By Tia Richardson
“It felt heavy, and while we were helping it didn’t feel as big. It’s deeper than what I thought it was.” Gabri-El Taylor Bey, Sherman Park Resident & mural participant
This is what I heard after I sat down with residents to watch a short film documenting their experience working with me on a community mural called “Sherman Park Rising.” After working on the film with co-producer Andy Gralton and putting the pieces together, watching it with neighborhood residents revealed a larger story than the individual ones they each brought to the mural.
“I didn’t realize I was a part of something bigger.” Charmane Perry, Safe and Sound Youth Organizer
Little did I know when the project started in June of that year that it would have such an impact. When I was called in by former Safe and Sound community organizer, Amanda Schick, it was still one month before the police shooting of Sylville Smith that would come to a tragic end, sparking violent unrest and capturing media attention in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood.
Amanda and other organizers had been working with residents for 18 months to identify top priority issues, like beautification, speeding cars, and gun violence. A strong network of community groups with deep roots in addressing neighborhood issues wanted a mural for so long, to beautify a blighted, problem corner of 47th and Center Streets.
But after the community was shaken in August 2016 and left to grapple with the aftermath of violence and negative stigma, I had to rethink my approach as the mural’s lead artist. Given the hot climate confronting issues of police accountability, coupled with feelings of hopelessness and depression affecting this neighborhood and others due to structural inequity, compounded by a traumatic event … this couldn’t be just another mural with some decorative images. I knew there were opposing feelings and points of view about what had happened, even among people working on the same sides. How could I get people to work together if they felt differently about the same painful issues?
The feelings were still raw 9 months later when funding was approved by the City of Milwaukee and I was given the green light to start gathering input from the community.
On an otherwise ordinary day in a church basement for our first public workshop a surprising dilemma confronted me. I knew there would be a range of emotions about different problems, from hot anger to cool optimism. How to avoid a downward spiral of frustration if they didn’t agree? Would I focus on the problems, or would I focus on the positives?
Up to that point I was afraid people would show little interest in painting a mural, let alone about anything positive after what they went through. Yet young and old, black and white, community organizers and business owners, all shared a spectrum of issues they cared about. They shared the joy and the pain with mutual respect. Later I realized an uncomfortable truth: that I had underestimated the community’s willingness to acknowledge painful issues in a positive way.
“It was just so powerful with the climate as it is … and it just shows that one by one we can make a difference, and through something like art, through involvement in a community art project … art can be therapeutic without being art therapy.” Devvie Washington Walton, Sherman Park Resident & mural participant
I approached this project from the angle of a process of healing, guided by my background using arts as a way to relieve emotional stress from trauma. The steps to get there: first, offering a chance for people to acknowledge the problems they care about. Once we can acknowledge how we feel we can make a choice about how we want to move forward. Here, it meant thinking of a tangible, practical thing they or others are doing or wish they could do in their neighborhood to improve the situation. Then, together, we get to imagine where our combined actions lead us in a vision of the future.
“It provokes a hope of change … but when you look at the bigger picture it’s something positive to reflect on … The painting and the video is one positive thing that’s different from the narrative.” Vaun Mayes, Sherman Park Resident & mural participant
The mural shows the little-known resident-driven assets — urban gardens, grassroots youth programs, nonprofit and individual support for housing and literacy, and working with police to improve accountability and community relations.
The narrative surrounding Sherman Park persisted as a negative one. But many residents wanted a way to tell others outside of that area what they weren’t seeing, through the mural. Negative stressors can create a negative self-image. How we feel about ourselves influences how we treat others and our motivation to move forward. I feel that the negative stressors in our environment today far outweigh the positive reinforcements it takes to turn the effects of internalized trauma around. I believed there needed to be something positive to counter the effects of that influence.
This is why I asked participants something from a positive viewpoint: “What does hope look like?” We have to imagine tangible pictures in our vision of the future, or else it’s just another hard-to-grasp idea that will fly away in a cloud of forgotten dust as soon as negative reality swoops back in.
The beautiful thing about sharing what matters to us in a room full of strangers is that it opened up space to be a little more vulnerable. In that vulnerability, we saw the chance to reshape the narratives we hold close. Taking that risk opened our hearts and minds to new ideas, new feelings, new perspectives — a new vision!
“I never thought of art as being hope, and I think of hope as an action word by getting everyone involved.” Kenneth Ginlack, Sr., Sherman Park Resident & clinical therapist
One of the most powerful moments during the project was when people got involved to help paint the mural.
On scheduled days the mural was open to the public to pick up a brush and “paint by numbers.” By the third week more than 150 people painted the first layer of color over the entire wall. There were toddlers, teenagers, families, elected officials (Mayor Tom Barrett and Alderman Russell Stamper lent their hands), law enforcement, the business improvement district. The community groups who were so instrumental in seeding the idea of a mural in this location showed their support. The joy in the air was contagious.
“Peace is a process of each person doing what they can do.” Doris Wallace, Sherman Park Resident & mural participant
When the mural was complete something surprising happened that called me to do one more thing. At the mural ribbon-cutting, everyone who had been involved from the beginning was there in support. Mayor Tom Barrett spoke at the request of the City, and everyone else had a turn to speak, including myself. Someone I did not expect to see, because he had not been involved up to that point, was Milwaukee’s former Police Chief Ed Flynn. I didn’t expect Flynn to give his sincere appreciation for what he saw as hope and community spirit in the project. But in the moment I doubted his sincerity.
Despite my doubt, I wanted to know what he really felt, so I reached out for an interview. This stretched far beyond the limits of my comfort zone. That interview proved pivotal for me as a person of color, sitting across from a white male former police chief. It revealed as much about my own bias as much as a bigger theme of how to find common ground that opens up a chance to learn about each other’s humanity.
“I mean if we can create peace in really small ways because we see somebody like Police Chief Ed Flynn in a different light because he’s touched by the art in the same way I’m touched by the art … that moment is a really big one for moving our whole city to a different place of respect and understanding between people who come from different places.” Shelly Roder, Sherman Park resident
Panning across the 17-foot-by-56-foot mural, you see images of struggle, of loss and of hope. We see a woman lifting a house off an elderly man who’s being helped by a young boy. We see babies and toddlers playing in flowers, youth working to free a lending library from hungry vines. We see trust, respect, and working together. We see young people desperately calling out to adults for help, a memorial tree with balloons and a silhouette of one life too many lost. We see the call and the response of the community, different demographics, bringing peace lilies to support the rebirthing of the community. Homeowners, renters, young and old, black and white, Jewish and Christian, clergy, professional and non-professional.
In the middle, a policewoman, a male resident and a builder share the burden in lifting a household full of people on their shoulders. Their dance is a symbol of the balance of power between authority, residents, and the creative energy it takes to move everyone forward, with hope.
In all of the symbolic messages everyone can find something they can relate to in their own way. We can’t go back and change the past, but we can honor it for what it can teach us about our humanity, and then use this moment to choose where we want to go next – together.
This article was first published in “The Milwaukee Anthology,” a nonfiction and poetry collection new from Belt Publishing. The anthology is available in fine bookstores throughout southeastern Wisconsin as well as at beltpublishing.com. The film ‘Sherman Park Rising’ can be viewed at: https://centerforhealthythinking.com/ inspirations/sherman-park-rising-mural-video/