Samuel James, worldwide photographer, discusses how ArtWorks helped launch his career

Harper's photographer recalls time in Cincinnati

CINCINNATI -- At 17, Samuel James was searching for something. He didn't know what it was or where to find it.

The glory years of his youth were coming to an end. High school graduation was around the corner and unlike some, his future had no clear path.

"I was lost. I was a teenager," James said. "I was searching for some direction."

He found that direction with ArtWorks. Little did he know, that summer as a youth apprentice in 2004 would forever change his life.
ArtWorks More Than Murals

Through the Greater Cincinnati region, 67 larger-than-life murals grace the sides of buildings in 34 neighborhoods each depicting moments in history and anecdotes of the Queen City, created during the heat of summer.

To passers-by, the murals may seem like an attractive addition to an urban setting.  But there's more to the paintings than meets the eye. Each was created in part from struggle, creativity, hard work and emotion; each with a story unique to its neighborhood.

ArtWorks , a non-profit organization for creative youth, was founded in 1996. The group pairs teens with professional artists to create urban art -- the largest of which are the murals. The group also has two other programs for the area's youth: ArtRx , which works to create art inside healthcare environments as well as create art projects for and with sick children; and Creative Enterprises , which 9-week business development program for creative entrepreneurs, according to the nonprofit's website.

The organization has employed hundreds of Cincinnati's youth, who make minimum wage and work half-day shifts, using creativity and photography to change the perception of numerous neighborhoods. For some of the teens, this Public Arts program launched careers, changed lives and ignited hidden talents.

James  was one of those. 


The 27-year-old world photographer looks back on that ArtWorks summer as one that changed his life and ignited his career.  

James applied to become an apprentice for ArtWorks in the summer of 2004. He was assigned to the West End Tile Project on Linn Street with Terence Hammonds , a professional photographer and artist. The project took into account the romantic, German architecture, crumbling after years of neglect, and how to contrast the historic past with the current "disrepair" of the community.

The project was "thoughtful and challenging" as they screen-printed faces of those in the community over others to create one collective image. The project wasn't just to display art, it was meant to bring the community together. James described it as "art with a purpose."

"That summer on Linn Street, it was the first time I used a camera,"  said James now an international photographer, shooting for Harper's Magazine. 

"I do attribute ArtWorks for what I'm doing now —immensely," he said. "ArtWorks was really important for me in my life."

Following the Linn Street project, James worked with the African Art Collection at the Cincinnati Museum Center. James found it "interesting, looking at images that question identity." 

The African project sparked the interest for what would later become his pivotal documentary overseas.

His latest work with Harper's followed the impact of communities in the center of the fuel trades in Nigeria and Louisiana. The idea and the the interest to travel to West Africa, James said, was born from his earlier work with ArtWorks.

Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa and the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, but many Niger Delta residents have been shut out of the industry, forcing them to find other means of survival, according to Harper's. James' expose, "The Water of My Land," depicts how the fuel industry impacts those residents. His work in Africa and South America aims to show the economic disparities, inequalities and environmental challenges imposed by the industries and cultures in these areas.


Here, a man is working with a flashlight, manually tossing crude oil into burning pits to keep the refining process going. He is cooking under cover of night in order to evade the roving militias and government authorities who track the smoke from these operations. Niger Delta, West Africa. Samuel James, The Water Of My Land, Harper's Magazine.

James won an editorial grant from Getty Images to shoot in Nigeria as part of his documentary of the Niger Delta. He was listed in the British Journal of Photography, as one of the “20 photographers to watch in 2013" and was recently named "Best Young Photographer" at the International Center for Photography's 2014 Infinity Awards.

James currently spends his time in Nigeria, New York and Boston. He's a professor at Tufts University in Boston where he and Hammonds both attended college. He teaches non-fiction storytelling and photography for part of the year.

The Cincinnati native said he wishes he could visit more often, boasting that he "loves Cincinnati" and hopes to return in the future.

Grab The Paint Brushes

The 2014 apprentice

class was selected after one-on-one interviews this spring. Out of 400 applicants, ArtWorks selected 150 youths ages 14 to 21 to join its summer teams. Of the 150 apprentices, 52 percent of them came from low-income families. For many of these kids, they wouldn't have the opportunity to explore their talents if not for a program like this, said ArtWorks communication manager Christine Carli.

ArtWorks' summer program began April 8 in Reading. Students from area schools and selected team members will paint the side of a building in the bridal district. The building, on the corner of Reading Road and W. Benson Street, will be painted black and using stencils they will paint the word "love" in white. The piece of art and colors were voted on and approved by members in the Reading community.

Eight new murals will be painted throughout the Cincinnati area this summer: 

  • Crayons to Computers Mural on Tennessee Avenue in Bond Hill.
  • Brewery District Mural on McMicken Street in Over-the-Rhine.
  • Carol Ann's Carousel Painting in Smale Riverfront Park.
  • Cincinnati Masters Mural on Main Street Downtown.
  • Newport Aquarium Mural facing the Ohio River.
  • Stage Crew Set Design Mural at the Children's Theatre of Cincinnati.
  • Villages of Rolling Hill Mural on Williamsburg Drive.
  • Zoo Barn/Charley Harper Mural sponsored by the Cincinnati Zoo.

The projects span from April to August, with plans set in motion for fall mural installations that will be painted by a brand new crew of eager, young artists. The fall apprentices have not been chosen yet.

As for the teens embarking on their summer projects with ArtWorks, James advises them to "keep an open mind."

"It's a unique time in your life where you can spend the summer making art. Just enjoy it."

Guide To Cincinnati Street Art

If you frequent Downtown, you've likely seen the three-dimensional vegetables that appear to fall right out of the basket on the side of Kroger headquarters, 1014 Vine St., or the mouth-watering, almost edible display of food on the side of John Robert's Table restaurant, 713 Vine St.  The other 65 murals are spread throughout various neighborhoods: 

"Harvest Time" mural found downtown on the side of the Kroger building at Vine Street and E. Central Parkway ArtWorks, Cincinnati.


Connect with Jane Andreasik on Twitter: @jandreasik

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