This piece was produced for Badger Vibes, our collaboration with the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association.
After protests in Madison left glass shattered and storefronts damaged, State Street became a corridor lined with plywood. The City of Madison commissioned artists to adorn the blank wood with images of protest, remembrance, grief, and hope. One of the artists recruited was Lilada Gee, founder of Lilada’s Living Room and host of the Defending Black Girlhood podcast. She recruited a whole team of young Black women to help create murals, including Maia Pearson. We spoke with both of them about the project, its relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement, and, more broadly, art as activism.
Badger Vibes: The City of Madison responded to property damage by protesters by basically covering it up with art. What was your initial reaction to that?
Lilada Gee: Initially, I was just really excited because I know how powerful art can be in conveying messages and bringing people closer to listen to something that maybe they don’t want to hear, but need to hear.
Maia Pearson: My initial response to it was not a positive one. I questioned the intent very heavily, especially in the wake of the peaceful protests that were happening. It’s unfortunate that the riot and looting happened, but it wasn’t part of the protest. So it kind of made it seem as though the city wanted artists, like you said, to come and beautify State Street. I just questioned the intent, I would say. So, long story short, no, I wasn’t really happy about it, and I questioned the intent. My thing as an artist was I would participate only with businesses that support Black lives. I’ve made my intent very clear from the beginning that I would not participate in businesses that may have been very outspoken against Black lives or at the protests, the peaceful protests that were happening, and things like that, because I wanted to make sure that I get art that was how I — like art that represented how I felt about what’s going on. As an artist, you want to make sure that your piece was received, but also that your piece is loved as much as you love it. I didn’t want to just beautify anybody’s property or try to make it better, whatever. I was very clear with my stance on my participation. I talked with Ms. Lilada about it, and I was just like, “Okay. I’ll do some art, but these are my conditions.”
Vibes: Do you feel like the mural project accomplished what you wanted it to accomplish?
Gee: It did, and it didn’t. I think there were some white people who walked past us, who were saying, “thank you,” because they didn’t want to see what had been there. Other people walked past us, leaned in, and engaged in conversation and contemplated how we weren’t trying to change the conversation. We were trying to share it in a way that people could hear it.
Pearson: I’m happy that I participated in it for the pure fact of using art as activism. And my whole thing was really focused on controlling our narrative in our part of the peaceful protest. I’ve been helping out with Urban Triage and other organizations. I’m supporting the youth at their night protest and making sure that they are able to express themselves freely and without outside factors affecting them. Other protests have been very peaceful. So for me, it was just like I wanted to reclaim … or not reclaim, but to make sure that the narrative stays a narrative, in which we have been marching peacefully. We have these demands. It’s not a senseless march, or it’s not a senseless protest. It comes with very clear demands, very concise demands.
Vibes: There were explicit messages in some of the art — Black Lives Matter, defund the police, and so on — but just more broadly, what is the message of having this project? What do you think was communicated, just by the existence of that art downtown?
Gee: As an artist, I really believe in the power of vision, and the eye being able to see something. And without any words in any of the art downtown, to be able to see so many beautiful and powerful images of Black people, it just speaks volumes. They say a picture says a thousand words, so how many words were coming out of the pictures that people who, before, turned away from the messages, now are looking at them. I think, in that way, we accomplished something. And as an artist, you do it for two reasons. You do it because you have to, because the art is always screaming inside of you for your intention to let it out. So you create art because you have to do it. The pattern is so powerful. But you also create art because you want to have something that allows other people to have an experience. And I think we accomplished both of those things.
Vibes: Tell me about the piece you and your team did celebrating Black women and girls.
Gee: Together, we did several. We ended up coming together, the team and myself; Kathy Marzett; Maia Pearson; and my daughter, Alexandra G. Lewis. And I was very strong in saying, “We, as Black women and Black artists, have to be intentional about infusing the issues and concerns of Black girls and Black women to this, because all too often, the issues fall towards, they fall towards Black men and Black boys.” And I said, “We have this opportunity to use the platform to, visually, bring forth these concerns.” So that was why the pieces that we did were so important for me, and for me as a Black woman artist working with other Black women artists to do it.
Vibes: You had some young artists helping out, too. Why was that important?
Gee: It was fantastic for me because I had the ability to work on these projects with my daughter, with my goddaughter, Kathy Marzett, and Maia. I consider [her] a community daughter because I’ve known Maia since she was 12. Again, a picture says a thousand words. We won’t have to tell these girls that they’re powerful, that their voice matters, that they have something to add, because we demonstrated it. They had an opportunity to be a part of it. And that opportunity aspect, that empowers them. They’re far ahead of where we were.
Pearson: I wanted the youth to be able to have a voice in this, also. We found it an opportunity to really kind of voice our opinions and, as artists, use art as a form of activism. And that’s pretty much why I decided to do it. As far as the youth, I think that the takeaway is that youth will care about the things. I mean, we all do, but especially youth. They will care about the things, or they will put more effort into the things that they really care about. So giving them the space to be able to really express how they felt or how they feel is super important. And I think, a lot of times, we don’t necessarily consider how the youth are feeling during all this time, and their pain, and we’re all concerned.
Vibes: What’s next for this project?
Gee: I mean, the one thing I’d like to say is, as we’re wrapping up this project and figuring out what are the next steps for the art that was created, that we are careful that white people don’t swoop in and take over and try to profit from it at the impact of the artists. There’s some businesses that are saying, “Artists don’t own this. I own this. I’ll sell it. I’ll do whatever I want to with the art,” and I think that’s wrong. Because this wasn’t for them to prosper. If they decide to take down the art and sell it, most definitely, they should profit the artists that were out there days and days and weeks on end, and not put it in their own pocket.
Pearson: I think it really has opened up a conversation, especially amongst Black artists here in Madison. There’s a lot of us, and I didn’t realize, myself, how many of us did art here. It’s really wild. I knew of some Black artists, and it was, typically, artists that attended UW–Madison and things like that, but actual just city artists who don’t have the connection to UW–Madison, and such, are not art students. And I think that the biggest takeaway is that we, as Black artists, can build on our experience, and build on coming together and creating, cocreating with each other, something that maybe can last for the city.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length by Robert Chappell.