Greensboro–based street artist Brian Lewis goes by his artist name JEKS. Over the past three years, JEKS has produced mural commissions for Pabst Blue Ribbon, Red Bull, Warner Media Group, and United Way among others. His monumental portrait of Portia White, the first Black Canadian concert singer to achieve international fame, figures in reproduction in GreenHill's Greensboro Portraits exhibition at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts.
One of JEKS’ most recent murals was produced after meeting Caroline Greene, a member of the Grimsley High School Art Honors Society. Greene was determined to motivate fellow Whirlies with a mural of Josephine Boyd, the first African American student to attend Greensboro High School (now Grimsley). Josephine Boyd Bradley died in 2015, but her courage in enduring isolation and ridicule in order to fight for an equal education is memorialized in the street that now bears her name. JEKS took on the project, and the mural - completed in mid-July - was donated to the school by the artist. Figures in silhouette on the right hand side of the painting evoke Josephine as a student in 1957, while a more recent portrait of Boyd is depicted on the left. The mural is centrally located on campus on the side of the Home Economics building, and during a difficult year the artist hopes Boyd’s story of finding strength to achieve her goals while “being harassed every day” will encourage students and teachers to meet their own challenges.
Edie Carpenter spoke with JEKS about the Josephine Boyd mural:
EC: What did you take into account when creating the composition portraying Josephine Boyd at two stages of her life?
JEKS: The principal really loved that iconic photo of Josephine walking the breezeway showing her strength and innocence. My strength is in portraiture, so I wanted to combine both images showing her later in life looking back and reflecting on the accomplishments and challenges of being the first black student in the school system.
EC: This mural was donated to Grimsley High School. What do you hope students take away from having it on their campus?
JEKS: This was the second piece I donated to the Guilford County school system. I’m a firm supporter of giving back to the community, and my main goal is to inspire students that are inclined to art-making and help motivate them to pursue their dreams. It’s my duty to use my talent for good as well as a career. I hope the mural gives the students at Grimsley some pride in their school's history and knowledge about Josephine Boyd. I hope it helps to boost their inner strength to pursue and accomplish things that seem impossible.
EC: What are other recent mural projects you are working on?
JEKS: I’m constantly painting whether it’s commissioned work or personal projects. Some upcoming projects include commissions for: Verizon, Sony Music, Punto Urban Art Museum in Salem Mass, the city of Mt. Airy, Bella Ciao restaurant in Uptown Charlotte, UHill Walls mural festival in Durham, Enso Mu in Atlanta, and a couple of residential installations.