“The Curator’s Cut”
A Baltimore Barber and Shooting Survivor Instills Visual Art and Communal Uplift into Sculpted Heads
by D. Amari Jackson
Halloween, 2018. Southwest Baltimore. Broad daylight, 2:40 p.m.
“I’m in the barbershop cutting hair, I have a gentleman in my chair,” recalls Troy Staton, of that surreal Halloween day at his former shop, New Beginnings. Despite a packed house of 30 clients waiting on five barbers, Staton—a longtime barber, community advocate, and native of the city’s Cherry Hill neighborhood—was simultaneously preparing his shop for the hordes of smiling, costumed youth that appeared each year as a safe alternative to knocking on doors. “What we do is have a big trash can filled with candy accessible for the children,” he explains, noting “I believe in solutions over problems. You come here, we got candy for the kids, and you don’t have to worry about it being tainted, about pedophiles, or none of that. This is a safe haven.”
Unfortunately, that particular afternoon, the shop was anything but safe. “A gentleman comes in the door,” recounts Staton, and “all of a sudden, I hear this ruckus going on, people scrambling and whatnot… I pushed the gentleman in my chair out of the chair to get him to the ground, to protect him.” After the shooting stops and the gunman leaves, “I get up and do an assessment to make sure everybody’s all right” and then, “I feel a burning sensation in the back of my neck.” Staton reached toward the base of his neck and came back with a handful of blood. Upon the subsequent trip to the emergency room, he was informed he’d been hit multiple times, each bullet grazing his neck. Miraculously, Staton was released from the Maryland Shock Trauma Center mere hours later with nothing more than a bandage, and a renewed commitment to his community.
“I first became frustrated and angry because I had been hit, I could’ve lost my life, and my work wasn’t done,” acknowledges Staton, revealing he later found, through the community grapevine, that the unidentified shooter had likely been targeting a customer, not him. Even so, he recognized his work on behalf of his community and its youngest members was far from over. “I thank God” that the shooting occurred “before the candy distribution took place. It could have been a whole lot worse.”
Many in the economically challenged neighborhoods of southwest Baltimore thank God for Staton. For more than a decade, the popular barber has served others with a host of initiatives aimed at providing both vital resources and communal uplift. Five years ago, Staton initiated More Than a Shop, a community-based program offering food distribution, reading sessions, and quick health checkups that has since expanded to a dozen barbershops and salons. In partnership with Kaiser Permanente, the program has hosted over 5000 health screenings for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and HIV at area haircare establishments. The Baltimore City Health Department has held regular informational sessions on sexual health at his site, and Staton has worked with Kaiser to coordinate trainings for identifying and managing mental health and substance abuse. And Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library has joined with Staton to bring local authors into his shop to read to children.
Still, for all the important services he has brought to area residents in need, the thing Staton is most passionate about sharing with them is visual art. The first thing you experience when you walk into one of his operations, be it his former New Beginnings spot or his current Vanity Salon location, is the vibrant, framed images of African American art that adorn the establishment’s walls. The longtime art enthusiast has run his barbershops like one would a gallery or museum. ”I was going to shows and galleries and collecting a lot of art, so I’m bringing in fine art from my collection and putting it on display at the barbershop,” says Staton, who then started reaching out to the art community and hosting art shows and receptions. He quickly clarifies that, unlike other shops and salons, “It’s not posters or commercial art. This is fine art.”
Passionately, he continues. “I’m regularly having this art on display, the same as museums, quality art like the works of Lou Stovall, Kevin Cole, Renée Stout, Michael Platt, just to name a few. I’m hosting art exhibitions with programs on a four-month rotation,” notes Staton, along “with art talks. I’m reaching out to artists, and I am building relationships with the artists themselves.”
“At the barbershop, we held symposiums, art shows, art exhibits with nationally known artists,” echoes Sam Christian Holmes, a sculptor and printmaker who worked with Staton on the Black Male Identity Project, a citywide initiative of the Open Society Institute (OSI) aimed at dispelling myths about Black men and boys. Holmes, the project codirector who curated the events at the shop, points out that, in 2015, “we took the Troy Staton collection to Stevenson University in Baltimore County and had a major art exhibit there.” Consistently, Holmes promotes the impact and reach of Staton’s unique approach to the art of barbering. “Troy is an important member of the community, and the activities that he is directing in the barbershop have a major effect on Baltimore and the Black family.”
But long before incorporating his passion for the visual arts into his trade, Staton had to first learn the art of barbering. In an early bid for cash and independence, he picked up clippers for the first time at age 13, practicing on his brother’s hair before expanding to friends in his Baltimore neighborhood. In high school, he followed in his brother’s footsteps and attended barber school at the Westside Skill Center in Baltimore before getting his license and cutting hair at local shops.
He almost didn’t make the cut. “I was a latchkey kid,” says Staton, the son of a single mother who worked at a local factory. “At a certain point, I was damn near a statistic,” he reveals, acknowledging “I fell astray running in those streets, and I made some bad decisions.” The turning point came at age 25, after the early deaths of two friends and the birth of a son. “I knew that life was no longer for me and I had to redirect myself and do something else,” remembers Staton, clarifying “I already knew what was waiting for me if I stayed on that same road.”
