Opinion: Art Fights Hate

Opinion: Art Fights Hate

Lucas Fiscus
eSomethin Staff

At the beginning of February, Perrysburg High School featured a great art installation by Ohio artist Robert Vanitvelt, depicting the portraits of important black men and women of history. From Barack Obama to Marvin Gaye, the portraits hung on the walls of our PHS commons. What moved Vanitvelt to create these images strikes at a deep truth of not just our school, but our city. 

Glancing at his Instagram, you will find many portraits of animals and historical figures alike. However, his work imbues his message of social justice and civil liberties with his paintings. A stencil of Frederick Douglass with the word “Agitate” and the caption “be inspired to make good trouble” brings to mind protests supporting the most basic human rights for Black Americans.   

President Obama Portrait by Robert Vanivelt from Black History Month
A portrait of President Obama created by Robert Vanivelt. This portrait hung in the PHS commons during the month of February.
Portrait of singer Marvin Gaye by Robert Vanivelt
A portrait of Marvin Gaye, famous for songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, painted by Robert Vanivelt. This painting hung outside the office of Superintendent Tom Hossler.

Vanitvelt’s art gives a sense of someone who feels called to act, to perpetuate a powerful social message through his art.

Vanitvelt’s inspiration and process
“I always just painted, it was always something I did. It’s just a daily practice…” Vanitvelt said.

As for his reason to create art that depicts Black achievement, he tells the story of his time as a bartender in Toledo.

“There was a kid. Well, he wasn’t a kid — he was 22 — and he was talking about how he wanted to go to school and how he wanted to be a doctor. And he was just talking about how… he was just being racist saying […] ‘black people have never contributed to history’ and this was the conversation we were having and I was like ‘well, I think it’s really crazy how you want to be a doctor and you don’t really understand that Black people have contributed to history when the one person who came up with inoculations was a slave.”

(Here is the story of an enslaved person known by the name Onesimus who introduced the practice to colonial Boston.) 

The conversation is what inspired Vanitvelt to create the portraits presently in our school. Vanitvelt continued paint an historical Black figure every day of the month of February, his act of fighting the ideology of racism. 

Before painting a famous figure, Vanitvelt does research and takes footnotes on the person’s story.

“While I paint I will actually listen to direct interviews or famous speeches that they’ve done. I’ll listen to podcasts. A great resources is “The Stuff You Missed in History Class” podcast.”

The image he chooses of these figures to depict is artistically significant, too, representing crucial times in the person’s life.

“Like Oprah, I wanted to use her when she was young and just starting out.”

Robert Vanivelt portrait of Oprah Winfrey.
Robert Vanivelt’s portrait of Oprah Winfrey, the famous tv talk show host, producer, and actress.

When asked about his thoughts on what the community can do to better themselves when it comes to talking abut these topics, he replied:

“We should all be doing and challenging ourselves that much more, to untie the knot of systemic racism. How can you effectively call out racism and educate the people around you?”

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