By Matthew Monroy
Growing up, Ebtehal Badawi’s passion for art was dismissed by her parents as a “hobby.” Now a popular Pittsburgh artist, Badawi hasn’t let a late start slow her down. In fact, she’s used it as motivation to accomplish her dream of painting a mural and spreading her message of cross-cultural hope as far as she can.
“I knock at doors and if someone opens, I walk through,” Badawi says. “And if someone doesn’t, I find another door to walk through.”
Badawi, who is from Saudi Arabia, is on a mission to create an outdoor mural of her painting, “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges,” on a wall Downtown. The painting depicts a classic Pittsburgh yellow bridge against a blue background with an array of upraised multi-racial fists rising from the arches. Above each fist is a religious symbol, representing beliefs such as Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Atheism, and below the bridge is the slogan, “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges,” in bright white lettering.
As a Muslim woman, Badawi hopes the painting will help people see past harmful stereotypes.
So far, she’s been met with hesitancy and closed doors for her project. But Badawi sees her artwork as more than just canvas and paint. Her vision? The mural’s creation will be a collaborative, community event with a diverse showcase of the arts, where Pittsburgh leaders and ordinary citizens alike can help paint.
“My medium is art, but we can build bridges by food and music,” Badawi says. “I want to combine all that together on that day to bring us together.”
Listening to Badawi talk about her vision is captivating. She is ebullient, bubbly and bright. When she smiles, she means it — it’s an ear-to-ear, wide-eyed joy. She says that most of the time she paints when she’s happy. Given her positive attitude, it’s hard to imagine when she wouldn’t be making art.
“Each painting is a journey, a process,” Badawi says. “Even after I have an idea in my mind, after I’m done, it’s totally different. It’s like it’s a conversation between me and the painting.”
Badawi’s sunny demeanor and bright outlook on life belie the dark circumstances that led to her painting “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges.” In 2019, her son came home from hockey practice quiet and closed off. He explained how one of his teammates had said something racist to him at practice.
Around the same time, Badawi watched in horror as a video went viral of a girl assaulting a 14-year-old fellow student, who was a Syrian refugee, in a bathroom at Chartiers Valley High School. Badawi, who has worked in education settings as a teacher’s assistant and is mother to two children, was shocked.
“I thought, how can someone videotape this — it’s so long — and not call for help,” Badawi says.
After those two events, Badawi felt like she had to do something. So, she turned to what she knows best — art.
Badawi describes her painting as a deeply personal, sometimes associative process between her and her materials. After a painting exercise in an art class during which she had to sketch with her eyes closed, Badawi got the inspiration for one of her paintings, “Expression,” which depicts an array of multi-racial figures abstractly rendered against a rich background of teal and dark blue splotches.
You can find “Expression” throughout cafeterias and hallways in the West Jefferson Hills School District, where Badawi lives with her family. The school’s superintendent liked the painting so much that he asked Badawi to make bigger copies of it to hang in the schools.
She’s also led workshops across elementary schools in Pittsburgh where she helps students use art to visualize bridging divides and resolving conflicts.
So far, Badawi has painted three indoor murals around Pittsburgh: one at Arsenal Middle School, one at Keystone Cafe Downtown and one at Hello Neighbor, a nonprofit refugee support organization. But Badawi is still looking for a space to paint her outdoor mural, a goal that she is unwavering in accomplishing.
She has been met with polite no’s and not-so-polite no’s. Sometimes she gets frustrated and has to remind herself of the bigger picture, of the people who need messages of hope in their lives. People like her Puerto Rican friend’s son, who after experiencing panic attacks over the fear of being bullied, saw Badawi’s “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” poster at his school in Jefferson Hills and felt a little safer. Even if it was just for a bit, it was enough to make him happier — which is enough for Badawi.
“My intention is to plant seeds of love, acceptance and building bridges in kids’ hearts, and in our hearts too,” Badawi said. “And every time I paint, I see that.”