Vedale Hill has always been good at art. But before it became his career, it was a way to survive. Growing up in extreme poverty on Milwaukee’s East Side, he sold T-shirts, custom-designed shoes and portraits to earn money for food. His senior year of high school, seeking a career path to support himself and his daughter on the way, he enrolled in Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. Hill, 33, has since established himself as one of Milwaukee’s most celebrated artists – but some of his most important work happens beyond the canvas, empowering local youth and communities to thrive.
Hill’s work, which has been featured in exhibitions around the country, draws inspiration from his personal perspective and his belief that art can unify people from different backgrounds and experiences. You might call him an activist, but Hill says he’s just being honest about his experience as a Black man in Milwaukee. “For me, social justice is tied into my art just as much as the air I breathe.”
Take his painting Wicked Shot as an example: The piece depicts Michael Jordan holding a gun in one hand and a basketball in the other – an illustration of the troubling reality Black boys face each day. “One shot on or off the court can change the trajectory of an entire family or culture,” says Hill.
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Through his large-scale community murals, Hill prompts conversations about similar topics. On Juneteenth 2020, Milwaukeeans of all ages and backgrounds joined Hill to paint the Black Lives Matter mural at the intersection of Locust Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. In his partnership with SHARP Literacy, Hill collaborates with local children on murals with themes including diversity and race relations.
Hill is also co-founder of HomeWorks Bronzeville, an artist collaboration development focused on renewing the neighborhood through art, entrepreneurship and youth development. With his brother, he founded Jazale’s Art Studio, where he teaches art – and important life lessons about identity, passion and character – to at-risk urban youth.
While Hill appreciates opportunities to share his work on a broader scale – he describes his murals as megaphones in an ongoing conversation – he says his everyday interactions with the kids in Bronzeville are just as important. “It’s part of my daily life to make a difference, whether I’m teaching a student Art 101 or painting a mural on Locust with thousands of people,” he says.