During Black History Month, Boston College is showcasing the artwork of Social Work MSW student Frank Garcia-Ornelas. The exhibit, comprised of 12 graphic works, celebrates “The Power of Youth Movements in Black History.” It’s no coincidence, of course, that three of Garcia-Ornelas’ pieces were on display at BCSSW’s recent event highlighting civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin, who famously refused bus segregation 60 years ago when she was only 15 years old.
In this conversation with BC Social Work, Frank talks about his calling to be a social worker, and how art has been for him a “way out” and a lifelong passion.
Thanks for your time today Frank. Your artwork has been very well received by both the Boston College community on the whole, and here at BC Social Work. Tell us about some of the thinking behind ‘The Power of Youth Movements in Black History.’
Frank Garcia-Ornelas: Before working on all twelve pieces for this exhibit, I locked myself in my room for a couple of 18 hour days, and I reflected on the major influence that youth had on the civil rights movement. I thought about how these pioneers for justice have laid the foundation for those leading similar movements today, such as those fighting for justice around the events in Ferguson and New York City. People are still fighting for civil rights, and I wanted to find a way to bridge the gaps in time, and help people to better understand the historical significance the marches of the 1960s still have on today.
I also wanted to portray a part of me in the pieces, and that’s why they’re ‘graffiti-eqsue.’ Graffiti on brick walls was everywhere in the neighborhood in Kansas City that I grew up in, and to me, this represents grit. It represents everything that’s real.
Talk more about growing up in a tough neighborhood in Kansas City, and how this led to your decision to become a social worker.
FG: First off, I have to say that I’ve been blessed to get this far. Not everyone from where I come from is so lucky. There was widespread poverty, gangs, and drugs in my neighborhood, but my mom was strong-willed, and took me out of public school, and enrolled me in catholic school. This gave me a chance to get out, and eventually, I won a university scholarship.
During college, I had sponsors that allowed me to be able to continue my education, and I’m grateful for this. This support allowed me to be able to believe that there was more to life than what was outside my doorstep, to see a different side of the world that I never would have known existed. Certainly, a side of the world I never thought I’d have access to.
When I graduated, I spent a couple of years working in graphic design, but I quickly realized I wanted to do something more. At about the same time, I started working with a youth group for low-income kids in my church, and from there, I was offered a position working with youth at a Cristo Rey High School in Kansas City. Following a move to Boston, I was hired to work at More than Words, a bookstore run by students who have been in and out of jail, out of school, homeless, or in foster care.
It was during my time as a transitions manager at More than Words, mentoring 12 youth, that I decided that social work was in fact my calling. I’m now a clinical and mental health concentrator at BC Social Work, and I also work at the Montserrat Coalition here on campus, serving students with the highest level of financial need at BC. I’m the first generation from my family to be able to go to college, so it means a lot for me to be able to offer support to students who may be experiencing similar challenges to those I experienced when I was an undergrad. I hope to continue to work with high school or college-aged students after I complete my MSW.
What has art meant to you throughout your life?
FG: Art was always a way out for me. I started as a young kid drawing with pencils, and I remember I won a bike as the top prize for an art contest I entered in grade school. I also started to throw clay around a bit in high school, but I didn’t have a potter’s wheel, so it was difficult to continue to work with clay.
I received my undergraduate degree in studio art, and it was in college where I first started painting, which is my passion. There’s something about holding a brush in your hand, and painting, that I really love.
Of course, I also enjoy graphic design — all of the pieces in the BC gallery are graphic works. There’s so much freedom to produce ideas in this medium, and this is really an ideas-driven exhibit.
Tell us about the piece ‘Love?’ from the ongoing show at BC.
FG: This is the interactive piece from the exhibit – I handed out sharpies at the opening, and encouraged people to write about what they thought love was, right on the art itself. I really want this exhibit to be about dialogue, and this piece was my way of inviting everyone into the conversation. If I can provide anyone with a voice, or a platform, and if we can talk about race more openly at Boston College, I’ll have accomplished something.
Racial injustice is still such a major issue today. Another piece in the exhibit ‘One Nation?’ places Selma next to ‘I can’t breathe,’ and Trayvon Martin next to Martin Luther King Jr. Do we really live in one nation if we’re still fighting the same battle, some 60 years after Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a bus?
We need to be able to formulate our own ideas, and talk about our own experiences with regards to race. I’m hopeful that my art can help to spark these kinds of conversations.
“The Power of Youth Movements in Black History” is on display in the level one gallery of O’Neill Library for the remainder of February. In March, the exhibit will move to the School of Social Work Library.
To learn more about civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin and her family, check out this Q&A on our blog.