Apr 16, 2020

Getting to Know the Guild: Akeil Robertson

by: Akeil Robertson & Norah Langweiler

The Guild is a paid apprenticeship program that gives formerly incarcerated individuals and young adults on probation the opportunity to reconnect with their community while developing job skills. Through work on creative projects like mural making, carpentry, and mosaics, members of the Guild, guided by artists and other skilled professionals, transform their neighborhoods and themselves.

Designed to incorporate concepts of community, victim, and individual restoration in every aspect of the program, The Guild seeks to prevent re-incarceration and further the employment or educational objectives of each participant.

Akeil Robertson was born and raised in Philadelphia. He discovered art during his time in prison where he met Jane Golden and began to work with the Mural Arts program. He now works with justice involved individuals in the Mural Arts Guild program as an assistant teaching artist. Akeil believes in art’s power to build bridges and continues to use it to construct those that will lead to a better tomorrow.

How did you get involved in Mural Arts?

I began taking workshops with Mural Arts in 2014, I believe. I met Jane Golden at Graterford. She used to come and bring funders, and allow them to take a peek at the program. She brought a couple of city councilmen as well that I had the pleasure of meeting. James “Yaya” Hough had brought me into the program and introduced me to Jane during one of these meetings. We spoke and Jane liked what I was saying. I was probably volunteering for close to a year and Jane, in her kindness and with her blessings, went and spoke to the superintendent where I was housed and, you know, spoke up for me. And from there, I was hired.

So you first got in contact with Mural Arts in 2014, when did you start working for the organization officially?

I started working with Mural Arts at the end of 2019. For a while I had worked on Mural Arts projects but, technically, I was paid through the Department of Corrections (DOC). I was assigned to Mural Arts but it was a DOC job. I also did in-house projects as well, painting things around the prison. But we did a lot of Mural Arts work and that was our primary job. 

So I actually started working for Mural Arts, officially, on December third, 2019, two days after I was released. I got out on December first and on December third there was an art show at the Public Defenders Association and Jane invited me and was really excited to have me and I sold my first piece! So, I would say I started working for Mural Arts two days after I got out of prison.

Well, that’s a delight. Serendipitous!

Yeah, I really felt like it was a sign that I was moving in the right direction. That I was around the right people – the type of people that really support you. You know, the saying that “from cradle to grave.” I really see that Mural Arts has supported me, in the inverse, from grave to cradle. Because, here I am, coming back into the world, learning all of these things, and at times it can be overwhelming. But one thing that is ensured right now is that I am paid, I am supported, I do have a network of people around me like yourself that I can call on when I need help.

I actually was sitting in your office and you were helping me with a powerpoint. And a lot of people at Mural Arts have been gracious enough to give their time to me and really follow the example that Jane laid down. And that’s like a company culture that we inhabit. You know? It’s incredibly supportive.

I agree. I’ve only been here for a little while but I agree. Has working with The Guild changed you? And how?

The Guild is full of individuals who have been in trouble with the law and have been in incarceration situations like myself. And, you know, one of the most difficult things we face upon our release is that there is a stigma attached. While people don’t have the right to ask in your initial interview, afterwards they can begin to ask you about, you know, where you come from, what have you done. While that may not affect you getting a job, it may affect the color of how people react to you.

Certainly, yeah.

Mural Arts is a space of inclusion. It’s a space where women have a tremendous amount of leadership roles, it’s a space where people work in a social justice arena and are interacting with the people who they are serving, like members of the Guild. It’s a space where the Guild is run by people who are formerly-incarcerated. It’s this incredible inclusive space and just for it to inhabit that space is wonderful, but it’s really bolstered by the fact that it is placed in the land of the arts. 

I like to speak to the fact that arts is one of the few career vocations that anyone can have. Your background, no matter how colored it may be, is an asset. Specifically, as you begin to tell your story, it becomes a way to augment who you are, what you’re creating. And to share this with members of the Guild, it’s incredibly gratifying for me. 

And, just speaking on this moment [of the pandemic], it’s a moment in time where people are losing their jobs, it’s a time when people are struggling, this is a time when desperation is really going to begin to show itself – it already has. And just to be able to provide and help be part of the process of providing employment for these especially at-risk people – it’s wonderful. It’s inspiring and I’m glad to be a part of it.


So, I know these are hardly normal days, but walk me through a normal day in your life at the Guild.

We come in and we have a teaching artist that is assigned to give a lesson during that day. I work with the teaching artist to kind of get their message across. Whatever that may be – color theory class, a class on painting or motivational speaking, whatever it is – I help work with the artist to get that across to the guys. 

We exist in this really beautiful studio space at 915 Spring Garden with other creatives. I’ve met a couple of them: we have an architectural firm on our floor, we have a photographer on our floor I’ve spoken with tentatively about hopefully bringing them in and involving them in the program in some ways and they seemed excited. The beautiful space has allowed us to show the guys the power of the arts and its ability to spread equality in our lives and provide a means of sustaining themselves.

We have satellite campuses, in a way, at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) one day per week in their print shop. We’re also working in conjunction with the Barnes Foundation to facilitate a project to have individuals with the Guild exhibit their work at the Barnes Foundation and PAFA. They’ve been kind enough to lend us a studio space to get that done. 

