Michael Rosato knew he had an incredibly important assignment on his hands when he was commissioned to paint a Harriet Tubman mural in Cambridge, Maryland.
And he brought up something that rang especially true: In the photos we see of Tubman, she’s typically shown as an older woman, “with her face etched with the hardships of life,” as Rosato put it. He was already thinking about something a little different.
So for this 2019 mural, which is now at the Harriet Tubman Museum & Education Center, Rosato pictured something a little more youthful. Harriet didn’t need to be young, necessarily, but he envisioned a different age.
And he envisioned an outstretched hand, almost beckoning, in a way, to the people who would walk by the building.
“(Harriet) was in her 30s when she was coming back to Cambridge to get her family,” Rosato said. “I wanted her to be younger (in the mural). And I knew people would engage with the hand. Kids would see it. And I thought, if a young person comes up and touches it, I want the face to exude confidence.”
And with that, an idea was set into motion.
‘Come to freedom’
Of course, the process of Rosato landing the project was a little more complex, but once he was tasked with the artwork, he said, he had free rein with the mural’s vision.
“We had a meeting, and in the meeting, everyone threw out one word; one word to describe Harriet Tubman,” Rosato said. “(We heard words like ‘strength,’ ‘power,’ ‘family,’ ‘God’ – all the things everyone could think of. I took that back with me and started the design process.”
With that, he began sketching. Rosato lives about four miles from where Harriet Tubman was born, and was already familiar with her life and the rich history surrounding their local region. Rosato started thinking about the little local museum that the mural would adorn, and said it was a shame that the building didn’t get much visitor traction at the time.
“But there’s so much (inside the museum) about her – about the area, and those who were enslaved in the area. It was such a rich story that no one was seeing,” Rosato said. “I thought it’d be great to blow out the side of the wall, and make it look like she was inviting you in. … (I could imagine) that moment where Harriet Tubman is offering her hand to the enslaved and the runaways, like, ‘Come to freedom.’”
He wondered how he could simplify the message, but make it powerful and all-encompassing. Rosato kept sketching. And he moved forward with the idea of creating a 30-something version of Harriet.
“I had a picture of her online that I found, and I did the eyes, because the eyes change over time, but that ‘mirror to the soul’ was still there,” Rosato said. “Once I (finished) her eyes, I took years off the face so she’d look like she’d be in her 30s, but still kept that sense of authority that’s there in every picture you see of her face.
“And I wanted to make it so kids wouldn’t shy away from touching the hand.”
‘It flowed off me’
Once Rosato had his sketch finalized, he had that “ah ha” moment where he just knew it was ready.
Next came the process of transferring it to a larger scale: The side of the building.
Rosato was especially careful when it came to painting the hand, and said he knew how important it was to get it just right.
He didn’t experience any slowdowns or setbacks. It took him about 14 days to do the painting, which was approximately 14 feet high and 25 feet long.
“I’ve been painting for a long time, but for some reason, this one didn’t fight me at all,” Rosato said. “It flowed off me. Even when I had the pencil sketch on the wall, it exuded enough power, even in sketch form, that people started to get excited.”
What came next, Rosato probably never expected.
The mural “went viral,” as much as a mural can, anyway. Ever since it was finished in May 2019, it has received a LOT of attention. The painting even has its own Facebook page. It really gained traction and caught people’s attention when a little girl was photographed reaching out for Harriet’s hand. In a way, it was exactly what Rosato envisioned from the start.
“The power of that image – of a young African-American girl touching Harriet Tubman’s hand, it spoke to so many people on so many levels,” Rosato said. " … It all came together right there. To have a child engaging with it, the future of the African-American race, and the human race, with a young girl touching the hand, it was like her confronting the past. Or bringing the past to the future. People saw themselves through the eyes of the child, or Harriet.”
Next, thousands of people started flocking to the mural every week – possibly even more in the summertime, Rosato said.
“Harriet Tubman represents that freedom, to take you out of your bondage and guide you to freedom,” he said. “Even today, it’s still relevant. It doesn’t matter who you are, what race, religion, etc., we all needed to take a hand at some point, to lift us out of something. Or, we may have offered the hand to someone else.”
The painting tells such an important story of our country’s past.
“She became the Moses of her people, this 5-foot-tall woman, and her story of perseverance,” Rosato said. “And it went on her whole life. She fought for the freedom of others.”
‘A testament to the power of public art’
Rosato is a busy man and artist. He has given lectures all over the world, and he’s been painting for about 30 years.
Still, he loves this mural that’s in his own backyard, so to speak. Painting it was a joy, and he thinks about the project often, even several years later.
“I painted it, and I still go look at it, as if I’m not the guy who painted it,” Rosato said with a laugh. “When you see it, it’s a conduit to this incredible person. The conversations I’ve had in front of that mural changed me – not just as an artist, but as a person. I’ve shared so many stories and tears; really emotional moments. It makes you realize the triumph of the human spirit.”
The whole experience has been a miraculous journey, “for me and for the little town of Cambridge – painting the history of the area I live in,” Rosato said. “It’s a beautiful story that just keeps on going.”
The mural opened up many doors in helping to tell the African-American story. Rosato mentioned a piece of artwork depicting the Tulsa race massacre, as well as a number of Frederick Douglass murals.
“You get so involved in your paintings with the people who are talking about the experience, that they take on a life of their own,” he said. “You can be engulfed in joy, or fear, or an inhumane experience. You learn a lot about yourself and the people you’re (portraying).”
There are plenty of experiences and stories, just like Harriet’s, to be told next.
“And they’re starting to be told,” Rosato said. “I’ve learned a lot. And (people are learning, too). I’ve painted in public spaces, and the dialogue of people sharing about their experiences or what they know about the person I’m painting or the time or period – it’s a testament to the power of public art, and storytelling. It’s really the gift that keeps on giving, in ways I never could have imagined.”