Paint his name (and hers)
Emma Berger is an illustrator and a model maker at Laika Studios, but her best known work may be her George Floyd mural on the Apple Store in downtown Portland.
In the wake of the videotaped death of Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police that led to nationwide protests, the Apple Store's windows were smashed Friday, May 29. The company boarded up the windows on Saturday and painted the plywood black on Sunday.
Artist Berger walked by the following Monday and noticed the black boards had been tagged. It made her want to do something.
"To me it was just a giant, blank canvas. I had been talking with my best friend out in Ohio, she's black and she's been in all of the protests and doing her part," Berger said. "And I'd been feeling that anxiety that I think we've all been feeling, and I said 'I want to just go paint them.' She's like, 'So, go do it!'"
Berger said she ran home, thought about it briefly, then packed whatever paints and brushes she could afford to lose if she were chased away. "My mom raised me with a 'better to say sorry than please' mentality," she said.
Berger used the common George Floyd photo on her phone as her source image and started painting.
Without a ladder.
The image is 8 feet tall, so Berger needed a couple of milk crates from a 7-Eleven, and at times sat on a bystander's shoulders. It was done in two hours, in broad, colorful strokes. She added the words "I CAN'T BREATHE," as spoken by the dying man and by Eric Garner, another black victim of police violence. Berger followed the seam of the plywood panels to level the top of the letters but they grow slightly larger as she gets to the end.
"That was entirely unintentional. I have no ability to level things," Berger said. "I think one of my eyes must be higher than the other one. But, yeah, (the words) definitely do drift down a bit. But, I think also for the message, it doesn't hurt it."
Berger studied illustration at the Pratt Institute in New York City, a traditional fine art college. It's the art of telling a story with words and pictures.
"So, I made sure for this mural that the 'CAN'T' was a different color, to outline everything in red and to make the paint fade as it gets to the end of the sentence," she said. "Just to kind of make that feeling a little bit more. Because the illustration is all about sending a message and having that relay really quickly. And so, I think that that definitely helped me here."
That same evening Berger participated in a protest that went right past her artwork. The space was getting tagged so she came back Tuesday morning and painted the faces of two more prominent names highlighted by Black Lives Matters protesters: Breonna Taylor, who was shot in her bed by police, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot by vigilantes while jogging. She wrote "BLACK LIVES MATTER" and "SAY THEIR NAMES" to fill in the west end of the storefront.
"The responses were very positive. People were happy to see faces on the wall," Berger said.
It was a kind of live painting that drew admiration, and intense emotions. At one point she heard a sob and it was the sister of Matthew Burroughs, an Ohio man killed by police.
"She had just come to see the wall and wasn't expecting to see his face up there," Berger said.
"Everyone's been dealing with that anxiety and that tension of what's been going on, and people are feeling quite helpless."
Berger was aware that as a white woman she probably was getting better treatment than a person of color would painting illegally on private property in broad daylight.
She arranged for others to show up and join in. Berger provided the acrylic paint and disposable latex chip brushes. On Thursday, June 4, they added backgrounds and some other names and faces.
The project went viral, in a visual way. People started leaving the carboard signs that have become the signature of the marchers. Some left flowers and pictures. At night, it is lit up with votive candles. People painted and drew, and when someone left chalk out, it became a giant communal blackboard, covered with messages from the sacred to the profane. (As this reporter interviewed Berger in the drizzle, a young man collected the more ribald anti-police signs and, without making eye contact or speaking, took them away.)
A street artist called Skeez rather shyly asked her if he could paint around the corner on the west wall, at Southwest Fifth Avenue, and Berger shrugged and said, "You do what you want. It's not my wall." She added: "And then a couple hours later, I saw a small crowd forming on this other side and I walked by, and it's this fantastic portrait. I was just floored, and he thanked me for opening up the space to be painted on, which I was. I mean, I'm happy to do it, but like I said, it wasn't my wall."
The art jumped the MAX track to the Louis Vuitton store, which now has a giant word, "GOD," on it next to an image of Justice in a blindfold, plus a "Happy Birthday Breonna" portrait painted by twin girls, and a Tupac Shakur image.
White privilege is unfair, Berger says, but, "it has let this movement begin. And now I've been able to hand it off to the dozens of artists of color who have added to this and across the street with all the graffiti artists and their beautiful work."
Apple might not be able to reopen the store for some time since the glass used is custom-made in China. Berger thinks that ultimately the board can be coated in lacquer and become a memorial somewhere else.
"I don't think Apple will fight us on that," she said. "It is their property. The real problem is finding somewhere good to put them. And that's the little battle that I'm starting to figure out.
"This was a snap decision. It really it wasn't about creating a movement. I just personally needed to go paint. And this for me just felt like the place to do it," she said. "My mom raised me with a 'better to say sorry than please' mentality. If you don't do something, or if you're always waiting for permission, you could be waiting a very long time."
Privilege is relative
The artist is pleased that people gained the courage to paint in the daylight and are not being stopped. In fact, while downtown is seized by demonstrators and riot police many nights around midnight, by day it feels like a police-free environment.
Berger, 26, was born and raised in Berkeley, California, which she calls "that hippie-dippy town" and came to Portland after studying at Pratt and then two years in Los Angeles. Her mom is a public artist and her dad is a master printmaker.
"They said I could do anything except fine art, so I could get a job," she said with a laugh. Her website is full of illustrations for stories she writes, and her day job (when under contract) is making sets at Laika, the animation house, but she wants most to be a mural painter. She's done two in Ben and Esther's bagel shops.
"It's easier to write words than it is to draw faces, but I think that they're both equally powerful," she said. "I've been to some of the protests, and the speakers that come out and read what they've written or rap, those are just as powerful if not more than the things that can be painted on walls."
For more on Berger, see her Instagram account, @flatrabbitstudio.
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