trouble. I used to write secret languages with my best friends in Kennedy Heights. We would roller skate
around the neighborhood and through the breezeways there. We would claim our territories in the playgrounds.
We would make houses with leave piles and play house. We were very creative with what we had.”
While growing up, one thing that Mabra didn’t have was a strong sense of identity. As a bi-cultural child, Mabra
didn’t have a relationship with her natural father and wasn’t sure where she fit in.
For the first 40 years of her life, that sense of not belonging drove Mabra’s actions.
“I kind of gave up on the idea of art because I stopped creating it,” Mabra said. “I fell into drugs for a while and
that became my new medium of escape. And I was always coming up with some incredibly profound ideas —
or so I thought — for how to take my art and creativity a step further, but it never went anywhere because I was
not in my right mind.
For most of her adult life, Mabra went in and out of jail.
“I would go a few years with no police contacts,” Mabra said. “But then I would get disorderly conducts. I
never sat more than two months at a time. But I would get arrested often and have to sit for a few days. And
that was torture. And it took me a lot of years and a lot of missed opportunities to finally understand the
importance of taking my life seriously and taking the lives of others seriously, like family and friends and
people who have been working very hard to help create that artistic side of me — professors and mentors —
who have created that creative outlet that I have always shown and not been willing to put the time and
commitment into it.”
Mabra took control of her life and is now in recovery and has been using her art as way to discover her identity
and who she is in a world that all too often tells you who you are, especially if you are a person of color. And so
Mabra uses strips of words and photos out of magazines and newspapers to that seem to have endless
imagery attached to them, but also can create images through their infusion, almost like a Rorschach test that
fuels the beholder’s imagination.
“When I have a collage, when I have a magazine that is already there in front of me where people have put
their art into images that they consider to be beautiful and moving, I see shapes and patterns that can blend
together nicely to fit an image that I am looking to create within a piece,” Mabra said. “For example, I will see
bricks on the front of a magazine and I will be thinking about how to make that Black Lives Matter. I’ll be
thinking about homes and the projects and various backgrounds that a lot of Black people have come from.
And also I’ll see feeding into those stereotypes and creating a new ways of looking at Black people’s lives and
what is at the heart of us as individuals as well. I’ll collage different images that are relatable to what people
may have already treated with their ideas into something that they hadn’t noticed or looked at before. What I
have been finding mostly in my collage pieces is that using images of nature that people have photographed as
well as creating my own images with the colors that I cut out of specific pictures to form my own idea of an
image that I have in my mind that represents the culture that is people in and of ourselves.”
And due to her own experience being incarcerated, Mabra creates imagery that appeals to the subconscious to
be free of the roles and stereotypes that society has placed on Black people.
“I can make a prison tower,” Mabra said. “Both of my fathers spent a great deal of time in prison and so a lot of
my reaching out is directed at people who are coming out of that part of a culture and structure that allows them
to see another side and see that they can come out of that institutionalized thinking if they really put their minds
to it and reach out for outside help.
By Jonathan Gramling
While she didn’t grow up with many advantages in a single-parent home
in Kennedy Heights, Keysha Monique Mabra did have a mother who
helped nurture her creative energy by making sure that there were artistic
supplies in the home and bought her books on artists like Van Gogh.
And it was her imagination that allowed Mabra to cope with living in an
economically-challenged neighborhood and find a level of joy and
“I was very adventurous,” Mabra said. “I was always getting into
Sometimes I’ll create a prison tower out of various images that I see. And then I’ll throw various images like fish and watermelon, throwing in some stereotypes. I’ll leave it at this. I am really connecting with my Black culture right now as well as my multiracial culture. I use my learning
and understanding from gaining insight from others as well as my own experiences to help other people in similar positions racially, politically, economically and gender-wise to find their own calling and their own way of fitting in.”
It is through her sobriety that Mabra has been able to see the complexity of life, especially if she moves beyond the confines of her previous way of looking at things.
“I’m seeing things from a new perspective,” Mabra said. “And I am understanding that life is much more complicated than it seemed to be when I was a kid and not so complicated if we take steps to more smoothly transition from our hardships into a more sustainable life. It doesn’t
have to be so hard. That’s what I am getting at. People feel we’ve been educated or know how to find that level of education to reach out and find the answers we are looking for, then it seems extremely complex. I feel very blessed having met the people and put through the treatment
programs that I have and have been forced to choose between jail time or sobriety doing treatment. I was forced to make that decision and I chose life outside of the bars. I chose to explore other options. And in doing so, I am able to help other people as well.”
Sometimes we are able to save others by saving ourselves.