Artwork created on storefronts after Ferguson riots is being exhibited in galleries throughout the area
By Nicholas Elmes
Shortly after the shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing unrest in the Ferguson community, a group of artists and community members stepped up to paint a different picture of the St. Louis community.
Armed with paintbrushes, buckets of paint and hope for the future, professional artists from throughout the region joined community members in helping to board up and then paint storefronts damaged in the “Ferguson October” protests.
“None of this was pre-planned as we know it,” said University of Missouri St. Louis Associate Professor Dr. Jacquelyn Lewis-Harris who has helped curate an exhibit of the resulting artwork now on display throughout St. Louis. Outside/In Paint for Peace collects some of the approximately 250 works created at over 100 businesses throughout the Ferguson area in 2014, currently presenting them for display at five locations throughout the St. Louis Region.
Paint for Peace works can be found at the Millstone Gallery at COCA, Gallery 210 on the University of Missouri- St. Louis campus, the Missouri History Museum, the Vaughn Cultural Center, and the Ferguson Youth Initiative through October 30. A sixth exhibit space, The Sheldon Art Galleries, will have works on display from Oct. 7 through Nov. 19.
“This is one of the few exhibits where you have so many venues participating at the same time,” said Lewis-Harris.
Lewis-Harris said Paint for Peace had helped to draw the community together, focusing people from all walks of life on improving a community damaged by unrest and decades of inequality.
“It is a tangible piece of the community working together in a positive way,” she said, noting that the event had drawn people from all over St. Louis. “People from south St. Louis came all the way up to North County to work on these. There were some people who were afraid to come to Ferguson, and they found out it was not as scary as they thought it would be.”
“Our whole city was hurting, and the whole world was looking at us,” said artist Andy Cross. “Sometimes, when you don’t know what else to do, creating something beautiful in the face of so much ugliness is the only thing you can do.”
Artist Amina Terry, who worked on one of the pieces with her eight-month-old daughter and 83-year-old mother agreed.
“It felt great to be a part of something positive and beautiful that would let people know we haven’t given up on the neighborhood,” she said. “I hope we can come together to find a new normal.”
Mike Brandon said that he met people from both sides of the protest while painting.
“There were more good experiences than bad experiences,” he said. “An artist would stop by, or people would come and join together. I met one young lady who was a protester at one time. She drove by and said ‘If I were you I would change the eyelashes.’ I said I was not the artist but if she wanted to help she was welcome to. She ended up helping for 30 or 40 hours and made it a masterpiece.”
Art on a grand scale
Lewis-Harris said the nature of the artwork, being painted on giant pieces of plywood, meant storing and exhibiting the work had presented some challenges.
“When you look at these pieces of art, because they truly are works of art, I hope you can take away and keep a sense of the love and hope for healing that went into each of these boards,” said Carol Swartout Klein, who led the effort to salvage the work when the panels started to be taken off of recovering businesses. “My hope is that everyone understands the scale of both these massive works of art but also the scale of the community effort. It’s important to keep this topic of hope, healing, peace and of community in front of everyone. It shouldn’t get buried.”
Lewis-Harris said she was still overwhelmed by the support and participation involved in the Paint for Peace project.
“Thousands of buckets of paint were donated and people volunteered to drive the paint around the area,” she said. “At a time when things were so negative in the press, people were working together to make a statement of unity. We even have stories of some of the police and National Guard participating in the painting.”
Lewis-Harris said many businesses throughout the area had expressed gratitude for the artwork, giving the example of the owners of one area Mexican restaurant who had requested that the artwork painted on the boards on their storefront be returned after the exhibit.
“They said that it was like a blessing from the community,” she said. “It is beautiful piece and the family says they want it back.”
Sharing the stories
“There are a lot of good stories behind this,” Lewis-Harris said, adding that organizers of the exhibits are in the process of applying for a grant that would help create a more in-depth catalogue of the work. “We interviewed a lot of people who were involved. That way we would also have a people story about how they responded to the demonstrations and how they wanted to make their community more beautiful. It has really had a lasting effect on the community. We are still feeling pretty positive about what happened and are eager to do something else with that same kind of spirit.”
Lewis-Harris said there had even been inquiries about creating a traveling exhibit of the work.
“People are finding a way to make room for the pieces,” she said. “We will just have to find a way to maintain the corners, because they are made out of compressed board.”
Paintings in the exhibit are composed of a variety of images, with some focusing more on symbolic, colorful imagery with flowers, hearts, and symbols of hope and strength.
Other panels in the exhibit are more text-driven with quotes from civil rights leaders, the Bible and encouraging slogans like “One Love” or “Come Together.”
For more information on the exhibits, visit www.cocastl.org/coca-presents/millstone-gallery/outsidein or www.paintingforpeacebook.com.