Group effort turns Black Lives Matter mural into community art project | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Group effort turns Black Lives Matter mural into community art project

click to enlarge A volunteer paints near a portrait of Ahmaud Arbery under the Fort Duquesne Bridge, June 10, 2020. - CP PHOTO: AMANDA WALTZ
CP photo: Amanda Waltz
A volunteer paints near a portrait of Ahmaud Arbery under the Fort Duquesne Bridge, June 10, 2020.
On Sat., June 6, an area under the Fort Duquesne Bridge was transformed into a bold piece of guerilla protest art when a group of rogue painters wrote “Black Lives Matter” in huge, white lettering across the site. The graffiti mural appeared amidst days of protests in Pittsburgh and across the world spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black Minnesota man who was killed by police.

The graffiti mural was splashed across “Adjutant,” a commissioned piece by artist Kim Beck that has accented the large section of the Allegheny riverfront since 2015.

While many praised the new work, including Beck, some prominent local artists were concerned by speculation that it had been done by then-unidentified white artists who had not consulted with or involved the Black community in the process of making it.

Yesterday, two of the people who helped organize the mural project, Conor Clarke and another man who declined to be named, came forward to clear the air and met with new artists at the site, who then spent the day adding their own contributions to the work.

Clarke and his partner, who are both white, say they took a guerilla approach because they never wanted credit for the work, preferring that onlookers focus on the message and not who wrote it.

“We literally planned this the day before we did it,” says Clarke, with his partner later adding that, “If we could've gotten away without anyone knowing we did it, that would have been ideal.”

They chose the site because of its high visibility from road and walkways and because they liked Beck's work. Clarke says they had no intention of erasing it, choosing to integrate her images of shadowy weeds in with the message.

Those present on Wednesday included Camerin “Camo” Nesbit, one of the artists who originally spoke out about the mural. At around 10 a.m., he and another artist were decorating the massive "B" with a vibrant spray-painted flower. Another volunteer used a roller to paint raised power fists as people walked or rode by on bikes, often slowing down or stopping to observe the scene.

Groups of artists worked on the mural in shifts throughout the day, ending around 9 p.m. Some shared their contributions on social media, including local hip-hop artist Brittney Chantele.
Beck, who also appeared at the site, says she supports their use of her work, seeing weeds, which are often treated as a nuisance, stomped upon or destroyed as a kind of metaphor for the way Black people have long been treated in the U.S.

Nesbit says a friend connected him with Clarke on Sunday, the day after the mural was completed, and from there the follow-up painting session was planned for Wednesday.

“I commend these guys, they did more than enough, more than what a lot of people would be willing to do,” says Nesbit while wearing a surgical-type mask. “This specific project is special.”

Nesbit says he wanted the two men to have a chance to “speak their piece” and be included in alleviating any tension the work may have caused in the community.

Clarke and his partner say the mural — which took around took 12 hours to complete — was done by a team that included Black people, and passersby were even invited to help.

It also attracted attention from police, who, according to Clarke, arrived at the site around 6 a.m. on Saturday after receiving a call. Clarke says the officers took their names but allowed them to keep working.

The men say they consulted with Black artists about the project. Beforehand, Clarke says he met with James “Yaya” Hough, a Philadelphia-based muralist originally from Pittsburgh, to do portraits of Floyd and other victims of police violence on the columns surrounding the site. Hough, he says, had to bow out due to a family issue. (Pittsburgh City Paper reached out to Hough but has yet to hear back.)

Instead, street artist Max Gonzales stepped in to do the large-scale portraits, which include Floyd and Antwon Rose II, a local Black teenager whose shooting death at the hands of an East Pittsburgh police officer led to protests in 2018 and in 2019 after the officer was acquitted.

Also included were Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia man who was attacked and fatally shot by two men claiming to be making a citizens arrest, and Breonna Taylor, a Kentucky woman who was shot multiple times and killed by police raiding her apartment.
click to enlarge Portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by Max Gonzales, June 10, 2020. - CP PHOTO: AMANDA WALTZ
CP photo: Amanda Waltz
Portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by Max Gonzales, June 10, 2020.
Like with Floyd, Arbery's death was filmed and shared online, leading to outrage and calls for his killers to be prosecuted (the pair have since been arrested and charged). Taylor has also been the subject of petitions, protests, and other efforts aimed at bringing the officers involved in her death to justice.

Clarke says that he wishes they could include every high-profile case of a Black person being killed by law enforcement, adding that there would never be enough columns to cover them all.

Despite it being an unsanctioned work, it appears the City of Pittsburgh will allow the Black Lives Matter mural to remain for now. A WESA story confirmed that Mayor Bill Peduto had "instructed the city’s Department of Public Works not to remove the mural."

Overall, Clarke says that “everyone who was involved in [the mural] had good intentions,” and emphasizes that the work does not belong to them, but to the people.

Office of Public Art director Sallyann Kluz had also spoken out about the mural and supported the painting session, seeing it as a step in the right direction. She looks forward to seeing how the site is “activated and engaged by the public and the heightened visibility that it gives to both Black Lives Matter and to Black artists in the city.”

“I think that the power of work such as this is how the community engages with it and the process that they undertake to do so, and to make it their own,” she says, adding that when an artwork is “gifted” to a community, the artists "also need to be receptive to how the gift is used.”

She adds, “In this case, the final piece may not be what the original artists intended, but through the process of the making and the remaking, new relationships are developed, new connections made, and new leadership emerges. In a very quickly evolving situation, we have seen that process happening in real-time. I applaud the artists who have been involved in this project and their willingness to engage in conversations about how to move forward.”

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