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Many Faces: Maurice Leoni-Osion

Updated: May 30

We’re continuing our Many Faces, One Collective series, this month featuring Maurice Leoni-Osion, written by Marlene Paul.

 

Maurice Leoni-Jackson is a creator, collaborator, philosopher, and time traveler. He’s also our program director—a position he’s held almost a year, though his ART 180 roots run deep. 



He’s been part of the collective since 2007 and joined our staff in 2019, two weeks before marrying longtime love Cristina. After learning to work virtually during COVID, Maurice proposed a “hybrid model.” He now lives most of the year in Berlin, an international art city that beckoned the creative couple in 2021.


Maurice (or Mo, or Bar Codez, or Mic to continue the legacy of Michaels who preceded him on staff) mixes multidisciplinary expressions like a master DJ, though he’s really an MC. Establishing a name for himself as a songwriter and front man for the hip hop band Photosynthesizers, he started as a visual artist and finds ways to merge the two. He spits metaphysics as casually as some people discuss the weather and composes analogies that reflect a subject in surprising new ways.


Mo in the midst of our Cosmic Block Party, 2023

Growing up between urban Richmond and rural Brunswick County likely prepared Moe to live between a midsize American city and an international capital. The parallels that run through the history and healing of these two cities isn’t lost on him and influence his work as an artist and program developer. It’s just another way his always-active mind connects the dots to inform his practice.


Years ago when a teaching artist introduced Moe to ART 180, he’d never heard of it. He’d recently returned to Richmond after serving five years in the Army National Guard and was focused on making music. Enlisted to assist Rasul Elder with a poetry program at Charity Family Life, he was “super excited. I had never taught something that I love,” he recalls. Moe stayed in the East End but shifted to music video making with youth at the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club.


In 2009 Moe was matched with Margaux LeSord to lead a program at Henderson Middle School. The two had never met and remain friends and collaborators 15 years later. Although she lives in Seattle Margaux is in town this week, piloting a musical scavenger hunt app the pair created, at Friday’s block party.


Moe also shared his musical talents by performing with Photosynthesizers at our first three Jonny Z Festivals and at Art Karma (much loved, and missed, signature ART 180 events). 


After five years leading programs in different disciplines and partner sites, Moe stepped back. “I was getting burnt out and music was taking over and I needed to take a break,” he remembers. “I saw a potentiality of not showing up for the programs in a way that I was going to need to.”


Five years later, after we established Atlas, he returned and led Know Your Hiphopstory, “which was all about looking at hip hop from a historical lens.”


Mo emcee's our 2018 Big Show

Moe says “the relationship with ART 180 spawned a lot of different things where I was opening up some doors outside.” When then-program manager Mike Zetlan left, he told Moe about the opening. 


“I was like, man, this is kind of crazy…I was so into teaching…but I felt like it was another way for me to support artists, support the young folks. So I opened up to that experience.”


Chris Oliver was in Moe’s program and is now a teaching artist. “I talked to Chris yesterday. He was like, ‘yeah, me and Moe had a little friction.’ I don't think it was bad, I was a new guy coming in and there was someone that they had built a strong rapport and relationship with... With all transition points it can be turbulence, but we found that stride and it’s all good.”


“Chris was and still is an amazing poet, super vocal about his ideas, which I love and enjoy. You knew right off the bat he was going to be a leader and a champion, whatever he did. And he was in teen leadership, which was also a good place for me to come into because that was a cohort of youth…influencing aspects of programming and having their own special projects. 


The teens didn’t just influence programming. “For me to get the position as program manager I was interviewed by members of teen leadership, which was super cool. That set the tone.”


He describes Chris’s trajectory from student, leaving for college and returning, then leading workshops, and now contracted as a teaching artist. “It’s really showing the lifecycle of ART 180, how we can collaborate, work with our youth, and they could evolve.” 


He suggests that at ART 180, and maybe life in general, “paths where you go may not be where you end up. It’s kind of like this portal and there's a lot of room for growth and forging your own path. Chris is a fine example of that.”


During COVID, Moe was one of the first staff to return to the office. School and ART 180 programs were virtual, and students would sometimes come to Atlas. One day Chris showed up, later joined by two other teen leaders. 


That timing coincided with establishing our Atlas summer artist residency, now entering its fourth year. “I wanted to do the residency before, but it wasn’t the right timing,” says Moe. “COVID kind of made it the right timing because when we came back we were seeing an impact with fewer numbers and more concentrated focus for longer periods of time. People were engaged.”


“We did the residency and Chris and Nemo and Myasia helped us build out and transform Atlas. They loved ART 180 that much, and they wanted to make sure [the residency] was in a good place. Configuring the space was just a start—it opened up a way for them to really have ownership.”


He notes, “That’s the point of Atlas; the teens have a place where they can identify, influence the programs, and have a safe haven outside of school so they can come and do what they want.”


