With that simple but powerful phrase “I am art,” educator and artist Blu Murphy empowers and emboldens the art and lives of her students at Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School in Brookland where she has taught for the last four years.
Recruited by Principal Rachel Crouch with whom she previously worked with at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, Murphy knew she would feel supported with Crouch at the helm.
“She’s an excellent art teacher,” Crouch states. “She teaches advanced techniques to students so the artwork of kindergarteners looks like an adult created it.”
At a time when many schools defund the arts in favor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Crouch saw the arts helped engage parents and students — so she also invested in the performing arts by hiring a drama teacher and music teacher. At Perry Prep, arts teachers have a regular, full-time schedule and earn the same salary as other teachers.
YOU ARE A MASTERPIECE
As she gives me a tour of her classroom during a planning period, Murphy wears a Basquiat-designed sweatshirt while a student works quietly on a one-point perspective drawing.
“A perspective drawing is a basic form of architectural drawing; it directly connects with math,” she states, with such scaled sketches behind her on the whiteboard. “My students just finished a project not too long ago connected to Basquiat — and art history is also American history. We do writing prompts, study biography and documentary videos. With the arts, you can connect it all.”
When students enter the classroom, they pass a mirror stating “I am art.” On another wall, several black arrows stating “art” point to white space. A student standing there can find themselves transformed.
“I would have students with low self-esteem [who] didn’t value themselves the way I felt like they should. I would ask them to stand beneath the arrows and sometimes to hold up their artwork. It just became this thing: ‘You are art. You are a masterpiece.’”
“Art is therapeutic,” Murphy explains. “Not everyone is going to be a graphic designer or an architect, but art provides a real coping mechanism to deal with trauma for my students. How do you deal with trauma? How do you deal with loss? How do you deal with anger? Not everyone has the money or resources for therapy, but everyone has a piece of paper and a pencil.”
Seeing her students’ transformation into confident, valued, empowered artists and young people, Murphy began photographing them, overlapping photos with her graffiti tag and posting on social media.
“That’s just a teacher’s rite of passage to post your students and their art on social media,” she laughs.
The 34-by-46 inch, black and white mixed-media portrait entitled “Black Boy Potential” portrays one of Murphy’s students Carter impishly squinting his eyes and sticking out his tongue. All around the large photo, Murphy collaged icons of Black manhood, including Presidents Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela; a Jackson Five-era Michael Jackson; Muhammed Ali; Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; Kobe Bryant; and comic book favorites Franklin of “Peanuts” and Huey from “Boondocks.”
Overhead, Michael Jordan floats midair like a guardian angel, while the bottom row shows protestors of the sanitation worker strike in Memphis. Carter, now a fourth-grader, is among and at home with these heroes. (The piece was sold to an art collector in 2021.)
This is not just a singular expression of Black boy joy and potential.
“I have 350 students and it’s beyond any particular student,” Murphy shares. “It’s the fact they see [themselves represented]. What I’m trying to deliver in the whole ‘I am art’ concept becomes more tangible when they can see themselves and each other.”
PLEASE, DO NOT TOUCH THE ART
Murphy’s classroom doubles as her art studio and her subjects are her students. Photos are taken in her class, during recess and in the hallways during breaks.
It’s all DIY-aesthetic. She captures their portraits on an iPhone and prints out large-scale black and white prints of the photos. The photo frames are all purchased at thrift stores and she refinishes the frames on the cheap. She even upcycles some of the previous art in the frames by adhering the photos to the canvas paintings.
“It looks good, but it’s very shabby-chic over here,” she jokes.
Her graffiti tag signature is a series of organic bubbles, but they are the B-L-U of her name.
“The letters are all jumbled up and abstract because I’m dyslexic. I’m very transparent about it to show [my students] they can still do anything.”
Murphy’s first solo exhibit “LE DRIP: The Uncontainable Sauce of Black Essence” opens at Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria in April.
As Murphy approached her 40th birthday, she realized while building and supporting her students’ dreams she neglected her own dream of working as an artist. She earned her BFA at Morgan State University with a concentration in painting before finding her vocation as an arts educator, a career she’s built for over fourteen years working in group homes for adults with disabilities, to public and charter schools throughout Baltimore and D.C.
She decided to submit an entry for an exhibit in an art show at Torpedo Factory. Crouch — a renowned artist known for her solo work and collaborative Black portraiture work with twin sister Rebecca — shared Murphy’s work on social media, garnering many views and interest. Sales and commissions quickly followed.
Most importantly for Murphy, there will be a private exhibition at the gallery for her students to participate in an artist talk with one of their favorite teachers.
“I applied for my first solo show and I got it. [Now] I can take my kids on a field trip to see themselves on the wall. It feels like a dream.”
She hopes to expand “LE DRIP,” which runs April 23 to July 17, to vulnerable peoples and overlooked populations — from children in foster care to essential workers to people without home.
“The big dream is to take it outside of the classroom and reach the many people who don’t see themselves [in art]. You’re valuable, you’re not forgotten, you’re not unseen. You are a work of art, too.”
“LE DRIP: The Uncontainable Sauce of Black Essence” opens April 23 and runs until July 17 with an exhibition reception on May 13 at Torpedo Factory Art Center. Learn more about Blu Murphy on Instagram @blu_murphy or visit her website blumurphyart.com.