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Meet Ebtehal Badawi, the artist behind “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges”

When I was touring the Three Rivers Arts Festival and Market Square’s World Square with my friends a couple of weeks ago, we saw a young girl brushing bright blue paint onto a blank canvas. She quickly ran up to us and asked if we wanted to join her to help with the painting. Her mother followed to explain what her daughter was asking us. 

The woman introduced herself as Ebtehal Badawi, an artist from Saudi Arabia. She created this painting entitled “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” as an inclusive, healing piece. Setting up an interactive painting activity in Market Square for the international festival was the perfect place to promote the greater purpose of the art piece — to show that no matter our differences or beliefs, we all make up one Pittsburgh community. I found myself immediately inspired by this concept and her story.

I was lucky enough to talk with Ebtehal to hear more about her story and vision for the project.

Ebtehal standing with “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” (📸: @ebtehal.badawi81)

Ebtehal was born in Saudi Arabia, moved to the States about 15 years ago, and has called Pittsburgh home for the past seven years. She is an expressionist artist and culture explorer with the greater purpose of building bridges between different people. Her passion comes from believing that art is healing and brings joy to everyone.

Ebtehal’s goal? To use Pittsburgh as her canvas to spread the message of Pittsburgh Builds Bridges. She is looking for a Downtown location for her mural and many different people to help. It seems only right for a mural about the Pittsburgh community to be created by the Pittsburgh community. At World Square, 200 people joined in to paint the smaller version of the painting, and 154 wrote down their information for when it comes time to help create her mural. 

Ebtehal has dreamed of being an artist since 5th grade. After she finished elementary school, she remembered writing herself a note saying, “Today I finished elementary school, and I am so happy. When I grow up, I want to go to art school.” Unfortunately, Ebtehal did not go to art school straight away because everyone convinced her that art was just a hobby. After turning to science and receiving her masters in industrial hygiene, she started a self love journey which took her back to art. She studied a year at the art institute and then stumbled across an art therapy program, which she is currently working towards. 

“Helping people through art, that combination, is what I want to do,” Ebtehal said. 

Expressionist artist, Ebtehal Badawi (📸: @ebtehal.badawi81)

After living in Pittsburgh for some time, Ebtehal found the need to create a painting to bring all Pittsburghers together. Years ago, her son, who is now in 10th grade, was playing for a local hockey team when he received some racist comments. Ebtehal assured me that the bullies have since apologized, but as a mother, she never forgot that hurt and pain inflicted on her child. 

Around the same time, Ebtehal saw a video of a student beating up a Syrain refugee at Carnegie High School. The video went on for a couple minutes. 

“I felt as a mom, as a woman, that this was awful. How can someone videotape this for so long and not call for help?” Ebtehal said.

She reached out to the child’s mother for support and comfort. The pair thought of an anti-bullying and anti-racism poster to promote inclusivity. As an artist, she felt responsible to design the piece. Her inspiration comes from her life experiences. She wanted something to represent Pittsburgh as a whole. Ebtehal felt that nothing would better represent the city than a bridge. The small idea for the poster quickly grew into the idea of Pittsburgh Builds Bridges.

Ebtehal began hanging the poster throughout different libraries and schools, including Jefferson Hills where she resides with her family. After hanging the posters, her Puerto Rican friend called her and explained the personal effect Pittsburgh Builds Bridges had on her son. Her son has experienced panic attacks ever since his older brother was bullied on his football team. She told Ebtehal that when he started having a panic attack in school, he saw her poster and immediately felt safe. 

“When I heard that, that was my ‘why.’ It heals. When she told me that story, it truly changed my definition of art. I knew that art could heal, but I didn’t know that it could help in these kinds of situations,” Ebtehal said.

Ebtehal painting with child in Market Square (📸: @ebtehal.badawi81)

These stories inspired Ebtehal to spread word of her art piece. She met with teachers and students from different schools. Ebtehal wanted to write about the piece but was worried because she wasn’t a strong writer. After talking to her daughter’s elementary school teacher, Ebtehal met with Jefferson Hills 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders to help her. 

Another teacher from Carnegie Elementary invited Ebtehal to speak with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders. They all drew their own versions of Ebtehal’s painting to show their enthusiasm. That same teacher explained to her that he hung the painting in the hall so students could pass by and point to the hands saying “That’s me.. That’s me.”

“So why Pittsburgh Builds Bridges? To welcome everyone so they can feel like they belong,” Ebtehal said. “Then I got the idea to find a wall and paint this as a mural with different kids, people, and maybe players from the Steelers, the Penguins, and the Pirates. My intention is to plant seeds of love, acceptance, and building bridges in our kids’ hearts and our hearts, too.”

Ebtehal has reached out to different organizations in an attempt to find a Downtown spot for her mural, but she’s still waiting to hear back. If you have a mural space and would like to fill it with Ebtehal’s art, email us at [email protected].

My friends lending a hand to help with the painting (📸: Zoey Angelucci)

“I hope to find a wall and paint it together, bringing people together to build bridges between different people. So everyone, when they see it, they feel they belong and Pittsburgh is their home,” said Ebtehal. 

You can follow Ebtehal and her story on Instagram @ebtehal.badawi81 or visit her website at ebartphotography.com.