His trade would provide the path forward as Staton began working with legendary Baltimore barber, Lenny Clay, from Lenny’s House of Naturals. It was there he learned from the “powerful Black men” he encountered, the primary being Clay. “I’m in the shop and this guy comes in and says he’s going to run for office,” recalls Staton. “Now I’m a dude who don’t know nothing about none of this” and, after hearing him out, “Mr. Clay said, ‘Okay, I’ll support you, so what do you think I should do?” The men strategized, continues Staton and, a few weeks later, “I’m watching the news, and this same guy is on there saying he’s running to be the mayor of Baltimore, and his name is Kurt Schmoke. I’m like, that’s the guy I seen talking to Lenny!” Never having been exposed to that type of power dynamic among Black men, Staton was blown away. “Next thing I know, this man wins the election to become the first Black mayor of Baltimore.” After the race, mayor-elect Schmoke “returned to the shop and said, ‘Lenny, thank you for your support.”
The exposure would continue as Staton encountered Black judges, millionaires, and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey who would specifically seek out Clay to get their hair cut when in the area. “This gentleman showed me that there was more to being a barber than just being a barber,” says Staton, promoting how Clay “instilled things in me like having a commitment to the community” and ideals like “we don’t take, we give back.”
So, adds Staton, now “I knew better, so I could only do better.”
Staton did just that. Upon opening his own barbershop in 2008—decades after being fascinated by the background art he watched on the Cosby Show as a kid—he recognized he could best serve his community by marrying his twin passions of barbering and art. Soon after, Staton opened New Beginnings and began to “build ongoing relationships with the schools because I clearly understood that, in the city of Baltimore, the art was one of the first things that was cut out of the budget for education. And I believe in solutions over problems, so with me collecting art, I understood it should not be hoarded, but shared.”
As he continued to collect, share, and study fine art, Staton became aware of the work of a variety of artists in the Baltimore-Washington area including Joyce J. Scott, Sam Gilliam, Stovall, Stout, and Platt. “They were living, they were in my proximity and I reached out to some of these artists and, lo and behold, they were receptive, and they opened up their doors, their hearts, and embraced me.” Upon forging these relationships, Staton was further exposed to the works of Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, David Driskell, and Curlee Holton, along with such famous collectors as J. Larry Frazier.
Over time, others began to take notice of the inspired art, relationships, and community services Staton was providing the residents of his region. In 2015, he was awarded a Warnock Fellowship for his innovation in “fusing fine art with the art of barbering to uplift the community.” In 2018, he received a Baltimore Corps Fellowship for “helping to break the cycle of isolation from traditional arts and higher education communities while uplifting students, parents, and residents through culturally relevant art exhibitions and programming.” And last year, Staton was named a 2020 fellow at OSI for pursuing innovative approaches and community solutions to the fundamental challenges of an open society. As a recipient, Staton received $60,000 to expand his current initiatives for an 18-month period. At the time of the OSI selection, Alma Roberts, Kaiser’s interim director of Community Health and Economic Opportunity and Impact, told the Baltimore Sun that Staton is “someone you wish you had in every community.”
But for all of his extraordinary accomplishments over the past decade, one of the things Staton is most proud of occurred in the aftermath of the Halloween 2018 shooting. “All the way up until then, I never looked at myself as an advocate,” says Staton. “I was just doing my part for my community, giving back to those who so freely had given to me and my family. But I knew I had been spared for a reason.” While the shooting motivated him to step up his work and expand it to more shops and salons, Staton was surprised by the way the Baltimore community stepped up for him. The city of Baltimore, the mayor’s office, and the local community reached out to the popular barber with messages of love, concern, and support. “That was not something that was expected,” admits Staton. Even the local press, well-known to sensationalize such crimes occurring in the predominantly Black communities of southwest Baltimore, ultimately took a different route with the incident. Staton was told by local reporters that when they asked around about the shooting and researched him online, all they kept getting was a long list of the selfless things the barber was doing for his community. One of them questioned why they were just finding out about his ongoing work on behalf of Baltimore residents. “My thing was, I wasn’t doing it for y’all,” says Staton, recalling the 2018 conversation with the reporter. “I was doing it because it was needed.”
What is now needed, Staton believes, is the expansion of his More than a Shop network of barbershops and salons into the surrounding county of Baltimore and, ultimately, nationwide. He stresses community education and healthy collaboration as the much needed solutions for the issues that plague neighborhoods like those in southwest Baltimore. He believes the pivotal role of barbershops and salons in this communal uplift process will increasingly “become the norm,” especially given the current limitations of community resource centers. “What I understand is if you live outside a four-block radius, you will not get the resources readily available at these resource centers,” says Staton. “But every three or four blocks, there’s a barbershop or a beauty salon. So let’s connect, educate, and work with the barbershops and salons to help them connect with these resource centers to reach all of these individuals and create a healthier culture by addressing these issues directly in the community of those in need.”
While Staton’s nationwide aspirations may sound like a massive or lofty goal, he drives his intentions home in a strikingly simple fashion.
“I just wanted to share art with the community, with the kids, you know?” says Staton. “I wanted to show people that we have African American art, that we are a beautiful people, that this is our children, this is our lives, this is our story, this is our heritage.”
“And to be able to do my little part in a barbershop in Baltimore… well, that shows me that my work was all worthwhile.”
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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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