As volunteers cleaned up Denver’s Civic Center park after a night of protests against police brutality in early June, someone spray-painted the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on a piece of plywood put up to protect the base of a statue.
The message caught the eye of a Denver Parks and Recreation employee. It also sparked an idea.
That night, a proposal was drafted to curate Black Lives Matter-related art around the park and it was approved within 48 hours. The following week, almost 30 artists began work on their own plywood boxes, the start of the first-ever Black Love Mural Festival.
And it didn’t just stop there.
The creation of the Black Love Mural Festival sparked a network of Black artists and creatives of all ages, some of whom were invited to participate. Others insisted on being involved, spurred by Black Lives Matter protests in Denver after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minnesota in May.
The Black Love Mural Festival has helped the work of Black artists be seen by the community and opened the door to opportunities for these painters, collage-makers, and other artists to express their opinions on the movement’s events, without having to be on the front lines of each march.
“It’s so cool to be able to create a piece of art that can convey a message that’s way louder than I could ever scream,” said Ki’erre Dawkins, who invited people who were passing by, some of them protesters, to leave their thumbprints in paint on his mural.
When Robert Gray and his team at Rob the Art Museum reached out to various Black artists in the Denver area, none could have imagined the impact they were about to make.
As the marches and vigils moved east to Aurora, where protests sprang up around the death of Elijah McClain after a violent arrest by police, the murals were completed and left to share their messages in the heart of downtown Denver.
“It’s manifested well beyond just the Civic Center park,” said Eryk Fisher, Rob the Art Museum co-founder and director of operations.
Fisher said one of the goals of Rob the Art Museum, a marketing services company, is to create artistic and economic opportunities for Black artists. This project did just that by paying each artist.
But just asking the simple question of “Can I be involved?” led to new relationships and opportunities for Selah Ruckard, a 21-year-old who asked to be part of the project after participating in protests nearby.
“That was my very first piece that big, it has connected me to so many different things that I didn’t think it would do by asking a question,” Ruckard said.
Ruckard collaborated during the festival with Vincent Gordon, a more established artist. As they worked together on the spiraling background of Ruckard’s mural, the lifeline flowing from the feminine figure at its center, they began to seem like two peas in a pod, Fisher said.
“Mentoring young artists has always been something that I’ve done and something I’m attracted to,” Gordon said about his work with Ruckard. “When you’re working on a canvas with somebody, it can be intimate.”
Gordon said the Black Love Mural Festival was extraordinary because it connected artists from all corners of the city, some of whom had never met.
“We need more people that are thinking outside of the box because the current box that we are in just isn’t working,” he said.
Holly-Kai Hurd, an artist in her forties, has noted the lack of opportunities for artists of color in Denver. She says it has been an age-old issue that she and other minority women in her art collective, Innervision, struggle with.
“That has always been an issue,” she said. “There are lots of white galleries, but lots of them don’t show an interest in showing the work of artists of color, especially if your subject matter is connected to political issues.”
Hurd, who often works in textiles, used her plywood mural to pay tribute to Sarah Collins, a survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four other young girls.
“In all of these situations, whether we’re talking about George Floyd or the civil rights movement, I think that people really just need to understand that this is a war, there are so many casualties of this war,” she said. “It’s a gaping wound that is also very old.”
Dawkins said he asked the community to pledge their commitment to equal opportunity by leaving their fingerprints in the stars and stripes in his mural. The images made up of the fingerprints of strangers symbolizes the importance of minorities to the United States.
“Their thumbprint was basically their oath to give more opportunities to minorities,” Dawkins said. “We all have to do our part so everyone has equal opportunities in the United States.”
Fisher said Rob the Art Museum hopes to be on the “ladder side” of change, helping to provide opportunities for Black creatives in Denver. Creating the Black Love Mural Festival — which has been granted a third extension and now will remain in the park through the end of July and could become an annual event — was about using art to change the narrative, he said.
“There’s a lot of chaos going on, and it’s hard to speak on history when you’re in the middle of it,” he said.
Changing that narrative seemed to be a common theme throughout each artist’s murals. Hurd and Dawkins both encourage the community to not let this time of activism become a trend or a means of social media popularity, reduced to a few common hashtags.
“I just hope that people actually want to see change,” Dawkins said. “Don’t do it because Black Lives Matter sounds cool, do it because you genuinely care about people.”
View more of the art from the festival below.