When local artist Michael Wise began covering the boarded up windows of the Mouton bar front in the Short North May 31, he had no idea his work would go global. To him, a black man, it was just another way to show his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Since the start of the nationwide protests in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in Minneapolis police custody May 25, and the number of black Americans who have died by police use of force, many local artists like Wise have covered downtown Columbus with their work to support the movement.
“I find art one of the greatest forms of expression,” Wise said.
His piece includes the words, “say their names,” above a painting of a young black woman wearing a mask with her fist in the air. To the side are a list of 12 black Americans that have lost their lives due to racial violence.
The names listed are George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Samuel DuBose, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott and Terrence Crutcher.
Wise said he got the idea for the piece after attending the protests May 30 with a group of friends.
“Everything started off peaceful. I felt very powerful. We were doing all the right things in the right areas, and there was not a single thing in my eyes that I saw being done wrong,” Wise said.
Once police began pushing protesters back and started pepper-spraying them, Wise said he was temporarily detained for not moving fast enough after assisting a group of older people behind him. Wise said he was taken to a separate area and was released shortly after.
“From there, I left home and I went just so defeated. I was just so emotional about it too, and I felt like everything that I had done was not worth it,” Wise said.
With the help of some friends to decide a location and gather supplies, Wise said he was able to start bringing his idea to life the morning of May 31 in front of Mouton. Later that day, Wise painted a second version of the design in front of Salon Lofts in the Short North.
Wise said the original piece was up for less than 24 hours before a private buyer requested to purchase it for $500. Wise said he did not want to make money on the painting, so in return for his piece, the money was donated to the Columbus Freedom Fund — a community bail fund — and will be displayed downtown for the general public after Saturday.
His painting received attention from more than just the people passing by. In fact, Wise said a picture of his painting has been shared over 300,000 times on Instagram, with people reposting in locations as far as the United Kingdom and Australia.
Perhaps the most notable respondent to Wise’s art has been former first lady, Michelle Obama, who direct-messaged Wise June 1, praising his work and thanking him for sharing it.
“Seeing that blue checkmark on her account for verified kind of just really approved it basically for me,” Wise said. “But really after that, the first thing I did was I started tearing up because it just blew me away that she took the time to acknowledge it.”
Further down the street from Wise’s piece at Studios on High Gallery is a mural with the words “peace” and “justice” next to a hand giving a peace sign while holding paint brushes.
The mural was designed by Morgan McDonald, a third-year in art education, who said she reached out to her former place of internship after noticing the studio had been quiet regarding the recent events. The studio agreed to use the storefront for McDonald’s design and days later it was brought to life by the studio’s member artists.
McDonald, a participant in protests in her hometown of Pickerington, Ohio, said she wanted the mural to still be connected to art. The colors flowing from the paint brushes in the mural are what McDonald said symbolizes the power that can come from art and creative outlets.
“Art is a form of protest in itself, and it’s a form of activism,” McDonald said.
This sentiment is one Ohio State alumna and local artist Julia Barrett can relate to.
After witnessing protesters and friends being pepper-sprayed and shot at with wooden and rubber bullets at the May 30 protests, Barrett said the day was traumatic. She said she even saw her mother protect a stranger’s baby from being pepper-sprayed.
“Sometimes it gets too much on your mental health and you need to take a break, but at the same time I wanted to be proactive. I didn’t want to just step back and grieve, I wanted to help the community keep going,” Barrett said.
Though Barrett chose not to return to the protests after witnessing the events, she knew she still wanted to show her support.
Barrett contacted the 934 Gallery located on Cleveland Avenue to ask if she could use the gallery’s boarded-up windows to paint and got to work June 1.
The piece includes the faces of multiple people who are victims of police use of force, paired with their age at the time of death and location. Some of the people included are George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tyre King.
Barrett said she put out a call for some local artists and friends for help on the project and was surprised when over 30 people arrived on the first day to help. She said she would show those working on it an example of what she was looking for, and then let them get to work. What Barrett thought would be something she’d have to complete on her own turned out to be a community effort with names and faces still being added today.
“I want people to go up and keep adding names because there are so many people out there who aren’t even covered by media,” Barrett said.
Even non-artists have taken part in Barrett’s piece. If someone was interested in helping or wanted to add a name to the list of people included, Barrett said she would have them add the name and either herself or one of the other professional artists there would complete the face.
For Wise, he said people interested in supporting the movement should do so in the best way they can — like how artists used their talents to make a statement.
“Not everybody has a strength –– or is it a strength of theirs to be on that front line, and if you want to help, start with whatever that straightaway may be, whether it’s donating money or helping donate food or medical supplies or even being a medic that’s on site or something like that,” Wise said. “Just start with your strengths; that’s how we’re going to see a big change and how we’re going to get through this.”