East St. Louis, Illinois As a child, Michael Ashe enjoyed picking oysters along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. His grandfather lives there, so trips to the beach were a regular part of life.
“It’s peaceful energy,” said Ash. “Especially when you put that conch shell to your ear.”
Even at the age of 32, he collects shells. But the mood of this city with a population of 18,000 is something else. Ash walks on concrete instead of sand, picking up shells left over from bullets as he walks through town for exercise.
“It hit me one day,” he said: he might be using shell casings in his artwork.
Gun violence has been a persistent problem in East St. Louis, which before the pandemic had one of the highest murder rates of any US city, to the dismay of many residents. While rates have improved somewhat, it is still a plague and a growing problem in communities across the country. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 47,000 people nationwide will die from gunshot injuries in 2021, the highest number in the US since the early 1990s.
In Ash’s studio, carefully mixing tapes, shredded tyres, broken glass and spent ammunition with paint to transform the litter of violence into art that tells stories about race, resistance and history . The work is personal, Ashe said.
Every year since he was 17, Ashe lost at least one friend or relative to gun violence. That includes his cousin Dashaun “Bucky” Gage, 28, who died in a 2018 shooting in front of a gas station across the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Ash and Gage were close. Losing the gauge traumatized Ash so much that he stopped going to that gas station. He turned to his art after the shooting, creating a portrait of Gage that same year.
“My art saved my life,” said Ash. “There’s a lot more stuff I could get into.”
Ash fell in love with art at a young age. His mother, Gina Walker, noticed his interest in drawing when he was just 2 years old and their family moved from Anchorage, Alaska to East St. Louis. Walker said it took them eight days to make the journey. Little Michael drew while his parents were driving.
“He was drawing even before he could talk very well,” Walker said. “As a little boy, I told him that he would become a world famous artist.”
They moved again when he was 11. East St. Louis’ school district had cut funding for the arts, Walker said, so she moved her family to neighboring Belleville, Illinois, where Ash could learn in schools that at the time had more robust arts programs.
Walker said, “He used to go to a craft store and he would touch the paper.” “The paper had to have a certain touch and a certain feel.”
His skill and love for art grew. Ash sold his first painting as a high school student. His art teacher, Dan Krause, bought the painting for $60. Ash studied at the Art Institute of St. Louis before the college closed in 2019.
Today, Ashe is a resident artist at the House of Miles East St. Louis, a non-profit based inside Miles Davis’ childhood home in the city. The jazz legend is a source of inspiration for Ashe, who painted at least 250 portraits of the musician. “Every photograph has a different expressive feel,” said Lauren Parks, president and co-founder of House of Miles.
As a birthday present to his mother in 2019, Ashe held a special show of his art at the House of Miles about the power of the black community. Each painting reflects pride, Walker said.
His work also explores the dark side of the city’s history.
Earlier this year, Ashe finished a portrait series about the East St. Louis race riot of 1917, using shell casings from today’s violence. After three days of white terror in the city, 200 black residents died in the riot.
“It’s a cycle we’re stuck in,” Ashe said. “We are spared from its oppression.”
Ash also portrays the pain of the present. He created a mural known as Cold Case to honor the life of Cedric Gooden, a local rapper who was closed in 2019. The mural he painted bears the slogan “Stop the Violence” – a desperate cry that has echoed through the decades.
The mural also says “City of Champions”, the motto of the city that produced not only Miles Davis but also Olympic gold medalist track-and-field stars Don Harper Nelson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Al Joyner. Ash hopes the slogan shows that even with limited resources, those who grow up in this town find ways to win.
Ashe collaborated with fellow artists Cass King and Edna Patterson-Petty to paint a mural on the side of a historic theater that was on the city’s demolition list. His artwork helped save the building.
Ash said, “I just want to show the change that is trying to happen.” “People trying to clean up the streets, people trying to have peaceful walks so we can get some justice back in the community, some money flowing into the city because we need it so much.”
As he collects shell casings in parts of the city with empty buildings and abandoned homes – and even as he walks to the grocery store near his grandmother’s house – Ash sees the colors of a vibrant city. dreams of. He wants to convert his third ventricle studio into an art gallery with a co-op space, so other artists can display their work. Meanwhile, he is rejuvenating every corner of the city and turning its tablets into beauty.
“I see a blank canvas,” said Ash. “I see a lot of potential space.”
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