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Elevation Q&A: Mary Brown, executive director of Life Pieces to Masterpieces

Mary Brown, executive director of Life Pieces to Masterpieces

High-school boys in Life Pieces' Saturday program

When Life Pieces to Masterpieces (LPTM), an arts-based mentoring program for black boys and young men, opened up two new pilot programs this fall to expand from its flagship campus, enrollment doubled, according to executive director Mary Brown. So did its waiting list.

Brown co-founded the non-profit organization 18 years ago with Larry Quick and Ben Johnson to help address a lack of male role models in marginalized communities, and the problem is as pressing as ever. But LPTM has cultivated an environment where boys from Wards 7 and 8 thrive – in the past seven years, one hundred percent have graduated from high school.

After school, weekend and summer programs are tailored for boys aged 3-25 with a mix of mentoring, academic support, and social development education. At its core, though, is art programming. The organization has a signature style of collaborative art pieces that involve stitching scraps of canvas together to form images that are reflective of the boys', or "apprentices'," lives.

Elevation DC spoke to Mary Brown about Life Pieces to Masterpieces and how it has worked to empower a generation of young black men in Wards 7 and 8.

Describe Life Pieces to someone who has never heard of it.
Life Pieces to Masterpieces provides opportunities for African American males to develop their character, unlock potential and realize that they have the power to transform their lives and community. We accomplish this through artistic engagement – or, creative expression – mentoring, academic support, and with a heavy focus on literacy through the arts and social emotional literacy.  

Why does LPTM focus specifically on boys?
It started very organically. It was largely because of Larry’s life. He was one of the original founders and his experience is exactly why we focus on boys. He had a lot of difficulty as a young black man with a single parent growing up in Kenilworth, and art was really his salvation.

There is such need because of the devastation that surrounds black men and boys in the country and in the District specifically. At many of these households, you will not find a dinner table -- the television is the centerpiece. There are very few households with biological fathers, and for many of these gentlemen their rites of passage, sadly, are ‘will I be dead or go to jail?’ If you take a trip to New Beginnings Youth Development Center, which is basically a detention center – you will find almost exclusively black men. That’s just one snapshot of a national issue.

How does the artwork fit into the program?
The art is at the core of everything we do. We have our signature collaborative art style that we do with acrylic paint on canvas pieces that the boys sew together. Imagine one big canvas on the wall squared off, with the little ones at the bottom and the older ones on the top. It’s the most beautiful thing.

Behind each piece is a story and behind each painting, the boys write a journal entry, do different sketches and have discussions. That is a huge piece for us; the canvas becomes our dinner table. That’s the place where we have “dinner” conversations -- meaningful dialogue. As they are painting and sketching, they are talking about their day and sharing whatever concerns or fears that they have. Our biggest strength is this amazing staff that we train to really be with and care about our boys so that every moment is a teachable moment. It’s a very intentional conversation.

How have things changed over the past 18 years?
I see that we have a little oasis of hope at Life Pieces. We’ve created a wonderful community with these young men, many of whom are affecting positive change and connecting with people from other parts of the District and beyond. And we have almost a 100 percent employment rate among our working age gentlemen, which is huge if you look at the unemployment rate statistics for black men in Wards 7 and 8. In helping to build a generation of gentlemen who have strong values and character and compassion – I think that we have achieved a slam dunk in that area.

On the larger scale, there are huge challenges facing the world right now that simply didn’t exist when we started 18 years ago.

You recently expanded, how did that come about?
Because of our reputation in our community, we have to do almost zero recruiting and are pretty much completely populated via word of mouth. The long waiting list from last year prompted us to raise more funds to open up two new pilot sites in addition to our flagship site at Drew Elementary School. We just opened a pilot site at D.C. Scholars last month and Bishop Walker last week.

There is a very high need and we definitely noticed an uptick in phone calls and emails with the situation with Trayvon Martin.

How did that affect your apprentices?
It was very difficult for our guys. We train them -- teach them how to thrive and how to present themselves when they are in certain areas. To them, it was like, "I could do all of this, go to college and I could go to Florida and someone could just shoot me."

How do you view D.C.’s public education system?
DCPS has consistently been a good partner with us. We’ve gotten really great traction really with all of the administrations over the past 18 years. There has been a very open dialogue and we’ve been able to share things that we need to improve.

What do you think that it is important for people to know about your work?
In the District, there is a tremendous amount of unmined potential in the lives of these young men. We hope to draw attention to the issues of black men and boys and draw any level of support – including volunteerism and simple interest. We’d love for people to ask more questions, be curious, and engage in dialogue.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more articles by Rachel Sadon.

Rachel Sadon is a freelance journalist based in Petworth with an interest in politics, culture, urbanism, and new ways of telling stories, especially when they intersect.
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