Jamaica Gilmer

The Beautiful Project (NC)

Before she became involved with The Beautiful Project, Avery Patterson was already a talented photographer. But through her involvement with the Durham-based organization, Patterson not only deepened a distinctive eye for photographing her life and community, she became a black female photographer who other girls may one day name check. After all, it’s not many artists whose work gets exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but Patterson can claim that distinction as one of the photographic contributors to the museum’s exhibition, Pen, Lens & Soul: The Story of The Beautiful Project.

The Beautiful Project (TBP) was launched fifteen years ago by Jamaica Gilmer, a self-described “hope architect, curator, photographer, strategist and storyteller.” She envisioned a supportive, loving community of artists, scholars and educators collaborating alongside black girls to help them discern and cultivate their identities through creative expression. In doing so, black girls would gain personal agency, fully embrace and claim their unique magnificence, and through their creative output, advance representational justice and wellness for themselves and others.

As Patterson and other BP community members toured the Met show at the start of 2020, it was clear that Gilmer’s vision had come to pass. There were laughs and tears, excitement and pride. The words and images conveyed complex and nuanced portraits of dozens of black girls’ lives through their own eyes, representation that is rare in America’s cultural institutions.

Months later, when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders sparked a racial justice wake-up call to white America, organizations including The Beautiful Project—already pivoting to sustain deeply personal, communal work during a pandemic—were expected to provide insights into what it means to be black in America. “These visible killings and the movement for black lives brought national and international attention to realities that black people have experienced for so long,” she says. “While it was important to have these conversations, and be part of them, we also recognize that it is not black people’s sole responsibility to help others understand the realities of what we experience every day. We had to practice existing in a place of nuance, and find that place of balance in the midst of a dangerous political climate.”