Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Jamari Taylor has stepped in to fill a void for aspiring young artists in Calhoun County.
A muralist and portrait artist, Taylor has been spending most of her Sundays since 2018 teaching and working alongside young people who want to pursue their creative side. This calling for her is directly tied to the shrinking number of art classes being offered at area schools which follows state and national trends.
“In recent years, many school districts have had to make the difficult choice to cut art programs (drama, music, visual arts, photography, etc.), due to budget cuts and based upon state/national academic priorities that are more focused on math and English student achievement,” says an article on Teach & Kids Learn website
Taylor says it has been “heartbreaking” to hear from students about the decreasing arts education options available to them at their schools.
Jamari Taylor, right, works with one of her students, Cora Vance.
“That’s when I knew I needed to push this program even more,” she says of her art mentoring classes which are offered through her company Jaylei Art
. The name of her business comes from JJ, which is what her family calls her, and her middle name which is Lei.
One year after founding Jaylei, she expanded her portfolio through the addition of art classes for students in Grand Rapids with Battle Creek coming a short time later.
Taylor says she was asking herself how she could provide for herself while giving back to the community and youth “to uplift creative minds and from that point, I was able to get started and continue to grow the program. I had one student in 2018 and when I first started I was teaching at a park. I had to stop because winter was coming and I knew I needed a location. Throughout this journey, I knew I had to have patience.”
Jamari Taylor has painted murals, like this one in downtown Battle Creek.
Her own strong foundation in the arts was something she wanted to share with youth and the art world, says Taylor.
The classes in Battle Creek came about after she was invited to give a talk at Willard Library.
“They were having a youth business expo to give a speech about my journey as an artist and one of the parents asked if I did tutoring at all and that’s when I put it together,” Taylor says.
She’s not currently teaching in Grand Rapids, where she lives, because she hasn’t been able to find a location. She says the support from the ACCBC has been invaluable.
“Battle Creek holds a special place for me. To be able to come back and give back, it brings me joy knowing I can be a guide for the youth.”
Jamari Taylor, artist and art instructor, poses with two of her students, Willow Schantz, left, and Cora Vance, right.
“Art is needed everywhere. It is so educational and important and to know that the majority of schools are getting rid of art classes is not OK with me. Art soothes the mind and calms the body. I don’t think people realize how therapeutic art can be.”
Her classes are billed as Art Therapy, she says she chose the term because she works with one student at a time as a way to eliminate the anxiety they may otherwise experience by being in a large classroom with other students.
“This makes it easier for me to give them all the focus they need from me,” Taylor says.
As a starting point, the student tells Taylor what they like to do as it relates to art and share their strengths and weaknesses.
Jamari Taylor, artist and art instructor, sits in a studio inside First Congregational Church in downtown Battle Creek.
“Sometimes when parents reach out about them joining the class their child will already have an idea of what they’d like to focus on. Sometimes we start with that or we pick something different to get their minds flowing. “Even though it can be challenging it can also be therapeutic, educational, and exciting at the same time. There’s so much they can do in the art world and it brings me joy being able to share my experiences with them”.
Up until this past summer, her classes were held in a space at Cute & Sassy Spa & Salon on North Avenue. When the owners of the salon decided to sell their salon, Taylor began looking for a new space.
In September she relocated the art classes and studio art classes she also offers to students to a space at the Art and Culture Collective of Battle Creek
headquartered inside the First Congregational Church on Capital Avenue NE. She did so at the suggestion of Vania Word, Director of the ACCBC, and Jill Anderson, the ACCBC’s grant writer.
The art therapy classes are offered in 10-week sessions from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays and cost $400. The price includes all materials and Taylor’s instructional time.
Jamari Taylor, right, provides feedback to one of her students, Willow Schantz.
“For that first session I welcome the parents to come in and get a feeling for where their child is going with this,” Taylor says.
Once done with these sessions, the student has the option of going on to the studio sessions which include multiple students working with different art mediums. These classes cost $30 each and are offered from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays.
“The studio time is for students who want to continue to work with me,” Taylor says. “They can pick out the materials they want to work with and I’m still there to answer any questions or if they need help.”
