Two local artists are not going to allow an incident of racist harassment deter them from creating more Black-centered public art. Quite the contrary.
“If anything, it just makes you want to do it more,” said Danielle Mielke, 19, in an interview Monday afternoon. “I feel more motivated now because I know that people’s racial biases still exist in Madison and that we’re not exempt from the incidents that have kind of been circulating around America. (This incident is) just a reminder and a wake-up call that more immediate action needs to be taken.”
A small crowd of supporters was gathered Monday afternoon outside TANTRA Wellness and Yoga on East Wilson Street as Mielke and her art partner, Amira Caire, finished a series of murals on plywood erected to cover the 110-year-old building’s storefront windows. Passersby stopped to compliment the work, thank them for beautifying the neighborhood and let them know that not everyone in the neighborhood felt the same way as the man who’d stopped to harass them 24 hours earlier.
Around 5 pm Sunday, a man driving a pickup truck — later identified as 60-year-old Randy Adenbroth — stopped in the middle of East Wilson to yell at the artists that the art was racist and that they needed to cover it up, ask for their names and addresses, and tell them they don’t belong in the neighborhood.
In a video posted to Facebook, the artists and their friends can be heard asking what makes it racist. Adenbroth replied that it was making him feel racist.
“We all were sure he was just mad that there were Black faces in his neighborhood,” Mielke said.
Adenbroth eventually left as a bystander called the Madison Police Department’s non-emergency number. An officer there told Caire to call 911 if the man returned. Which he did, about five minutes later, and Caire called 911. A resident of an apartment above the studio allowed the artists and friends to come inside, but they soon heard another woman engaging with Adenbroth and decided to come back outside for her safety.
The residents of the apartment and the woman who confronted Adenbroth were a few of several people local to the neighborhood who stepped up to help.
“There were people that were just taking a walk, who were close by and then came and they were trying to educate the guy,” Caire said. “And then a few people that live here definitely came out and stayed with us for over an hour after he left, even while it was all happening and they ordered us food for us, water. It was really nice.”
A police incident report says Adenbroth intended to write down the names of the artists and call police on them, apparently not believing that they had been commissioned to paint the murals. Witnesses said he was cursing at the artists and threatening to come back overnight and paint over the murals.
Ultimately police issued no citations, saying both the artwork and Adenbroth’s harassment of the artists were protected free speech.
Witnesses said Adenbroth was there for 30-40 minutes and ultimately left without further incident.
The encounter received wide attention on social media as both of Caire’s parents are prominent Madison leaders — Lisa Peyton-Caire is founder and CEO of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness, and Kaleem Caire is founder and CEO of One City School — and both shared their frustration and upset through their social media channels, prompting an outpouring of public support.
According to this Linkedin profile, Adenbroth was a vice president at EMS Industrial, which posted Monday afternoon that he was no longer employed there. Kaleem Caire said Tuesday that he had spoken with EMS CEO Kevin Femal who confirmed Adenbroth had been fired.
Caire also said femal “deserves a shout-out for speaking with every citizen who called him and for taking swift action after seeing the video. Other CEOs could learn from him.”
“I was moved to tears”
Mielke and Caire both said they’ve been artists their whole lives, but have only become public, professional artists in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in Madison.
After protests become destructive of downtown businesses in late May and early June, storefronts on State Street were boarded up, and the City of Madison commissioned artists of color to paint murals on the plywood.
“I was new to this ‘putting my art out’ thing. I was new to all of this local artists stuff,” Caire said. “So I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into, but I did see a couple of friends of mine actually made some art on State Street … And then I saw them sharing on Facebook and I immediately was just like, ‘I can do that.’ I felt called to do it because it came from what’s been happening. And I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m really passionate about everything that’s been going on. And I just feel like this could be my time.’”
Caire jumped at the opportunity to paint two murals, commissioned by the City of Madison — one on Overture Center for the Arts in the 200 block of State Street, and one on University Bookstore at the corner of State and Lake Streets. She soon realized she might need some help.
