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Where Some See Plywood, Others See a Blank Canvas

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On a normal spring day, people can stroll around the Kalamazoo Mall to window shop, enjoy lunch, and appreciate the Kalamazoo community. Spring of 2020 has been a little different than past years with shops and restaurants closed and many of the windows boarded up. While some may be discouraged by the sight, others see an opportunity.

Almost 40 different artists worked together to create about 30 murals on downtown businesses boarded-up windows to spread messages of hope, education, and understanding as the community works toward racial recovery. Of this group of artists, four of them were young Kalamazoo Public School (KPS) students—Darek J. Roberts, Jasmine Liggins, Justin Liggins, and Kanley Covault.

On the Saturday afternoon of June 6, Mandy Clearwaters, Winchell Elementary School Art Teacher and Head of the KPS Art Department, was made aware of the mural painting opportunity from her aunt who works at the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership. Within 24 hours, she coordinated interested students and supplies, and everyone was ready for a day of painting. “It makes me very proud. A lot of artists throughout the nation have spoken up, but I have not seen a lot of kids be able to use their art to speak up as well,” said Mandy. “I think it’s very powerful to see what their thoughts are.”

Each student was provided with their own mural space outside the Epic Center and the prompt to express a social justice message. Rising 6th grade student Darek J. used his space to depict a black man walking through a park with butterflies surrounding him and the sun shining. Dionna Roberts, Darek J.’s mom joined Mandy to support the students as they were painting throughout the day. “Darek is a rather shy kid, so his expression often comes out in his art,” said Dionna. “He was aware of everything that was going on in our country with protesting, people raising their voices about the things that matter, and speaking out for injustices. Regarding his painting of the man in the park, he explained, “I just want it to be peaceful, Mom, I just want it to be peaceful.”

Darek J. described that this was a great opportunity for him, “It was exciting for me to be able to make art for downtown Kalamazoo. It felt good to be able to inspire people,” said Darek J. “When people look at my art, I want them to see the world, nature, and humankind—all peaceful. I want people to know that we all matter and deserve better.”

Kanley Covault’s mural shows a black hand and white hand joining with #Blacklivesmatter included. She said, “It felt good to be part of sending a positive message in our community. As we were downtown, there were so many people using their gifts and talents to spread love and kindness. I want better for all of us—I want the community to continue to come together and spread a message of love for all people.”

Rising 5th grader and 7th grader Jasmine and Justin Liggins also joined to paint their own murals. Jasmine’s mural depicts a glowing world surrounded by people of all races with the words: People are People No Matter What Color! For Jasmine, this was an opportunity to share her opinion with the greater community. “As a student, to be able to express myself through art meant that I could share my thoughts with the Kalamazoo Community. I wanted to show that people are people no matter what color. I feel that people all around the world should be standing and not put in a grave without purpose,” said Jasmine. “Black lives do matter and all people should know that, especially police officers because they are here to protect and serve us all.”

Justin’s painting incorporated the yin-yang symbol with the saying: Stand United, Can’t Have White Without Black. “What it meant to me being a KPS student expressing myself through art felt like an opportunity to tell the world that we are all related to each other. In other words, white wouldn’t exist without black. One of the first ideas that came to mind was a yin yang symbol. The yin-yang represents balance or equal. I feel all humanity should be equal, and that’s why I named my piece the Yin-Yang Declaration,” said Justin. “My art expresses how white should be standing united with black. I chose to only use two colors because, right now, that’s what I’m seeing how people judge based on skin color. What I’m seeing is usually a negative response, and I want to remind people that we all should be treated equally and justice should be served.”

Throughout the day, Dionna and Mandy supported the students with supplies and words of encouragement but allowed them to make their own artistic decisions. “I was very grateful to have been a part of it,” said Dionna. “I felt like I needed it too, and I didn’t even know that I did.”

The murals have been moved from their original location outside the Epic Center but will return downtown shortly while local organizations coordinate their final home.

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