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Windows GR: How art continued the message

"We can use art to brighten up spaces, but also use it to continue the story."
Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — After the riot in downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, a group of artists came together with a plan that formulated in a matter of days.

Hundreds of boarded up broken windows were soon filled with art. For several weeks, the murals became a focal point of the city, providing a backdrop for continuing protests for Black lives and against police brutality. 

The project, named Windows GR, ended up giving way to a week-long online auction that ends Saturday, Aug. 29 with a live art event at Rosa Parks Circle. It also led to the creation of an artist collective, called Element 7.

While the project’s conception happened quickly, project lead Jasmine Bruce says the vision for it evolved overtime. From the start, Bruce says she and the leaders of the project knew they didn’t want to cover up the pain and anger on display. The goal, she said, was to continue the message. 

“It just kind of developed into really making space for artists of color to share their voice and that became very important to us to give them that space that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Bruce said, which is now also a goal of Element 7.

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE
Jasmine Bruce stands in front of her window mural at Lions & Rabbits.

Windows GR, which kicked off officially on June 5, was not without barriers and challenges. At times there was confusion on the intent, discrepancies on where artists could paint and some artwork was painted over completely. 

“One of the biggest obstacles was definitely some businesses just didn’t want anything that said 'Black Lives Matter,' and just took sort of a neutral stance, which was really heartbreaking. Not to overshadow the other businesses that were super supportive,” Bruce said. “But yeah, there was a lot of uncomfortable conversations.”

A handful of murals were painted over, including the artwork of Dave Benoit and Nye, who had painted on boards at 140 Monroe Center. Benoit had painted a scene from the music video of Childish Gambino’s song 'This is America,' which was covered up at the request of the building’s owners, who said it promoted violence among other things. Benoit's plan was to include names of Black people killed by police in the open spaces. 

Credit: Courtesy: Erik Lauchie

“Childish Gambino’s 'This is America' song was something that was stuck in my head constantly through like all the protests and everything that has been going on in America,” Benoit said of his idea for the mural, which he and Nye said led to a number of positive conversations while they were painting.  “Art is an expression, and it needs to be understood before it's covered up.”

Not long after that, the building owners had Nye’s mural, which included the words “We mad ethnic right now” with a fist underneath, painted over as well. Nye, who is Nigerian, said her mural was meant to be a show of solidarity and a bridge with the diaspora, featuring an Ankara print background. It also included two quotes, one from Assata Shakur: "Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them.” The other quote from Nayyirah Waheed read, "anger. is often grief that has been silent for too long.”

Credit: M-Buck Studio
Courtesy of M-Buck Studio

"I just really wanted it to be a thing of people stepping back and reflecting. All of this was a reflection piece. It's supposed to hit people, possibly make them joyful, but also possibly make them a little uncomfortable," Nye said. 

She said she’d bought extra supplies to come complete the project only to arrive and find it painted over. 

“It was just really kind of like a punch to the gut to see it blacked out,” she said.

A statement on behalf of the 140 Monroe Center Condo Association, where Nye and Benoit's murals were painted, read in part, "While most of the artwork had common themes of 'unity, 'community,' 'togetherness,' and 'healing,' some did not. Unfortunately, two pieces of artwork painted on our building depicted the opposite. These images promoted divisiveness, violence and frankly were offensive to many."

Other murals on the building were left up, however, according to the statement, the owners had not given anyone permission to paint there. The building owners said that they received calls about those two images specifically, “In order to support our buildings tenants and their customers, we had no choice but to remove those offensive images.” 

“It speaks volumes to the whole movement, you know, Black people in the city, around the world don't feel like they have a place to say the things that they want to say, or feel the things that they want to feel. We're always being silenced,” Benoit said.

Benoit completed his and Nye's murals digitally and had his art turned into a sticker, instead. Benoit, who handed out the stickers for free, said Brownlee Press printed free stickers for him after hearing the story. 

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE

Grand Rapids artist Esan Sommersell said he also received push-back from business owners on his piece.

