Rhonda Davis, who grew up in the 15th Ward, helps Syracuse youth express themselves through art.
By Za’Tozia Duffie
The students huddle around a petite woman with an Afro, as she bends down to warmly embrace each child.
The pupils range in size and age, but each has the same question: What art form will they get to explore today?
“We’re going to paint,” the woman, Rhonda Davis, says with a smile.
Davis inspires Syracuse youth to express themselves through art with her S.A.L.O.N. series. The program offers painting classes and other opportunities to anyone who wants to explore the arts. Davis will have a booth at Sunday’s Northside Festival, where people can learn about her program. Interested students or their parents can also email Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Davis finds solace and hope in engaging people around the arts. She is no stranger to unrest, starting with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and the anguish and upheaval that followed. In the wake of such bleak tragedy, Davis found hope in community. Inspired, she began to host free workshops at local Boys and Girls Clubs and libraries around the Syracuse area.
Davis was born in the South and has lived in Syracuse most of her life. She grew up in the 15th Ward on the city’s South Side before the construction of I-81. Davis’ family was one of the hundreds who were displaced during that time. She grew up poor and often wore the same outfits to school twice a week.
“I always had goals set for myself as a young child,” she said. “And one of the goals was to finish school, which I did, despite my surroundings.”
Even in poverty, her family did what they could to provide for her and help children in the neighborhood.
“My mother and father had an open-door policy,” Davis recalled. “All the kids in the neighborhood were welcome in the house. Whatever we had, they had.”
This stuck with her and became a philosophy of her own. “When my grandkids come over, I am absolutely sure that I will have five or six other kids in my yard,” she said. It has been this way for over 30 years.
Davis began working with children full-time after 28 years at the cable company. Joan Farrenkopf, the founder of Arthouse Collective, asked Davis if she could create an art program and what it would look like.
“I thought about it for a minute,” Davis said. “I would get kids to express their thoughts about living in the neighborhood they were in.” She wanted children to explore what they liked — and what they didn’t like.
Through this work, Davis has seen many beautiful works of art created by neighborhood children. Some of the works, though, concerned her.
“I saw a need coming from a lot of the kids,” she said. “They could use some kind of therapy, some involvement or interaction in their lives because of some of the things they were drawing.”
She recalled a time when one of her students drew a detailed picture of a gun. The drawing floored Davis and the librarian because it was so realistic, as if the child had held the gun and seen it up close. “It gives you an idea of what a lot of our young kids are dealing with,” Davis said.
At a recent session, Davis had her students create paintings that expressed how they felt about violence. A few weeks earlier, Syracuse teen Karlianne Short had been murdered just 10 days after graduating high school. Davis prompted her students to create posters in her memory to hang at a memorial site. The message was strong: We must stop the violence.
“A lot of the young kids are dealing with this,” Davis said, noting that Short used to babysit one of her students. “I’ll get a bunch of kids in my program and we’ll do posters and other things to try to let people know that ‘you’re not the only one concerned about violence; the kids are, too.’”
For the children, painting is therapeutic. When asked how he felt when painting, a student said it was relaxing and helped him feel better.
Farrenkopf, of the Arthouse, says Davis’ program helps children feel a sense of belonging.
“The kids love seeing Rhonda,” Farrenkopf said. “She gives them hope just by being there and showing up.”
A warm hug helps, too, Davis added.
“A simple hug,” she said, “can make a big difference in a child’s life.”