“While rage can lead to tragedy, it is also a terrible thing to waste. Rage can be useful, necessary even,” award-winning Black filmmaker Kasi Lemmons penned in an opinion piece for the Washington Post on June 1. “It fuels our pride and lubricates our resilience. With discipline and unity, rage can change the world. So be enraged with us and for us. If you’re unwilling to do that, know this: You can look away all you want. But we see you.”
After reading Lemmons’ piece, titled “White Americans, your lack of imagination is killing us,” Louisville artist Paula Slick felt called to action. So she gathered her art supplies and began using her talent to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She has been spreading the message with concrete as her canvas and chalk as her tool.
“I am not seeking to elevate myself, but the message,” said Slick. “I was looking for a way to be involved, and Kasi’s piece was powerful enough to get me off my butt.”
She began by creating a “Justice for Breonna” mural on a friend’s fence. Breonna Taylor was 26 years old when she was fatally shot in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers on March 13.
Then Slick moved her canvas to sidewalks and driveways. On her driveway lies a portrait of Tamir Rice that reads: “Tamir Rice would have been 18 now.”
“I’m just responding to the call to white people to do something,” Slick said. “Louisville is a very white and polite town that stays quiet on almost all issues. We’re so quiet that you never know if people are racist or not, everyone talks about cycling and dogs. I wasn’t sure if people would be upset.”
According to the latest census data, Louisville, a population of 20,816, has a 90% white population. Colorado is 87% white. But many of Louisville’s residents, including Mayor Ashley Stolzmann, have spoken out as allies with the movement — all to mostly positive feedback from the community, Stolzmann said.
“People are really stepping up to make sure we’re doing our part,” Stolzmann said. “We’ve seen the patterns throughout history. We need to do more. This is every community’s problem right now and we all have to make sure we’re doing our part. Art like Paula’s is a positive avenue to open up the conversation.”
The detail Slick infuses into her chalk murals is remarkable. The characteristics she sculpts on the faces of the victims of racial violence are layered with depth among shadows and highlights. The wholesome smiles are inviting and warm. Each mural notes how old the victim would be today.
Eric Reed, owner of Acme Fine Goods in downtown Louisville, said he and his family were walking home from Louisville’s Black Lives Matter solidarity march on June 7 when he saw Slick standing in her driveway. He inquired about her murals, they exchanged information, and four days later Slick took over Reed’s driveway.
“It was incredible,” Reed said, on the Paul Childs portrait Slick created. “They’re so absolutely beautiful and so well done and it’s all purely out of the kindness of her own heart. To have her come in, do something and then disappear — it was incredible ”
Slick said the murals take about three hours to create. She begins early in the morning to avoid the summer heat. Many of the pieces have succumbed to rain, but Slick said she will continue to make them.
Slick said the story of Rice really hit her hard. Rice was 12 years old in 2014, playing with a toy gun when a Cleveland police officer fatally shot him. Rice would be 18 now.
“It’s so close to home; that one touched me so much,” said Slick, who has an 18-year-old son. “My son and his friends often played with Nerf guns that look like machine guns in the local parks and they were never shot.”
Slick said her household is anti-racist and an ally for Black Lives Matter. She wanted to break the silence.
Reed said Slick’s mural inspired him to have his two kids, 13 and 9 years old, learn about Childs and other victims of racial violence. In 2003, Childs was a developmentally disabled 15 year old who was wielding a knife when a Denver police officer shot him four times. Childs would be 32 today.
“It’s very necessary to have these important conversations,” said Reed, who displays a Black Lives Matter sign in his storefront’s window on Walnut Street. “My kids were able to research who he was, learn his story, then go down the list and learn about everyone else.”
Reed’s mural has been mostly washed away by rain, leaving just the mural’s ghost.
“It’s nice to have that conversation starter and I’d love for Paula to come back, I mean, there are enough names and faces to be remembered,” said Reed.
Reed, who grew up in Springfield, Mass., said his experience growing up was nothing like his the experience his children have in Louisville. Reed said that’s why it’s important to have open and honest conversations with family and friends, regardless of how difficult the topic may be. Sharing experiences can be powerful, he said.
“We need to be able to go through, step-by-step, and have tough discussions to truly define what people are looking for in change,” Reed said. “I’m a white male living in Louisville and I recognize that privilege. I need to use that to promote conversation and to take action.”
Many of the conversations will be difficult, though, Reed, Slick and Stolzmann acknowledged, but they are conversations that are necessary.
“As a public official, you get a lot of phone calls and emails,” Stolzmann said. “Usually when someone is upset, I’ll just sit there and listen and note the issue. But with racism, I will not support or tolerate it. It’s important for me to bring forward, right away, that this is an issue and is not correct. It does make for some tough conversations.”
On June 20, Slick participated in the National Arts Drive by lighting up her property with lanterns she created from her many years of leading Lafayette’s Lantern Walk. She touched up her Rice mural for the event and said many people stopped by to gaze at the bright works of art filling her lawn.
There was one group of people who inquired about the mural, she said, one of the guys said, “So what is it with Black Lives Matter? I mean, why Black lives? We talk in our house about how all lives matter, my wife and I agree that all lives matter.”
“What I said doesn’t matter as much as how it felt to me,” Slick said. “I said some things about I’m supporting this community because this kind of violence toward them keeps happening and it’s enough. And then, he wasn’t wearing a mask and I was, and he was tall, he took a few steps toward me ’til he was about a foot from me. I stepped back until I felt safe and then I continued.
“I am a long-time single mom and my 18 year old was standing behind me and it was nighttime so I did feel vulnerable, for sure. But I also felt different afterwards. Relieved that I had not shrunk back.”
Slick said creating the murals has helped her to overcome a fear of standing up against violence — especially on behalf of those who need it most.
“I think I was trained as a single woman to never stand up to that kind of aggression,” she said.
“It is so inspiring to see the community speaking up in this way,” Stolzmann said. “By and large, most community interactions have been positive, which is helpful for moving forward. But this won’t be an overnight change. We need to talk where there’s disagreement. We all need to be able to put it out there so we all know where we stand. That is really important. If we don’t call attention to the issue, we’ll never see the change that’s needed.”