Mural has potent message

Published 10:24 pm Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Suffolk artist Michael Graves poses next to a mural he created at Booker T. Washington Elementary School of the school’s namesake.

Suffolk artist Michael Graves poses next to a mural he created at Booker T. Washington Elementary School of the school’s namesake.

For years, one of the first things encountered inside Booker T. Washington Elementary School has been a display cabinet arrayed with photos of successful black alumni.

For instance, there’s Ronald Hart, who went on to serve 16 years on Suffolk City Council, and William Freeman, former chief of Suffolk Police Department.

Now, before the cabinet snaps into focus for the passersby, a giant mural of the man who inspired many of those inside of it, school namesake Booker T. Washington, commands attention first.

Email newsletter signup

“These were pretty much my inspiration,” Suffolk artist Michael Graves said recently, showing a reporter the cabinet, his mural gracing the cinderblock wall next to it.

“All these people represent the true spirit of Booker T. Washington.”

Principal David Reitz said he wanted a mural representative of the school, Graves explained, and what better than a portrait of the man it was named after?

Born into slavery in 1856 in the backcountry of Virginia, after educating himself through what could only be described as sheer determination, Washington went on to advise Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, and championed education as a means for blacks to lift themselves out of poverty.

Graves was referred to Reitz for the commission by his brother-in-law, Reginald Darden. “He’s talented, and the principal here was looking for someone to do a mural,” Darden said.

“He asked if I knew anyone, and I said I know exactly the right person.”

In 2012, Graves created a large mural on the back wall of the band room at Nansemond River High School, from which the 39-year-old graduated in 1993.

Booker T. Washington is his first school mural since, but that’s no indication that his art career has languished.

His work has been exhibited at the Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts, and he says he’s completed several murals in restaurants and is currently creating one on the wall of a Portsmouth art studio.

“I’m pretty consistent with commissions,” Graves said. “My resume has grown a bit. I have learned so much through the years, especially since the Nansemond River mural.”

The business side of art has been his steepest learning curve, according to Graves, who says he makes his living solely from his art.

“It’s been a blessing just to learn through my mistakes,” he said.

With his niece attending the school, his nephew a former student and his sister having taught there, the Booker T. Washington mural was personal, Graves said.

The artist’s hope for his young audience? Whatever they dream, they can realize.

“Whatever you can dream you can be, you can be,” he said. “That’s pretty much the same message that Booker T. had.”

Just look at Graves, who added, “I’m living my dream right now — creating artwork.”