The city temporarily closed down a section of Broadway to bring together artists and community volunteers to paint a Black Lives Matter street mural.
Artist Adri Norris, who is collaborating with street-art entrepreneur Pat Milbery, invited volunteers to come to the site on June 12 to help paint. That morning, over a hundred people showed up to help. Volunteers rotated, painting in groups of about twenty, using different colors of rollers every few hours. The near-90-degree weather didn’t stop them from getting down on their knees to fill in cracks and hedge lines with bold colors.
“We are in a moment, and I really want people to remember this moment and keep things going,” says Norris. "There is so much change that needs to happen."
Norris and Milbery had spray-painted the outlines of the letters the night before with a few other artists from their team. They got to the site at 8:30 p.m. and worked until 2:30 a.m. As they were lining up their spray lines and projectors, a protest came right down the street.
This wasn’t surprising, as the mural takes up most of Broadway between Colfax and 14th avenues, right where Black Lives Matter protesters have been decrying police violence for more than two weeks.
“The fact that in order to read this, you have to look straight at the Capitol building that makes and enforces our laws...the fact that we are here on a major street that has been shut down in order for this mural to happen — it is absolutely essential that this is happening right here, right now,” says Norris.
The piece itself reads “Black Lives Matter” in brown and black paint that pops out of a white background. Underneath, vibrant yellowish-orange paint spells out “Remember This Time.” The “B” in “Black Lives Matter” is painted in light brown, the “L” and “C” in dark brown, and the “A” in orange, while the rest of the letters are black.
“Instead of having everything be one color, we wanted to have a proper and good representation of different skin tones," says Milbery. "So there’s different tones of brown, different tones of ethnicities here, instead of just one black tone."
There are intentional imperfections in the text as well. The white background paint sometimes flows over the boundaries of the block letters, representing the imperfections we all have as people, explains Milbery — and Norris connects the choice to racism. “The imperfections in the lettering signify the way in which black and brown bodies are encroached upon by white supremacy. There will be more imperfections later on. I’m going to go in there later and really grunge it up,” she says.
Norris, an immigrant and veteran, moved from Barbados to New York, then to New Mexico, then joined the Marines. Through all of those transitions, art remained a consistent force in her life. In her work, she mostly focuses on telling the stories of women in history.
“I have experienced so many forms of discrimination — not just from regular people, but from people in blue uniforms and people in green uniforms. This is so incredibly important to me,” she says.
Milbery has created massive street-art pieces around Denver across the world. In ten years as a professional artist, he says that this is one of the most meaningful pieces he has ever been a part of.
Among the people volunteers is Denver Public Schools high school art teacher Alexandra Mamatas, who says that she tries to connect art and social movements in her classroom. “In addition to teaching techniques like painting, craft and how to express yourself visually, I teach lessons about protest, standing up for what you believe in and making your voice heard,” she explains.
One woman wore a cardboard sign around her neck that stated: “I’m immune-compromised. Please stay six-feet or more away. Thank you!” A former artist, she wasn’t able to participate in the protests because of her health condition, she says, and felt this event would be a relatively safe way to do good for the community.
Although some of the people who came out to paint in the heat are creatives, most joined the volunteers just because they wanted to spread the word.
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“It helps get the message across. Obviously, it’s not enough. It’s a stationary monument that will be driven over in a few days,” says Matt Glenn, who joined his wife at the site after learning about the event on social media. "But it’s an important reminder that people need to get on out here. I hope others are encouraged to do so when they see it."
Milbery thinks that the street art will last between 20 and 35 days, depending on traffic levels. For now, he says, it’s a necessary statement and just one more step to spur conversation and change.
Norris explains how the text of the mural — especially “Remember This Time” — emphasizes the unprecedented nature of the protests for racial justice and the international recognition of institutionalized racism. This is not the first time these types of protests have occurred, she notes, but she is hopeful that the widespread movements stress that the issue has not gone away and is not going away this time.
“Talk about this to your kids. Talk about this to your grandkids. Talk about this to your neighbors. Talk about this to everyone. This is not a black or brown problem. This is an American problem,” she says. “And if we don’t continue to tell this story, it will continue to be an American problem.”