw the Caribbean thing. I saw the beautiful blue contrasting with [the African woman]."

This community on the west side of Park Heights is called Lucille Park after a local playground. Almost totally African-American, Lucille Park is also woefully poor.

Mason is painting on a vacant building (about a quarter of the housing units in the neighborhood are vacant). There's a tiny corner grocery and a busy liquor store across Reisterstown Road from where he works. Viola Bell, a communty leader, lobbied the city for the mural: "The time was right when I asked," she says.

Bell, who is the president of the Unity Hope Community Development Corp. down the street from the mural, selected Mason from a portfolio of artists and their work offered by the mural program.

"We wanted an African-American artist to reflect our culture," Bell says.

The mural program is a division of the city's Office of Promotion & the Arts. Mason painted his first mural 30 years ago when the program was a project of the War on Poverty's Community Employment and Training Act. Some 120 murals have been painted since then. Mason has painted about 30 public and private murals.

He worked on his first mural in 1974 with painter Jim Voshell. They did a whole suite of paintings at the old Social Services building at Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street.

That building has since been demolished and their murals with it.

He and Voshell painted probably the most famous and popular mural in the city, the Checker Players at Edmondson Avenue and Franklintown Road. That building was torn down, too.

The 127-foot-long and 17-foot-high Wall of Respect, at Carey and Cumberland streets, is Mason's biggest mural. Two dozen portraits show a pantheon of African-American notables from Martin Luther King to Marcus Garvey to James Baldwin.

As Bell watches the new mural emerge on the wall on Reisterstown Road, she says: "I'm just so amazed at the talent he has. He's really gifted.

"People are admiring it so much there is less trash on that lot ... it's almost as if people look at it as a sacred place," she says.


Age: 57

Residence: Pumphrey, near Linthicum

Education: School of Visual Arts in New York City; Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Personal: Married to Deborah for 30 years: four children. The younger two, Cameron, 17, and Kemet, 16, help on mural projects.

See more murals: The Baltimore Mural Program began in 1987. The program works with artists, neighborhood groups and associations and funding sources to commission murals in neighborhoods across Baltimore. The program is coordinated with the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development. For more information about the location of murals and about the program, go to / arts / mural program.aspx.

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