By now, it wouldn’t be a surprise to come across ‘Michael Rosato’ as the answer to a crossword puzzle clue: Name of the artist who created the famous Harriet Tubman mural in Cambridge. Not surprising since he’s also the artist who created the Frederick Douglass mural installed in Easton in September. Well, Rosato’s reach just expanded beyond the Eastern Shore.
Social activist, philanthropist, and Rochester, NY native Michelle Garcia-Daniels, who agreed to pay for the Easton mural if Rosato would paint it, has commissioned a second Douglass mural that will be installed next week at the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport (formerly Greater Rochester International Airport). The airport was renamed in August of 2020 to honor Douglass in his adopted hometown. “The fact that he chose Rochester to be his home and his final resting place is a great honor,” says Garcia-Daniels, “and yet I have felt, for a couple of decades now, that Rochester itself was not doing enough to honor this man.” Garcia-Daniels has certainly done her part. She’s already bequeathed two statues to the City, and when she went to the airport commission and asked about donating a mural, the answer was a resounding ‘yes.’
This second mural, as per Rosato, is different than the first, which told the story of Douglass’ descendants. This one focuses on Douglass’ life in Rochester and goes deeper into the stories about his family. “The mural puts more of a human face on Douglass,” says Rosato, “showing us not just the statesman, but the father, the writer, the abolitionist. All of those little pieces that add up to the person he was.”
It’s expected that this mural will join other exhibits at the airport and create a place available for school children and others to learn more about Douglass’ life. This educational component is vital to Rosato. “That’s the real key–educating the youth,” he said. “Education needs to be in the forefront of where we are right now in race relations. Without education, you can continue to repeat the mistakes and harbor hate, racism, and mistrust. With education, you start to understand and engage more. I think these public murals are all about engaging. So I try to make them visually interesting, but at the same time, hope that you will learn about the person.”
For Garcia-Daniels, Douglass’ life is a lesson everyone can learn from: “He was able to not only change his country, but the world,” she said. “When he fled to Europe and Ireland, he was able to convince the people there about what was going on in the United States with slavery. So here was this one man who was set up to believe that he, himself, was a beast, who was able to change the thought process of the whole world. He traveled the world, held businesses, owned property, and voted, yet he had been set up not to have those American liberties. He was able to act as an advisor to more than one president at a time when it was considered unpopular.”
It is the magnitude of this man that Rosato hopes to convey. As with the first mural, Douglass is center stage, but in this one, he’s holding hands with his wife, Anna Murray-Douglass. Just like with the Tubman and the Easton Douglass mural (in what has become Rosato’s signature three-dimensional trompe l’oeil effect), both Anna and Frederick are reaching out their other hand, inviting in the viewer. In this case, the invitation is into the union of their family and the story of their lives.
These stories include the visual response of students in a private school to Douglass’ attempt to enroll daughter Rosetta. There are depictions of Douglass’ involvement in the women’s suffrage movement, the death of another daughter, Annie, lobbying Lincoln to allow African Americans to fight in the Civil War, the destruction of his house in a fire, and several others. Each story is carefully painted to be set off in a panel and framed either by a piece of architecture or the landscape.
Rosato credits these vignettes to Garcia-Daniel’s vast knowledge and passion about Douglass’ life and career. Despite them being in different states, Garcia-Daniels is very involved in the process. “I send her photographs all the time,” says Rosato, “and when she comes down to check the progress, it’s not just to see it. It’s a spiritual thing for Michelle, and it brings her incredible joy and pride in telling the story and seeing it come to life.” Garcia-Daniels agrees with his assessment. “I look forward to the photographs. I keep checking my phone, and my husband laughs at me. He says, ‘baby, you’re acting like a drug addict.’ I can’t help it; I need to see the pictures!”
As with the Easton Douglass mural, Rosato held off adding color to Frederick and Anna’s drawing until last week when Garcia-Daniels was in his studio in Cambridge to watch him do it. The next stop is December 3rd, when Rosato will be in Rochester to install and unveil the mural at the airport.
So what’s after this? Will there be another Douglass mural? Well…., maybe. As history shows, the Douglass family spent time in Canada to avoid being arrested as an accomplice in John Brown’s assistance to escaped slaves. Rosato recently had a call from an interested party in Canada who wants to expand on that idea.
Is there a possibility for another collaboration with Garcia-Daniels? Says Rosato, “You never know what could happen. I mean, it’s a big country with a lot of coasts. I don’t know what’s next.” As for Garcia-Daniels, she says, “I wouldn’t say that I’m done with Michael. If he would be willing, and if the opportunity presented itself, I can see myself calling him and asking, ‘Hey, you’re ready to do this again?’
For now, Michael Rosato is ready to take a short break. Next year, he’s finishing off a project at the Marine Corps Museum and will then be off to Italy for a special project. “The Florida State University Florence program is my alma mater,” said Rosato, “and they bought a 36,000 square foot palazzo. There’s a wall, 25 feet high by 40 feet wide, in the courtyard that they want me to paint.”
Whatever the future will bring, Rosato hopes to continue to be a teller of history. “I believe in the victory of the human spirit,” he says. “Nothing gives me greater joy than to tell stories of triumph over incredible odds and adversity. It doesn’t have to be the black story; it could be any story. If I could paint nothing else for the rest of my life, I’d be completely satisfied.”
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.