As of December 2020, this new page is very much a work in progress that I will share as I build. 

Only since the first quarantine slash shelter-in-place at the beginning of 2020 have I stepped into the making of street art. With a few exceptions, the work I’ve made since the early aughts has largely been marker on paper, so in picking up spray paint, though I was venturing into entirely familiar streets, I was doing so with unfamiliar materials and whole new sets of changing conditions.

I have always been an avid walker, utilizing any of the 24 hours available in a given day for constitutionals. (I am well aware of the privilege in that statement.) Over the course of nearly thirty years walking this city, the streets of Chicago continuously provide magnitudes of experiential stimulus; beauty and depravity, grandeur alongside destitution, teeming life and surprising intersection, suffering, joy… Each step offers windows into midwestern values, politics, and social maladies.

Shelter-in-place has rendered many gallery spaces virtual only for the immediate future, removing the physical art viewing public, and I have always felt that art should be experienced up close and personal. Much to the annoyance of more than a few museum employees, I’ve set off alarms getting too close, poking my nose into the personal space of a piece. I enjoy a little nose poke. I want to smell the materials, to nearly taste the textures in the work I take in. This feeling speaks to my roots as an exhibiting artist at festivals such as the former Around the Coyote, a show that was very much about physical proximity, both to art and the public. Art making is deeply personal for me, and art viewing is no different. I know that a virtual opening cannot satisfy my particular desire for engagement, but I also know that I cannot simply avoid them. 

Reliable sources of physically present art viewing do exist all over the city, of course. Chicago is covered in public art. Alleyways are filled with graffiti and constantly changing murals. In my neighborhood alone, there are vast stretches of predetermined spaces for annual mural making that run for miles along the CTA redline. Over the course of the seven summers I’ve lived in this particular spot, I have seen dozens of murals in progress while I walk, but this year more than ever. And this year, considering the continued, if not escalating devaluation of the lives of people of color, I have been surprised by a general lack of content. Plenty of beauty, but plenty without depth.

With the murders of Breonna Taylor in March and George Floyd in May, and the social media visibility of both, as well as nationwide rioting and violence surrounding the abject lack of justice Taylor and Floyd received in death, a tremendous amount of new street art was born. This street art both propelled and was propelled by the Black Lives Matter movement, the current face, voice, and outrage of a civil rights movement that began seventy years ago. In the first eight months of 2020 alone, police in the United States killed 164 black people. Civil rights are clearly not equal among us, and where our states are truly united is in the implicit racism shared by their policing and judicial systems. But certainly not limited to those systems. Considering that our constitution defined black people as subhuman, and that our heroic forefathers such as Benjamin Franklin subscribed to the “science” of “Niggerology” (no surprise: invented by white guys to prove the inferiority of black people), racism exists in the very essence of our government, of the Caucasian creation myth, and in capitalism itself. 

What I find ironic about much of the new BLM-focused public art is that so much of it exists on plywood, installed over windows and facades of businesses as protection from the threat of violence and rioting in the wake of continual acquittal of the police for the continual murders of people of color. This is the protest art of the current moment, and not only it is entirely temporary, but it beautifies the only thing that the police really serve and protect: the business interest.

Nina Simone believed that it is the responsibility of the artist to reflect their times. I believe it is the responsibility of the artist to create only what they feel truly compelled to create, but awareness of the scope and depth and constancy of racism in this country has compelled me since early in my art life.  

In early March of 2020, I created two portraits of long-time hero James Baldwin for a body of work that began in 2017 called Facing the Music. The crux of this work is to pair portraits of people – abused, defamed, imprisoned, killed, by fellow humans of their respective times and places – with contemporary song lyrics. While focusing on Baldwin’s beautifully soulful face, I also considered the shape of his life, and the absolute presence of his being. From his first novel (published in 1953), in which he wrote about the experience of being a young black man first becoming aware of his homosexuality within a devoutly religious family, to the film I Am Not Your Negro (2016, based on an unfinished Baldwin manuscript), centered on the death of his three friends: Medgar Evers (murdered in 1963 by a Ku Klux Klansman who was acquitted by an all-white jury until a retrial in 1994), Malcolm X (murdered in 1965), and Martin Luther King, jr. (murdered in 1968), Baldwin was a conscious witness to his world, and he responded to his world with a rare clarity.

