Artist Michelle Richardson paints an ode to the potential of the children of downtown Newport News in this inspiring exhibit.
Michelle Richardson is a self-taught artist who currently resides in downtown Newport News. Using art to channel her passion, Michelle seeks to empower and support the youth in her community by creating an inspirational exhibit that will be on display at Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center in March 2020.
In “Don’t Count Me Out,” Richardson highlights the promise of the city’s youth by painting the portraits of over a dozen kids from the southeast community to prominently display in the Newport News Community Gallery. These portraits depict the children in their self-proclaimed dream careers—as lawyers, doctors, teachers, artists, police officers, and even a food critic. Michelle explains why this project is so important to the community.
TW: What inspired you to create this exhibit?
Michelle: Well, I’m not originally from downtown Newport News, but I have been here long enough to notice that there are negative assumptions made about living here and that bothers me—especially seeing how that discrimination impacts the kids.
I have children growing up here and I felt it was important to show them and all of the kids of our community that someone sees [them], someone cares about [them] and [that they] can do whatever [they] want to do in life regardless of how [they are perceived]. These kids are put into a category and automatically made a statistic. They don’t really know a lot about what is going on, but they do quickly pick up on how they’re being treated.
People look at the crime rate for the area, and instead of thinking about what kids in our neighborhood have to endure, they are treated like part of the problem. So, for them to actually see themselves progressing in life and achieving their dreams, my hope is that it will plant a seed.
I did a project before this exhibit called “The Future Me,” and I brought in one of the first portraits that I created for this exhibit for the kids to see, and that moment solidified everything. When I showed them [the piece], their eyes lit up. They were so excited. In that moment, they could see themselves in a way that they’ve probably never seen themselves before.
TW: I know that you had the chance to interview the kids featured in the exhibit. What was that experience like—speaking with the kids directly?
Michelle: One of the things that I noticed and found a bit disappointing is that when I would ask most of them about their career goals, I would get puzzled looks. You can tell that they haven’t really thought about it, and nobody really asks them. They will hear what one child says, and they’ll say it too, simply because they really don’t know what else to say.
I want them to know that there are more choices than the handful of careers that they hear about all of the time. All of them have so many gifts, and talents and I don’t want them to feel limited in any way. That’s the disappointing side. They need more exposure.
In one of the interviews, I asked a child, “What do you have to do to become this person?” and the child’s answer was simply, “Grow up.” This broke my heart. That was one of the things that I had in mind for this whole project. Of course, we have to prepare these kids for their future, but the thing is that the preparation isn’t going to do any good if they don’t even live.
I know a lot of these kids are in survival mode. Every single day is an accomplishment because of the things that they have to go through even as little children. So for them to not even think it’s important to have plans for the future [because of more immediate struggles] is just heartbreaking. Kids should be kids. They shouldn’t be worrying or having fear and anxiety about the next day. It makes me feel like this exhibit is really needed.
TW: What do you hope that people take away from viewing this exhibit?
Michelle: I hope to create a positive and energetic experience with this exhibit, but in a classical way. I want the kids to feel important. When a kid thinks of someone of importance, they often picture an adult. But I want them to view themselves as important and special and capable. I want them to feel like the spotlight is on them. I would hope that the parents and adults viewing the exhibit will be inspired and will see the potential in these kids. I hope that they ask themselves, “Am I doing my part to help these kids reach their goals?”
The exhibit reception for “Don’t Count Me Out” will be held on Saturday, March 21, 2020 at 1:00 pm at Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center. This event is free and open to the public. To RSVP, please visit http://downinggross.org/dont-count-me-out . You can see more of Michelle’s work at https://www.michellezart.com/