On September 7th, Cambridge held a special event titled A Day of Resilience, honoring Harriet Tubman. It was also the official ribbon cutting of the mural located on the exterior wall of the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center located at 424 Race Street. Recently, the Spy spent some time with the man who designed and painted the mural, Michael Rosato.
Rosato’s studio is located in Cambridge, a couple of doors down from the mural he created. But to call him a local artist would not be giving full credit to the magnitude of his work, which includes (to name just a few) the Oklahoma City National Memorial in Oklahoma City, OK, Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Tx., the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, the Headquarters of Bacardi in San Juan, Puerto Rico, etc. His website catalogs the public and private spaces that show his talents. The creativity alone is worth a look.
As prolific as his work has been, Rosato didn’t set out to be an artist. His dream was to be a fighter pilot. Like his dad, who was killed during the Vietnam War. But then life threw a curveball. On a trip to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Rosato stood in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta and felt a deep emotional response that he’d never felt. He knew then that he needed to pursue art, create beauty, and evoke the feeling he had experienced in others.
That was around 28 years ago, and no, he didn’t go to school to study art. Instead, he says, he learned from the greatest teachers. “I taught myself how to paint by going to the National Gallery of Art. If I didn’t know how to paint a tree, I’d look at how Hudson River School painters painted a tree. If I didn’t know how to do a sky, I’d go see how John Constable handled it. So, my art school was the masters of art on the wall. Having access to free art, like at the Smithsonian, was instrumental in the development of what I do.”
As is not unusual in these types of stories, fate stepped in. A chance conversation while getting his hair cut, led to an opportunity to assist an artist who was painting a commissioned mural for a Saudi princess in Roslyn, VA. Even though Rosato had never done this type of work before, as soon as he was shown how, he said: “I can do that. And then that was it. I fell in love with painting. It was after a year working with him, I went on my own and boom…”
That boom, for our area, of course, was the Harriet Tubman mural, which was commissioned and made possible with the support of the Maryland State Arts Council, Dorchester Center for the Arts, Alpha Genesis CDC, the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, and Downtown Cambridge. The 14×28 foot mural portrays a historical icon that wanted her story told. Rosato would be the storyteller.
He chose the three-dimensional, trompe l’oeil effect to compel you, as a viewer, to want to interact with Tubman, as she reaches through the wall with an outstretched hand. “It made it a lot easier to paint,” says Rosato, “when I realized that the gesture and the face had to express: ‘take this hand, now we’re going to freedom.’ I wanted her to have a very strong, quiet strength. That plays in with coming up with a character of the person that I was painting.”
Working with pictures of both an older and a younger Tubman, he created a 30-year-old version, full of vigor. “That strength, that superhuman strength–the 30-year-old attacking the world,” he said. “That feeling that nothing can stop you, that comes with the naïveté of youth. But at the same time, the incredible heroic nature of that kind of person and that kind of spirit.”
No small feat that Rosato wanted to portray, but one he knew he achieved when, once again, fate intervened and showed him he was on the right track. As Rosato remembers it, he was nearing the end of the two weeks it took him to complete the mural. He had worked ten hours that day and decided to stop, leaving Tubman’s outstretched hand unpainted. Tracy Lynndee, owner of Maiden Maryland, passed by the unfinished mural with her 3-year old granddaughter, Lovie. The young girl reached out and touched Tubman’s hand. A photo of that moment was taken, posted on social media, and it went viral. Suddenly, even those who had never heard about the mural, or Cambridge, or Rosato, or even Tubman, felt a connection.
The circle was complete.Unlike Michelangelo, who never got to see Rosato’s reaction to his sculpture, Rosato, has been able to watch the emotional response the mural elicits in others. Like the 80-year-old woman who thanked him and started crying. Or the African American lawyer who told him he had ‘done it right.’ “Every time I’m there, says Rosato, “if people are there, something new happens, and it’s really amazing. And it happens daily. So, it really has resonated. Harriet Tubman encapsulates the American concept of heroism. She is definitely an American hero. There is also something kind of neat about public art and the fact that this is on the side of the Tubman Museum Educational Center. It provides an opportunity for you to go in and learn the story, and you start to realize what a remarkable individual this was.”
As for the future, Rosato is about to start painting 15,000 square feet of space at the United States Marine Corps Museum in DC. He sees similarities to the Tubman mural: “I’m working with these marines, who are just incredible people. They possess the spirit to sacrifice self for others. You start to realize that the character of people like Harriet Tubman, like these marines, it’s something special. She represents the greater power that is willing to lift you out of your darkness. We all want that hand.”