As a bonus, they can watch the petite and soft-spoken Taylor work on her own art which speaks boldly and loudly. This includes a painting that now hangs in the lobby of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and five murals she painted that grace the exterior of buildings throughout downtown Battle Creek.
Painting a living
Interwoven in the classroom instruction is a message to her students that their art could become a career for them – one that would support them financially. Taylor says she is proof of this.
She credits an art teacher who mentored her while she was a student at Battle Creek Central High School with instilling a confidence that has served her well.
Jamari Taylor’s signature at the bottom of one of her murals.
“My art teacher was amazing and whenever I got inside of her class I felt a rush of joy and excitement and I wished I could be there all day, In my senior year, I got an independent study with her and she said, ‘You’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing.’ It was portraits I was doing and it made me feel good because she was someone I looked up to as a mentor. Having that independent study helped me grow my passion for art. Having an art class in school was everything to me.”
Before graduating from BCCHS in 2015, Taylor applied to a Graphic Arts program at Grand Valley State University at the urging of that teacher. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from that program in 2019. Halfway through her studies, she started Jaylei Arts in Grand Rapids where she has lived since graduating from GVSU.
“My sophomore year of college was when I really started to push Jaylei. I started doing custom portraits for family, friends, and strangers. I knew this was something I wanted to do full-time. It helped me get my foot in the door and gain experience. Networking is key in the art field. I learned that there were different ways to financially be an artist.”
An art banner created by Taylor during "Color the Creek" was displayed at the entrance to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Her focus on mural painting was the result of people she connected with after a peaceful protest in 2020 following the death of George Floyd
in downtown Grand Rapids turned violent. Protesters caused an estimated $2 million in damage to businesses.
While on social media Taylor says she saw an artist friend paint a picture on a wooden panel used to board up a broken window at one of these businesses. That artist asked her to also paint.
“There were a lot of business owners out walking around during that time. A lot of them said, “We would love to have you do this.’ That’s when I learned how important networking is. I had 200 business cards and I was giving them out left and right and that’s how me being a full-time muralist got started.”
She now routinely gets requests from businesses and organizations who want her to paint murals on the inside or outside of their buildings.
“Now what’s happening is the majority of work I’m able to get is because they’ve reached out to me which is a huge, huge blessing,” Taylor says.
Mural done by Taylor on the wall of her former art tutoring office at Cute & Sassy Spa & Salon
Her first mural in Battle Creek was painted in 2019 onto an exterior side wall of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League building on Van Buren Street. Since then she has painted murals on buildings including Cute & Sassy, Cereal City Tattoo & Piercing, LLC, and a mural banner that had been prominently displayed outside the W.K. Kellogg Foundation In August she completed a mural for the Trinity Community Development and Neighborhood Center located on West Bidwell Street. In addition, a painting of hers was on display at the BOB in Grand Rapids as part of this year’s ArtPrize
As she has refined her technique, the time it takes to complete a mural has decreased. The Trinity mural took six days or more precisely 60 hours to finish. This mural like the others that grace outdoor spaces in Battle Creek and elsewhere reflects her love of nature which is visible in the plants and birds she incorporates along with portraits of people.
“I’m a portrait artist so painting people into my murals is my main focus,” Taylor says.
In a mural she did for Kzoo Station
, a community kitchen in Grand Rapids that provides space and resources for local food entrepreneurs, she incorporated her portraiture style with food.
Most of her clients have an idea of what they want, but she makes it clear to them that she wants to include her own style within their concept.
Taylor's first mural in Battle Creek was done in 2019 at the Southwestern Michigan Urban League offices. She has done 20 murals throughout Michigan since starting her business.
“Organizations love the faces and they still want me to incorporate faces with what they’re asking for,” Taylor says.
While building her own art business, she helps other artists build theirs. When she gets a request for something that is out of her comfort zone, she defers to artists who do that particular work.
Although some see a disconnect with terms like “networking” and “commissions” used in discussions about artists and art, Taylor says the creation of art has a business component to it, something that she hopes will resonate with the public and most importantly, her students.
“If you want to be an artist, you have to put in the work,” Taylor says. “I hope my art classes continue to inspire youth to know what’s out there.”