“Art saves lives,” said Larry Thornton, owner and operator of a local McDonald’s franchise. It’s that belief that led him to start the McDonald’s Celebration of Creativity Art Contest, which offers K-12 students from central Alabama the opportunity to display their personal connections to the civil rights movement through art.
The contest, which specifically honors and is timed for Black History Month, is in its fifth year.
Thornton, an artist himself, said that students need to recognize the importance of artistic self-expression. “Self-expression, to me, is everything,” he said. “I would argue much of what we see on the six o’clock news and the negatives on the local pages of our newspapers is tied to a lack of self-expression, not just through art, of course, but in poetry, singing, [theater], … when we don’t have [the ability to express ourselves], I believe that it inevitably comes out in some other negative ways.”
The contest, run by Thornton and several other local artists, simultaneously highlights history while letting students express what civil rights mean to them. While one student may focus on equal rights for African Americans, another may draw attention to the rights of women or members of the LGBTQ community. “However they find a connection [with civil rights], in my mind, is a good connection, because they need to express that,” Thornton said. “We’re not just looking at the picture. We’re looking at the connection.”
Thornton said he finds it interesting to see what touches young artists emotionally, as expressed in their work. “One might think you may gravitate more to iconic figures, and we do have some of that,” he said. “But I’m also impressed when I see some of those horrific scenes of the marches and the police dogs and the fire hoses. … It is impossible to illustrate that without being, to some measure, moved by that and therefore understand history and where you come from and how we might ought to appreciate the opportunities we have today,” he said.
It was Thornton’s own personal experience as a shy student wanting to express his artistic creativity that inspired the contest. Thornton was one of six African American students integrated into Goodwyn Junior High School in Montgomery during the late 1960s, and he said his art helped him through the transition. “I can’t tell you in words how much my art played a role in that process, because I could express some of those tremendous messages of inferiority that came at me [and the other African American students],” he said.
“What seemed to be ugly at the time,” Thornton elaborated, “was really fear, a lack of familiarity, and it just came out in these negative forms. But art got me through. I could express it, get it out of me and onto paper, and that played a significant role.”
Thornton also attributes the contest to his work in many of central Alabama’s inner-city schools, talking to various classes about his background in art and the various opportunities students have available to them. He said he was inspired by the number of students he encountered who had an affinity for art. “When I ask, ‘Who can draw in here? Who is good at drawing?’ in almost every setting there are around seven or eight kids who raise their hands. And that’s the point,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to create an opportunity for these kids to showcase their work?’”
Last year, the contest had approximately 200 submissions from various schools. Any school in central Alabama can participate in the contest because, according to Thornton, “the lessons [of civil rights] are for everybody.” The contest accepts art of all kinds, including drawing, dance, and poetry, because Thornton believes all mediums of expression matter. Students will be competing for cash prizes, and the teachers of the first-place winners will also win a $250 gift card to Alabama Art Supply.
The initial judging will be held on February 9 and final judging of the submitted pieces will be announced on February 23 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Along with other local artists, Thornton, an art curator, will go through the final entries and select the work that embodies the overall essence of the civil rights movement. Thornton said that he hopes in the next few years to even have a 25 to 30 piece exhibition derived from work submitted in the contest.
Thornton said he wants to encourage as many interested students as possible to enter the contest. “Whether it’s through poetry, through acting, whether it’s music, just express in any way. And I think just that alone assists us in finding our place. Your gift will make a place for you.”
Schools interested in participating in the McDonald’s Celebration of Creativity Art Contest should contact Krista Conlin at 205-937-3777 or at Krista@KCProjects.net. All submissions must be in by February 2 in order to compete for the cash prizes.