Judy Byron

Sons and Daughters

Cutting Close to Teenagers' World

Reported by Jessica Portner Washington Post Newspaper Nov. 1991.

"Instead of war there would be peace where all human beings travel around the world with no fears. And not showing nobody any paper where you're from and what's your race?"

— graffiti by Alvin Alvarado, 21, for a portrait by Judy Byron

In powerful, life-size portraits, woodcut rubbings made with primary colored crayons and scrawled with jarring graffiti, D.C. printmaker Judy Byron presents a message of defiance and hope from 18 District teenagers who were her subjects and the focus of her life for more than a year.

She met with them. She talked with them. She got to know something of their world and life in this city of problems, said Byron, who has made a career of fusing art with social commentary.

Then she photographed them up close, deftly chiseled mirror images of those portraits onto woodcuts and made prints. Finally, she let them write graffiti on the background of each print - expressions of their fears, their frustrations, their outrage on the finished works that today she considers as much theirs as hers.

Because this is their message, she said: "See me. Notice me. Really look at me. And, take the time to step beyond the stereotypes and respect me."

The message is a sort of drumbeat for subject Mariama Richards, confident and self-possessed at age 18 with long woven cornrows, African beaded necklaces and a florescent yellow jacket: "We have a lot to say in {just} the way we dress, because we express who we are as people in our attitudes and style," the senior at the School Without Walls said of her contemporaries.

The final eight works are on display in a new show titled "We are Your Sons and Daughters" on the first floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. The idea for them came to Byron nearly two years ago after she read the story of Yusuf Hawkins's murder in New York City.

As an Italian-American, she was struck by the destructive power of racial hatred, she said, and she was determined to "do something," such as head up to New York and capture all that emotion on paper, she recalls thinking. But wait. Wasn't Washington, the place she has called home for 20 years, a city rife with tensions and violence? Wasn't this the city with the soaring murder rate among teenagers?

So she gathered a group of young people from Wilson High School, from the street corners of Chinatown, from the School without Walls, and from the Latin American Youth Center, brought them into her artist's world for 18 months and picked their brains in a quest to understand and interpret the point of view of this age group.

"We are all responsible for these kids," Byron Said. "These kids have problems. There's guns, there's drugs, there are kids on probation who want to go to college … You should share your passions. You may not be the president or a CEO, but you can use the power you have."

The drug users have stolen all the lawnmowers in the area … War is murder … I'm afraid of what tomorrow holds … Someone tell me what I can do to make a difference." Judy Byron has made her own mark using art to shake people's consciousness. Three years ago, after a friend died of AIDS, she made a woodcut for a collection of art that appeared on bus shelters and billboards around the District showing men and women in black and white with the slogan "AIDS Touches Us All."

A few years ago she worked with poet Chasen Gaver on a series of portraits and verse that told the story of the changing fabric of a neighborhood in Arlington after immigrants began settling there.

This time she put together four groups of teenage collaborators who each met once a week for two months at her cozy Mount Pleasant home.

"I establish a relationship with the people I draw," Byron said. "It's a way of testifying to them that this is who they are."

Each group of teens chose the backdrop for their portrait and helped with such mechanics as developing the film.

To help immerse them into the process and draw out their feelings to incorporate in the works, Byron hired Rebecca Rice, an actress with the Living Stage theater, who used music and journal-writing and word games to reach them.

They'd listen to a tape of Tracy Chapman or Bob Marley and talk about relationships and love, their parents and the gulf war.

For a simple exercise one day, they redesigned the American flag, one linking the stars together to symbolize a world united in peace, another letting them fall off the flags to express his disillusionment.

We kept reminding the students "that we are individuals in a culture that constantly tries to homogenize us," Rice said. "People look at problems and make everything look rosy and smooth. They can't flatten us out into one line."

Byron's portraits are anything but flat. The figures, wearing street smart stares, are perched on steps, leaning against fences, or shop fronts in typical teenage garb, with accents that emphasize their ethnic pride.

One portrait shows four Hispanic students with long black curls and crossed arms leaning against a wall plastered with a picture of an orange palm tree.

"I really don't know what I dream when I dream," the graffiti behind them reads. "When I dream I don't remember. And when I remember, I don't dream."

Another work shows a group of black teenagers in dreadlocks and cornrows languishing on a concrete staircase.

"Culture is not a style," reads the purple scrawl on a red brick wall behind them. "Afraid to be me … Interpreting others' perceptions of me," reads another.

The Chinatown scene shows four young men standing in front of a tourist shop. On the top right corner, "Hometown Hong Kong" is written in bold block letters. Wai Yu, 20, drew a purple dragon, the symbol of Chinese leadership, on the shop wall.

"My parents are always asking me to help at the store. Why?" reads a bit of graffiti.

"When I was younger, some people from school would make funny noises pretending to speak Chinese," reads another.

If she gave these teens any voice, she has accomplished what she set out to do, Byron said.

But her real object was "to reaffirm that life is part of art," she said. "I wanted to dignify young people and tell others that we have to work from any power position we have" to improve things for teens in this city in the 1990s.

"In their writings they wanted us to see … that they don't fit into a slot. They wanted to show that they are complex people." she added. "I wanted my images to be catalysts, to make the rest of us feel responsible for all the other young people who are out there."