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“The Artist” unveils powerful new Civil Rights Era artwork at Southwest Madison Employment Center

“The Artist" debuted artwork from the Civil Rights Era at the Southwest Madison Employment Center. (Photos by Omar Waheed)

A new painting from Madison’s mysterious artist, known simply as “The Artist,” debuted artwork depicting scenes from the Civil Rights Era at the Southwest Madison Employment Center.

The Urban League of Greater Madison debuted a painting from The Artist on June 19 — Juneteenth National Independence Day — dedicated to a Memphis march the night before the assassination of Martin Luther King. The painting was added to the Urban League’s Southwest Madison Employment Center, 1233 McKenna Blvd., in hopes of becoming more inviting and recognizable due to its lack of signage at the building.

“The Artist”
(Photo by Omar Waheed)

The painting was gifted by The Artist to the center with its theme aptly centered on issues in employment. The painting depicts the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968. The strike followed after two Memphis garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck. As a result, 1,300 Black men from the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike due to ongoing neglect, abuse and lack of response from the city to rectify issues.

“I’m really happy with the theme that’s involved with the art that’s on display that has to do with the sanitation workers of Memphis at the time who were fighting for dignity,” The Artist said. “No one wanted to give the city workers dignity now, not only because they were Black, but because they were garbage workers considered among the lowest workers in the city.”

The Artist points out the history behind the issue and the ongoing work to support people of color in access to employment. The slogan from the strike, “I am a man,” is on the painting in homage to societal norms of what makes a man, The Artist said. For him, and reflective of the times, what makes a man was his ability to contribute to society and provide for their family.

Painting by “The Artist” near the door at the Southwest Madison Employment Center
(Photo by Omar Waheed)

The painting is a blown-up print version of The Artist’s painting called “The Event.” It spans three sections of a bending wall around near the entrance and off to the side of the building. Each side shows part of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike with people marching, congregating and protesting across the panels.

The Urban League hopes that the new painting gifted by The Artist for the center will draw more attention to the building. Dr. Ruben Anthony, president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, notes that the building is often overlooked and really only known by people who are aware of the employment center’s programs.

“We’ve been struggling and wanting to highlight what this place is for this community,” Anthony said. “We think now that because we have the art up there, maybe people might appreciate that this is a special place.”

The Southwest Employment Center was established in 2019 and is Madison’s first neighborhood employment center. The Urban League, in partnership with the center, hosts all of its job training, placement and coaching services at the location.