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Nurturing Young Talent

07/15/2014

Munir Mohammed has completed nearly 30 community murals in and around Rhode Island.

Munir Mohammed MA 99 is quietly conferring with a student in the portrait painting workshop he’s teaching as part of RISD’s Project Open Door program (POD) for local high school students. “Remember that acrylic paint dries darker,” he explains, “so after you mix the color for the eye you have to wait and see if it’s right.”

Students spent four full days escaping the summer heat as they created large portraits using small photos and a grid system for image enlargement – a technique that Mohammed has perfected in painting large-scale community murals. Before picking up paintbrushes and palettes, they began by sketching on graph paper and then blocking out the larger image using precise measurements.

“It’s wonderful to see students getting it,” Mohammed says. “They only started these portraits two days ago. I haven’t worked with high school students for a long time. Maybe I’ve been lucky, because they’re so good. Maybe it’s because they’ve chosen this path and they want to be here.”

A natural teacher and mentor, Mohammed exudes a quiet joy and calm sense of peace in the classroom. He has been teaching since the 1970s, when he graduated from the Ghanatta College of Art and Design in his native country of Ghana, West Africa. There he worked as a portrait artist for several years, painting prominent local figures and heads of state before immigrating to Sierra Leone. “I left Ghana because I don’t like violence and there were too many coup d’états,” the artist solemnly explains. “In Sierra Leone, I painted more portraits and I was also painting the lifestyle, history and culture of my people.”

As a child, Mohammed was not encouraged to draw or paint. “I used my hand in the sand to teach myself how to draw,” he recalls with a rueful smile. “I’m from the Islamic background, and the holy books say you shouldn’t imitate God’s creations by drawing. But I never let religion stop my creativity – my God-given talent.”

Mohammed relocated to the US in 1988 and settled in Providence, where he quickly built a reputation for his inspired community arts projects and colorful murals. He has created close to 30 murals in and around Rhode Island over the years, including a cultural piece for Oasis International in South Providence, several large-scale paintings along the Woonasquatucket River and an eye-catching mural on I-95 North in Pawtucket based on a painting by local artist Gretchen Dow Simpson 61 PT. “That’s the largest mural the Department of Transportation has ever commissioned,” says Mohammed. “Highway murals are tricky because you don’t have space to step back and look at the work.”

As a means of using art and history to promote cultural understanding, Mohammed and his wife Linda A’Vant-Deishinni cofounded the nonprofit International Gallery for Heritage and Culture in Providence in the mid-1990s. They designed numerous community outreach programs – including exhibitions, art education and performances – and worked with volunteers and AmeriCorps artists on a wide range of projects celebrating the ancestry of all Americans.

But over time, Mohammed began to feel buried under administrative duties. “I was drained,” he says. “I went back to my studio and couldn’t paint. I was just staring at a blank canvas.”

To recharge his creative batteries, Mohammed opted to return to school, earning a Master of Arts in museum education through RISD’s department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design. “My ability to design programs got better after I came to RISD,” he says. “I learned to read people’s strengths and get them involved in projects. After that I started focusing less on administration and more on teaching.”

Mohammed has since taught classes at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and Rhode Island College ­– everything from mural design to drawing to portrait painting – earning the URI Dean’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 2013. “Art develops the brain in different ways,” he says. “If you’re edgy it calms you down, and if you’re too calm it wakes you up. Art helps you focus on what you have to do.”

Mohammed adds that he remains perpetually inspired by his students. “I can see their struggle,” he says. “I’ve been there myself. I’m close to 100 percent self-taught as an artist, so I understand their frustrations – and also recognize their talent and successes.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: alumni, faculty, Graduate Studies, local/global, Teaching + Learning in Art + Design, diversity

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A figure modeling class from 1916.