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Framing the Guardians

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“Guardians.” The term conjures visions of impressive, armor-clad sentinels poised to defend. Though their own armor is less flashy, The Guardians of Baltimore are just as striking, courageous, and ready to protect. Twenty-five Guardians; caretakers of Baltimore’s lower-resource neighborhoods; twenty-five Black women, brought together by interdisciplinary artist and educator, Whitney Frazier, and self-taught cinematographer and street photographer, Kirby Griffin

The Guardians is the name of Frazier and Griffin’s collaborative photo documentary project, as well as the title given to twenty-five female leaders scattered across Baltimore’s urban communities. The womenindividuals who, Griffin says, have “dedicated their lives to trying to better Baltimore and the folks most people have given up on”represent two cohorts of leaders Frazier and Griffin have worked with since early 2021

When asked how they selected The Guardians, Frazier acknowledges that, though they had initial “criteria,” those benchmarks shifted in tandem with the natural evolution of the project. In broad terms, however, a Guardian is a “woman who doesn’t get [much] media attention, lives and works in Baltimore’s neighborhoods, and holds a leadership position.” Often, Frazier explains, Guardians go under-recognized for their astounding community efforts. 

It was the anonymity of these determined trailblazers that inspired Frazier to found The Guardians. For two years, without pause, Frazier and Griffin have interviewed, documented, and collaborated with the twenty-five women. Photographs taken by Griffin of twelve of The Guardians are currently on view in various locations throughout the city: Two Banners can be seen on the facade of The Peale, six at the visitor center, and twelve along the 4500- 5400 blocks of Harford Rd. Frazier’s hope is that the project will elevate The Guardians’ efforts, “helping them be seen by more people so that they can get more resources to support the work they’re already doing.” 

Tayler Mugar. A poet, Certified Pharmacy Technician, she currently works at a hospital as a Patient Access Specialist II. She has been a leader at Turnaround Tuesday, a non-profit organization which has helped over 800 citizens get livable wage employment. She has also assisted in creating a peace garden featuring public artwork in Harlem Park West with the organization The Mission Continues.
Terrye Moore is a wife, mother, and grandmother who serves as the Senior Pastor of New Solid Rock Fellowship Church in Northwest Baltimore.
Samirah Franklin graduated from the Historic Western High School following the unrest in 2015 and immediately began spearheading efforts to bring about social justice and community engagement. These initiatives include the beautification of her childhood neighborhood by painting murals, building playgrounds, planting community gardens, and, the work that she is most proud of, teaching leadership development to youth.
Banners of The Guardians displayed at the Baltimore War Memorial

Frazier and Griffin’s own support comes in the form of art. “I’m interested in this model where I tell stories of community leaders in a public art setting,” Frazier expands. The interdisciplinary artist received both her MA and MFA in community art from MICA. After completing her degrees, Frazier continued to live in Baltimore, where she began her collaborations with its neighborhood leaders.  

In many ways, Frazier could be included alongside the women she’s so  passionately spotlighted. The Guardians has been a complex endeavor, birthed by the 39-year-old’s remarkable foresight, and fortified by a constant stream of creative and logistical labor from an intimate team of artists and community members. Recognizing that she would need funding to get started, Frazier applied for and received a Rubys Artist Award, a $15,000 grant. “It sounds like a lot,” she laughs, “but once you get going you realize it’s far from enough.”  

Perhaps even more critical to the project’s success than the finances, has been Frazier’s collaboration with Griffin. The 35-year-old cinematographer and street photographer is a native of West Baltimore. His family has lived in the same neighborhood for decades and, he says, “will probably stay there forever.” 

Griffin’s proficiency in film and photography is thanks to his steadfast commitment  to perfecting his craft. “School provided a network as opposed to a skillset,” he recalls,  so to acquire that skillset, Griffin had to both teach himself the techniques and find willing mentors. For Griffin, like Frazier, collaboration has been foundational to his artistic and professional achievements.  

As individuals and a team, Frazier and Griffin are compelling storytellers. Using word and image, the artists create a fertile ground where muffled voices grow loud. Their shared vision has made possible a series of narrative works that bring otherwise overlooked corners of Baltimore to the forefront of public attention. 

Griffin, somewhat wryly, describes his photographs of The Guardians as portraits of “angels on dirty backdrops”a portrayal the two artists fit as well. Without Frazier and Griffin’s creative and community efforts, histories would remain silent, leaders left masked, and memoirs buried between layers of time. 

