Rising from Ashes: Michaela DePrince

Exhibition at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois

Gerald Griffin, ARISE, 2017, oil on canvas
Statue of Liberty, National Park Service

On October 8th of 1871, the people of Fourth Presbyterian Church gathered to dedicate its new building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. Later that day, the Great Chicago Fire wiped the building from the landscape. A new building for the church rose in 1912, was dedicated in 1914, and today in its Loggia Gallery, a ballerina resting on the beach of a silhouetted skyline reminds us of Chicago’s perseverance. She wears a splashing pink dress and twinkling pearl earrings, but her gaze escapes. In the sand between the viewer and her reach, broken chains from The Statue of Liberty fall away, symbolizing abolition.

“Devils child” was her nickname in the city of Sierra Leone, West Africa, given for the mysterious patches of white skin on her chest from vitiligo, but in this painting these patches are obscured by her hand holding her head aside—a painted gesture of willpower beyond appearances. When Michaela DePrince was three, rebels from the Revolutionary United Front murdered her father; her mother passed shortly after. With little hope, she and a wrinkled photograph of a ballerina took flight to America, away from shackled circumstances to dreams of becoming a ballet dancer.

Paired with the white-framed painting, a poem on a placard reads:

Gerald Griffin
Arise sleeping beauty
With your Black girl strut
With your dark brown eyes
And your velvet touch
With your words of protection
And your tears of stone
With your makeshift directions
That always lead to home…
With the grace of a feather
And a will of steel
That can hold us together
As you keep it real
Arise and be counted
With the stars above
With the coils of your hair
Flowing like cosmic dust…
When those others try to tell you
You don’t measure up
When they say that your efforts
Are not good enough
Block out all that noise
And just close your eyes
Unfold your spirit and Arise…

Today, DePrince, who was awarded a scholarship to study at the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of Ballet in New York has performed as a soloist in the Dutch National Ballet, given a TED talk, published a book, and performed in the “Hope” sequence of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” music video.

DePrince and Fourth Presbyterian Church’s miraculous stories could not be more fitting for Gerald Griffin, an artist who elegantly fuses history and present day in portraiture to lift the individual and collective stories of black history to Chicago and beyond.

Gerald Griffin’s “Paradigm Shift” exhibition was presented at the Loggia Gallery at Fourth Presbyterian Church in 2018.

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About the Author

Joshua Hoering is a writer, designer, educator, artist, and speaker based in Chicago, Illinois. He’s currently working on an MFA in Graphic Design & Visual Experience at the Savannah College of Art & Design.

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