Sommersell said his piece called ‘Recalibrate’ was meant to push people to see the world’s problems in a new way, be it the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, police brutality or centuries of systemic racism.

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE
Esan Sommersell in front of his mural titled 'Recalibrate'

“I feel like the best way to combat those things is to do it with a new way of thinking, a new mind, a new head. If you read the same essay you’re working on for too long, eventually you won’t see the mistakes,” he said. “Passing it along to somebody else with fresh eyes can kind of give you new solutions on how to finish it.”

Seven creatives led the Windows GR project, including Guillermo Sotelo, Kendall Redmon, Jasmine Bruce, Asia Horne, Adrian Butler, Leandro Lara and Erik Lauchie.

“I just thought it was amazing that it was a younger group of people coming together to make it happen,” said Kristin Zuller, a multi-disciplinary artist who also painted a mural for the project.

The group worked in partnership with local art gallery owner Hannah Berry of Lions & Rabbits, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and other area businesses. Artists were paid $100 for their work.

Leaders of the project put calls out to ensure that other Grand Rapids artists were able to participate, which was the case for Zuller’s involvement.

A mural of this size was a first for Zuller, whose piece featured lyrics from the Ibeyi song ‘Deathless.’ Building off the song’s messaging of infinite life and rebirth, she painted a butterfly over the mouth to signify the voices of transformation. A transformation that she says she is hoping to see in the city, especially within the art community.

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE

“Black artists are not really in the forefront or even included a lot of the time,” Zuller said. “We need to be included because we are here, and I think that this was an opportunity for that to really push forward and to not stop. This should be something that continues to show up in spaces all over Grand Rapids.”

Zuller, who painted alongside her daughter, said they had constant positive conversations with people passing by.

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE

Bruce, the project lead, said in many ways Windows GR was part of the healing process for the city.

“Being down there helped people heal in a way and helped people who maybe felt alone in this battle to know that they are not alone and there’s so many people that are supporting that change,” she said.

Processing emotions was at the base of artist Leandra Berrios’ murals throughout downtown. From the colors she used to the images she created, she said the point was to put to paint the feelings that had culminated in the days prior. 

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE

“I incorporated someone yelling, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are angry,” she said. “You can dictate what kind of emotion it is with whatever perspective you have on it. For me, it’s more so just letting out everything that you’re feeling.”

Many muralists expressed their message through words. For entrepreneur and storyteller, CC, her art was focused around the phrases, “I want you to live” and “Because you are alive, you matter.”

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE

“There is a lot of this Black lives matter against all lives matter. And it shouldn’t be that way, it should be because Black lives matter, all lives matter because all lives matter, Black lives matter,” she said.

For artist Nia Mays, she turned to the words of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.’

Initially, Mays said she wasn’t sure about the intent for painting over the boarded up windows.

“I knew why I was angry and I knew why a lot of people who were rioting were angry. And I wanted to put something up that wasn't covering up the message that they were trying to send by breaking windows and things in the first place,” Mays said.

But ultimately, she said she realized responding with art in a city that often prioritizes it, made sense.

“I think that for quite a few people in our city the way that they, you know, can scream the loudest is visually,” she said. “I think that it's important to realize that that is just as much protest as marching.”

Credit: Emily MacDonald/Elation Studio GR

The ‘Open Windows’ event goes from 6 to 10 p.m. on Saturday at Rosa Parks Circle and will feature live painting by seven Windows GR artists to commemorate the project. Social distancing and other precautions will be in place, and the event will also be live streamed at here.

This event is the first official event of The Bridge GR, a series of arts, cultural and community events hosted by the city and other partners.

More from the artists:

Jasmine Bruce: @jasminebruceart

Dave Benoit: @slick_lgp

Nia Mays: @niamaysing

Esan Sommersell: @plutomonday

Leandra Berrios: @leandraaab

CC: @letCsayit

Kristin Zuller: @weweresix

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