A Brush With Opportunity

When you have a rough day, what do you do? How do you cope? Some people turn to yoga or meditation, maybe play their favorite record, put their feet up and just chill. In my profession, some guys hit the gym.

I hit the canvas.

It’s my meditation. It’s therapy. It takes me away from everything. I can totally zone out and focus on what’s right in front of me, not on what happened yesterday or today. Just me, a palette of colors and a blank canvas where I can paint whatever comes to me. No rules. It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s as big a part of who I am as football. Maybe bigger.

And to think, I almost didn’t pursue art at all — not because I didn’t love it, but because of the all-too-common social dynamic in which many kids are raised.

My story starts where a lot of pro athletes’ stories start: the inner city. Washington D.C. was as tough a city as any in the 90s, and not much has changed. It was a lot of kids listening to hip hop and watching music videos — you know, the ones with guys walking around with the big gold chains, the hottest Jordans and the flashiest cars. Those were the role models, and we kids tried to emulate that lifestyle.

In the inner city, it’s all about that hip-hop culture. You can’t really be yourself. You have to act like everyone else, because you’re growing up in that environment. You gotta fit in.

If you took me and the boys I used to hang with as a teenager, lined us up and asked us each who our favorite artist was, you’d get answers like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Notorious B.I.G. and Snoop Dogg. And when you got to me, what was I gonna say? Claude Clarke? Michaelangelo? They’d have laughed me right off the block.

I wanted to be cool, just like any other kid. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want them to make fun of me. That meant conforming to that hip hop culture and doing what the other kids in the neighborhood were doing. And kids weren’t learning about and appreciating art. A lot of them were stealing candy out of the local grocery store, stealing cars or breaking into somebody’s house. That was just the culture.

I’m not saying I was a troubled kid, a problem or a menace. That wasn’t the case. But my friends and I hung together. We stuck together. If one person was doing something, we were all doing it.

I always had an interest in art, but I really started to discover it in high school. I used to walk around the house cutting up my jeans and printing designs on them with fabric paint. By the time I got into 11th and 12th grade in high school, when I wasn’t playing football, basketball or running track, I’d lose myself gazing at different pieces of art. I would sneak back to the art room just to check everything out from time to time. I couldn’t really figure out why, but I was drawn to it. I couldn’t get enough.

But I suppressed it. It didn’t fit the mold of my neighborhood. I couldn’t be myself. I had to be what the neighborhood wanted me to be. And that’s the problem you face in the inner cities. The culture dictates what roads kids choose. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is. It’s a vicious cycle.

It wasn’t until I was in college at Maryland that I decided to make a change. Freed from the gravity of the inner city and its hip-hop culture, I decided to be who I really am, and the first step was changing my major. Instead of criminal justice, I would major in art.

Just like that, my whole world opened up. College was a place for me where I could finally be myself. I could follow the desires of my heart and not be afraid. There was a sense of change. I was comfortable there, and there was nobody there to judge me, critique me or tell me I was wrong or that I didn’t deserve it. I could carve my own path.

So while I was thriving as a football player for the Terps, I was also thriving as an artist.

Andrew McCutchen  about baseball in the inner city and how travel teams and equipment are becoming so expensive that disadvantaged kids can’t afford to participate. They can’t pursue that dream of being a baseball player. And what dies along with that dream is an avenue out of the inner city to a better life.

In many ways, it’s the same with art, only it’s not because it’s too expensive. It’s because it’s not available to them at all, because there aren’t enough kids interested in art to support the programs. So the few who are interested have no way to follow that passion. The dream dies before it’s even given a chance to flourish.

Studies show that high school students who earn multiple arts credits  than students earning few or no arts credits. Just like anything in life, it’s all about the opportunity. In order to reach the heights we want to reach, we need that opportunity, and if that opportunity doesn’t present itself, we’re not able to blossom. It’s pretty unfortunate that kids have to live like that — where they can’t follow their dreams and their hearts and do what they feel they want to do.

Football has given me a lot. It was my ticket out of the inner city, and now it gives me a platform to give kids facing similar challenges that same ticket out by way of art.

When I get in front of these kids and they see that I’m an artist, they’re exposed to the world of art and they can share that passion. It won’t be all about that music video they saw with the chains and cars and money and whatever. I can be that role model. When they think of what dreams they want to chase, they’ll think of that moment when I was in front of them and inspired them, and opened their mind to the world of art. And maybe they’ll aspire to that dream.

They just need that opportunity.

Vernon Davis is the founder of  
Gallery 85 and , The Vernon Davis Foundation for the Arts, which promotes education and art appreciation among youth from disadvantaged backgrounds and enhances opportunities for aspiring young artists to cultivate and pursue their artistic passions.