Photograph by Cheriss May, Reuters
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Levi Robinson paints a mural of Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the boarded-up windows of St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Robinson was among a group of artists creating vibrant messages of peace, love, and unity while advocating for racial justice at the historic church one block from the White House.

Photograph by Cheriss May, Reuters

Steps from the White House, murals calling for justice take the place of stained glass

Months after St. John’s Episcopal Church witnessed displays of violence against peaceful protestors, artists cover its boarded windows with messages of unity.

Before the pandemic, 18-year-old Senia Cade had always thought of herself as “some kid who paints in her room when she’s bored.” But when COVID-19 cancelled the Fort Washington, Maryland, student’s prom and graduation dreams, painting helped her vent frustration.

In a summer defined by the twin traumas of COVID-19 and racial reckoning, it was not long before Cade connected her artistic efforts with swelling protests over violent threats to Black Americans’ lives.

“I can use a paintbrush to send a powerful message,” said Cade, slathering a base coat of royal blue paint onto a four-by-four-foot plywood board covering a stained-glass window at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. She was laying the foundation for an image that would promote racial unity and harmony. Cade was also creating what would be only her second piece of public art at one of the nation’s most famous churches.

On September 5, Cade was the youngest of 16 artists who spent the day on ladders and scaffolding, creating vibrant messages of peace, love, and unity on the window boards of the historic church a block from the White House. The project was one in a series of public exhibitions produced by the PAINTS Institute, which its founder characterizes as a “mural march” of artistic activism. The artists say their work amplifies solutions to ongoing strife.

The location of St. John’s Church—at the doorstep of the massive Black Lives Matter mural painted on 16th Street, N.W.—places it at the heart of ongoing protests that have occurred since the death of George Floyd on May 23; an African American man, Floyd died as killed by a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

When demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice flooded nearby Lafayette Square and the streets beside the 204-year-old church—and after a fire was set in the adjacent parish house—12-foot metal fences were erected around the church property to prevent access by demonstrators.

As the Reverend Rob Fisher, St. John’s Rector, juggles producing virtual worship services with monitoring demonstrations, he hopes the mural project will send a definitive message. “One of the blessings of coronavirus [is that] it’s helping people to concentrate on what really matters the most. I hope the messages of love and peace and unity on these murals will help people focus on what’s most important,” he says.

The St. John’s mural project took place three months after the so-called “Church of Presidents” landed in the headlines as the site of a staged photo opportunity featuring U.S. President Donald Trump holding a bible outside the parish house. The image was captured as protestors filled the nearby streets and riot police launched teargas cannisters to ensure a clear path for the President’s entourage. (Here's why this year's protests mark a new development in the American fight for racial equality.)

By that time, PAINTS Institute artists had already produced a number of vivid murals on windows and buildings around the D.C. area. PAINTS—an acronym for Providing Artists with Inspiration in Non-Traditional Settings—was launched by John J. I. Chisholm in 2016 and serves as an incubator for arts, STEM education for youth, and offers entrepreneurial training to local artists.

After COVID-19 quarantines began, PAINTS partnered with Brookfield Property Partners, a global commercial real estate company, to create images promoting pandemic safety at high-profile locations. That effort caught the attention of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District (DC BID), and by mid-May, PAINTS artists were poised to produce murals on the windows of local businesses heralding the city’s initial re-opening attempts following lockdown.

“Eight minutes and 46 seconds later, the emotion and the mission changed,” says Chisholm, referring to how long the Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. As officials scrambled to respond to protestors and frantic business-owners began covering their windows, Chisholm says his vision for weaving social justice activism into their murals became clear.

“All of a sudden the National Guard was in D.C., and all the businesses were shut, and it was really pretty ugly,” Chisholm says. “So the question became, how can we contribute to improving the image of the neighborhoods, but also provide positive messaging during a tense situation?”

“Typically, public art can take a long time to make happen,” says Gerren Price, director of public space operations for DC Bid. “After the George Floyd protests began, a lot of folks had already begun to express their outrage and pain with posters, and on sidewalks and boarded up buildings. We saw a lot of beauty and opportunity in that and thought the murals could open up spaces that are closed off.”

PAINTS Institute artists have produced several dozen murals, including a high profile exhibit at the National Building Museum. On the day that thousands of people converged on the National Mall during the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington, six artists painted images of the so-called “Big Six” organizers of the original march. But there were actually seven faces on the canvases, because legendary civil and women’s rights activist Dorothy Height—long considered a neglected contributor to that event—was included in the line-up. (Hear from participants who risked COVID-19 to attend this year's Commitment March.)

“Art allows you to raise uncomfortable questions and challenge perceptions,” Chisholm says. “An image speaks louder than any argument.”

Murals have long been a part of social justice movements in the Black community, says Aaron Bryant, a curator at the National Museum of African American Art History and Culture.

“Starting with the 1967 Wall of Respect in Chicago, that really set off a mural movement in activism, where artists got involved not just with the community, but got the community involved in civic engagement and democracy.”

Murals became an important way to transmit important policy and justice messages in a vivid and meaningful way as community organizers moved through neighborhoods, Bryant says. The young men and women who created those images and messages were more relatable, trusted and had credibility in their communities, and that kind of spirit continues today.

“What’s happening at this moment around the protests reconnects us to our history where artists were leading voices for Black people, whether it was the Harlem Renaissance, or through gospel and blues music, or jazz, or the Black National Theater, hip hop and rap. Artists have been that voice to amplify our everyday lives and struggles.” (Related: This legendary Black photographer's work continue to resonate today.)

Most importantly, Bryant says that mural art and activism “problematizes” the narrative around social protest, and create a different explanation for why people take to the streets. “Protest in Black communities has always been about peaceful resistance and resilience, and artists have always fueled that kind of energy during mass movements. This kind of art reclaims the narrative, and demonstrates that it’s not about confrontation or aggression. It’s about community engagement and civic engagement. It’s not just about civil rights, it’s about asking people to reclaim their humanity.”

Near the end of the day’s project at St. John’s, Shawn Perkins was battling sunburn and thirst after hours spent standing on a scaffold filling in pastel colors on one of his murals, a serene Madonna figure. The 33-year-old Detroit native said the St. John’s project brings him full circle in his journey as an artist.

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Senia Cade paints a mural in support of racial justice on the boarded-up windows of St. John's Episcopal Church on September 5, 2020. “We’re all shades of the same color,” Cade said. “I think it’s really important to remember that this movement is for Black lives, but it needs to be contributed to by everyone.”

“When you can combine justice with art, when you can speak out in a way that also leaves a message in someone’s mind, that’s what’s up,” Perkins said.

Keiona Clark said she barely endured the heat as she produced three murals, including a cross topped by the raised fist that has become a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement and of Black American activism since the 1960’s,. The 47-year-old breast cancer survivor works full-time for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, but says she did not want to miss the chance to contribute an artwork to an historic church.

“As long as you’re proud of what you produce, the price you had to pay to produce it doesn’t matter,” Clark says. “That saying, ‘This far by faith’ is real, and for me to participate in something like this is like a dream.”

After Senia Cade finished her vivid abstract collage featuring two multi-colored heads, the teenager took a quick stroll around the church to admire her fellow artists’ work, which included images of doves, hands clasped in prayer and a towering portrait of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“I couldn’t have asked for a more empowering experience,” she said. “I’m at a loss for words. It’s incredible how many people put their heart and soul into this moment in history, and I’m just so honored to have been a part of it.”