Reflecting a Proud Community: Local Artist Helps Tell the Story of Juneteenth and Black History
Local Oklahoma artist Skip Hill has experienced the farthest corners of the globe. His wanderlust spirit catapulted him across oceans from the captivating beaches of Rio de Janeiro to the historic cities in the Netherlands and even through the vibrant streets of Bangkok. Yet, the Del City native felt a calling to return back to the heartland of America to continue his art career in a place where he could make an impact on his own community.
Fast forward to June 2021 and Hill’s unique art is doing just that.
"The east side is proud of being the east side, but let’s give them something else that reflects that.”
Hill was tasked with creating a mural during the Juneteenth on the East festival in Oklahoma City. The family friendly event was created in partnership between local music artist and activist Jabee and the Oklahoma Mural Syndicate to bring people of all ages to the predominately Black east side neighborhood of Oklahoma City to enjoy music, art and food while learning more about the Juneteenth holiday.
Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, commemorates the day that news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached slaves in Galveston, Texas in 1865 – nearly two and a half years after the proclamation was signed. Since then, Black communities across the country use the day to celebrate joy and liberation. On Wednesday, nearly one hundred and fifty-six years later, Congress officially declared Juneteenth a federal holiday.
That joyful spirit filled the two-block stretch of NE 23rd street as people of all ages braved the sweltering summer heat to partake in the local music, food and even take dance lessons. Kids and families also made their way through the Rolling Thunder Book Bus to pick out stories to take home while Thunder drummers gave them a beat to step to on their way out.
Tucked away off of the main road, behind the excitement and booming bass of the main music stage, Hill was midway through completing his mural. Though Hill brings the same intentionality and focus to each of his projects, this particular undertaking resonated with him in a very personal way. The mural he was creating was located just eight blocks away from where he and his family regularly attended church growing up. Years later as grown man with a family of his own, after traveling across the country and different parts of the world, he now has a chance to add something to the growing community he once called home.
“It’s my contribution to this new development, this new beautification of the community,” said Hill. “I’m happy to be a part of it.”
After the festival ended and NE 23rd street opened back up to its usual stream of traffic, Hill continued his work crafting the mural. Blue and white spray paint covered his fingertips and could be seen speckled on the brim of his straw hat. As he stepped back to catch a view of his progress, a white van pulled up and stopped on the street behind him.
The passenger seat window rolled down to reveal a woman smiling wide behind her white sunglasses. She was a resident of the area and had to stop to see who was responsible for the newest addition to the block.
“It’s awesome,” she beamed as she snapped a photo of Hill and his nearly completed mural.
It was just one of the many instances of local residents showing their appreciation for the new installation. Cars honked in approval; Thunder fans stopped to talk about the team and neighbors offered endorsing head nods. These were all welcomed distractions from Hill’s work. After all, these small moments were the exact reason Hill felt a calling to return back to Oklahoma after years of travelling the world – making a difference in his own community.
“Even people who don’t necessarily love art and don’t know much about art can appreciate a beautification of their neighborhood,” said Hill. “This is going to be in their community, in their neighborhood, down the street from their house and I want them to see it and think we’ve got something nice over here.”
Hill’s signature contemporary style of colorful, street-art inspired work often included subtle messages of hope and coming together as a community and as Hill contemplated the message he wanted to portray with his mural, the goal was to create a piece that could resonate with its audience beyond Juneteenth and the festival. He began to draw on the influences of what life is like in Oklahoma City such as being a loyal Thunder fan.
“You gotta have the Thunder,” Hill said with a smile.
He also reflected on Black history as a whole. He often found himself struggling with the idea of Black history so often being separate from what many know as American history. It was this realization that led him to incorporate an element he hadn’t yet put in his work – an American flag.
“Black history is American history. It’s an integral part of it,” Hill explained. “We as a people and our ancestors as well, we can’t be anything but American.”
All of these inspirations came together to create the completed mural featuring a young black boy holding an orange basketball while wearing a blue OKC jersey. The number 19 on the boy’s abdomen reflects the beloved June 19 holiday. Behind him, the American flag sprawls across the brick wall as words from Oklahoma native Ralph Ellison’s novel Juneteenth flanked the young boy’s right shoulder.
Even as an unfinished product, Hill’s mural accomplished the ultimate goal he set out to achieve – to spark conversation and bring people together even after Juneteenth had come and gone.
“I’d like to believe that [the mural] will add to what is already a proud community,” said Hill. “The east side is proud of being the east side, but let’s give them something else that reflects that.”