Officials hope canvas brings miracles

Untitled by Jackie Holloway

Even before Jackie Holloway produced “Urban Breakthrough” — a mural commemorating a young man gunned down in the Walter P. Taylor public housing project — she knew firsthand that art had the power to change behavior, and sometimes lives, for the better. 

After the mural was installed on a brick wall overlooking the parking lot where the young man was killed, she said that it had the effect of dissipating the dope deals that went down on an almost hourly basis in that area.  

“And I know some of the dealers who used to operate there took some ownership of it,” she recalled. “Because when a storm partially dismantled the painting a few years ago they gathered up the pieces and brought them to my studio.”

“Urban Breakthrough” has since been refurbished, but its original wall was demolished during renovations at the housing project.  The mural will soon land at the new Magnolia Avenue home of Canvas Can Do Miracles – Jackie Holloway’s base of operations for literal urban breakthroughs, fueled by art.

Canvas Can Do Miracles Executive Director Jackie Holloway in front of Program Director Audrey Wallace and volunteer Yvonne Webb as they move into new digs on Magnolia Avenue. Photo submitted..

Long before that mural, art began saving Jackie Holloway’s life, but not before going through a prolonged ordeal as a crack addict.  Somewhere in the darkest of those days a vision and an inner voice converged upon her, setting her upon a mission to tap into the creative aspects of addiction to transform herself and maybe others for the better.

“If you think about what an addict does – what they go thru to get that next fix – you’re so creative to get your drugs,” said the 62-year-old founder of the inner-city nonprofit she created to provide free art education and art therapy to individuals with substance abuse issues, as well as disadvantaged adults and children. “I just want to turn that creativity to get your drugs or money into doing something positive with art.  All addicts are artists.”

Canvass Can Do Miracles was one of 13 local agencies that were approved last week by City Council to divvy up $199,979.47 as part of a new initiative, the Summer Youth Violence Prevention Small Grants Program (Opportunity Youth grants). The plan is meant to provide summer programs and job opportunities to young people who are at risk for gun violence.

The grant is nearly one-fifth of the $1 million in violence interruption funds earmarked by Mayor Indya Kincannon and Council in response to an unprecedented surge of deadly violence that has touched almost every corner of the city and taken a particularly heavy toll in young lives.

Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been at least 22 slayings in the city, all of them involving firearms. There have been at least five more homicides in the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office. There were 37 homicides in Knoxville in 2020, more than the previous high of 35 in 1998. 

No community has been hit harder than East Knoxville, especially Austin-East Magnet High School and the neighborhoods surrounding it. This year, five Austin-East students lost their lives to gun violence in just a few weeks.

Justin Taylor, 15, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend Jan. 27. Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, was killed Feb. 12 as he was driving away from the Austin-East campus, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad was fatally shot outside her home on Feb. 16. Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette died early March 11 at a local hospital, several hours after he was brought in by a motorist who found him suffering from a gunshot wound in South Knoxville. On April 12, 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. was killed during an armed struggle with four Knoxville Police Department officers in a school restroom, triggering weeks of protests.

The Opportunity Youth grants are expected to allow the 13 chosen agencies to serve approximately 634 young people ages 12-20 between June and September, according to Community Engagement Manager Kathy Mack, who has been tapped to oversee the grant agreements.

“Engaging young people over the summer months with productive activities when they’re not in school or working is critical to reducing their risks of being involved with making bad decisions,” said Mack. “I’m excited to see the creative and diverse ways these agencies work with young people and help them reach their full potential.”

All the agencies awarded Opportunity Youth grants are 501c3 nonprofit organizations or have fiscal sponsors. The program was announced on May 19, and applications were due June 1.

Justin Taylor was Jackie Holloway’s cousin, and the first Austin-East student to be shot to death this year. “His mother came to me in about 2016 when we didn’t have money or a building and asked if there was anything we could have him do to get him out of the streets and I feel frustrated and feel like my program could have saved his life,” Holloway said in a strained voice earlier this year at a media event organized by a coalition of small, community-based organizations pushing for increased City funding for their violence intervention and prevention programs.  

The coalition’s campaign to establish a $6 million Violence Intervention and Prevention Fund may not have been completely realized, but Council’s vote last week to fund the Opportunity Youth grants seemed to be at least a partial victory.

Canvass Can Do Miracles was awarded $15.4 thousand for their summer violence prevention program. 

Holloway said eight students between twelve and twenty-four years old will be hired for part time employment this summer, either as art teachers at $23 per hour, or as assistants at $15 per hour.  As the executive director, Holloway takes a hands-on approach to teaching classes and mentoring, along with Program Director Audrey Wallace.  Both women also prepare meals for every student.

Students expressing themselves through art at Canvas Can Do Miracles. Photo submitted.

“There will also be a financial literacy component to the program,” added Holloway.  “We will be depositing students’ earnings into credit union accounts that we will have them set up, and they will get some coaching on financial planning from the credit union.”

Asked how art can really be a tool for violence reduction, Holloway reflected, “The kids I have taught since they were little and were doing art all their life, they get past one-dimensional thinking about how to solve problems and realize their vision.  Their exposure to art influences their imagination and they learn the skills to make their visions real. I don’t know any violent artists.”

Walking through the Magnolia Avenue building that will soon house her operations, Holloway points out all the in-kind, non-monetary donations that were needed to bring the long-abandoned building up to code: Architectural drawings for the rehab done gratis by an architect; rewiring donated by an electrician; electrical panels and wire donated by Home Depot; paint and flooring donated by Lowe’s.  The building owner, Josh Smith, is letting her use the building free of charge.

What Jackie Holloway may lack in monetary contributions to her mission is largely made up for in her exceptional hustle to get the things the money buys, if not the money itself.  She agrees that it’s the same hustle that fueled twelve years of crack addiction, now fully redirected to a life-affirming purpose.

“I’m still a hustler,” she admits. “I’ve just changed the venue.”

“Urban Breakthrough”

Rick Held can be reached at

Published on June 20, 2021