Dorothy Cunningham is a mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and foster mother. While working at Coppin State University, she led the effort to organize the first AFSCME local union on campus. She has lived in Irvington for 24 years and has been the Irvington Community Association President for 17 years. In 2016, she opened the Irvington Community Center.
Lois Randall is the matriarch of her family, being the mother of three, grandmother of four, and great grandmother of six. She has lived in the Darley Park neighborhood close to 60 yrs, working for ED at Church Home Hospital for thirty years and twelve years at Good Samaritan Hospital as the clinical unit Secretary.
Naimah Sharif. Compassion and a desire to “rebuild the village” led her to found NLife. Under her leadership, NLife has produced a plethora of community based programs and events including free swim lessons, summer camps, outdoor movie nights, neighborhood clean-ups, and a series of life skills workshops and community initiatives.
I feel the question is not about the potential of art in local or global communities, but more so, how do we get it into the local communities—the ones artists are oftentimes from?
Kirby Griffin

SUBJECT: Whitney Frazier (39), Kirby Griffin (35) 
PLACE: The Peale 
WEBSITE: www.theguardiansofbaltimore.com, www.kirbygriffindp.com, www.wgfstudio.com  
INSTAGRAM: @whitney_gracefrazier, @theguardiansofbaltimore, @4th.eye.diaries 

Isa Gold: What do you believe is art’s function and/or potential in local and global  communities?  

Kirby Griffin: I believe art’s function has the potential to teach communities in ways that traditional academic practices can’t, as it has always done already. The quickest way for a child to learn something other than repetition is through art, be it colorful illustrations, movement, or music etc. Even the alphabet is structured in the format of a song.

I feel the question is not about the potential of art in local or global communities, but more so, how do we get it into the local communities—the ones artists are oftentimes from? Then once it’s there, will the value still be weighed by those within that same community? Those who profit and determine the value of art are pretty much always outside of the community. Who starts the bidding process, and who ultimately profits? We can try to separate the art from commerce, but that would be us lying to ourselves. 

Whitney Frazier: I believe artists should be working in cross-disciplinary capacities with scientists, politicians, social workers, and business leaders to address society’s most pressing issues. We need to continue to speak up about what we believe in and use our skills to help build sustainable communities for all.  

Visual art plays a direct and foundational role in your career. Can you talk about its significance to your community and public work?  

KG: I’m still figuring out the significance of my art in the community, honestly. The only part I can speak of with certainty is the representation. I take pride in that partjust  being there still presently and accessible. I deliberately take on jobs that lend a voice to those who look like myself and kind, and I’m very particular again, about that representation. Everything else is truly out of my control, I just hope with everything in my soul that I’ve never led anyone astray or misrepresented my folk. And if I did, I would immediately make an attempt to correct that.

Until the art is providing funding to better my community, I can’t act like I’ve done anything too special. I’m not successful until my environment is successful. 

WF: People have a lot of ideas, but artists have the power to make those visions a  reality. I love helping people make their ideas come to life, whether it’s a commission  painting for someone’s home or a 21st century park in East Baltimore. 

Kin "Termite" Brown-Lane: a lifelong Cherry Hill resident and community leader. She has been a resident of Cherry Hill Public Housing for over fifty years. For over twenty years, Termite has fed families during Thanksgiving, given out toys and gifts to children during Christmas, and been active in the schools of Cherry Hill. As a trained mediator, she is also often sought after to mediate and resolve conflict in homes, schools, and throughout the Cherry Hill community.
Wanda R. Wallace. During her tenure as President and Vice-President of the Allendale Community Association Inc., she participated in securing funding for the 21st century school renovations of Mary E. Rodman Elementary School, in addition to funding for the adjacent Mary E. Rodman Recreation Center.

How do you define the term “public art”? How do you feel the discipline has shifted since you first began engaging with it?  

WF: Tricky one. I think I would define it as any art that engages the broader “public” or “community” in an artistic experience outside of the white walls of the gallery/museum. But I see the landscape of the museum world is shifting, thus the exhibit of The Guardians at The Peale (a community museum), which brought many Baltimoreans to the Peale for the first time.

I see the need for places like the Peale to give underrepresented artists and communities a place to showcase their work. If you could build your own museum, what would you create?  

