Sculptor Yaacov Agam once said, “There are two distinct languages. There is the verbal, which separates people, and there is the visual that is understood by everybody.” Art brings people together and helps us make sense of the world around us. It can be expressed through a number of media and styles, and anyone can take a stab at creating their own masterpiece. Given that art transcends boundaries and can move beyond societal norms and scripts, the diversity of artists and their messages can shine through and lay the foundation for important conversations to take place for those interacting with works of art.
The focus of diversity on our SUNY campuses has led to many new and exciting initiatives in the arts. One of our most engaging and diversity-driven efforts is Art Force 5, created by the dynamic Dan Napolitano, who is the assistant dean for the School of Art & Design at Alfred University. In 2018, the program received funding from SUNY’s Performance Improvement Fund from SUNY’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to foster statewide collaboration around issues of diversity and establish a summer service program; from there, Art Force 5 was born. Their mission is to inspire creativity over conflict by providing workshops about non-violence and to promote artistic expression within societies. Additionally, the group’s values represent the importance of remembering history and encouraging equality, as well as the strength of communities.
To share these missions and values across the state, the program features student mentors. Art Force 5 is comprised of five incredible superheroes who are “played” by SUNY students: the art-equipped heroes include Graphite (the illustrator), Brushstroke (the painter), 3-D (the sculptor), Zoom (the photographer), and Runway (the designer). Over two hundred college students have worn the capes-in-reverse (aprons) to help communities address conflict through art.
Representing Alfred University’s New York State College of Ceramics will be Myah Darby of Savannah, GA. From nearby, Fashion Institute of Technology rising junior illustration major Tyler Ryan Scott of Brooklyn brings his talents. SUNY Orange will graduate and send Samantha Baltazar, a criminal justice studies major, who will continue her fall studies at CUNY’s John Jay College. Brooklyn’s Sylika Shillingford is a student at SUNY Cobleskill majoring in business administration with a passion for dance. The next three members are from SUNY New Paltz and major in digital media arts; Giuliana Ponterotto from Manhattan, Luis Lopez from Brooklyn, and Kyle Strandberg from Staten Island will be important and influential in communicating the program’s educational message throughout the state.
Professor Hiram Cray, a proud undergraduate and graduate alum from Buffalo State College, leads this amazing team. Behind the scenes is program founder Dan Napolitano. He has worked tirelessly to build and maintain partnerships with police departments, the Women’s Rights Hall of Fame, NYC ComicCon, and hundreds of other community collaborations. In 2019, the program partnered with NFL Media on a diversity awareness project in Atlanta prior to the Super Bowl, which aired nationally on the NFL Network’s NFL360 program. This was in addition to being housed all summer on Governor’s Island. Lastly, Art Force 5 had a program honoring Harlem icons in history.
Consistent community involvement is important to the group’s mission. Each Thursday this past summer, the team could be found in Harlem painting tiles with police, youth, and area residents. The tiles were used to create mosaics honoring icons of the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem during the 1920s. Early portraits of political activist-journalist Marcus Garvey and novelist-essayist-playwright James Baldwin have already engaged hundreds, with efforts to honor sculptor Augusta Savage and jazz singer Billie Holiday to come.
Similar to their superheroes names and power, Art Force 5 has created a positive and fun community to face diversity issues in today’s world, and SUNY system is proud of the initiative and ecstatic for the future of this program.