'BLM': Reflecting on art and change a year after Downtown protests
Columbus artist Lisa McLymont takes in the new CCAD exhibition of wood-panel murals from the 2020 racial justice protests and revisits lingering questions
The plywood panels were never intended to be art. During the racial justice protests that defined the days and weeks following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, businesses in Downtown Columbus hastily covered their windows with plywood to prevent damage during the uprisings. But local artists saw them as canvases, and they seized the opportunity to not only create, but also to amplify the messages they were chanting in the streets:
“No justice, no peace.”
“Black lives matter.”
“Say their names.”
Some of those panels are now displayed on huge cinderblock walls inside CCAD’s Canzani Center atrium adjoining the Beeler Gallery (60 Cleveland Ave.) as part of a recently opened exhibition, "BLM," which I visited on a recent afternoon with Columbus artist Lisa McLymont, who is connected to these pieces in several ways.
Early on in the protests, CAPA recruited McLymont and other artists to create a mural on the plywood outside the Ohio Theatre, which had sustained thousands of dollars of glass damage. That public artwork, which depicted a sun and clouds along with a “Les Miserables” quote — “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise” — inspired dozens of other murals. Some were spontaneous, and others were commissioned through the Art Unites Cbus campaign launched by CAPA and the Greater Columbus Arts Council.
That led to the creation of Deliver Black Dreams, a public art initiative led by Marshall Shorts, who partnered with Maroon Arts Group, GCAC and the city to not only preserve existing wood-panel murals, but also create new, permanent public art, including a 5,000-square-foot mural, which McLymont designed, on a Fifth Avenue retaining wall near the Milo-Grogan neighborhood.
But even as McLymont participated in and sometimes spearheaded these initiatives centered on Black public art, she didn’t hesitate to question the whole endeavor. “We put a lot of love and passion into the boards. I'm proud that we created something that the city wants to save. So I would never say throw it all away. But what I will say is, I don't think that is the main concern,” McLymont told Alive last year. “Everybody is so focused on some material item that can be saved. … [But] we’re still dying!”
“When I see them now, I'm actually glad that they preserved them and they still show them,” McLymont said recently while staring at the large panels grouped together for "BLM," which is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Dec. 11. “They look great. They carry impact. But I don't know how much impact it will have on the people that need to make hard and fast decisions. There's only so many conversations you can have if there's no change. … People are still dying, so what did that moment change?”
Some of the "BLM" panels were made by well-known local artists such as Hakim Callwood and Bryan Moss, while another was painted by 13-year-old Adalyn. Others are anonymous, created in the moment, for the moment. “These works that are untitled or unnamed are the true works of the protest. This could have been someone that marched and saw that this was an opportunity to do something and say something, and they wanted to leave that impact. … This, to me, records the rawness of the moment,” McLymont said. “The artists that did these panels did the work and walked away. None of the artists, as far as I know, were being very precious about it. They're just sharing their commitment to change and giving hope to others and educating on the problem at hand.”
McLymont was struck, too, by the simplicity of many of the murals, some of which were spray-painted in black, such as one that reads “Unity,” and another featuring an all-black background with white, spray-painted script reading, “I Love You, Black Man.”
As the murals sparked conversations cross the city, McLymont said the moment also served to bring the arts community together. “We were raising our hands to try to make some change. For me, there's a lot of pride in seeing that,” she said. “Every artist I know of that was involved [in the murals], it all had some impact on their art. It shifted what they choose to do. Instead of something frivolous, it was like, ‘Let me think this through. Is there something I can say here?’”
Prior to the protests, McLymont, a graphic designer by trade, didn’t even consider herself a muralist. She usually painted small portraits on smooth surfaces. “I've become really familiar with these rough surfaces, and it's influencing how I'm approaching my art,” she said. “And I never wanted to be painting in front of people. I was so cerebral about how I approached things, but this has really shaken things up for me. I'm still working pretty tight on some themes, but there's a lot that I'm just like, I could do anything!”
In the past year, McLymont has worked on large-scale murals for Deliver Black Dreams, as well as a mural on the side of North Campus bar Rambling House and another she recently completed in Clintonville featuring a giant portrait of Star Trek’s Spock alongside the words “Live long and prosper” on the Tek Experts building, which gave her the opportunity to have conversations about sci-fi and art with people in the community. “They could see someone like me painting Spock. That's impactful. That's educational,” she said.
Working at that scale — seeing the design in her head, marking it up, then making it large — all traces back to McLymont’s work on the panels she made during the protest.
For the "BLM" panels in particular, CCAD Faculty Director of Galleries Tim Rietenbach first mocked up various groupings of the paintings in Photoshop in hopes of filling the cavernous Canzani atrium in a way that made the biggest impact. “The thing that I find most peculiar about the whole thing, that I can never get rid of, is the purpose of the wood versus the act of painting on it, because the purpose was to protect private property,” Rietenbach said. “I like the complexity of that — these things at odds with each other.”
“These artists weren't thinking about the fact that people just wanted art because they didn't want [Downtown Columbus] to feel like a shantytown. They didn't want to look at a city all boarded up, but the city kind of deserves to be looked at all boarded up,” McLymont said. “That's what a lot of hearts are. This is just a visible version of that. … I think that’s something people need to be reminded of as they look at these boards separate from the protests.”
A year removed from the uprisings, McLymont is now looking ahead to next summer. “A year from now, how do we generate conversations so that people are invited to come and no one's trying to control the conversation? And where does that take place?” she said. “I don't necessarily want the city to lead it, because they only want to hear certain things. They can join us to hear the conversation, but I don't think that they should organize it.”
“Each of us has to decide to do something. That is the hope,” McLymont continued. “All these artists came out to push even one person to do something. For true change, it comes down to the city making policies or changing policies. We as citizens can only do so much. But we can push them to do more.”