Just off of West Street, you are a mere turn away from something monumental. A 7,000 square foot portrait of the late Breonna Taylor, accompanied by the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER Breonna Taylor June 5, 1993 – March 13, 2020”. This tribute is painted across the asphalt basketball courts of Chambers Park in Annapolis. The scale of the art is so large that the best vantage point for seeing the image is from space.
Drone footage of the mural has caught the attention of every major news outlet, including a spread in the most recent issue of Time magazine, but you may ask: what does a tragedy in Louisville Kentucky have to do with the citizens of Annapolis 600+ miles away? Volunteers and organizers meditated on this question with brushes and rollers in hand.
The mural commemorated a Woman. A Caregiver, who was just like the rest of us; but profoundly special because of her impact on the world. On this Independence day, the everyday people of Annapolis made many small brush strokes that equated to a sum greater than its parts.
Activism Through Community Art
The project was spearheaded by Future History Now, a non-profit founded in 2016 by artists/activists Jeff Huntington and Julia Gibb, in partnership with the Banneker-Douglass Museum and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture. The group serves to engage community youth in social issues and current events through the art making process. They’ve teamed up with schools and organizations around the world to complete awe-inspiring collaborative murals, a gift Annapolis is a frequent benefactor of as Future History Now’s home base.
The organization chose to depict Breonna Taylor to bring attention to black women who have fallen victim to prejudicial violence. Using a grid system and spray cans, artists drew the outlines that would serve as the giant paint-by-number for volunteers of all skill levels to make their mark.
An Extraordinary Undertaking
On the morning of July 4th, the air was buzzing with anticipation. As a teaching artist, I arrived to the massive site feeling overwhelmed, but had full confidence in Jeff, Julia, and the rest of the team. Jeff Huntington, of Future History Now; enlisted fellow teaching artist Stephanie Baker and I for the paint table where we distributed materials according to the mural’s numbered grid system. Organization was key! As volunteers walked up to the table, they were given a crew assignment where they would tackle different sections at a time. All the volunteers were aided by the lead teaching artists; Comacell Brown, Deonte Ward, Luther Wright, and Liv James to name a few.
The fast pace and interaction with the crowd was thrilling. A focused energy of purpose emitted from each volunteer. With music, teamwork, and some free iced coffee (thank you Starbucks!); positivity defined the day. The physical labor and blazing heat was a unifying catharsis, as if the trauma of loss and spirit of remembrance was being channeled into the mural.
The outpouring of support to memorialize Breonna Taylor was immense. A rotation of masked faces came up to the table throughout the day, but one woman in particular stood out to me as she returned time after time for more paint. She was deaf, but could read lips. We would briefly move our masks aside to arrange a paint refill or tackle complex parts of the mural together. She rolled paint on the “BLACK LIVES MATTER” lettering all day Saturday, and returned Sunday to add blocks of color to Breonna’s portrait. I was in awe of her endurance, having felt light-headed a time or two despite working nearly half her pace. She even stayed for the not-so-glamourous and thankless part of the job: clean-up! Afterward, we ate chips, drank water, and finally got to a chance to introduce ourselves.
In Her Words
Her name was Latoya and I was fortunate enough to reconnect with her for this article. Read along as she describes the experience in her own words.
What compelled you to participate?
I am a Social Justice activist, advocate, soldier, or however you put it. Ever since I was a little girl, I was taught that because of who I am and how the world perceives someone like me, just living would be a challenge in itself. Perhaps the biggest one of them all, I understood that as a black Deaf woman, the longevity of life can be robbed by privilege. I was seeing prime examples of that in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others before them. Movements and protests were happening left and right, but I was pregnant with my son. I had him the day before they killed George Floyd and was already mentally preparing for talks with my son about being a black man in America, but that was not enough. I was getting antsy and I wanted to be out there, taking a stand.
I was watching Channel 11 News. One of the stories was about a mural being painted, and it was going to be of Breonna Taylor on a basketball court. That felt like a calling– I love hoops and social justice. My eyes widened, thinking I needed to find out more about this project. They mentioned the organization, Future History Now. It was the unique name of the organization, the heartbreaking story of Breonna Taylor and the location of the mural that had my fingers flying a mile a minute looking up information. I sent an email out to see if I could come out and volunteer. I felt like I was sidelined too long and being the athlete that I am, I HATE to be sidelined. I decided that I HAD to go out there and contribute.
What were your thoughts/experience over the course of the 4th of July weekend when the mural painting took place?
My thoughts- I had so many. One was the attitude of everyone there. Without an interpreter, I managed to maneuver my way around to see who was in charge and how to be a part of it. The instant welcome I felt had me wishing I dragged more people with me out there. I remembered thinking that I would [otherwise] be at a BBQ, kicking back while enjoying good food and people. But here I am out here doing a project in the extreme heat. And it felt right.
I had already celebrated my independence on Juneteenth, so I was not missing anything else on the fourth. While painting, I remembered thinking how EASY it was to have my place switched with Breonna. ‘It could have been me,’ I thought to myself so many times.
Although I grew up with talented artists, I was learning so much about this project and how we were going to execute it. I LOVED being on a team where everyone comes together for a goal. It was also unfortunate that someone had to be killed for us to come together as a community- black, white, young and old.
What do you think of the work Future History Now is doing? The response to the mural?
The work the Future History Now organization is doing is AWESOME! The name itself is stimulating. So thought provoking that I can see the outstanding work it invests in community wise. When I went to check out the FHN website, I saw the projects that were done and I was inspired. I was already curious about future projects in the works. I saw it doing BIG things for the communities in MD. The response to the mural was appreciative because it made us feel as if our lives truly mattered. Every contribution, big or small, makes us matter. Choosing [those] specific days to do the mural really taught us what kind of America we needed to be.
Watch the video of the mural from Future History Now; produced by Street Art Films.