“At this point, it was just me doing the art. But then I was like, ‘Oh, that’s big, that’s so big, who else do I know?’” Caire recalled with a laugh. So she called Mielke — their families have been friends their whole lives — and the pair bought paint before they even decided what their subjects would be.
Finally, they decided on a tribute to Tony Robinson, the Black teenager killed by Madison police officer Matt Kenny in 2015, on University Bookstore, and a celebration of Black sisterhood on Overture Center.
It was that Overture Center mural that captured the attention of Amy Pearce-Hayden, owner of TANTRA Wellness and Yoga.
“I was moved to tears,” Pearce-Hayden said in an interview Monday night. “I was surprised. I was surprised at how moved I was.”
Pearce-Hayden said she’s owned yoga studios for years, including 14 years in New York City before moving to Madison six years ago and opening TANTRA Wellness and Yoga three years ago. She said equity and inclusion, and inviting more racially diverse people to practice and teach yoga, has been a priority for her studio. She said she’s donated scholarship money and chosen three people of color to train as yoga instructors.
She said she took her two children to State Street to see the murals there, and to educate them about the Black Lives Matter movement, and decided to hire Caire and Mielke to decorate the studio on East Wilson.
She said she didn’t board up the windows because she was worried about protesters damaging them, but because the studio had been closed since March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In fact she’d already seen a couple protests march through her neighborhood with no violence or destruction.
“I don’t get fearful like that. I wasn’t worried about it. And I mean, if you’re going to smash my window, I don’t know what you might steal other than some yoga blankets,” she said. “I lived in New York City. I wasn’t worried about the damage. And it was less about that and more about the fact that we weren’t using the space and I wanted to … use my space that I’m paying rent for, that we’re not using, as a way to showcase our support for Black Lives Matter.”
She didn’t give any direction to what exactly she wanted the artists to paint, but is pleased with the results.
“I just am still inspired by these young women and young Black women who are, and so many of the protesters are, they’re young,” she said. “And I want to support that. So we hired them, we paid them, we commissioned them to do it. And honestly, the work they did was even more incredible than I expected it to be.”
The murals at TANTRA Wellness and Yoga depict Elijah McClain, a Black man who died after police injected him with ketamine in Colorado, and Oluwatoyin Salou, who was murdered in Florida last month just days after tweeting that she’d been sexually assaulted.
“I wanted to shed light on fallen heroes. Or not even necessarily heroes, but just victims that maybe aren’t getting as much media coverage as they were a couple of weeks ago, highlighting, ‘Hey, don’t forget,’” Mielke said.
Another mural at TANTRA mirrors the style of the Black Sisterhood mural the pair painted at Overture Center, a pop-art style celebration of Black women.
Pearce-Hayden was not present when Adenbroth was harassing the artists, but was alerted afterward, and saw the video on social media.
“I was just so impressed how they handled themselves. They’re upstanding, impressive, they were nonviolent,” she said. “I don’t know that I would be that nonviolent if I was in their position.”
“This is exactly why we’re doing this”
Both Caire and Mielke said the incident won’t deter them. Quite the opposite.
In fact, the work will continue for both Caire and Mielke perhaps as early as later this week. As they finish the TANTRA Wellness and Yoga murals in the next few days, they’ve already got another job lined up — another business two doors down saw the work they were doing and asked them to do murals for them, too.
“It was a bit overwhelming,” Caire said of the experience of being harassed. “Just overwhelming because I’ve never been in anything like this before. I’ve never even dialed 911 before in my life. And so this was pretty new for me. Even the experience in itself being an artist, just out here, definitely a new experience. So we both were feeling really overwhelmed, but we felt like after it happened (Sunday), it felt empowering and we felt more motivated to even do more. We’re like, ‘shoot, this is exactly why we’re doing this.’ And we really felt prepared (Monday). We didn’t really know what to think coming into (Monday) … But honestly, we just know that we like to do this work. We know that this is important to us and we just showed up anyway.”