That first summer residency in ‘21 was a success by any measure. Two months later Moe and Cristina moved to Berlin. After trying and failing to buy a house in Richmond (17 times), they needed a change. He credits COVID as the “good disruptor” that led them to Berlin. The pandemic set a precedent for remote work, and Moe set a precedent for a successful residency. In an arrangement he calls “symbiosis” he returns to Richmond twice a year, typically staying through the summer.


During the residency's trip to Shenandoah Park, Mo is sworn in as an honorary park ranger!

“I watch how I put people in time machines,” he laughs. “I tell people, they can’t wrap their head around it. When they see me, they’re like, you move back? I’m like, no. And they’re like, why are you here? I’m like, I still work here. I come back twice a year. And everyone…cannot believe it.”


He says Berlin has “opened up my eyes not just visually… I can see…what they use art for, which is the same thing—we try and create change, we try to make impact, working with youth and artists trying to forge pathways and creatively problem solve, to help their communities. That’s worldwide.”


By living abroad Moe knew he’d meet other artists and establish relationships with organizations, and he always imagined the residency to become an international exchange of artists and ideas.


“Because I go back and forth, it’s stretching me that way. To think about home is not home. And work doesn't just have to be these singular things, they’re plural.”


“Experience brings on a different type of perspective than you conceptualizing in your head. It’s outside of yourself, but you’re internalizing now. Because I'm in a new place, I'm always using home, the place that I know, which is Richmond. I'm looking through that lens. It's not that I'm filtering the new experience, but I'm associating the new experience. 


He sees opportunities for ART 180 to grow through connections outside the city and country. “We’re gonna do our work in Richmond, but now we don’t…have to limit ourselves. Because the work that we need to do using art is global work.


“I want us to really build a global community,” where artists here, there, and wherever “come together and learn from each other’s differences and expand on each other’s similarities. And that can get disseminated down to the youth.”


Moe is confident “we’re at the point where we can start to open up the collaboration” and wants to harness that energy.


“Right now we have a way to expand because we have a relationship [with new artist in residence Xolani Suvunda, who arrived Friday from Cape Town, South Africa]. It’s also an artist who has his own nonprofit. So now we can think about how the two nonprofits can work together because they’re doing the same things. They’re using art as a way to work with their community, based on the needs of the community.


“We can learn from each other from this residency. And we send this teaching artist over to do similar things. Now we’ve like made a little loop and what can a satellite program look like? So it’s a conversation. It’s also a collaboration. And art is the conduit to make it work. 


“How do we keep reverberating? That's all it is. How can we keep building as symbiosis for reverberation, collaboration? ‘Cause it’s this thing that sometimes we do as nonprofits—you’re over there and I’m over here.”


In Mo’s mind, “nothing works without collaboration.” He sees us “building conduits with artists globally and building pathways for youth to move through these portals.” For him, “Art opens this energy source for me to work collaboratively.”


While we’re thinking globally, we’re also acting locally. This week is our annual celebration of program experiences, an event that’s evolved over the years from a midweek inside showcase to a Friday night activation in the streets. 


He thinks the block party is “doing exactly what it’s intended to. It’s always been a celebration. There’s a way to put that energy back into the youth. I see ART 180 as the reverberation, it needs to be celebrated in other places. We just keep finding ways to expand on the celebration of the work.”


He likened this connectivity, whether local or global, to a spider web. 


“Sometimes organizations or the things that we create lose that multiverse. There’s tons of people that know me from different places and…different roles. That’s everyone on the planet.”


“The art is really like a mirror. ART 180 is the same way—for some people it’s an opportunity where they become teaching artists. For some, they looked through that mirror and it gave them confidence.”


He says, “As an artist, it’s always different depending upon who’s standing in front of that mirror. Because the work is a reverberation of that person. Collectively it’s going to be even more abundant, because they’re bringing their own networks to it. It’s like a spider web.”


The analogy doesn’t end there. “It’s more of a collab,” he says. “You came to the web, you found what you liked…and you brought your own uniqueness to it. And through the web you start to spin out other connections. 


“The organization is a reflection on everyone that works with it. And vice versa. It’s already global, it's just that we may not be making the connections. It’s housed here, so we limit it to here. But when you think about its connectivity, if you get past the sound and think about the reverberation, the echo... Just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean it’s not reverberating… So while you can’t hear it somebody else may hear it loud, like super loud. So that’s a global connection.”


Reflecting on his time as a teaching artist, Moe sees how it prepared him for his current role. “When you explore the other sides of the web you’re like, man, I’ve been looking at it this way, [but] every way is a new awakening.” 


He believes ART 180 “has helped me become a better artist. Taught me how to be slower, calculated and not hurt my self-worth by running, running, running. Which is why I had to take a break. I couldn't find where it was connecting in a way where the energy can be generative.”


Returning last week for the summer, with our first international artist arriving on his tailwind, Moe can see the global vision manifesting.


“I’m excited for it. And that’s why the residency means something. It’s a continuation, but it’s like… you’ve been collaborating with these awesome musicians, and this is the show that’s going to change things. 


He views it as an accumulation of all the work that came before. “Yo, we’re prepared to play our best music because of those experiences.”


written by Marlene Paul

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