The Guild is mostly people of color and that in and of itself is a beautiful thing; to have an arts program accessible to these young adults who have grown up in a school system like Philadelphia which has systematically devalued the arts. It’s just a beautiful thing to be able to offer that program to them, post-graduation from school. It’s almost like a secondary education. I took a picture at the Barnes Foundation of these young black men and I sat back and I looked at it and I realized that, wow, to see these young black men, just amongst these paintings that have been given such reverence, now reflecting their reverence and their importance on these individuals and illuminating who they are. One of the missions of the Barnes Foundation was making art available to people who look exactly like me, like these guys. And now to see them here, amongst these paintings, comfortable and proud and learning, it was just a beautiful moment for me and made me realize what I was a part of.

Have you always been artistic or did you start doing it once you needed it? Has it helped you get through hard times?

I guess, in a way, I have been artistically inclined, but I did not always practice art. As a child, I would doodle but like any young child, strictly doodling in a way that we all have doodles of turkeys in kindergarten and stuff like that. But my mom noticed an interest and she tried to get me involved in a program at one point in time in Germantown. From there I took a hiatus, I wasn’t into it, but I always wanted to be. So my mom got me in a program at Moore College of Art on Saturdays. And I went there on the first day, and I looked around, and I saw all these beautiful drawings the kids were doing around me and I looked down at my own chicken scratch and I felt like, I don’t belong here. I remember grabbing my little brother and leaving after, like, 10 minutes and never coming back. So, my experience with art ended at like, ten. I hadn’t realized it but there is a mystique around the arts that is innate. Either you have it, or you don’t. But I’ve found that it can be honed. It can be learned and taught and that you can find your own voice within it.

So, when I came to prison, specifically Graterford was my location, but this is the case at all the prisons and jails that I’ve ever been to – I’ve only been to one other prison but I was in two jails throughout my incarceration, so that’s four different locations – but I’ve found that art exists in a prison, wholeheartedly. There are artists all over the place. I didn’t know that beforehand. When I discovered it, these guys were just excited to have me taking an interest – but they were really excited to have anyone take an interest. Like, the community of artists in prison has the same attitude that it has out here – and that’s one of inclusion. So, when I met guys like James “Yaya” Hough, Eric Endo” Dannu, and Nioche “Yosh” Lawson, they began to show me how to do things. How to create art – encouraged me to create art and began to give me materials. When I came into contact with Mural Arts, they would bring me even more materials. And they would bring in artists like Swoon, like Shepard Fairey, and I would become part of these projects. It really allowed me to start thinking about like, maybe I can draw. 

Then I started in earnest – I practiced and I practiced and I practiced, and I got to the point where I developed a level of faculty. My first big project was painting family members and sending it to them. I remember how grateful they were. Then I began to do stuff for other guys and just seeing how happy they were that I could offer them something. And, of course, they offer me things in return. And I began to be able to support myself through art. And it just was amazing to me and I really began to see a path in the arts for myself.

So would you say that art feels like safety or home? How would you describe it?

Art is a way to process my experience for me – it’s a way to communicate, specifically. I like to talk about different forms of intelligence as a means for communication and if you think about some things being, kind of ineffable, not really tangible in a way that can be expressed through words. When you have these alternative means of communication you are able to express ideas in a new way and translate them to someone that may not understand the way they are coming out of your mouth. When you can write, when you can draw, when you can take photographs, it augments your voice in a way that allows you to talk to more people, a larger audience. And, honestly, to talk to the same audience that you’ve been talking to, in a new way. That’s what art is for me – it’s communication, it’s processing, it’s talking.

Alright, well, that was pretty heavy. So we’re going to lighten it up a little. What always makes you smile?

What always makes me smile? A sunny day. It never fails me.

What were you doing when you last lost track of time?

What was I doing? Maybe hanging with a friend. Hanging with a good friend always makes me lose track of time.

Are you working towards anything in your free time, if you have any free time?

I’m working on a personal portrait of a woman that I met and know through family. She is a corporate motivational speaker. Like all of us she has some extra free time, and I have some extra free time, so we’ve gotten together to get this work done. It’s been going on for a while but hopefully now I’ll have a little more time to get it done. So, that’s what I’ve been working on.

We’re getting into our really fun questions now, so, get ready for it. You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What color would you be, and why?

I don’t know – maybe a Sobering Blue.

What kind of blue is that? Is it on the lighter or darker end of the spectrum?

Probably on the darker end?

Is it more purple or green? I’m really pressing you on the important questions.

[laughs] It’s more navy.

What’s the last thing you watched on TV?

There was a short on Apple TV – what was the name of it? I… do not remember. Steven Spielberg has gotten together with Apple TV to create a series of shorts – like a sci-fi type of thing. It was dope. I watched that series. It was like four of them.

Oh! I saw The Banker yesterday – it was a really good movie. It stars Samuel L. Jackson and the guy from the Marvel movies – the guy with the wings. Long story short, they open up a bank in Texas in the fifties and sixties and they are two black guys. And they have this white guy that is playing the face of the bank and oh my God! It was a crazy movie! I couldn’t believe it was a true story!

Ok, I’ve got one last one: if you had a superpower, what would it be and why?

[laughs] My superpower is the Really Moment. It’s like when everybody else in the room knows something is wrong but can’t articulate it, I’ll be the one to say “really?!” and then explain why everything is totally off the wall.

That’s why I’m a Sobering Blue!

Is there anything you wish I had asked you but I didn’t?

Umm, yeah! What kind of cake and ice cream I had for my birthday yesterday!

What kind of cake and ice cream did you have for your birthday??

I had Jewish apple cake and, oh my god, I tried some lactose free ice cream. That was a bad mistake. Just horrible. And it was cookies and cream and the cookies were fake.

Oh no! What a disappointment! Thank you so much for chatting with me, Akeil, it’s been a real pleasure!


Last updated: Apr 16, 2020

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