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Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Jun 16, 2020
Following early incidents of property damage during the protests in Columbus against police brutality and systemic inequality, boards went up on storefront windows throughout the city, and Columbus artists and the Greater Columbus Arts Council got to work.
The funding organization hired over 30 central Ohio artists to create original murals on the boards covering the entrances to the Ohio Theatre and the GCAC offices. The program soon expanded to connect artists with business owners in the downtown area and High Street, resulting in a boom in public art and beautiful, highly visible support for the protesters.
Among the artists to participate are several with strong relationships to the Wex’s Education department, having participated in workshops, open houses, and residencies through our Pages program. We spoke to Hakim Callwood, Bryan Christopher Moss, and April Sturkey Sunami, about their experience.
Hakim Callwood with one of his recent mural works
Callwood, seen recently on this blog with his tutorials for young artists, has been a mural machine. Working solo or in collaboration with artists such as Moss, Neisha Holloway, Rachel Miller, and Kaycee Nwakudu, he’s painted about 10 storefronts from downtown through campus, for organizations and businesses including GCAC, the Columbus Crew, Donatos Pizza (with Moss, Rachel Miller, and Kaycee Nwakudu), Paradise Garage, and A.D. Farrow Co.
“It’s all that quarantine energy built up—I had to let it go,” Callwood said.
“Every mural I’ve done has been me trying to figure out what I’m trying to say. I’d see the space, talk to the client, and most didn’t have input—they just wanted me to do make whatever.”
His work includes a representation of “BLM” done entirely in flowers, a muscular heart with the message, “Love is strong,” and a primary-colored message of “EMPATHY” that includes a graphic of a black hand holding up a peace sign. Callwood took the graphic and started stenciling it on T-shirts, giving them away in exchange for promises to donate to Columbus Freedom Fund. Alison Rose Tees and Upright Press ended up producing even more of these shirts for the cause.
Callwood acknowledged some feelings of guilt over the circumstances that provided a reason to get out of the house and make new work. He also shared his appreciation for his art supply source, the mural artist Justin "Ketchup" Withrow at Lookout Supply, along with fellow muralists like Moss, Holloway, Sunami, Richard "Duarte" Brown, and Bryant Anthony (aka Bee1ne). “I want to show them all love. They’re all working really hard.”
“The core of what I do is all about spreading love,” Callwood added. “I used to be a sad boy and I got over the humps in life. My only regret is not enjoying life in those times. Take a breather, be kind to yourself and kind to your neighbor. And this will pass and we’ll still be neighbors. Everyday I say it’s a beautiful day to be alive, and it’s been true every day that I wake up and say it.”
One of the murals on which Moss collaborated, honoring the life of Breonna Taylor
Moss, a regular collaborator on Pages and the subject of a recent article in Forbes, said he approached the mural work with this concept in mind: “Raise awareness, show support and get that dialogue going.”
Working on the fly to develop concepts, he collaborated with Callwood on the “EMPATHY” mural and the message of “LOVE” on the storefront of Donato’s in the Short North, painted a message of unity over the door to the Pizzuti Collection building, created multiple panels of protester-inspired images on the home of Smart Columbus, and did a piece with Rachel Miller that depicts murder victim Breonna Taylor as a spirit in the sky with a glowing scepter.
“GCAC is paying artists and supporting the community,” Moss said “It was a thing where everyone could come together,” adding that some businesses were inspired to contact him and other artists directly for mural work.
Among the non-GCAC commissions was a request from a friend, inspired by the work in Columbus, to create a mural on a storefront in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“He saw what we were doing in Columbus and thought, we have to do something here,” Moss explained. “The online presence and the energy that was up here, that penetrated other places. Our city is impacting other regional areas.”
The mural Sunami painted for the front of the Ohio Theatre, with the names of victims of police violence adorning the figure's hair
For Sunami, who also works with pages and has led family art-making events at the Wex, the murals she’s created on boards downtown represent a departure from the typically slower and more thoughtful way she approaches working on canvas. The first mural she made is among the work on view in front of the Ohio.
“It’s been a really interesting experience, just the nature of it,” the artist said. “I’m working below [the standards of] what I would normally do, but it’s important.”
“The first one, it was such a quick one—I had no idea what I was going to do. I just started drawing on the wall and painting. Than it came to me, when everything started going down—a quote from Ella Baker: ‘Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.’ All the quotes I’ve been using, I take an excerpt and repurpose it and it reframes the context. ‘We who believe in freedom cannot rest’ is also the title of a Sweet Honey in the Rock song.”
“For me, it’s been so crazy because ever since quarantine started my studio shut down,” Sunami continued. “I haven’t really done anything, and then all of a sudden came a lot of requests for murals and I’ve found my voice again. I’ll keep going until I’m exhausted. I’m using this moment as platform to say something.”
As she’s worked, Sunami has fielded questions she hasn’t been able to answer about the fate of the murals once they’re removed from storefronts (a plan is now in the works to preserve them). She’s also been working through some conflicting feelings about how what she and the other artists are trying to say might be interpreted—or misinterpreted.
“This whole process, it’s been a bit ambivalent for me,” she said. Whenever you work publicly, it’s not performative but it’s a very interesting dance you do with the public. You answer questions and talk about the work you do. I’ve had some really good conversations. People who work and live downtown have said, ‘Thank you so much for doing those.’ But it’s not really for the people who work or live downtown. It’s for me. It’s for the protesters. It’s the black people I’m thinking about right now. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t get something out of it; I’m just curious, what do they take away from this?"
"This is history," she said. "This is part of Columbus’s story, no matter what people are saying.”
Image at top of page: Bryan Moss and Hakim Callwood in front of a mural they worked on in the Short North; all images courtesy of the artists
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