Columbus Artists Paint Plywood Murals Amid Downtown Protests
Bold block letters are painted on plywood boards covering the front doors of the Ohio Theatre: "Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise."
The quote is from the libretto of the Broadway show Les Misérables, a fitting message for the theater after its glass doors were broken last week, and as demonstrations continue in downtown Columbus decrying the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Ohio Theatre's mural was created by artists associated with Blockfort Gallery and Studios in downtown Columbus. It is one of a growing number created by Columbus artists in the #ArtUnitesCbus project, which expresses support of the protesters and hope for a better future.
“Despite all the darkness happening, there is a way through, and we have to keep pushing forward being really consistent about that," said Lisa McLymont, a visual artist who contributed to the Blockfort mural. "So I really feel like the Les Mis quote and what it represents does that to a T."
McLymont is also a graphic designer on the staff of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, which paired with the Greater Columbus Arts Council to hire local artists for the project.
The collaboration came together “pretty organically,” said CAPA president and CEO Chad Whittington.
Whittington says CAPA, which manages the Ohio Theatre, covered the theater’s broken doors with a plywood wall the morning of Friday, May 29, after protests took over downtown the night before. The front windows of the GCAC offices, on East Long Street, also sustained damage.
CAPA’s Greg Bryan, stage manager and head carpenter at the Southern Theatre, emailed Whittington with the suggestion that CAPA hire artists to paint positive messages on the plywood wall.
“My thought was it could be a display of support for both the artistic community and for Columbus as well,” Bryan wrote in an email.
Whittington took Bryan’s suggestion to heart.
“I was talking with Tom (Katzenmeyer, president and CEO of GCAC) over the weekend, and they had been considering some artwork on the plywood at their offices," Whittington said. "And I said, 'Why don’t we work together on this and maybe make something that’s a little bit bigger for the community?'"
At the same time, some local artists were following the protests themselves.
“When the first night of the protest happened, I kind of understood that some of the windows were going to get broken and things were going to get rough downtown," said Adam Brouillette, an artist and community organizer, and owner-operator of Blockfort Gallery and Studios. “So I started reaching out to friends saying, 'Hey, if boards go up, artists are here to paint.'"
One of those friends was McLymont, who collaborated with Brouillette, Jen Wrubleski, and Andy Graham on the Les Mis mural.
"We started talking almost in real time as (the Thursday night protest) was happening,” Brouillette said.
More than 30 artists quickly mobilized to paint murals on the plywood coverings at the GCAC offices and at the Ohio Theatre.
“We had a great response right away," Whittington said. “It was just something we tried to put together quickly to get some great art up in the community.”
When the artists began painting on May 30, it sparked the interest of other local artists and representatives of Columbus businesses. Now GCAC's website has a toolkit to connect businesses seeking to hire artists with artists willing to paint.
Images Of Hope And Healing
So far, murals have appeared on the storefronts of more than 10 Columbus businesses.
“The outpouring of interest from the business community has been tremendous,” said Jami Goldstein, vice president of marketing, communications and events with GCAC . “We need these images of hope and healing and unity and love.”
“Let us not tire in our fight for justice. We can find strength in our love for one another,” reads the mural Adam Hernandez painted at the GCAC offices.
The mural “Our Lady Justice,” painted by Stephanie Rond, depicts a young black woman next to a poem written collaboratively by Barbara Fant, Dionne Custer Edwards, Tyiesha Radford Shorts, Cynthia Amoah, Bahirah Malik and Nafisah Malik.
“The poem speaks to strength, it speaks to the black voice, black freedom, black joy,” Fant says. “We wanted to be able to uplift joy, I think, in this space.”
Bryant Anthony, an artist and graphic designer who works under the professional name Bee1ne, says he wanted the mural he painted at the GCAC offices – wide bands of red, black and green representing the Pan-African flag and brimming with hearts – to mark a milestone in black history.
“This year marks a hundred years since Marcus Garvey created the Pan-African flag,” Bryant said. “I wanted African Americans and people of all ethnicities to learn about Marcus Garvey. I wanted my piece of the protest to be something informational.”
Katie Golonka’s mural “Keep Going, Keep Growing,” at the GCAC offices, depicts tendrils of a plant dangling from a series of windows.
“The windows are kind of representative of being stuck somewhere,” says Golonka, "and the plants are a way of finding a way to outgrow old ways of life and into something brighter and better.”
GCAC and CAPA pay the artists for their work at the office and Ohio Theatre.
“We’re paying them $250 per panel, and that is what we’re also recommending businesses pay, at least,” Goldstein said. “We will always advocate for artists to be paid. GCAC never asks artists to do anything for free, nor would we ask them to volunteer their time to this project.”
At a time when many local artists have seen their paid work dry up in the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, income from the #ArtUnitesCbus project might be welcome to some. However, some of the artists say they’re not in it for the money.
Brouillette says he will be donating all of the payment for his mural to the Columbus Freedom Fund, created to help pay bail for individuals arrested during the Columbus protests. Anthony, who says the COVID-19 pandemic has “dramatically” reduced his income, says he wanted to support the project's higher purpose.
“It was definitely not about the money,” Anthony said. “It was definitely about the message.”
"Keep Going, Keep Growing"
Goldstein says it will take six to eight weeks for the glass at GCAC’s offices to be replaced, and that the murals will be up there during that time. Whittington also anticipates that it will take weeks to install new glass at the Ohio Theatre.
Goldstein says she hopes the murals can still be seen even after the boards are removed.
“We would love to find them all homes someplace, whether it’s in neighborhoods with people who love them or installed on the sides of buildings," Goldstein said. "Some businesses definitely want to keep them, and people who work there have already claimed them."
While the uplifting images are a positive addition to the community, artists say the next step is to listen.
“I think what people need to do the next moment is to really listen and to recognize each other’s humanity,” said poet Barbara Fant.
"We all have to make sure that cultural equity and racial justice is right at the forefront of our work, no matter what sector we're in, that we are making sure that people of color are at the table in every conversation," Goldstein adds.
Whittington says CAPA started having internal conversations about how to move toward healing racial injustice.
“I really think the [#ArtUnitesCbus] project itself reflects the fact that this is certainly a dark moment we’re facing, but in the end, we need to look to the future," Whittington says. "We need to look to change and we need to look at taking what has happened over these last few days and figure out how to make something good out of it, and that’s certainly what the project does,."
Brouillette says the plywood murals can bring people hope in the meantime.
“Art can be a thing that is light and is bright and is something that can be for everybody. It can project positive messages, it can project hopefulness,” Brouillette said. “And when it seems like it’s such a nasty world out there, we have to remind ourselves that there’s something good, and I like to think that art is one of those.”