The American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, in partnership with the city of Madison Arts Commission, has created a substantial book titled “Let’s Talk About It,” a compilation of the many city-commissioned murals painted along State Street during and after the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020. The book is available free and a copy can be requested by filling out an online form.
“Let’s Talk About It” features over a hundred murals painted along State street in the wake of several protests after the murder of George Floyd, some of which left many businesses along State Street with broken windows and property damage.
The book also features a foreword by Judge Everett Mitchell, an essay by UW professor emeritus Freida High W. Tesfagiorg, and a poem by former Madison Poet Laureate Fabu Phillis Carter, professionally known as Fabu.
Photos for the book were taken by several local photographers including Amadou Kromah and Hedi LaMarr Rudd.
“[American Family Insurance’s] book is really significant because it’s a permanent record of an ephemeral project,” said Karin Wolf, Arts Program Coordinator for the city of Madison and one of the many city officials key in the mural commissioning process.
Nyra Jordan, Social Impact Investment Director at the institute and project director for the book, noted that “Let’s Talk About It” is a “powerful and historical record” of the protests and unrest of last summer.
“I think [the book gives] the community a glimpse, especially those that may not be from Madison, or who are not here, but most definitely those that were here and lived it, it gives them just kind of a glimpse into what was happening last year and it really is a historic preservation of the art, and honestly it’s to recognize the artists,” Jordan said.
The idea to memorialize the art on State Street was suggested during a virtual American Family Insurance leadership meeting late last summer. The meeting featured American Family Insurance leaders and over 1000 community leaders invited to discuss the recent civil unrest.
When asked what organizations like American Family Insurance could do in this moment of social justice and civil unrest, one of the panelists, Dane County Court Judge Everett Mitchell said to “preserve the art downtown State Street,” Jordan remembered.
In an interview with Madison365, Mitchell noted that “Let’s Talk About It” demonstrates the “corporate responsibility” organizations like American Family Insurance have to the communities they serve.
“Corporate partners are often seen as outside the communities, right? You don’t really see them, as a part of, maybe nonprofits are seen as part of the community, but definitely, corporate partners, you’ve given them money, but they stand back,” Mitchell said. “What was different is that American Family entered into a dialogue around race and class and what is their corporate responsibility to this moment….I think when corporate partners step up, it allows for those men and women who are in the community that might be skeptical, to understand that this is not just a fringe, small, separate group of people who are upset, it is a collective frustration with not having the justice that all of our communities want to see.
“It was important to see how these young people and people in the community were coming out to demonstrate and share their voice and their visions so that the movement didn’t get stuck to some plywoods and broken windows, but that it showed the deep connection that many of the people in our community had toward issues of justice, equality, and fairness and bodies and beauty and reaffirming great messages that we want to continue,” Mitchell added. “I just think that social justice has always relied on the artist to tell the story that speeches cannot.”
However, both Wolf and Jordan noted that the moment captured in the art and the book is not an excuse to move on from the unrest experienced by the country this past summer.
“I did not want to, forgive the expression, whitewash the issues,” Wolf said. “I didn’t want it to be about healing and moving on, because it wasn’t the moment for that. It was the moment to make meaning and understanding and go deeper.”
“We hope that the book is a way for us to sit with this for a little bit,” Jordan said. “I say not move past it quickly but let’s sit with it and truly have these dialogues that enable us to move forward.”
One of the artists featured in the book, Anwar Floyd-Pruitt, spoke to his experience as a muralist on State Street.
“I don’t know that everyone sees it this way, but whatever damage was done on State Street, and then boarded-up buildings and stuff, didn’t happen out of a vacuum,” Floyd-Pruitt explained. “For me, sure, [the art] is about the healing. It’s also a very tangible reminder because everyone lives in their silos. There’s a very tangible reminder of what happened and what’s happening in our nation … A lot of places, a lot of people can just go back to their communities where there’s no sign that George Floyd was killed. There’s no sign except for the constant pressure of segregation that there’s a huge racism problem. And so this, hopefully, just serves as a reminder to some people about how far we have to go.
“The system’s not going to hold itself accountable, without pressure,” Floyd-Pruitt continued. “And so I think there has to be this sort of continued pressure through all the means that create pressure to hold the system accountable…and we will ultimately, hopefully, see some change.”
During the painting process, Floyd-Pruitt was harassed by a passerby who assaulted him, destroying his stencil reading “Black Lives Matter.”
“Here I am, a six-foot-three, pretty large black man, yelling at this white guy in the middle of the day… It’s a really sad state of affairs when the person that’s attacked is then worried that the attacker is going to look like the victim based on racist stereotypes of angry black people. I think we have a ways to go,” Floyd-Pruitt continued. “But as someone mentioned to me, maybe a decade ago, we have to celebrate small victories and encourage people to continue to do the right thing. There’s this interesting balance of compassion, helping people grow out of whoever they are, whether they’re racist or sexist or whatever it is, compassion to help them grow out of it, as well as kind of hold them accountable.”
Many artists, Floyd-Pruitt included, have had their murals vandalized and destroyed.
Wolf addressed the impermanence of the art noting that although many of the murals have been destroyed by both people and weather, “Let’s Talk About It” “may be the best chance that some murals have” to survive.
“I would like to preserve as many of the murals as possible because there’s a chance of holding on to that moment of empowerment and trying to explain it in the future,” Wolf said.
In an effort to provide artists with compensation, American Family Insurance in partnership with Gener8tor, offered every artist involved free access to a business accelerator program targeted towards creative visual artists.
Artists also received a copy of the book.
“A common thing that people understand is art,” Mitchell said. “And, if we can use different mediums to [get] people to stand with us or stand beside us, or fight together, it won’t be as onerous in the future….The one thing George Floyd’s murder revealed, in the midst of COVID, was how so many people across the world are just exhausted of seeing this, and they want something changed.”
The application to request a copy of “Let Talk ABout It” can be found here via the American Family Insurance website. Copies are limited to one per person however, multiple copies can be provided to institutions such as schools, nonprofits, and libraries.