How artist and entrepreneur C Harvey is using e-commerce to fix Baltimore from the bottom up...
C Harvey loves her city like a mother loves an impossible child. It lets her down a lot. The more outside money that pours into Baltimore—the more streets are re-paved with good intentions—the more problems seem to arise.
But C doesn’t run. She is fighting for change. And not lip service change. Not the kind of buzzword progress that strokes the egos of the rich and privileged. The real thing.
C began her career as a streetwear designer, the lead creative for a brand called Generation of Dreamers. She took a gamble on the company that didn’t pan out, and found herself down and out, living in her mother’s basement without heat in the cold Baltimore winter. As so often occurs, it was at rock bottom that she found her truest voice. Her first major collection as a street artist, Young, Gifted, and Strapped, was born.
Young, Gifted, and Strapped is as enthralling as it is devastating. It was lauded as a “raw visual depiction of the physical and psychological barriers that plague many youth in Baltimore, “an interrogation of the pathology of the hood,” and “a demonstration of the paradox inherent in contemporary racial politics.” It is currently an underground hit, and will officially debut with a full installation opening in November.
Now, Harvey is using art as a weapon to fight for a more equal Baltimore. Her latest project, Baltimore’s Gifted, serves as a conduit between artistically talented yet disenfranchised Baltimoreans and potential buyers. It is an e-commerce marketplace that showcases art produced in Baltimore’s worst neighborhoods, giving a real chance to great work, like C’s own, that might otherwise have never seen the light of day.
In terms of helping Baltimore it’s a simple, even obvious, solution: inject money and influence into the areas that lack it most. Yet she has found it to be a surprisingly tough sell. The power players seem more interested in “saving” Baltimore on their own terms, and ultimately with their own interests in mind.
But Harvey’s project presents perhaps the most powerful force for change available: a crystal clear solution. An answer spoken from from the ones who need help to the ones giving it.
Tell me a little about growing up and how you found art.
I’ve always been artistic—but my parents never took it seriously. They were like, “you’re gonna play basketball and get a scholarship or you get a regular job.” There was no forecasting from my youth or anything like that.
At what age did you start to think, “parents, I don’t care what you say—I’m going to pursue art?”
Never. I’ve never said, “I’m going to go into art.” It just came about. I was working at an engineering firm in Philadelphia and I got laid off, and that’s when it started happening. It wasn’t really about telling my parents, it was about telling the world that the corporate world wasn’t working for me and that I needed something else. I started Generation of Dreamers [C’s streetwear apparel brand] and it became my first artistic medium.
How did you move from apparel towards street art?
In late 2013, I was invited to attend a tradeshow in LA to showcase and sell items for Generation of Dreamers. While the costs were outside of my budget, I went for it. To save money, I gave up my apartment to stay with my mother. Lets just say our relationship was strained. I was living in a house that didn't have a kitchen sink or stove. I slept in a basement with no heat, mold on the walls, mice and bugs.
I attended the tradeshow but was unfortunately unsuccessful. I came back without a job or income. I was without financial support from my family and friends but even worse, without their encouragement for my creative journey. The inability to meet my own basic human needs such as food and shelter threw me into a depression. For five weeks, I literally went mute in the darkest time of my life. But during this darkness, I first saw the images for art in my head.
In June 2014, I was excited because I was starting a new job to get back on my feet, but was quickly taken a back at how poorly the mostly black staff were being treated. A spark was lit. I didn't care if I lost my job and I started to speak out. It was this spark that pushed me to finally create my art. Young, Gifted, and Strapped was born.
"There are a lot of people like me who’ve slipped through the cracks and may not take art seriously, but they are still extremely gifted and brilliant...they have something to give."
After Young, Gifted, and Strapped, how were you inspired to start Baltimore’s Gifted?
There are a lot of people like me who’ve slipped through the cracks and may not take art seriously, but they are still extremely gifted and brilliant. Those types of people may not necessarily even be a part of a youth organization, but they have talent and they have something to give.
How do you find your artists?
For me, it’s being out on the streets on foot. Because of all my family and friends and acquaintances and all the places I am in the city, there are places that I can go that most people can’t go. Some of these people may not even be in school, they might have a different type of lifestyle that I’m able to approach. It’s really all about getting out on the streets by foot.
Why do you say that people can’t go there?
If you go to West Baltimore, you’ll probably get robbed. They don’t want you there, they don’t trust you. I don’t want anything from them, I’m not using them, and my story is a very real story.
Do you say I’d get robbed because I’m white or because I’m an outsider?
Probably both. White, yeah, you wouldn’t really have a reason to be there unless you were buying drugs or something. But also, trust is part of it—and they already distrust from the jump even if you go in there with the best intentions. You can’t always be that other group of people who come in to “save the day.”
Would you like this to be a global initiative, where you’re going into the struggling neighborhoods and finding artists in cities worldwide? Or is it just limited to Baltimore?
I’ve thought about that and it would be great to do that, but I think Baltimore needs so much help that I can’t quite think that far. I think about expanding. I’d love to do it, but I can’t even think about it when I’m trying to get this on track.
Why do you think Baltimore is in such need?
Baltimore is a city struggling with its identity because it’s full of people who are struggling with their identity. Most of the people who try to “help Baltimore” are not from the Baltimore that I’m from. You have this influx of transplants that have this complex where they think they can help the city without really knowing the city. It seems like their version of helping is to tear down what’s there and rebuild with their version, without realizing that they’re tearing the community apart. It’s not inclusive of Baltimore natives. We don’t need anyone to rebuild anything for us, we need to open up access to resources so that we can build it for ourselves.
"I can't just point my finger at white people without pointing one at my people too. It's a two fold problem and a two fold solution."
There was some sort of reaction with the uprising over Freddie Gray. Do you feel like that was a step in the right direction for people gaining consciousness?
Hell no. This is the thing—we’re almost a year past Freddie Gray. The epicenter was Penn North. That’s less than half a mile from Station North. Station North continues to grow and Penn North continues to disintegrate. If the uprising had happened above Penn North, Baltimore would have reacted very differently. You would have seen thunder come from the heavens.
What distressed me was how many people became opportunists and took the uprising as an opportunity to look like they’re doing something to help the community, but really it’s to help themselves and their institution. We had this art festival last week called Light City. Did you hear about that?
No, I didn’t hear about that. What happened?
They spent $4 Million to have these local artists and artists from around the world flown in to build these pieces of art all around the harbor. So you can find the manpower, the resources, and the money for that, but not for youth programs and educational purposes? You cut money for education but you fund prisons? It’s like a big smoke screen so they can fulfill their agendas.
It’s a tough problem to solve. There are obviously white people with money who want to help, but sometimes they don’t know how and end up making things worse. In your view, how do you make it better? What would a better situation look like?
That’s tricky. It means you’d have to have more black people hired in Baltimore, and more involved in the power structure. Also, at some point it goes beyond an issue of color and goes into an issue of character. We need less pretentious white folks providing access to resources and more black people involved in cultivating those resources. I can't just point my finger at white people without pointing one at my people too. It's a two fold problem and a two fold solution.
And that’s more or less where Gifted Baltimore comes in?
Our campaign slogan is “Put your money where your mouth is.” I know for me, within the past six months, I’ve been on so many panel discussions, so many engagements that people want to constantly hear me talk about the problem, and I’m like, I don’t know how much more talking about this thing I can do. People just want to talk in circles so that they can avoid taking action. I’m done talking about the problem. This means enough to me that I’m going to take action. If you want to take action, you can put your money behind someone who is doing a very real thing.