A closer look at the InsideOut Literary Arts Project

Arts / Article

By Larisa Zade, Detroit Institute of Arts

As the DIA has written about previously, we have used Inside|Out  to build and deepen our relationship with community partners. Our work with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project—a local nonprofit that uses poetry to teach students to think critically and express themselves—is a case study that demonstrates the interconnectivity the DIA has found through fine and literary arts. This fall, for the second year in a row, the DIA invited poets from the InsideOut Literary Arts Project to perform at the Inside|Out BikeTour. On Sunday, September 16, more than 100 bicyclists took to the streets of Detroit for the bike tour, which travelled to the DIA’s 11 reproductions at various locations throughout the city. Various forms of entertainment were offered at stops along the 13-mile route, including musical, mechanic, and poetic performances.

In front of the reproduction of Benny Andrews’ Portrait of a Collagist at the Dell Pryor Gallery in Midtown Detroit, the Spitfires, an after-school poetry performance troupe organized through InsideOut Literary Arts Project’s Voices program at Detroit International Academy for Young Women, presented an original poem. Inspired by the Andrews self-portrait, Aryn Smith, Khadijah Shabazz, Sakila Islam, and Queantae Smith wrote the poem they then performed as a group. The Spitfires offered two performances for the riders, who were joined by people walking to local shops and restaurants interested in both the painting and the poetry. Each performance was met with an enthusiastic round of photos and applause for the young and talented poets. Many riders agreed it was the most moving stop along the tour.

“The poem exemplifies InsideOut’s mission of encouraging young people to ‘think broadly, create bravely,’” said Terry Blackhawk, founder and director of the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. “We are grateful for the DIA’s vision and partnership and for the support of benefactors such as the Knight Foundation and Chase in broadening these dimensions and helping us to ‘share our youth’s voices with the wider world.’”

Left to right, Aryn Smith, Khadijah Shabazz, Sakila Islam and Sherina Sharpe, InsideOut Voices writer-in-residence at DIAYW.

Below you can read a transcript of the Spitfires’ poem.

A Vision in Layers

A swish of blue trails my brush’s tail. It’s a significant first stroke for jaded eyes  that want to bleed yellow; orange driven into the depths of this monochrome, this frosty canvas, throw pigment from my palette, swirl child-like nostalgia into candy trees, blend the blues from my memories, construct a dream depicted within a dream that mocks the oppressive borders in this frame.

A bird glides without sound, trees blossom extraordinary fabric patches of peaches, crab apples, under a sunless Heaven. The wind whispers softly through sand. I swear I can’t tell where the sky ends and my vision begins.

Here, truth cannot be taught. Only felt, found in layers, one truth backing another, escaping from my brush.

Reality is the walls have been washed, spackled until a dirty ivory emerged. I have cast aside the easel to prove: hanging is not synonymous with death. We are alive, wrapping ripe green grass to cover the hate, to invent  a space where love does not belong to a color.

My brush is a warrior, a harbinger of promise. Peace is never forged without a sword to draw borders into the sand, the wall, the water. Or with a splat of my brush, your troubles are invisible. Look past the memories in my eyes, the mess on the floor and accept that you cannot shine without black without greens, whites and oranges.

I paint myself, glue my pieces together surpassing the fourth dimension, (surpassing the fourth dimension) excluding all that defies me. I defy them. I defy them. Color my shadow too thick, allow my inspiration to sneak up on me, grab me by the mouth, until I find the iron to defy textbook rules, to testify that this cotton- picking farm hand holds the palette, reshapes work shirts into plaid magnolias, burlap into sand, handkerchiefs into cotton sacks that offer sprouting trees. I paint myself weaker, poorer, hungrier,  darker,  the richest of kings who leaves pockets gaping, boxes open, ready to accept and build our intertwined story in vibrant hues.

I am a man who owns a brush that is

allowed more freedom than I. I am a man who never mutes his mistakes, these zippers, rips, and tears are all perfect. I am a man. This brush is a key, opening gates that can’t stomach my shadow.

I am a painter of the people, I speak for the trees. My name is Benny, I speak for the me’s and you’s too, us’s and all of them.

Diving into my own paints I emerge louder than I am. I will take you to a land where creation is never shackled. I want you to want to stretch out to touch me, run your finger over my collar, over the depth of my camouflage, over a shoelace and know that there’s not enough dimension in the world to hold me.