All photos by Carolyn de Berry.
Two words have stirred up quite a bit of controversy in Greensboro within the last day.
A mural with the words “ONE LOVE,” painted on Davie Street in downtown, has been celebrated and critiqued by individuals within the Black community over the last 24 hours. While some find the work to be inspirational and uplifting, others claim that it’s tone deaf and misses the point of the movement for Black lives.
The creator of the work, Phillip Marsh, is a Black artist who has been creating art for the last 45 years.
“When we move under the flag of ‘One Love,’ it means more than what it has been sanitized to mean,” Marsh said in an interview. “One love means I come to you in love. Love can mean peace and it can mean war. That’s what it really speaks to in this moment. It’s what these kids are trying to say. We support them.”
The mural was the first piece approved through the city’s new street mural initiative that seeks to “support artistic and cultural expression through street murals painted on city-maintained street surfaces.” Anyone can submit an application to create a street mural. The application is then considered by a 10-person committee. The murals are facilitated in part by the city but are self-funded by the artists who create them.
Painted in a bold, yellow-gold, the mural is one of many works that have gone up around the country in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd as a response and continuing protests for Black lives. In Winston-Salem, artists painted a mural that reads “END RACISM NOW #BLM” on North Main Street near City Hall on June 13.
And despite Marsh’s intention to create a unifying message, some in the community say the message is misguided.
“I just thought that the mural seemed to be out of place and disingenuous considering what is happening across our country,” said Rev. CJ Brinson in an interview. “To be clear, I don’t support the murals. I don’t support murals without them being attached to demands or policy changes. There’s been no real conversation about how to address these policy suggestions, but folks can paint murals.”
Although he doesn’t support murals, if he had to pick, Brinson said he would have wanted to see a “Black Lives Matter” mural go up first.
“To put a ‘One Love’ mural is like saying ‘All Lives Matter,’” he said.
He also appreciates the fact that the idea for the mural and the work put into it were by Black artists, but said there’s a wider systemic issue in the city.
“We have to make sure that Black people understand the history of racism in this city,” he said. “And understand how leaders have been impeding progress. The same leaders who are now signing on to ‘Black Lives Matter’ murals are the ones who have been restricting the freedom and transformation in the lives of Black folks in this city.”
Femi Shittu, a former Greensboro resident who graduated from UNCG, agreed with Brinson.
“In Greensboro, everything is so moderate,” she said in an interview. “That’s the type of climate that breeds a ‘One Love’ type of mural.”
She also pushed back on the notion that just because a mural is created by Black artists that it serves the wider community.
“Are Black people a monolith?” she asked. “Is this artist a community organizer? What does it mean when that artist becomes your go-to person? I think it’s definitely the most liberal, most off-brand street mural thus far that I’ve seen across the country. I’m just really disappointed.”
Community organizer Brandi Collins-Calhoun is also skeptical.
While she understands the intention behind the mural by the Black artists, she said action like this from the city feels performative.
“I think it’s one of those things, the city has been really good at this month,” she said in an interview. “Like picking and choosing which actions and which protests they want to be a part of. They pin it on ‘Look this came from Black artists so it must be going in the right direction.’ So, you put this mural in front of the park, but does that mean that Black children can safely play there now?”
Marsh, who painted the mural with about a dozen other Black artists this past weekend, said his vision came straight from his love of Bob Marley and Rastafari teachings. Marsh, who has long dreadlocks like his idol, said that he wanted the mural to speak to the Black Lives Matter movement but that he didn’t want to do another Black Lives Matter mural because he thought that the messaging was being co-opted by corporations and white communities.
“To my brothers and sisters out there pushing the lines, this was one in solidarity with those people,” Marsh said. “This was a rebellious act to get this art in this city to this scale. As an artist, I innovate. Why would we as a city want to do something that’s been done in 20 other places? That doesn’t move my needle.”
A few weeks ago, Marsh also created a collaborative mural with Artist Bloc co-owner Darlene McClinton at Elsewhere in downtown. McClinton, who is also Black, said the mural doesn’t have to appeal to everyone.
“Art is therapeutic,” she said. “It’s just like beauty. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s the same with art. People see visions and dream dreams and want to do things the way they see it and that’s it.”
McClinton also sits on the mural review committee, a new group comprised of five city employees and five community artists, who decide on which murals get approved for the new project. In addition to McClinton, the community artist portion of the committee includes Jocelyn Brown of the African American Atelier; Roy Carter, an associate visual arts professor at NC A&T University; Claudia Femenias, the chair of Casa Azul’s board of directors; and public art consultant Cheryl Stewart.
Community organizer April Parker said she wants to see a larger conversation with Black artists when projects like this come up.
“We need to have a larger Black artist roundtable where we can talk amongst ourselves, and all platforms can be respectful and accountable to the larger political discourse happening in the Black community,” she said. “Paint is not power nor policy change, but art and activism are powerful. The ‘One Love’ mural neutralized the national outcry about the needs of Black people.”
Ryan Deal, the chief creative economy officer for Creative Greensboro, said there have been three more applications submitted since the project started on June 12. He said the murals don’t have to be pegged to any specific themes or messages but so far all three murals were submitted by Black artists and had ties to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We’re looking at this as an opportunity for creative placemaking holistically,” Deal said in an interview.
As for a public input process, Deal said that there’s nothing like that right now and that those who want to spread a different message should apply for their own mural.
“It’s not a requirement that the applicant be an artist,” Deal said. “If folks from the community are interested in adding their voice to the mix, I encourage them to partner with an artist.”
Marsh, who is working on additional murals, said he understands people’s skepticism right now.
“Some people feel that this moment of Black Lives Matter has gotten turned into a virtue signaling movement,” Marsh said. “People who never have been supportive are coming out of the woodwork. I’m trying to create art that can live in any moment…. Public art is meant to create conversations. As an artist that creates public art, I want someone to have an emotion to my art whether they love it hate it. This may be a catalyst for those individuals who feel the message isn’t strong enough to create their own message. I’m totally fine with that. We don’t want to stifle free speech.”
And while nothing else is set in stone yet, Marsh said he’s in conversation with other community organizers including individuals associated with Greensboro Rising for possible future murals.
“People know how to reach out to me,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the message of the art.”