"Gotta be you and only you babe, express yourself . . . . You only live once and you're not coming back, so express yourself."
With thick brushes drenched in bold oil paints, 20 schoolchildren shuffled in front of canvases twice their size in the driveway of the Sojourners Neighborhood Center in Columbia Heights.
In shorts and T-shirts, by art tables overflowing with paint jars and pallets, some stood with noses to the canvas evaluating the placement of a single brush stroke. Others splashed bold colors on empty white spaces on the portrait of life in their Northwest Washington neighborhood.
Jacquina Rice, 8, was painting bright blue polka dots on a yellow and green butterfly she said she often sees hovering in a vacant lot on Girard Street NW.
Shella Fon, 11, outlined faces peering out the windows of the flat-roofed Clifton Terrace apartments she passes on her way to school. And Gordon Jones, 11, inspired by a jazz station on the radio, was touching up the buttons on a golden saxophone.
The first-time muralists, ages 8 to 15, spent two sticky summer days last week painting the work as part of the community center's summer art program.
The idea was to get children within about a 10-block radius to create a permanent fixture of local color, a symbol of community empowerment inspired by the pop music hit "Express Yourself." The five-paneled mural, an upbeat version of life in Columbia Heights, will be mounted on the center's brick wall facing Girard Street NW.
"The whole thing is a big block party," said Edward Smith, 9, perched on his chair like a stage director.
Center workers, most of them Columbia Heights residents, aren't denying that violence and drugs are a part of these children's daily experience. Just last May, someone was shot on the playground at Meyer Elementary School, where most of the center's 50 students go to school. Jeff Sweetman, one of the center's directors, said, "You can see drugs dealt every night on this street."
Sweetman, who has been at the center for three years, has organized poster projects and impromptu rap sessions to help the youngsters relieve their fears. But he also stresses the need to accentuate the positive.
"We've gotten tired of hearing what a pit this neighborhood is, like it's some horrible hell," said program director Robert Soley. "It does the kids an injustice to concentrate on the negative. You can't say no to something unless you have something to say yes to."
Unlike most D.C. mural projects, which are the work of outside professionals, this one was completely home-grown, said Linda DeGraf, who teaches art workshops around the District and guided the project.
She began by brainstorming with the children, getting them to jot down words that conjured up scenes from their neighborhood: "Jump rope and double Dutch, basketball and barbecues," they proposed. Bart Simpson and Ninja Turtles were suggested, too, but Sweetman quickly rejected those because "we wanted the ideas to come from the kids themselves," not pop culture.
The children sketched their ideas, then cut them into big collage pieces. Next they organized into groups of four, a lesson in teamwork, to draw the outlines in pencil. Finally, DeGraf took them to see some of the city's best murals, showed them a how-to video about mural making and had them trace their own shadows from a slide projection to practice drawing from their own impressions.
"They had a mental picture of houses with triangular roofs, images from their schoolbooks of suburan homes," said Sweetman, who took them around the neighborhood to sketch their own homes instead.
The center, which serves as a meeting hall, food distribution point, reading laboratory and safe haven for Columbia Heights residents, was able to buy the paint and hire DeGraf for the summer project with a $1,000 grant from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Bethesda.
DeGraf and the staff said they hoped the project would inspire confidence and community pride among children who could easily feel neither.
And Chequitha Jones, 8, did not let them down. Crouching to take a good look at the multicolored balloons she had painted the day before, she beamed: "You maybe don't think it looks right. But you can do it if you try."