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Ali Forney portrait by East Hampton students. (Image courtesy East End Arts)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 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.”

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

The exhibition, slotted to premiere with a reception on March 1, features student artwork 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 of a different Black figure. The works, which have been on display at the individual schools, will be transferred to the East End Arts School Gallery (141 Main St., Riverhead) for the reception. They 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 with area schools.

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

While the first year focused on each school doing their own take on Martin Luther King, Jr., the project has grown to feature other Black figures throughout American history. This year, there are portraits of Aretha Franklin (Center Moriches High School) and Coretta Scott King (William Floyd High School), as well as lesser-known but no less important names.

“The students do some research and find who they would like to do this year in their portraits,” Dwyer Ruscick says. “This year, they dug even deeper.”

East Hampton High School, for example, chose to do a portrait of Ali Forney, an LGBTQ youth activist who was murdered in 1997 at the age of 22 and inspired a foundation for queer youth.

“Something that was so simple has really gotten to a combination of something educational and artistic,” she says.

The MLK Portrait Project pieces are on display through Feb. 29. The reception on March 1 honors the students. The work will also be on display at the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force’s Black History on Screen event at The Suffolk (118 E. Main Street, Riverhead) on Wednesday, Feb. 28. The proceeds from pieces sold will go toward the East End Arts’ scholarship fund.

“[This project] is really a way to honor the people that made things so much easier for a lot of people,” says Dwyer Ruscick. For more information, visit East End Arts’ website here.