KG: If I had the resources to build a museum, I would just expand on what “The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum” has already started. A lot of answers we search  for in this world have been right in our face all along. For some reason, every  generation believes that they now have the answers. It’s the flaws of humans I guess, one of the many just being arrogance. We tend to reinvent the wheel when there’s been an entire vehicle with a promising roadmap on the dash right in our driveway. I’d much prefer to take that vehicle and pay my respects to the ones who built it for me, before I stand out here and act like I was the engineer. I’d make it my business that the museum was more integrated with the school system so children could actively learnand be remindedof its existence. 

WF: I would create exhibits and residencies in Baltimore City schools where young people could apprentice with local artists who would have space to make and show their work. It would be a true teaching/community-based museum.

When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a profession in public art? What made you aware of this particular passion?  

WF: I was continuously being invited into neighborhoods by community leaders who wanted to engage with me and other artists to make a difference in their  neighborhoods. I realized in 2017 that I needed to create my own business and figure out what working “for myself” would look like. Sadly, MICA hadn’t taught me (or most  graduates) how to manage and run our own businesses. So, I had to hire a business coach, Scott Burkholder/Burkholder Agency to help develop my business and public art offerings/approach. 

 

Yeshiyah Israel, a lifelong resident of Baltimore City and President of the Pimlico Merchants Association. Sister Israel’s family has been an anchor in the Park Heights community for over twenty years with their businesses, Scott’s & Sons Furniture and YBI African Apparel, the latter of which she is the owner.
Deputy Commissioner Sheree Briscoe is a 27-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department. She currently oversees the Operations Bureau, which includes the Patrol Division, Criminal Investigation Division and Data Driven Strategies Division.
Stories have power. They can shift someone’s perspective. They can move people to action. I am not a great storyteller, but I aim to use my skills as an artist to capture others' stories.
Whitney Frazier

How do stories and narrative factor into both The Guardians project, and your broader artistic practice? What is your relationship to storytelling?  

KG: Storytelling is what I live for. It’s what keeps me going, equally with music. Each of the guardians are their own library of perspective and experience. And given that the guardians are mostly elder Black women that naturally makes them part of multiple generations of individuals because Black women were the warmth of their communities.

Photographing them within their respective neighborhoodssome who have been there foreverties into the old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’,  so much so that it’s an understatement with them. They’re still here, alive and well, actively still doing the work while in complete control of their narrative.

Much love to  Whitney, because sometimes all that’s required is for the right person to acknowledge your efforts. She took what was a mundane day to day ritual of these women and felt the world should see it.

You can walk past an elder every day for years in your neighborhood sweeping and think they’re just cleaning up trash, when they’re actually preserving an entire community. And you won’t understand the significance until that elder has transitioned and somehow you are now living in ruins. Sometimes distance and brief scrutiny can allow you to see the bigger picture. 

My relationship to storytelling is tied to my love of learning about myself and culture. I envy my friends who may travel back to Ghana or Senegal etc. to see the rest of their family. I can only imagine the depths of stories they have access to. How deep they’re able to trace their bloodlines, and to have a grasp on exactly whatand whois  running through their blood.

I’m not sure if this country will ever understand the psychology Black Americans are unconsciously and consciously undoing every single day simply because we don’t know whereor whothe hell we come from. It’s an instant blow to your pride and constant psychosis to be at war with. So, I take pride in documenting that lineage now and from here on, in hopes that some miracle of  information is uncovered to bring us back to our sources of origin. To be a storyteller now, to build a library later.

WF: I learned from my training as a community organizer with BUILD (Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development), that stories have power. They can shift someone’s perspective. They can move people to action. I am not a great storyteller, but I aim to use my skills as an artist to capture others’ stories. I have always admired good storytellers. 

I started to collect stories in my undergrad years when I was in Baltimore neighborhoods working with young people. Their stories were so raw and honest. It taught me about their lived experiences and with their permission I have shared their stories through my art practice.

Family seems to be an important element of your community work. How would you  describe the role of family in your creative practice and/or public projects?

WF: Yes, Baltimore has been my home since 2002. I have raised my daughter here. I am grateful for all the wonderful communities and people I am connected with, who  have supported me in my art practice, motherhood, building a business, owning a  home, and trying to do the work I believe in for our city. 

What do you want people to know about The Guardiansthe project itself, and the individuals involved in it?  

WF: We are going to keep growing and pushing for city wide initiatives. If you want to make Baltimore a better, safer, more equitable place for all residents, please support the Guardians’ work directly or through getting in touch with me!

The Guardians at the Peale Museum

Photographs of The Guardians courtesy of Whitney Frazier and Kirby Griffin

This story is from Issue 16: Collaboration, available here.

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