Minneapolis artists memorialize lives lost and challenge policing and economic systems
The site of one of the most notorious police murders in American history, George Floyd Square now teems with color
Leesa Kelly, Memorialize the Movement’s founder, at the warehouse where volunteers help sift throug the piles of plywood art. (Photo by Xuandi Wang via The Minnesota Reformer)
Jeremiah Eillison, who is both a muralist and a member of the Minneapolis City Council, has a grimly ambitious goal for City Hall: He wants every paintable wall on the third floor to be painted with images of people killed by police in the city over the past 50 years.
“If we had to say, hey, in 1981 Tyson Nelson got shot in the back as a teenager. And in 2020, George Floyd was suffocated brutally for nine minutes until he died, and we had every police killing in between — that is charting a course in history,” Ellison said.
His inspiration is the Diego Rivera mural stairwell of the National Palace in Mexico City, which traces the country’s history.
If you’ve got to confront that as a policymaker every single day right on the wall, right? It affects the story that you tell yourself, about your city.
– Jeremiah Eillison, Minneapolis City Council
Ellison is joined by scores of Minneapolis artists who are using art to memorialize lives lost and challenge the city’s policing and economic systems.
Though known as the site of one of the most notorious police murders in American history, George Floyd Square now teems with color. Saturated murals with vibrant tones stretch across the walls, and spray painted words such as “No Justice! No street!” cover nearly every surface of the street corner.
Wes Winship, a local Minneapolis artist, painted two murals on the former Speedway gas station in the square. His first mural is of Paul Castaway, a Native American man who was killed by Denver police in 2015 on the way to his own trial. Winship’s other mural in the square depicts Hardel Sherrell, an incarcerated 27-year-old Black man who was ignored by medical staff at a northern Minnesota prison. Two days after arriving, Sherell died on his prison cell floor.
Winship said he worked on the paintings in the fall of 2020, going to the square four hours a day a few times each week. Local community members would stop by to chat, he said, and Castaway and Sherrell’s family members and friends would walk up to him, tell stories and give input on the painting. The Castaway family suggested Winship include Paul’s daughter in the mural, as well as the imagery of a bear and its cub.
For Chicago-born Minneapolis resident Leesa Kelly, memorializing the movement that erupted out of Floyd’s murder helps her channel anger and hopelessness. She is the founder of Memorialize the Movement, a group that has collected and preserved hundreds of plywood murals in a North Minneapolis warehouse. The murals reflect on police brutality, state violence and the Black experience.
The plywood boards, which require two people to navigate around the warehouse, were initially erected by concerned shop owners who didn’t want their storefronts to be vandalized during protests following Floyd’s murder. Artists then used chalk, paint, pen and markers to transform the boards into murals.
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Although Kelly said she wouldn’t have chosen to put the murals on plywood because it is a fragile material that is easily susceptible to the elements, she thinks the medium is symbolic of the larger civil rights movement.
“I like that it’s on plywood, even though it’s very fragile, because this movement is fragile,” Kelly said. “Our fight for justice has been ongoing.”
Ellison, who grew up doodling on walls, also said he wishes the work was done on brick walls instead of plywood so that it would last longer.
He said he would like to see more murals all across the city that memorialize state violence.
In the meantime, art and politics are remarkably similar, he said.
“To me, politics is artmaking,” Ellison said. “It’s just a different medium. Instead of paint and words, and graphite and ink and paper, it’s power, it’s money and it’s people. But it’s still art making. And it’s still storytelling.”
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