Artists and Activists: Claiming Space on State Street

With State Street as their canvas, a multiracial cohort of artists commemorate black lives and demand change through hand-painted murals. Photos: Cailyn Schiltz, Lilada Gee, Goodman’s Jewelers, Sirena Flores, Cassie Pierce, Katherine Culbertson, used with permission.

Author: Cailyn Schiltz

On May 30th, a peaceful march to protest racism and police brutality turned into rioting where stores were looted and tear gas filled the streets. Artists transformed an apocalyptic scene of broken glass and plywood boards on State Street into a living gallery where new art appears every day. The artists are focused on not only creating something beautiful but sending the same profound message about the importance of black lives and racial justice that some audiences seem to be missing. 

“State Street has never looked so beautifully black,” said Lilada Gee, artist and lifetime Madison resident.

Painted storefronts now display black faces, quotes from black authors and celebrities, slogans calling for justice, and messages asking for peace and tenderness. The art draws crowds of locals and tourists to State Street to learn and reflect, but some artists feel concerned that their message is being lightened into a photo op.

Artists mentioned mixed responses to her artwork from passers-by, including proclamations that “all lives matter” and racial slurs peppered in among mostly positive feedback. Gee pointed out just how many people thanked her.

“What are you thanking me for? My narrative of protecting black girls or are you thanking us for painting these boards?” said Gee. “This is born out of my anger. I’m angry I even have to have the message to defend black girls and black lives mattering. I’m not doing this to make it more palatable for white people. This is about my hopes and dreams for my people.”

Other artists have shared the same concern about the art overshadowing the activism and comfort taking priority over justice. 

“These boards are here because windows were broken in an expression of anger. These boards were put up as a platform,” said artist and UW-Madison student Sirena Flores. “[The art] can be beautiful and powerful, but [it] can also pacify the issue. This is a healing process, but we have to acknowledge the anger.”

For some artists, creating is a part of that healing process. Cassie Pierce has been drawing and advocating for black women and girls her whole life. She used to be vocal about her opinions and activism on Facebook but after the 2016 election, turned to a less vocal form of activism: her artwork. 

Pierce painted a mural of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician who was killed in her Louisville home by police officers entering on a no-knock warrant. Pierce intended for her mural to highlight Taylor’s humanity and honor her life, but feels like the victims of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole are not getting the time they deserve. 

“I felt like I spent so much time working on personal pieces, especially Breonna’s piece. It’s sad because it feels like people cared a little and then moved on,” said Pierce. “Businesses just want their windows open, but at the same time, did it have to be so quick?”

Artists are not only racing against the clock to finish their pieces, they are also vying for space and permission to paint. The City of Madison commissioned artists and had to approve artwork before artists could start painting, according to artist Jera Martinez. 

Lilada Gee noticed that not everyone was respecting the reserved spaces or applying for permits to paint through businesses or the city. Gee confronted an artist, Katherine Culbertson, painting in a reserved space. According to Gee, Culbertson responded that she was not aware that she was painting in a reserved space, but claimed that she should continue because she had already started and the next artist could paint over it.

Gee pointed out that Culbertson would just be making more work for the artist of color who reserved the space, costing them time, money and resources. 

“White girls are the face of the art on State Street. White people will be the oppressor but they also have to see themselves as the saviors,” said Gee. 

In a June 6th Instagram post of her unfinished mural, Culbertson stated “[I] wish I could have finished so the message was clear and complete. No malintent.” 

Culbertson created multiple murals on State Street and the city has taken many of them down without an explanation or her knowledge. She assumed the city found her art too harshly anti-racist.

“Maybe I was asking questions that put them in a place to contemplate themselves,” said Culbertson. “I hope I got the right people uncomfortable.”