This protest has been audibly quiet.
There have been no chants, marches or speeches through bullhorns. But the messages have been clear, colorful and created in broad daylight.
Armed with brushes, spray cans, ladders, tarps and feelings of anger, hope and love, artists have brought their talents over the last week to State Street to help turn bland canvasses of plywood into what may be one of the city’s largest, collective public works of art ever created.
There’s a good chance it could be all gone sometime this week as windows are replaced and tensions ease. But this is about now and advocating for change following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They’ll worry about the legacy of their art some other time.
“Everyone’s trying to express themselves and be heard. With art you can still send the same message, too, that black lives do matter,” said Emida Roller, who worked last week on a piece at Himal Chuli, a restaurant at 318 State St. that specializes in authentic Nepali cuisine. “You walk down State Street and you see all of the boarded storefronts and it doesn’t look attractive. This is uplifting.”
There are few thoroughfares in Wisconsin that can hold water to State Street.
The half-mile stretch of restaurants, bars, retailers and student housing is where we’re drawn.
Historic sports moments are celebrated here, some smirk and blush at naked bicyclists, revel at Halloween and stroll on a summer night as buskers play for tips and Union Utopia ice cream melts down the side of a cone.
We dine on pizza, gyros and exotic dishes, shop for unique gifts, offer handouts to the homeless and gaze at the Capitol dome. Letter jackets show up at tournament time and, each fall, the University of Wisconsin Marching Band clogs the street along with the rest of the entrants in the annual UW-Madison homecoming parade.
Protest is also a familiar visitor to arguably Wisconsin’s most notable street.
Police in riot gear, looters, vandals and tear gas made the headlines last week, but scores of artists have brought new purpose, a steady stream of onlookers armed with cameras and those who may also be inclined to bring a few dollars to the businesses that remain open despite the lack of natural light.
A survey of 100 of the 152 businesses on the street indicates that about 40 likely won't reopen.
Marcia Peotter, 70, lives in Sun Prairie but spent Wednesday walking up and down State Street taking photos and visiting with the artists.
“I really appreciate the art. It breaks up the hate that did it,” said Peotter, referring to the destruction. “Art brings out a lot of love in a lot of people. It really does. It’s so wonderful.”
The works of art are a melange. Some are being created by employees of the businesses while some building owners have sought out artists on their own. Most of the creations, however, are being organized by Karin Wolf, who since 2006 has served as the program administrator for Madison Arts, a city initiative that over the years has worked to encourage artistic activities and initiate cultural programs that integrate, support and advance arts and culture.
Working with the Central Business Improvement District, Wolf spent last week frantically organizing artists, explaining the parameters of the State Street program and rushing cans of paint to artists in need. Her phone and email have been jammed with messages as more artists and businesses have learned about the program that pays artists a $250 stipend for each piece. Officials are asking people not to contact business owners and not to paint without approval. Instead, they should reach out to Wolf or the BID since they’ve created a database of those merchants seeking art.
This program was designed to give working artists a commission, showcase their work and provide funding during the COVID-19 crisis.
“The problem is, a lot of the artists we’re trying to give an opportunity to have day jobs,” Wolf said. “So what competition is it for people who can afford to do this for free and afford their own paints. I need people who want to help bring water or prime a wall. Not people who want to take over the spaces from people who’ve never been expressed in Madison. There’s a dozen artists here who have never had a public art opportunity. This means so much to their lives.”
Keysha Monique Mabra, an art therapist for those who have drug and alcohol problems, had been talking with Wolf about putting her art on utility boxes around the city but shifted gears last week to the plywood on State Street. Her first piece was a series of collages (made in her studio) that resemble houses with hearts flowing from each chimney. On Tuesday, she began placing them on the plywood covering the Urban Outfitters store. On Thursday, Mabra, 40, who had carried a ladder onto a city bus to get downtown from her home near Tenney Park, painted larger hearts around the houses.
“It’s extremely important in ways that I’m still learning,” Mabra said when asked about why it was critical for her to take part in the street art project. “I’m giving back to my community rather having taken from it for so long during my own troubling times and I feel this is a way of saying thank you and I love you to the city and to the world. Being given this opportunity is a blessing.”
At the top of State Street, Rodney Lambright II, whose day job is an animator and producer at PBS Wisconsin, used a sketch pencil Thursday to draw an outline of George Floyd and protesters. He later added paint to the plywood that covered the the windows at the Tobacco Mart.
“It’s really just a reflection of me talking about how our lives matter and we don’t have an obligation to debate with people how our lives do matter,” Lambright said. “That’s where I’m coming from and the feelings I’m having.”
At Short Stacks, at the corner of State and Henry streets, one group of artists created a tribute to Breonna Taylor, an EMT and emergency room technician killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky. Just around the corner Brooklyn Doby, 22, worked last week with Ciara Nash, 26, on a scene of flowers and grass at Moxe Health.
“We really just want to contribute to the cause in a positive way and through our craft,” said Doby. “It represents growth in these times and how we can rise up in this time. Hopefully we’re adding a pop of color to all of the boards down here.”
There is no timeline as to how long the art will continue to be painted or when it will come down. Wolf said there is talk of preserving the panels, including donating some of them to the Wisconsin Historical Society. An auction has been talked about, but at a minimum, a photographic record of each piece will be preserved, Wolf said.
Mario Fregoso, 22, normally uses his cache of spray cans to create temporary images on exterior walls at Momentum Art Tech on Cottage Grove Road. On Thursday, Fregoso was brightening up “Madison’s happiest corner” at Badger Liquor with a painting about justice that incorporates themes from the Black National Anthem. He’s not worried about the potential brevity of its stay.
“This is such an important time on State Street that these pieces and pictures of these pieces are going to last a lot longer,” Fregoso said. “The movement is going to last longer than when they finally replace this glass, which I hope is soon.”
Photos: State Street murals
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"There's a dozen artists here who have never had a public art opportunity. This means so much to their lives."
Karin Wolf, program administrator for Madison Arts
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