Visiting Artist Cedric Douglas: A Force for Change

“What is the purpose of art?” Tim Clark, Visual Arts Department chair, asked the assembled crowd at a recent Upper School assembly. The question could be answered in any number of ways, but that morning, a pertinent and concise response was provided by Boston artist and guest speaker Cedric Douglas: “Art is a way to change the world.”
Douglas was on campus as part of his stint as a visiting artist on campus, under the aegis of the Rivers Visiting Artist Series. Launched last year with guest artist Naoe Suzuki, the program aims to bring a distinguished artist to Rivers each year to mount an exhibition, speak to students, visit classrooms, and otherwise interact with the community.  
“When we started the visiting artist program,” explained Visual Arts faculty member Nicole Winters, “I wanted to be thoughtful about the artist we bring. I wanted it to be about more than just pretty pictures; I wanted the work to speak to our community.”
Douglas quickly rose to the top of Winters’s list as she pondered the selection of this year’s visiting artist. She has long known Douglas both personally and by reputation; both are graduates of the Massachusetts College of Art (MassArt), and Douglas is a prominent figure in the Boston art scene, said Winters. He’s perhaps best known for his public murals and installations, said Winters, with much of his work addressing racial justice and racialized violence. “But he also happens to have created a body of work that can be shown within four walls,” she said, “and that is his ‘Street Memorials Project.’” In this project, currently on display through May 16 in the Baldwin Family Art Commons in The Revers Center for Science and Visual Arts and in the Bell Gallery in the Campus Center, Douglas commemorates the lives of Black people lost to police brutality. It’s a multi-media, multi-faceted work that is sure to spur thoughtful conversation on campus.
“I think his work is pretty accessible, even to our younger students,” said Winters. “It grabs your attention, and it gets right to the point.” She attributes some of that to Douglas’s history as a street artist—a history he shared with students in his presentation.
As Douglas told the audience, he also goes by the name VISE-1, with “VISE” standing for “Visually Intercepting Society’s Emotions.” It’s an apt moniker for what he does, as his talk made clear. Born in Boston to a large family of Jamaican descent, he moved to Quincy at a young age. There, he experienced the culture shock of being the only Black person in his classes and on his sports teams. A self-described introvert, he found confidence in taking up graffiti, following in an uncle’s footsteps. Although his first youthful foray into the artform resulted in an arrest at the age of 16, he continued to seek a creative home in the world of graffiti, hip-hop, break-dancing, and DJing.
After high school, Douglas landed at MassArt, where he studied graphic design. Awards, accolades, and commissions followed, and despite the difficulty of forging a career as a fine artist, he was determined to make a go of it after college. His goal as an artist was always to engage, illuminate, and inspire, not simply to entertain. One of Douglas’s first projects after college was the creation of a mobile public art lab, dubbed the Up Truck, to engage with the residents of the Uphams Corner neighborhood of Boston; in its coverage of the grant-funded program, the Boston Globe noted that his work helped “give voice to the neighborhoods where he has lived.” Later, he gave a TEDx talk on the truck project, noting to the Rivers audience that talking, as well as art, is a way to effect change.
Douglas has even managed to promote his message in the corporate commissions he has accepted. As a participant in a multi-city mural project for the PepsiCo brand LIFEWTR, he and other local artists went beyond the creation of the commissioned work to stage a community event where local residents could make T-shirts while being entertained by a DJ. “I don’t want people just to look at the mural and say, ‘That’s cool,’” said Douglas. “I want them to engage.”
After his talk at Rivers, there was a Q&A period. One student asked about the motif of monarch butterflies that runs through Douglas’s work. “To me,” he said, “they represent growth and transformation.” Another asked about the red roses that are part of the exhibition in the Revers Center, which are destined—and designed—to decay over the course of the show.
Finally, a student asked if Douglas had any advice for aspiring artists. “Just do, make, and create as much as possible,” said the prolific Douglas, who has certainly been guided by that principle from a young age. “Find your voice through doing the things you like.”
A gallery reception for Cedric Douglas, with the artist in attendance, will be held on Tuesday, April 19, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. in the Baldwin Family Art Commons in The Revers Center. To learn more and to register to attend, please click here.