The main photograph tells the whole story, and not because it’s the biggest.
In it, four barbers stand behind three youngsters piled into a barber chair, and they’re all reading.
The barbers — O’Neil Curtis, Lloyd Oliver, Ramon Johnson and Cedric Dent — participated in the LSU Museum of Art’s Line 4 Line program, which promotes literacy through a unique trade. The barbers at O’Neil’s Barber & Beauty Salon on North Acadian Thruway — who also include Todd Edwards — give free haircuts to 2- to 13-year-old boys in exchange for the youngsters reading books.
In February, photographers Tania Inniss and Simone Schmidt started documenting the program, which began in December as an innovative partnership between the museum and Curtis.
To date, the program has served more than a hundred boys, fostering and strengthening literacy, creating positive attitudes toward books, providing relatable role models and getting great free books into the hands of children.
Now more than 40 photographs — Inniss’ portraits of the boys post-haircut and Schmidt’s portraits and photos of the program in action — are a new pop-up exhibit, also called “Line 4 Line,” in the museum.
And in that first big photo, the wide smile on Curtis’ face along with the laughter in his eyes needs no words — he’s enjoying the book as much as the boy in front of him.
“That’s such a great photograph,” says Lucy Perera, museum coordinator of School & Community Programs. “That photo is what it’s all about.”
Perera coordinated the program through a partnership with O’Neil’s Barber & Beauty Salon, where the barbers sometime include decorative shaved lines that are popular in urban communities, which helps explain the program’s name. St. Aloysius Catholic School provided books for the youngsters to take home.
Curtis became interested because of his own childhood struggles, when he had trouble at both home and school.
A Merrydale Elementary School teacher, who he remembers only as Ms. Jarrell, saw his potential and moved his desk next to hers and worked one-on-one with Curtis.
The barber credits her with setting him on the path to success, and Line 4 Line is his chance to pay it forward by encouraging young boys.
“I do this program to give back to the little kids, to see them happy to read,” said Curtis. “It’s a good thing to make them feel good. We also need more good readers around here. These kids are the future.”
Perera says the first photos were powerful and simply beautiful.
“Seeing boys of all ages seated in chairs reading, while the barbers were clipping away, bending in to listen to the kids read, seeing kids helping each other decode words and then seeing portraits of the boys beaming post-haircut — it truly was magical,” she says.
Perera knew the museum had to continue its documentation as evidence of the program’s success.
“The exhibition is just a way to continue to get the word out and to recognize the many people involved in the program,” she says.
The show was curated by Baton Rouge artist and art historian Meg Holford, put together by graphic design students in the LSU College of Art + Design and installed by museum preparator Brian Morfitt in the Robert and Linda Bowsher Gallery.
The exhibit will hang in the gallery and then move to the Education Wall, Perera says. “But whether you see it in the gallery or on the wall, it’ll be up through July.”
Books read in Line 4 Line enhance the exhibit. Perera chose mostly stories with African-American themes to drum up cultural interest, since the bulk of Line 4 Line’s clients are black.
Some of the boys hold up their chosen book in their portraits. Others strike a pose.
“There is a lot of potential with this program,” Curtis says. “It just takes new minds coming together from different backgrounds and perspectives.
“It’s all about the kids, making them feel special and letting them know we care,” he says. “If we can show some of these kids that we care about them, I think we can change their lives.”
Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.