The artists creating art to remember George Floyd

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The artists creating art to remember George Floyd

This feature includes artwork with language that some might find offensive.

Written by
Ananda Pellerin, CNN

In the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, artists have been quick to respond with words that seek to memorialize, to provoke and to heal. Los Angeles-based artist and activist Nikkolas Smith is using his work to convey the message that police violence is a reality for many African Americans. "This latest case of police brutality was yet another injustice that moved me to paint a tribute to give honor and a voice to a voiceless victim," said the 35-year-old over email.

Smith's digital portrait of Floyd wearing a suit was shared by organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement and Michelle Obama on Instagram. Obama wrote: "Like so many of you, I'm pained by these recent tragedies ... Right now it's George, Breonna, and Ahmad. Before that, it was Eric, Sandra, and Michael. It just goes on, and on, and on."
'I can breathe now'

Closer to home in Minneapolis, Greta McLain, Xena Goldman, and Cadex Herrera sprung into action to paint a mural at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South, the spot where Floyd was arrested. A viral video showed Floyd saying "I can't breathe" multiple times as police officer Derek Chauvin -- who has since been fired and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter -- knelt on his neck.

Flowers, signs, and balloons are left near a makeshift memorial to George Floyd near the spot where he died while in the custody of the Minneapolis police. Credit: KEREM YUCEL/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
"George Floyd was killed in my neighborhood, where I have lived all of my life. It is a clear and unequivocal act of police brutality," said community and public artist McLain over email.
The artists began painting the mural last Thursday, three days after Floyd died and were finished within 12 hours. It shows a likeness of Floyd with his name in prominent lettering and a flaming sunflower behind him. It also features the names of other African Americans who have been killed by the police, including 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot in March, in her Louisville home. Her death has also been protested in the last few days.

Thirty-five-year-old McLain studied mural making at the University of California, Davis, and was mentored by Malaquias Montoya, a major figure in the Chicano art movement. She now owns the community mural studio GoodSpace Murals, and calls her hometown of Minneapolis a "hub for community art."

The mural was painted on the wall of Cup Foods with the blessing of the shop's owner, Mahmoud Abumayyaleh. (One of Abumayyaleh's employees made the initial call that led to officers arriving on the scene to confront Floyd.)

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McLain was approached by Goldman to join the project. "This was our first time all painting together," she said of her co-artists, who had met the previous year at a training session for Latinx muralists. Though the process for such pieces is usually much longer, they were looking for a "permanent shift" in the intersection's "visual landscape."

"It was very fast, organized over, 'who's ready, let's go!'" McLain said. "My studio was able to provide the paint and we were able to move quickly."

This was the first mural that 45-year-old Belize-born Cadex Herrera had completed after he had started as a mural apprentice with a local non-profit last year. As an art educator and intervention specialist at an elementary school, he felt compelled to create something meaningful after hearing about Floyd's death.

The artists stand in front of the George Floyd memorial mural that they painted in Minneapolis. From left to right: Niko Alexander, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Xena Goldman, Pablo Helm Hernandez.
The artists stand in front of the George Floyd memorial mural that they painted in Minneapolis. From left to right: Niko Alexander, Cadex Herrera, Greta McLain, Xena Goldman, Pablo Helm Hernandez. Credit: courtesy Cadex Herrera

"My emotions were so raw," he said over email. "The hurt is so deep and the wound won't heal because it opens up every time a person of color is killed unjustly and it doesn't stop."
For him, art can help heal. "Art is therapy. Art can say things you cannot express with words. It brings the community together to reflect, to grieve, for strength and support."

He, McLain and Goldman were helped by artists Maria Javier, Rachel Breen, Niko Alexander, and Pablo Helmp Hernandez, however the final detail on the mural, the words 'I can breathe now,' were added by someone else, and reference the words repeated by Floyd in the video of the killing: "I can't breathe."
"The phrase came from an African American community member, Anjel Carpenter, who approached us and asked for it," McLain said. "She then surveyed the community, asking them if they preferred 'I can breathe now,' 'Let me breathe,' and one more, and they voted for 'I can breathe now.' We asked another member of the community to paint those words in."

"(Carpenter) expressed to us that the idea of not being able to breathe was fueling so much tension and anger," McLain continued. "And that now George was with God and it was important for our community healing to claim our breath and ability to breathe."
Justice for George

Thirty-three-year-old Shirien Damra says she is relatively new to Instagram, but her memorial image dedicated to George Floyd, "Justice for George," has already received over three million likes since she posted it the day after Floyd was killed. Her work has been widely shared, including by congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.

A native of Chicago, Damra is the daughter of Palestinian refugees and wants her work, which brings together bold and soft colors, to resonate as "loving" and "calming, yet hopeful."
"I know the power of color and the emotion it can implicitly evoke," she said over email. "I hope that my colors and imagery help the viewers process difficult emotions and events and come out of it with some hope and inspiration."

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