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How artist Ephraim Gebre came 'full-circle' to create 'I Am Speaking'


Rochester’s newest mural looms large on the north-facing wall of 49 State St. and speaks volumes. The 3,000-square-foot painting, titled “I Am Speaking,” depicts a young John Lewis, the late civil rights leader and U.S. Congress member whose activism was pivotal in the fight for racial equity. His legacy remains an inspiration in current battles over systemic racism and social injustice.

The mural’s location — across the street from Corinthian Hall, where abolitionist Frederick Douglass gave his groundbreaking 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” — makes its message all the more poignant.

“I want it to stop people in their tracks,” says Ephraim Gebre, the 21-year-old artist and Rochester native who led a small crew of muralists to complete the massive oil enamel painting in less than a week in November.

Gebre was joined by fellow artists Darius Dennis, Jared Diaz, and Dan Harrington, all of whom work full-time for Colossal Media, a prominent, Brooklyn-based advertising company specializing in hand-painted outdoor murals. But “I Am Speaking” is more of a nonprofit labor of love than a capitalist commercial.

The painting is the third in an ongoing series of images — joining “I Am a Man” in Chicago and “I Am Singing” in Louisville — all created to document Black Americans’ struggle for equal rights and to celebrate righteous defiance against forces that would dehumanize people of color.

Over the last 10 years or so, Rochester has become a city of murals — a public art exhibition writ large over the walls of thriving businesses, abandoned industrial buildings, and structures of community significance. In 2011, the “art and community intervention project” that would become the annual summer mural installation WALL\THERAPY was kickstarted. In 2015, both Shawn Dunwoody’s Fruit Belt Project — designed to help revitalize and instill pride in the JOSANA neighborhood — and the City of Rochester’s Roc Paint Division were launched to empower young artists to create professional and commissioned murals under the tutelage of established local artists and mentors.
Rochester native Ephraim Gebre led a team of painters to complete the mural "I Am Speaking," honoring the legacy of the late John Lewis. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Rochester native Ephraim Gebre led a team of painters to complete the mural "I Am Speaking," honoring the legacy of the late John Lewis.
Ephraim Gebre, then 15 and a student at World of Inquiry School No. 58, was one of the students hired for the Fruit Belt Project.

He had been walking the school’s halls when he passed a classroom in which a man dressed in a brightly colored suit was jumping on top of a desk as he spoke to a group of seniors. Struck by this oratory display, Gebre slipped into a seat at the back of the class as the speaker talked about the Fruit Belt Project and its importance in light of JOSANA’s status as a food desert and a crime-ridden neighborhood. The man was Dunwoody.

Gebre promptly introduced himself to Dunwoody and stayed in touch, pursuing a spot on the project. That persistence eventually paid off, and the Fruit Belt Project became his first job.

“Shawn is the dude that started it and lit the fire,” Gebre says of his career as an artist and the man he considers a mentor.

Gebre worked with Dunwoody in the summer of 2015 and even went with him to complete a project in Brazil, before taking a job working on houses with College Pro Painters at the age of 16 and quickly becoming a job site manager. Gebre recalls making the commute to work in Pittsford from the downtown bus station, which also included a 30 to 40-minute walk. At times after work, he would walk home two hours to St. Simon’s Terrace, near Genesee Brewery.

Having graduated high school early, he would later work with Dunwoody again between the ages of 17 and 18, helping to complete a multi-surface Frederick Douglass mural at J.P. Duffy School No. 12 on South Avenue. It was that experience, Gebre says, that instilled a passion for community engagement and encouraging a “sense of ownership” in the students who helped with the project — much like he did with the Fruit Belt Project.

But Gebre knew that he wasn’t going to stay in Rochester, and that he wanted to travel.

“I never bought a round-trip ticket, ever,” he says. “I always buy one-way. One-way tickets — who knows if I want to stay or I want to go?”

At the age of 17, his travels took him to Paris, France, the island of Malta, and the United Kingdom. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he pursued a career in real estate and leased apartments downtown.

Eventually, he found a job listing as an artist at Colossal Media, but he had no experience in figurative painting yet. “Even though I felt like an impostor,” he says, “I knew I would get it if I kept on trying."

After rigorously searching phone listings for the company’s upper management and establishing contact after many incorrect numbers, his tenacity and sheer will to succeed landed him a job as the youngest employee in the company, at the age of 20.

“One of the [reasons] that I started to do public art was I wanted people to see a person like myself create the art, and I wanted to be what I wanted to see at 15,” Dunwoody says. “So to see that come back full-circle with Ephraim and his crew — three black men engaging and creating black images in the community — is powerful, and it’s needed.”
Rochester native and painter Ephraim Gebre. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Rochester native and painter Ephraim Gebre.
Gebre was born into a family of refugees that first came to America in 1983 to escape war in their native Eritrea — an East African country then fighting for its independence from Ethiopia.

As the eldest of four children raised by a single mom, he realized in middle school that in order to get what he wanted in life, he would have to work for it.

“I’m the only person I can depend on for the things that I want, the things that I need,” he says. “I can’t wait for anybody to give me an opportunity. I also wanted to be my best.”

Despite his assertive and independent personality, Gebre credits Dunwoody — who refers to Gebre as “my son” — for providing him with direction.

“Shawn Dunwoody is my blueprint for who I am, who I am today,” Gebre says. “I studied him like a frozen caveman.”
Painters depict a young John Lewis in the mural "I Am Speaking," at 49 State St. in downtown Rochester. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE / WXXI NEWS
  • Painters depict a young John Lewis in the mural "I Am Speaking," at 49 State St. in downtown Rochester.
Dunwoody, who helped with the creation of “I Am Speaking,” said the project on State Street brought his relationship with Gebre back to where it started.

“To have that mission and drive within him to come back to the community — I mean he’s traveled all over the country, all over the world, painting — and for him to come back to Rochester, it’s a rewarding feeling, and so it’s great to be the student,” he says.

“He is now my teacher, and I consider him my mentor.”

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s music editor. He can be reached at