Artist Simone Lawrence, 29, poses in front of her portrait of Malcolm X on State Street in downtown Madison, Wis., on June 11, 2020. "This is my way to get involved," said Lawrence, who said she's been unable to participate in the marches and protests against police brutality. "I wanted to contribute to the movement. Art activism is a way to protest." Lawrence also worked on a portrait of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling, saying she hoped to "spark conversation and spark thought. I think art can speak louder than other methods of protesting. For people unwilling to protest in other ways, it sparks thought and thought is the first step towards change." "State Street is often completely inundated by white people. Seeing it transformed, forcing people to look at black bodies is important," said Lawrence, who is originally from California but has lived in Madison for seven years. "I want people to recognize that we're here. Being here as a Black artist and having white people stop and talk about what I'm doing is a first step."
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On May 31, the day after violence first broke out on State Street in Madison during demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a transformation began.
Businesses up and down Madison’s defining corridor shuttered. Plywood sheets covered windows — some preemptively and some to cover windows already smashed by looters.
“It looked kind of dead before the murals,” said Amira Caire, a 22-year-old Madisonian and one of over a hundred artists who lent their time, talent and paint to an effort to decorate the barren spaces with colorful messages of pride, perseverance, anger, justice and unity.
The mural project began on May 31, when both the mayor and Common Council president contacted Madison Arts Program Administrator Karin Wolf to request a “rapid response” art program for the shuttered storefronts. Working with her program’s community cultural partners, Wolf reached out to artists who had worked with the city before. In the following days, as more businesses covered their windows, the Arts Program posted an open call for artists interested in participating in the project.
The mural project was funded through another program, Arts in Public Places Looking Forward, which had been established just a few weeks earlier to support artists who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Madison Arts Program also prioritized artists who had been affected by racial violence and injustice, Wolf said.
Over the ensuing two weeks, more than 100 murals were painted as commissions from the city. Many more works of graffiti and other public art appeared in spaces not used by officially commissioned artists. Nearly all of the pieces focused on support for the Black Lives Matter movement or called for an end to police misconduct.
“I feel that the symbolic language of visual culture can reach people,” Wolf said. “We have to reach people on many different levels to help them understand the devastating effect that racism has had on this country.”
Wolf said the city officially ended the mural project on June 14. State Street businesses have since begun to unboard, taking down the murals from their windows and doors.
It is not yet clear what will happen to the artwork after it is removed. The decision lies with individual businesses and property owners about when to reopen their storefronts. Wolf said that Madison’s Central Business Improvement District, which works to coordinate and support many downtown businesses, was keeping some of the murals in storage while a plan is formulated. The city is currently collecting input through an online poll and conversations with artists to decide how to move forward. Options being considered include temporary exhibitions, auctions, or donating the works.
“I can’t speak for everyone else’s work, but I do hope they aren’t simply archived and forgotten,” said Simone Lawrence, a local artist whose portraits of Malcolm X and Colin Kaepernick have recently been taken down from the Driftless Studio windows near the top of State Street. “I’d like to see an exhibition. Even more ideally, I’d like to see them sold and the proceeds go to Black-owned organizations and/or directly to the artist.”