The face of Baltimore writer D. Watkins is set in the center of a canvas against a red, white and blue background. Two guns on opposite ends point directly at him — one held by a Black hand, the other by a white one. It’s meant to symbolize his inability to escape his environment.
And that’s not the only recognizable face displayed throughout the room. Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are painted against a light-brown backdrop, a small portrait of George Floyd pinned to the front of the left side of Malcolm’s chest.
Toward the back of the room is a painting of Kanye West looking into a broken mirror. Notable quotes from the musician and rapper, who has raised the ire of some for his opinions, are written out like a diary on the painting, chronicling his views on key issues over the years.
The art is the work of Aaron Maybin, part of his latest exhibition, “Diary of a Mad Black Artist,” his first showing in two years because of the pandemic.
A diverse group recently filled the third floor of the Guilford Hall Brewery to view his latest pieces. Standing six feet, four inches, the former NFL player turned professional artist towered over most in the room. He was accompanied by his toddler daughter, who skipped around the room, gracing every visitor with a smile and seemingly stealing the spotlight from her father.
Maybin said that this collection, like all of his art, seeks to counter and correct misperceptions of Black communities. For instance, when people talk about absentee Black fathers, he presents Centers for Disease Control data showing otherwise and points to himself as an example of a good father.
“Propaganda is being made about my community all the time, but it’s not coming from my community,” says Maybin. “So I’m going to be the person that creates the alternative propaganda. Propaganda that points to the narrative that you guys don’t want to acknowledge.”
He gets inspiration from his own experiences, even it makes him uncomfortable.
“With the ‘Diary of a Mad Black Artist’ series, I want to challenge people in the only way and the best way I know to challenge people. I have to be vulnerable myself to use my own lived experiences to highlight how or why something is important. So with mental health, with emotional wellness, with vulnerability, with fatherhood, with reframing and retooling this idea of masculinity of what a real man is, especially for men of color, I had to be vulnerable and transparent in my own evolution process.”
As he was growing up on Arunah Avenue in West Baltimore, Maybin’s family lived with an “it takes a village to raise a child” mindset, beliefs that he carries to this day. His family and mentor, Larry Poncho Brown, a fellow artist, helped nurture his “art game,” he said.
Maybin laughed as he remembered getting in trouble for taking Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil to make action figures at age 2.
“If you give me a pencil and paper, or aluminum foil or anything that you can create with, I will sit still and just focus on that,” he said.
Even while playing professional football, Maybin always knew that art was his primary passion. He was drafted to the Buffalo Bills in 2009 and played with them until 2011, after failing to meet the lofty expectations set for him as a player.
When he was transferred to the New York Jets, he felt like he got “a new lease on life.” He knew Coach Rex Ryan growing up and said Ryan constantly said he believed in him.
”And then on top of that, like with my art, and all that kind of stuff, they actually supported the fact that I was creating,” Maybin said. “They helped plug me in with different art exhibits and shows and things like that in the arts and fashion scene in New York City, which is the art epicenter of the world. So that did a great deal towards helping to boost my career and post-football life.”
Maybin used his off-days while playing football to travel back to Baltimore to do community work and be involved with the schools. He realized that if he wanted to be the best possible football player he could, he needed to focus less on helping Baltimore. Instead, he gave up football and retired to devote his life to art and community work full-time. He was teacher from 2016 until 2019.
Chris Simon, founder of BTST Services mental health services and owner of the Blk Swan restaurant, connected with Maybin in 2018 while opening up an office in Baltimore. He believed Maybin to be the perfect artist to help with art therapy.
“Aaron is very knowledgeable,” he said. “He tells stories that resonate with life in Baltimore, showing the positives and the disparities from other areas as well. He uses his art to portray African Americans as kings and queens, glorifying things that other people would disparage.”
Maybin also wants to use his art to cultivate greater recognition of Black artists.
Mia Smith, a curator and consultant who has worked directly with Maybin, supports him not only because of his talent, but also because he helps others.
“When you look at his work, he’s also having some level of a call to action,” she said. “It directly reflects what’s going on with Black people every day. You’re not just looking at art and buying stuff from him, but you’re actively having conversations and thoughts about what it means to be a healthier community.”
Knowing that changes are required in society, Maybin hopes that his art can be a medium to help kickstart necessary conversations and action.
“I gotta tell the story. I gotta be a person that finds a way to communicate effectively,” he said. “Not just saying this is how we get from point A to point B, I need to be able to give you a blueprint.”
Some pieces from the “Diary of a Mad Artist” collection can be bought online.
Maybin’s next show is in December.