Beginning Halloween weekend, 12 artists, selected by Gainesville’s 352 Walls program, will paint social justice-themed murals throughout the city’s parks and public spaces. Artists will paint their designs on two-sided 8-by-8 feet primed plywood panels. The murals are a part of Gainesville’s social justice mural project, according to Russell Etling, cultural affairs manager.
Artists submitted their work through Zapplication, a website designed for artists to find events and contests. The application required artists to reside within a 100-mile radius from Gainesville and warned applicants to refrain from nudity, profanity and offensive images. Each artist or artist crew will receive $450, covering art supplies and materials. The panel critiques artistic ability, skills, experience, portfolio and submission of a design idea or sketch. The jurors considered race, gender, ethnicity and availability.
Etling said the program’s six-person jury, featuring voices from curators and Gainesville’s creative and social justice community, will announce the winners on Oct 8. Artists will have three weeks to complete their designs. The panels, attached to wooden posts, model the two existing murals in Possum Creek Skatepark, which artists will also repaint.
Painting of the mural project will take place from Oct. 31 until Nov. 22, according to the application. Etling said the city has no COVID-19 concerns because of the solitary nature of mural painting. He said that the scheduling allows for artists to paint on their own time. The murals will last two or three years.
The project is made possible due to COVID-19 cutting Gainesville’s 150-year celebration program short by a few months, resulting in leftover money, according to Etling. He said the city commission asked the cultural affairs division to conceive a project responding to the national reckoning of social justice. It cost $9,000 in total.
“They felt this was an interesting platform to explore the themes of social justice,” Etling said.
He said the project is symbolic of the city commission’s appreciation for the movement and hopes the murals serve as a vehicle for discussion and uplifting hopes. Etling noted that social justice is a broad topic but includes Black Lives Matter, immigration and LGBTQ rights. He added that Gainesville’s community is confident about what it represents and what it hopes to become.
Gainesville’s mayor, Lauren Poe, said the city explored ways to express support for the BLM movement and the racial justice movement. At the end of August, the mayor received an email from Kelli Malu, 46, asking for a BLM mural on a Gainesville roadway. The long time Gainesville resident said she had finished hearing America’s Got Talent’s Brandon Leake’s BLM-themed poem when she felt obligated to message the mayor.
Malu said she was surprised when she received a response saying the city was working on a mural project. She said her vision was for a BLM mural similar to Washington D.C and Tallahassee.
“We need to remind people that we’re all human,” she said. “We all bleed red.”
Over the summer, Gainesville’s graffiti wall on 34th Street saw many tributes to the BLM movement — but they weren’t left untouched. The wall became a battleground, tributes being painted over with a thin blue line and then repainted again. Etling said the city is not concerned about the rejection of the social justice murals because the urban art movement is very respected by people.
“We have over 37 murals from the 352 Walls project and over 60 community murals with very little vandalism,” he said. “When or if it happens, we have gone in and done minor repairs.”
Malu said she doesn’t understand why anyone would reject the murals because the issues at hand aren’t a made-up story. She said she often worries about the thought of her biracial children getting pulled over because she doesn’t know what is going on in the officer’s mind.
“When you’re a parent of a person of color, the tension is so high; you can cut it with a knife,” she said.
Manu Osorio, Dream Defenders social activist and board member of the Civic Media Center, said she believes Gainesville needs more art, especially from diverse artists. Osorio, 24, said she would like to see those murals and other acts of aesthetic activism matched with support.
“All activists should care about how art intersects with our goals to change the world,” she said.
Osorio said the vandalism on the wall on 34th Street is a wakeup call to the community. She said these acts show that Gainesville isn’t as progressive as it advertises.
“We shouldn’t be shocked in a city that is 85% white with a history of racism,” she added.
Etling said the jury would finish reviewing the 27 submissions it has received on Thursday.