Perhaps one person can change the world, as the signs proclaim.
But if the death of George Floyd effects change, millions of protesters, writers and others have lent a hand.
In St. Louis, many hands — again — have held paintbrushes.
Dozens of artists are painting images, from flowers and trees to Black Power salutes and likenesses of Floyd’s face. In echoes of 2014 protests and some damaged buildings after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, painted boards cover windows and again speak of black lives, heartbroken communities, peace and justice.
This time, though, more African American artists are making sure their voices are heard and appreciated while some companies and institutions — even the Ferguson police station — indicate support.
Jayvn Solomon, 27, says he thought that “maybe this time around, in addition to supporting local businesses, we should also support local artists.”
With his friend Tyson Baker, he launched Painted Black STL. Within days, followers on Instagram gave at least $9,000 to a GoFundMe campaign to buy supplies and even pay artists for their work.
“We want to leave the messaging to the artist,” Solomon says. “It would be counterintuitive to say ‘paint this.’”
For his first project, he started by sketching an idea for the boards covering Bella’s Frozen Yogurt downtown, which had a window busted during chaos that followed a day of peaceful protests June 1. More than 70 businesses in St. Louis suffered damage or looting.
The protests were part of international activism following shocking videos of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of resident George Floyd for more than eight minutes. Floyd died that day, May 25.
Part of Solomon’s work for the yogurt shop, completed with Baker (who identifies as a “white ally”) and others, shows a closed fist inside a heart with “BLM” and “STL.” While painting it, passersby offered compliments, and one even handed over cash.
The art for Painted Black won’t promote violence, Solomon says, but he hopes it leads to conversations.
“A lot of us know art transcends different languages.”
Solomon says: “Folks tend to correlate Black Lives Matter to ‘end police.’ Black Lives Matter does not mean we should do this or that to the police force. We’re not speaking about ‘defunding’ police. We are helping black artists express themselves.”
Other black artists quickly started putting their work on the plywood covering storefronts. Many of the boards were installed as a precaution, but they often obscure whether the business is open. Colorful paintings can make the business look more welcoming and show support for racial equity and justice.
Downtown, Brock Seals painted Floyd’s face in shades of gray on the outside of the Urban Shark bike shop on Locust Street, including the words “One man can save the world.”
In University City, Eugenia Alexander created colorful vines on a Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy on Delmar Boulevard, including in small gold letters the names of people who have died at the hands of police.
And in the Grove, Tiélere Cheatem spent the weekend on a series of works for City Greens market on Manchester Avenue.
“It’s important that these businesses show that they support what’s going on with black people,” Seals says.
A rapper and artist, he’s marched before, including after Brown’s death. This year, Seals says, “more people are waking up and realizing what’s right — that the deaths are not just an accident.”
Solomon is a graphic designer for PGAV Destinations; many of the other painters also have maintained full-time work during the coronavirus shutdowns.
But Cheatem, who sells his art as a freelancer and acts in St. Louis theater productions, lost his steady job as a cycling instructor.
He is thrilled with the efforts of Painted Black and the opportunity to get paid for his artwork: “I think that this is truly something special. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Although he says he loves being able to give back and donate to different organizations, “I also need to take care of myself. Being paid is a necessity.”
He’s not sure that his paintings, which simply say “I matter” and celebrate the beauty of black men, will be permanent installations. He believes some may stay on City Greens’ patio. He was told a board he painted for the nearby Just John nightclub will be auctioned off.
Tyson Baker says the Missouri History Museum has already reached out to Painted Black, asking for boards to be saved like they were after Ferguson-related destruction in 2014. Those boards led to a children’s book, “Painting for Peace in Ferguson,” and exhibits of the street artwork.
While Cheatem was working last weekend, a friend stopped by to drop off snacks and tell him she was glad he got to show off his art. Facing the sidewalk were messages painted by other creators: “Stay up St. Louis,” “City Greens Stands with You” and “Justice 4 All.”
Only a mile or two away, South Grand Boulevard displayed boards that included a Black Madonna, a yellow-and-black peace sign, and a phrase referencing Floyd’s dying words: “I can’t breathe.”
At Jay’s International Food Co., a long horizontal work by artist Cbabi Bayocshowed a row of fists in varying shades of brown, saying “Jay’s for Black Lives” and labeling the store as minority owned.
Down Delmar Boulevard, more than 40 artists have decorated boarded windows, says Jessica Bueler, who works as a marketing contractor for University City businesses.
None of the windows were damaged; the boards were precautions in light of damage sustained there after 2017 protests, she says. Anger then followed the not-guilty verdict for former police Officer Jason Stockley, who had been charged with murder in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
This month, artists donated their time to help the businesses, which were already hurting because of the coronavirus shutdowns, Bueler says. Some of the artwork, like a colorful perky pig and chicken outside the Salt + Smoke barbecue restaurant, referenced their wares. A beautiful blue-and-teal peacock by artist Andy Cross was a striking addition to the Peacock Loop Diner and Global Foods Market.
“Artists were invited to put whatever they want on the board and share their emotions,” Bueler says.
For Linton Lovelock of Ferguson, that meant a divided face, one half darker than the other, with a small banner over the mouth saying “forgive us.” Below the face is “#wehearyou.” He and a fellow artist, Wendell Phillips Berwick, received permission from Ferguson’s chief of police to paint on boards on the police station.
Asking for forgiveness is a good way to begin a conversation, Lovelock says. A pastor at Fresh Anointing Pentecostal church in north St. Louis, he believes “we all need forgiveness.”
He also says that “when police do something wrong, it should be condemned by everyone, including police.”
Lovelock and Berwick worked for several days on the artwork, while also helping others paint some two dozen signs for businesses. One evening after they’d left, someone painted “Black Lives Matter” next to the face they were working on. Another person later painted over it so the two men could complete their vision.
Lovelock has lived in Ferguson about 10 years and says the national magnitude of recent protests over Floyd’s death felt more tense to him than in 2014, after the death of Michael Brown.
Stress over the coronavirus pandemic may have contributed to the tension, he says. His community wants peace, “to find solidarity.”
For artists, participating in these public projects helps “alleviate some baggage” they may have, he says.
“Art is the voice of people who are neglected. What they are seeing and what they are feeling.”
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