Jonathan Frost grabs the hands of model Cindy Wanjiru, who lies on her back in the middle of Frost’s painting studio floor.
Her arms are in the air, and Frost hovers over her like an arresting cop.
“Keep your fists like that,” he says, taking her by the wrists and pulling her arms taut. “Keep them clenched. That’s good. That’s good.”
He steps back to his easel, and with a brush loaded with dark paint makes a five-fingered swirl.
The painting will help tell the story of Claudette Colvin, who was arrested in March 1955 for resisting bus segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested for the same offense and became a national figure. Though she is considered a civil rights pioneer, Colvin’s story is often lost in the larger narrative about the fight for equal rights in America.
Frost’s civil rights paintings are part of the observances of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is Jan. 19, at Bates College in Lewiston. Beginning Monday, Frost will show his work on the first floor of Ladd Library on the Bates campus.
These paintings continue Frost’s interest in the human figure. He’s best known for his action paintings of roller derby women.
Technically, his ability to represent a team of roller derby blockers thwarting opponents presents the same challenges as men buckling under the force of nightsticks or women wrestling with their aggressors.
Frost called Wanjiru to the studio to help him finish the centerpiece image in the show, a large painting that shows Colvin on her back struggling with her arresters.
His paintings also tell the story of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old protester shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper. His death inspired the Selma to Montgomery marches. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at his funeral.
And the story of the Selma Negro Teachers Association, the first African-American teachers group in the Deep South to march for the right to vote.
Frost, who operates a gallery in downtown Rockland, felt inspired after reading the Nick Kotz book “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws that Changed America.”
He traveled across Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee, visiting important places in America’s civil rights history.
“I think the civil rights movement is one of the three or four most important social movements in America in my lifetime,” Frost, 65, said, noting similarities in the tenor of the times today as in the ’60s, when race and social justice were part of the conversation of America.
“And I do like doing things with social import.”
WHERE: Ladd Library, Bates College, Lewiston
WHEN: On view Monday to Feb. 22; 7:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Thursday; 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday