"I saw an impact that could be made, and I began thinking, What can I do to further this along through public art?”
“I want tobe an artist.”
From the time he could speak, the family story goes, Kyle Holbrook was declaring his life’s ambition.
He grew up drawing nearly constantly, handcrafting holiday and birthday cards that became sought-after treasures. His parents -- teachers in the Pittsburgh and Steel Valley school districts -- encouraged his efforts and exposed him to new vistas: an uncle’s farm near Ithaca, N.Y.; a Native American reservation outside of Taos, ; a summer-long sojourn with his father, an amateur photographer, capturing images across 40 states.
Kyle studied at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, designing T-shirts and clothing in his sparetime. One Friday night, during an internship teaching art at the Boys & Girls Club of Wilkinsburg, he was directing a few kids in creating a mural. “Since I grew up in the neighborhood, I knew a lot of the other kids who were passing by. They started crowding around: ‘Hey Mr. Kyle, can I help?’ At one point I paused and thought, ‘Look at all these kids who could be out doing all kinds of stuff, getting into trouble, and here they are, painting.’ “
As that project progressed, “We’d be standing side by side, painting, and they’d ask me all kinds of questions, hypotheticals about things going on in their lives. ‘Mr. Kyle, what do you think of this? What would you do about that?’ People would pass by and tell these kids, ‘You’re doing a great job.' I saw an impact that could be made, and I began thinking, What can I do to further this along through public art?”
He formed a nonprofit organization in 2002, Moving the Lives of Kids (MLK) Community Mural Project. The organization brought kids together to paint a mural in the Monroeville Mall the following year, and the Wilkinsburg East Busway the year after that. But it’s not just an “if-I-feel-like-it” endeavor: it’s a job – one that kids compete for, with each participant responsible for showing up on time and carrying out a particular set of goals and tasks each day. Wages are paid through grants from foundations, corporate and private donors.
The organization has created dozens of murals across the Pittsburgh region, including the popular Warhol-esque portraits along the busway in East Liberty and the recently completed mural on Art’s Tavern in the Strip District depicting such Pittsburgh-born jazz pioneers as Stanley Turrentine, Erroll Garner and ArtBlakey.
Kyle has exported the concept, employing more than 5,000 young people in creating 500+ murals in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Miami, Atlanta and other U.S. cities, as well as in Brazil and Haiti. The project cultivates kids not just as painters but as future leaders and entrepreneurs. Christina Todd was 8 when she painted her first mural with Kyle in Wilkinsburg. Today she is studying art herself, and serves as MLK’s youth artist manager.
“We want to continue to provide opportunities for art in Pittsburgh, but there are other continents we haven’t touched yet: China,Europe. When kids get the chance to put their talents out publicly and get their voices heard, that’s a good thing for everybody. We want to keep thatgoing.”
Check out this August 2013 article about Holbrook in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.