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The Power Of Public Art: Artists Tackle Protests And The Pandemic

A Graham storefront featuring works of art.
Renee' Russell
Storefronts in downtown Graham turned into art gallery walls this weekend as part of a public art exhibit to highlight Black artist voices. Art exhibits and street murals offer a way for artists to add to conversations about COVID-19 and social justice.

Businesses across North Carolina boarded up windows and storefronts in recent months amid ongoing protests against the police killing of George Floyd. For artists in cities like Asheville, Durham, Charlotte and Greensboro, these plywood panels were blank canvases, ripe for colorful street murals and visual statements of protest. These works of public art help communities and artists visualize what work still needs to be done to amplify Black voices — in the art world and beyond.

Host Frank Stasio talks about the role of art in social justice movements with Renee’ Russell, the co-founder of the Southern Arts Movement. Russell is also one of the organizers of an art exhibit in downtown Graham designed to amplify the voices of Black artists. The exhibit is on view through Aug. 29, 2020.

Also joining the conversation is Joseph Pearson, who was one of the lead artists in creating Asheville’s Black Lives Matter mural. Stasio also talks with Durham-based artist James Keul about a new exhibit called “ReAwakening: Artist Practices During a Pandemic,” that explores how the pandemic and protests of 2020 have shaped how artists do their work. The exhibit is on view at Golden Belt in Durham through Oct. 21, 2020 and onlinehere.

Interview Highlights

Russell on opening a public art exhibit during a protest:

It was actually really nice to have [the exhibit] in support of the protest. Businesses, you know, they can't really directly — I guess they could shut down their shop and go — but most businesses, especially with COVID, are not going to do that. So this is a way for that community to lend that support. And as a protester, in Graham, they can look down the street past the monument and see all these great positive stories. And it kind of adds some positivity to the downtown Graham area instead of this negative thing that’s been kind of portrayed by the county and everything.  

Street murals in Asheville, including one of George Floyd
Credit Joseph Pearson
Artist Joseph Pearson painted a portrait of George Floyd on the boarded-up windows of Blue Ridge Public Radio in Asheville.

Pearson on his process for creating a street mural portrait of George Floyd:

I found an image of him in a sports jacket, because I wanted to especially contrast the image of him being murdered with an image of him from a position of dignity. And I think the sports jacket helped to represent that. There was a little bit of purplish mist in the color of his jacket — that purple represents royalty. Not royalty in terms of a political hierarchy, but royalty in terms of our common humanity. And that golden yellow in the background helps to accent that.

Art hanging in a gallery
Credit James Keul
James Keul's piece "The Future is Now' hangs in a gallery in Durham as part of an exhibit on artistic practices during the pandemic.

Keul on creating art during a pandemic:

One of the other resoundingly common themes of this [exhibit] is this gratitude that many of the artists expressed for having an opportunity to get their work out there. … I think that it's during these types of troubled times that art is the most important thing that you can really experience, and it brings us together. And it raises ideas that we perhaps are a little bit more receptive to now in this pandemic than we were even four or five months ago.

Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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