The ultra-real-life mural depicting hometown hero and abolitionist Harriet Tubman was too much for 3-year-old “Lovie” Hope Duncan to resist.
In a 14-foot high, 24-foot wide mural in the town of Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Tubman is depicted in a reddish-colored braided headwrap, layered clothing, an outstretched right hand and a look on her face that seems to say, “trust me, you can do this.”
So, as Lovie, extends her left hand to touch Tubman’s, the image is captured by her grandmother, Tracy Lynndee, co-owner of Maiden Maryland, a shop featuring unique gifts and artwork in Cambridge.
Lynndee posted the Rockwellian-like image on her personal Facebook page, as well as the store’s Facebook page. It quickly was posted on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway site and has gone viral on the internet.
The artist, whose “Take My Hand” image has captured the attention of The Washington Post, CNN, “Today”, Yahoo.com and other national media is Michael Rosato, a 1983 interior design graduate of Florida State University.
“It’s just so striking,” Tracy Lynndee told the Tallahassee Democrat Thursday. “It transports you to the moment where a person would have to make a decision to stay or risk it all and leave. It’s just beautiful.”
Rosato, 59, makes a handsome living as a full-time muralist doing commission work for clients across the country from his studio in Cambridge. He and his wife, Heather, moved to Maryland’s Eastern Shore 18 years ago, where he bought a building to escape escalating rental fees in the nation’s capital.
He credits his time at Florida State as a defining moment in discovering his creative future.
My creative process is rooted in my studio time at the university,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful professor at Florida State named Peter Munton who I consider my mentor and lifelong friend. He, as well as the other professors, would engage with the students and challenge them to ask questions and push the boundaries of their potential.
Munton, Rosato said, “taught magic.”
“Not ‘pull a rabbit out of the hat’ magic, but the magic of possibilities and the magic of creativity.”
Munton, 78, was an interior design professor at FSU for 25 years before retiring in 2014. He remembers Rosato as one of those students who stood out and they maintain a close relationship.
“I tried to get him interested in color, but he wasn’t interested in color,” Munton said. “And then he went on to become a great colorist. His work is well known for that. He’s a Realist. When you see his work, you will know what that means.”
Rosato grew up in St. Petersburg, where he graduated from Northeast High School. He attended St. Petersburg College and transferred to FSU in 1981.
I wanted to do something creative,” he said. “I really wanted to go to art school, but I also wanted to get a job. I thought I might need a job when I graduated.
With a degree in hand, Rosato moved to Washington, D.C., to work for an interior architecture firm that had given him a scholarship at FSU.
That lasted until 1990 when his calling to become an artist surfaced again. He took courses at the Corcoran School of Art, where he studied metal sculpting. He got a job with a company and was assigned a job building an 80-foot wall sculpture.
He found himself challenged by “a ton of metal” unloaded by a semi in the lobby of a building.
“Fear is an incredible motivator,” he said of overcoming his initial anxiety of making the project happen.
But he was ready to become a full-time artist. He left to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago, to pursue a master’s degree. He got accepted into the school’s design program, but his passion was sculpture.
He returned to Washington, and one day, while getting a haircut, his barber asked if he painted, a friend needed help with a mural he was working.
Rosato said yes. Suddenly he found himself being handed a bucket of watered-down paint and brush and “he told me to do the underpainting of a section of this wall.”
“I had no idea of what to do,” Rosato said.
But he quickly learned. He completed that job and landed another painting the interior of a nightclub in the district.
He was on his way.
“I overcame my fear and became a painter,” he said. “I wasn’t an artist yet. The destination is the journey. It took 10 years for me to consider myself an artist – not an imposter.”
Today, Rosato’s creativity can be found at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.; Oklahoma City National Memorial in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth; Texas Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Museum in Cape Charles, Virginia, and the headquarters of Bacardi, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
He describes his style as “representational realism.” Rosato said, “I paint things to look like they really are.”
Tubman, a 19th-century abolitionist, was in her late 20s when in 1849, she fled from a plantation in Cambridge and made it to Philadelphia, the Smithsonian reports. She courageously returned to Maryland the next year to smuggle her niece and her niece’s children to freedom — and kept returning as late as 1860, for as many as 19 trips, during which she helped free 300 slaves.
The timing of Rosato’s completed product and the social media response intersects with news this week from the White House that the much-anticipated Tubman image replacement of slave master Andrew Jackson on the $20-bill won’t happen until at least 2028.
The mural is located on the side of the Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center in Cambridge, run for decades by a dedicated group of volunteers.
It was commissioned by the Dorchester Center for the Arts for the 50th anniversary of the Maryland State Arts Council. It is a partnership among the arts center, Alpha Genesis CDC, the Harriet Tubman Organization and Downtown Cambridge.
“I was stunned that this picture went viral almost immediately, but I did not have to see it twice to know it was a powerful picture,” said Barbara Seese, executive director of the Dorchester Center for the Arts.
Children act on their feelings and this little girl automatically responded to Harriet’s outstretched hand. To her invitation. You can’t help but feel this connection of the past to the present.
Rosato is unabashedly proud of the reception his Harriet Tubman mural is receiving. It was completed in 14 days.
“It came off my brush with such fluidity,” he said, speaking with the post-game confidence of a major leaguer who has pitched a no-hitter. “It just flowed. This one clicked from the beginning to the end.”
In addition to Lynndee’s image of her grand-daughter giving Tubman “a high-five” that has gone viral, a video recorded by Cambridge business owner Armah Dashiell has garnered 588,000 and 17,000 shares on his Facebook page.
“My reaction to the national attention is a feeling of gratitude and humility,” said Rosato, who for the past 37 years at Thanksgiving has joined a reunion of his 1982 FSU class in Atlanta. “I am grateful for having an opportunity to paint this remarkable woman and I am in awe of how it has touched so many people.
I set out to represent Harriet Tubman as a strong yet compassionate woman that would be staring at you the viewer and offering her hand to take you on the journey to freedom,” he said. “I wanted the image to project all the traits that made this iconic woman a hero to her people and an inspiration to all who will be viewing it.
Contact senior writer Byron Dobson at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @byrondobson.