Many of his words were in my thoughts while I socially distanced through alley galleries of street art. His voice, as well, resonant with the authority of truth, rang loud in my ears. And I felt compelled to share his words, on walls everyone could see. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” -James Baldwin   

This is where it started for me.

About a month after I spray painted this, it was covered with brown paint, which was not a surprise. This column is part of the Chicago Transit Authority, so I assumed it was temporary. Not long after, I replaced the stencil, same color scheme (black and pink is a favorite) but a more crisp spray.

By this time, I’d made a second stencil which read BLACK LIVES MATTER, adding it to the same area on both sides of the street, which was also covered quickly with paint. Not long after, I replaced that stencil as well, and began spreading out in my neighborhood and others. After the first James Baldwin stencil, I made variations on the BLM piece and quickly put several dozen out in the city.

Not having asked permission to place any of these on buildings, their impermanence was implicit to me, but I was not expecting them to be defaced. There was a hot moment of anger in me when I saw the first marred stencil. That anger might have been there when I saw the second as well. And then third.

In that moment, I told myself that I would never deface someone else’s work, but that of course isn’t true. If I saw racist or sexist graffiti out in the world, I would absolutely fuck with it. Racism and sexism are right up there with Nazism on the list of absolutely unacceptable human behaviors. My anger at seeing the alteration of these visual things I had created was quickly redirected toward the racists living in my neighborhood who feel compelled to throw food or paint at, or scribble over this message.

There are also individuals in my neighborhood who feel compelled to “correct” the damage, a welcome and heartening surprise given the present moment. Some of the pieces I painted have been manipulated seven and eight times (even with chalk on a couple occasions, which is entirely half-assed), but there is at least one guardian of light in my neighborhood who has rewritten the word “black” over the defacement multiple times, even leaving messages for me and adding their handprints, another unexpected interaction, but so excellent.

I continue to repaint these stencils, as they continue to draw a fascinating amount of public interaction. I have come to see this as an ongoing project, as creating intimate stages within neighborhoods for potential public dialogs between complete strangers. For me personally, it feels like a call and response, almost a musical interplay. I also see the layers upon layers of paint, of love hate love, as building a visual history that enriches the surface for continued work.

By late summer, someone increased their efforts to vandalize my vandalization by making their own stencils to edit mine. I began to see the word “black” covered by the word “all.” There were also instances where the word “black” was followed by the word “babies.”

Was this a statement about the racial disparities of infant mortality? Over the last five years, infant mortality rates in black communities tend to be about twice as high as those in white communities. Or was the word “babies” added simply to distract from the message that black lives matter? 

Below, a clear example of call and response.

The meaning of the substitution of the word “all” is obvious enough to me. What it first illustrates is an individual’s discomfort with the word “black,” a discomfort with their limited idea of what a black person is. This discomfort is based on a fear of what is unknown, of what is other, and fear will build a case to validate itself. Evidence arises in the context of a certain set of beliefs. Within the set of beliefs that allows for racism, the word “black” intimidates and excludes. The white person who assumed that black people began receiving equal treatment when the civil rights movement “ended” is the same person who feels that “black lives matter” implies that their white life does not. Such is entitlement. All lives cannot possibly matter unless black lives matter.

Dismantling white racism requires, among other things, humanizing racist perceptions of black people. While I am, by virtue of simply being alive, an optimist, I am certainly skeptical that racist attitudes can be dismantled at all, considering the number of adult Americans who voted for Trump in two elections, who have actively, blindly engaged in domestic terrorism at his behest. Trump supporters storming the Capitol clearly illustrates the depth of racist entrenchment: were these thousands of protestors black, the National Guard would have been deployed without hesitation. I feel compelled to share words of love, regardless. I see no other option for myself.

Black dreams matter. Black love matters. Black hope matters. Black voices matter. 

I placed several dozen of these individual squares around Chicago and New Orleans, on sidewalks and buildings, first with “black love” and “black dreams,” then “black hope” and “black voices.” Then I began to pair them. I felt that they wanted to congregate, to amass. I came to see them as quilts, which have a significant history in the United States with the suffragette movement. The words gained power as they multiplied visually, and as each quilt grew, new squares were folded in. Quotes from James Baldwin, Angela Davis, and Fred Hampton have been added. I see these quilts as lifelong works that will grow and spread, a very natural extension of the Facing the Music drawings.