Through paint and chalk and pencil and ink, East End Arts’ fourth annual MLK Portrait Project takes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. statements to heart — but instead of using broad strokes, they’re working to connect the dots.

He once said, “Men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they are often separated from each other.”

The MLK Portrait Project exhibition, set to open with a reception on Friday, March 1, features artwork by high school students from Center Moriches, Comsewogue, East Hampton, Hampton Bays, Mattituck, Mount Sinai, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Southampton, Three Village Academy and William Floyd, and is the arts organization’s unique way of celebrating Black History Month. For the project, each school created a 16-panel mosaic focused on a different notable Black figure. The works, which are currently on display at the East End Arts School Gallery (141 East Main St., Riverhead), are also for sale to benefit East End Arts.

The project was first conceived in 2020 by East End Arts’ director of education Kathleen Dwyer Ruscick, who wanted to connect the organization with area schools.

“I was trying to find a way to connect with the young artists of the community,” she said. Ms. Dwyer Ruscick took inspiration from EEA educator Ken Jackson, who had previously done a multi-panel portrait of former President Barack Obama.

In the project’s first year, each school created its own take on Martin Luther King Jr. But their subjects now include a range of other important Black Americans — both world-famous and little known. This year, for example, there are portraits of Aretha Franklin (Center Moriches) and Coretta Scott King (William Floyd High School), as well as one from East Hampton of Ali Forney, an LGBTQ youth activist who was murdered in 1997 at the age of 22 and inspired a foundation for queer youth. 

“The students do some research and find who they would like to do [each] year in their portraits,” Dwyer Ruscick said. “This year, they dug even deeper. Something that was so simple has really gotten to a combination of something educational and artistic.” 

The works will also be on display at the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force’s “Black History on Screen” event at The Suffolk (118 East Main St.) on Wednesday, Feb. 28. The proceeds from pieces sold will go toward East End Arts’ scholarship fund. The final day for sales is Saturday, March 2. 

“[This project] is really a way to honor the people that made things so much easier for a lot of people,” said Ms. Dwyer Ruscick. For more information, visit 

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