BY HOLLY JENNINGS
Jason Barber- a photographer and core team member of Rochester’s Wall\Therapy– describes his experience watching a mural go up in the city:
“While I was watching the mural being painted, all of these people kept stopping by to watch. A drug dealer, a couple from Pittsford riding their bicycles along the canal, a group of 12-year- olds, and a local mechanic were just some of the people who stopped to stare up at the artist working.”
An active member of the art community and also a devout Christian, Jason’s response to the motley crowd that gathered around the mural contains a spiritual component.
Photography by Stephen S. Reardon – Jason Barber
“One mural pulled all of those different types of people to the same spot. I can’t help but think of the church, and the fact that any pastor would want that kind of congregation.”
As a Christian, Jason uses art as a way to minister to the people within the inner city, and he is very active within Rochester’s art world; in addition to volunteering with Wall\Therapy, he has served as a volunteer and Vision Collective Board Member at The Yards Art Collective, has worked as an Art Day School teacher’s assistant at the Memorial Art Gallery, and has served as a Young Millennials Board member to assist the MAG in connecting with a new generation of art lovers.
Jason graduated with a BA in Art History from SUNY Purchase College and spent two years as an assistant curator at the the Oxford Gallery here in Rochester. He was volunteering with Wall\Therapy when asked to be a member of its core team. As a newly-appointed core member, Jason does a little bit of everything, including social media, scouting potential locations for murals, searching for funding streams, doing raffles, selling merchandise, and acting as an artist’s assistant.
Wall\Therapy’s purpose is to inspire and to bring people together, and in Jason Barber’s case, the project has succeeded twice over. Jason’s involvement in Wall\Therapy combines two of the things he is most passionate about: his love of the arts and his love of the city of Rochester.
Jason’s Rochester roots run deep. His relatives have resided within the Maplewood area of Rochester since the 1920s; Jason grew up on Avenue D. His uncle and grandfather owned the Orange Julius in Midtown Plaza, and his mother worked helping others within the Department of Social Services.
“Downtown is my reality. Kodak Park, bowling alleys, smokestacks and strip malls are a part of my everyday existence.” And though Jason is relatively young, he has seen Rochester change a great deal over the years. Houses that friends grew up in sit abandoned.
Photo Provided – Backyards: Overcome By Nature
Buildings in Kodak Park have tumbled. Recent census reports have deemed Rochester one of the most segregated cities in the nation. In spite of these bleak realities, Jason remains optimistic about the future of the city he loves, especially in regards to Rochester’s burgeoning art community.
“This is a strong and growing community of great artists, and it gets bigger and bigger every year. There are more and more skilled artists, and they’re really effecting change in the city. We’re seeing art everywhere now – there are other mural movements going on. Art on buildings. Local artists doing signs for coffee shops. Marty’s had Rochester artists do their walls for them. There’s a huge transition happening in the arts, and everybody’s connected. It’s a big giant community of distinct groups working together to help one another grow.”
Wall\Therapy is a great example of Rochester art lovers coming together to effect change within the city. During one incredible week, artists from Rochester and across the country descend upon the city and turn the outside walls of office buildings, garages, and shops into large-scale canvases for expansive murals. Over the past five years, the murals have varied in style and theme. Together they have turned neighborhoods into communal art galleries. A majority of the murals are in underprivileged areas, and Jason believes recent economic hardships have contributed to the advent of particular movements within the art world in Rochester and other places.
“Art collectives and mural movements are all over the place, and they are all related to the hard times we’ve had since 2008. Whenever there is a time of struggle, art flourishes. It’s historically proven.” (Case in point: graffiti art has proliferated in the city of Athens in Greece over the past five years. Artists use their paintings as political commentary, and to express sadness over the demise of Greece’s economy.)
Jason is an artist himself. He uses photography to pay homage to the city he loves. Though he dabbled in photography a bit in high school and college, it wasn’t until a few years ago that Jason started taking cell phone snapshots of the sights he viewed each day living and working in the city. He began posting his images on Instagram, most of which were shot a mere block or two away from popular High Falls, in impoverished neighborhoods most people don’t want to step one foot in.
Photo Provided – Backyards: Vacant Lots
As his Instagram following began to grow, Jason began to focus on using his photography as a way to shine some light on the city’s marginalized neighborhoods, though Jason does not actually refer to his work as photography.
“I don’t see myself as a photographer, and I don’t see my shots as photography. I see myself as an artist and as someone of deep faith who is capturing the world as he sees it in the most authentic way possible. I try to be authentic but compassionate to these neighborhoods.”
Although Jason’s photographs are part nostalgia for the city that was, they mainly serve as a witness for the way things are now. So many of his Instagram shots are of abandoned places: overgrown driveways, roofs covered in moss, broken windows, a mural of High Falls on the side of a vacant home. An Instagram comment beneath a photograph of mounds of dirty slush in front of stark city buildings under a winter blue sky reads “You make it look so pretty!” And he does. He finds beauty in the city’s detritus. These are the forgotten neighborhoods.
One of Jason’s favorite shots is of Rochester’s iconic Kodak Tower, its pinnacle shrouded behind clouds. On Instagram, it is labeled “Faded Past.”
Photo Provided – Faded Past: Kodak Building
Jason reflects on how people might observe Rochester from the top of one its skyscrapers: the Genesee River meandering through the architecturally stunning University of Rochester, the expansive bridges, the bright green of the grass in the baseball stadium, the sparkling lake on the distant horizon. But Jason sees individual neighborhoods, each one distinct from the next, most of them overlooked by those who view Rochester as a pretty view from the top.
When Jason describes those involved in Wall\Therapy, he says that these are people who are “a lot more aware of the issue within our city. They put murals into neighborhoods that are marginalized.
Photo Provided – Backyards Series
They see the segregation and hang out with people in those neighborhoods, and are actually involved in the inner city community.” The arts have an uncanny way of bringing people from all walks of life together, and of making people see things from a different perspective. Jason Barber’s photographs represent his own inner struggle with what the city has become, and they compel the rest of us to see Rochester the way he sees it: beautiful, but broken.
Wall\Therapy will soon come to an end, but planning for next year’s event starts soon. Jason says that if you want to get involved in Rochester’s exciting and growing art community, volunteering to help out with Wall\Therapy is a great place to start.
Jason’s Instagram feed can be found here.