Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of pieces about grassroots leaders in Milwaukee.
Darren Hill was knee deep in a familial juggling act. The eldest Hill sibling and a top student, he found himself balancing school with his duties as a part-time breadwinner and father surrogate. The first in his family to go to college, he was living 75 miles away from Milwaukee, attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
One day he got a call, and he realized he had to come home. Vedale Hill, his younger brother, was mad as hell and Darren feared he was about to do something stupid.
“Our cousin Mark, who grew up with us, who’s like our middle brother, he was killed in Riverwest after a party,” Darren said. “That’s what literally ripped me from school and brought me back to Milwaukee.”
Darren had reason to be concerned, said Vedale, who had grown up a bit of a “trouble child.” His GPA never fell too far from a perfect 4.0, but he was prone to fighting and had more suspensions than he can remember. He got kicked out of his first high school, and found himself a bit lost when his second school shut down. But with the help of his former principal, who saw great potential in Vedale despite a bad reputation, he enrolled in a fine arts-focused high school and began to thrive.
After their cousin was killed, Vedale struggled to move on.
“[Darren] was concerned that I would respond with anger and retaliation and revenge,” said Vedale, now 29. “He was here to try and keep people on the right track.”
“I knew other people would get in trouble; I knew my brother would get in trouble,” Darren said.
Although Darren returned to Milwaukee heartbroken, he and Vedale forged a new way of life from the ashes of tragedy.
Darren helped his younger brother seek reconciliation through art, kept him from an impulsive act of violence, and in the process discovered his true passion in life. He eventually re-enrolled at UW-Milwaukee, focusing his studies on how to expand the educational opportunities of others. With the goal of eventually helping kids who grew up like them find success in life, Darren and Vedale started Jazale’s Art Studio, a grassroots operation providing art education and mentoring to youths in the Milwaukee area.
Darren, 31, is disturbed by the reduction of arts education in the Milwaukee public schools. Jazale’s works with schools both on a project basis, and through year-round programming.
“Jazale’s is a program that at its heart gives creativity opportunities to youth and other community members. We try to support the community through art,” Darren said. He added that the venue is used to give more exposure to local artists, whether visual artists, poets or musicians.
“We just see ourselves as a hub for the arts,” he added.
Of all the pop art-inspired works found at Jazale’s, one of the most striking pieces is an oil painting gracing a canvas much longer than it is wide, It follows a wooden streetlight post for a few feet, with a teddy bear tied on and a bow wrapped around it. It depicts a “hood” memorial for their cousin Mark, which Vedale painted based on the one made in real life.
The simple sign reads “RIP, Daddy.”