Local artist Brent Billingsley joined boys and girls from several Cincinnati Jr. RBI baseball and softball teams for a special Black History Month art project on Saturday.
Billingsley and each group of young ballplayers worked on a unique project at the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy in celebration of both Black History Month and baseball. The kids came from the Cincinnati Diamonds, Cincinnati Tigers, Madisonville Braves and the West End Reds, all of which represent Cincinnati Jr. RBI and “Joe Morgan Association” teams. About a half-dozen of the young athletes took part in each of the two sessions while maintaining social distancing precautions to ensure safety among all participants.
“Brent shared some images from a handful of group art projects that he’s hosted throughout the city as a part of Black History Month and asked if we wanted to work together at the Academy,” Reds Community Fund executive director Charley Frank said. “It seemed like a natural fit and it didn’t take long for our staff to recruit a dozen kids for the two sessions.”
Before diving into the painting, Billingsley showcased his unique style by implementing some icebreakers, an exercise he does with just about every group he works with, no matter the age. First, the kids introduced themselves and shared a fun fact so they could get to know one another. Next, everyone was instructed to get up and dance as part of a fun competition.
“It really gets creative juices flowing,” Billingsley said. “After we change the vibe in the room and up the energy, then we paint. You go from this high intense energy to sitting down and focusing. And that works very well, taking that energy from dancing and shifting it to focusing on their painting. Everyone in the room was focused.”
During the first session, the group painted individual pieces that came together to create an image of baseball icon Hank Aaron. The finished product will be framed and displayed at the Reds Youth Academy. During the second session, each young artist had the opportunity to create and take home an original T-shirt with a design featuring a prominent Black historical figure or athlete like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and late Reds legend Joe Morgan.
The Billingsley and Reds collaboration is still new, but with a couple of successful ventures already in the books, there is certainly more to come.
“We met Brent through our partnership with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and enjoyed working with him last fall on the mural project at South Avondale Elementary as a part of our Community Makeover,” Frank said. “His talent and energy are unique and he has a natural ability to connect with kids of all ages and backgrounds. We’ve remained in touch as we’re talking to him about the possibility of creating a Joe Morgan mural at the Academy this summer.”
Billingsley, who has a master’s degree in social work and earned his art degree at Miami University (OH), works as a behavioral health specialist and in-house artist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. He uses art as therapy for children who are dealing with trauma and mental health challenges. In addition to his work on the Concrete Jungle mural for the aforementioned Community Makeover in 2020, he was also one of the lead artists on the Black Lives Matter mural on Plum Street.
Billingsley has dedicated his life to this type of work, but it’s hardly work to him.
“Anybody who has a passion, desire, need, will or drive to do something that they know they’re called to do -- do it,” Billingsley said. “You’ll never work a day in your life. You’ll have purpose and be happy. You will be saturated in love for what you do. That’s what I did. It’s my calling.”