For years, Laura Thomas, a touring chalk artist who also works at Blue Door Tattoo, felt compelled to create a piece about police violence against black people.
Like many Denver artists, she decided to put her skills to work as the world rose up in opposition to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. "When George Floyd was killed, the desire to create became ever more present," she says. "I recognized not only how divided some people were, but that there were a lot of people that simply didn't understand, didn't connect with what has been happening, had happened and was happening."
The country was having a crisis of empathy.
"I also recognized that once protests began, I felt some people couldn't really hear and see the base of what was going on," Thomas explains. "Most people have a hard time connecting with what their eyes see if it is something foreign to them and their daily lives."
Thomas identifies as mixed-race, never strongly as either black or white. "I am and will always be seen as a Black Woman," she says. "Yet being mixed allowed me to connect with everyone, see everyone, and unfortunately also experience many forms of racism, prejudice and fear. This helped me develop a mindset, as well, of trying to understand everyone's views, especially when it's something I disagree with. I feel every person has a 'stereotype' attached to them."
To process Floyd's death, she decided to create a chalk-art portrait of Floyd and an accompanying performance video illustrating how too many people weren't connecting with the horror of his murder and the violence that black people have suffered in this country for hundreds of years.
"It was a feeling, an emotion, of me, from me, I had to get out of myself, I had to create and share," she says. "In hopes of helping someone, anyone, understand at a very base level what is and has been going on. To help them understand why the hurt, the anger and the need for change has gotten to this point for so many people. I desired to create the art and a video to help people calmly watch, and hopefully pause, take a moment to stand in someone else's shoes and, in the end, hopefully find an understanding they didn't have before and a desire to change."
The portrait took her four hours to draw, and she shot the accompanying video over a day. Thomas Tamura edited the project, and she released it under the title "Can You See Me Now?"
"I found taking the time to understand 'why' allows a person to have understanding," she says. "That doesn't mean they have to agree with the other, but just to simply have understanding can allow you to see someone differently."
Artist Laura Thomas drew this portrait of George Floyd.
Throughout the video, she tries various visual strategies to elicit empathy — from draping the portrait of Floyd with a flag to donning a white mask. She repeats the question, "Can you see me now?"
She also repeats those tragic words, "I can't breathe," associated with so many police killings, including Floyd's. But she says the phrase also symbolizes a spiritual, physical and emotional state shared by many black people in the United States.
"I think this is a way so many people of color feel every day," she says. "There is a painful depth and familiarity to the meaning of those words for each individual."
In the end, she says, the video offers hope — even amid such sweeping violence: "If we all took the time to get to know each other, truly see each other, we may be surprised with not only how much we are alike, but how much our lives can be enriched with a genuine human connection."
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