The sounds of electric saws and drills filled the air in downtown Asheville on June 2. The night before, peaceful protests in response to the death of George Floyd had turned destructive, with shattered glass storefronts, graffiti and other damage — in addition to numerous arrests and other human trauma — left in their wake. With demonstrations expected to resume around nightfall, business owners were taking precautions to secure their property.
As the protective coverings went up, local visual artists Gus Cutty and Kathryn Crawford worked the phones recruiting colleagues to spray-paint the wood panels with memorial murals and messages of solidarity. Within an hour, Cutty got “a bunch of answers” from interested parties, as well as additional leadership from Ian Wilkinson and Dustin Spagnola, who utilized their own extensive networks to connect business owners with the growing team of artists. The following morning, they got to work.
“I know a lot of business owners down here, and so do the other three of us. As soon as we did one or two [storefronts], people started hitting us up,” Cutty says.
The initiative, he stresses, isn’t about making a personal statement. “We’re not signing anything. It’s not about us. We’re not trying to promote our names. We’re just trying to show support for the protests and hopefully amplify some black voices and messages of black organizations we support.”
In addition to keeping their names off the paintings, the artists are volunteering their time and providing the paint themselves. While the group has received many offers of financial aid, its members are encouraging people to donate to a local bail fund for protesters or “trusted black-run organizations supporting the cause.”
As of press time, Cutty estimates that the group has painted 20 storefronts and acknowledges that many independent artists have worked on additional businesses. His group’s paintings have emphasized a handful of core messages being promoted by what he calls “the larger Black Lives Matter organizations,” using “Defund Police” and “Defend Black Lives” on multiple storefronts. “Those are two we’ve been really focusing on, and then just really trying to shine a light on whether it be putting a tribute to someone’s name or someone’s portrait — just letting people know that they won’t be forgotten and that we support the protest,” he says.
Big and loud
Cutty, who grew up writing graffiti, notes that he especially likes “the big, loud” pieces in that style, especially since opportunities “to do that legally downtown” are rare. As such, the experience of crafting the large “Defend Black Lives” work on the French Broad Food Co-Op has lingered with him.
“We did that as a single piece with four different people participating. We had one person sketching it and we were going up behind them doing it. We really worked as a unit. I like the way it turned out,” Cutty says. “I like all of them, though. I’m really happy with it. There’s some that people have spent more time on. I’m kind of just trying to get as many up, as loud as possible right now.”
Among the imagery that stands out to Crawford is Spagnola’s mural of Floyd on the Lexington Avenue entrance of Rosetta’s Kitchen. The restaurant’s owner, Rosetta Star Buan, says that the concept was entirely Spagnola’s idea and that it was “a wonder” to watch him paint with his phone in one hand to look at Floyd’s portrait and can of spray paint in the other, all on a “glaring hot day.”
“Love is a verb, and we at Rosetta’s work to do everything in our power to create the world we want to be living in,” Buan says. “Since we can’t nourish with our food right now, we’re using whatever tools we have, and we suddenly found ourselves with a lot of blank wall. Dustin and his crew get the gold stars and all the credit for the beautiful artwork, putting our hearts and thoughts up on our wall for us.”
Art as protest
A few blocks up Lexington, Asheville Hemp Farms features a painting of the now-iconic image lensed by Asheville Citizen Times photographer Angela Wilhelm on June 2 of an officer destroying a package of water bottles at a medical station. The artwork’s accompanying text reads, “Asheville’s finest: not your finest moment.” Store manager Jane Allred says using the image was Cutty’s idea, and after seeing another shop display the slogan “Defund the Police” the morning of June 3, she requested it be added to a different panel.
“I really like that statement because it seems like a — not a neutral stance, but a little bit more of a stance that, as a business, we can stand behind that isn’t too offensive to everybody,” Allred says.
“When the protests first started, my boyfriend and I were both looking at them and we both kind of agree the APD — we’ve had encounters with them — they’re big teddy bears,” continues Allred, who is white. “Nothing’s going to happen. And then when we started seeing the footage of the medical supplies and water being destroyed, we were really shocked. I’ve lived here 22 entire years and I’ve never seen that come out of APD, nor did I expect it from them.”
Despite the provocative messages, Cutty says that he and his artists have thus far been able to work without interference from law enforcement — with the exception of the group’s one black artist (who, like the rest of the project’s participants, wishes to remain anonymous).
“We’ve actually been working in teams because I know there have been a lot of outside forces coming in, so I want to make sure that everyone has somebody to watch their back in case some weirdo comes up,” Cutty says. “His partner left for a moment, and he was immediately approached by a police officer and questioned about the building and whether he was allowed to paint on it.”
Cutty said on June 4 that the artist would be back out painting the next day. “He doesn’t scare easily,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the first time he’s been harassed by police.”
Sending a message
At Asheville Hemp Farms, though plenty of recent visitors have praised the paintings, a few folks — mainly tourists — have asked whether the graphic images were the result of unauthorized vandalism. Both the supportive reactions and the less informed comments have strengthened Allred’s support for the protests, she says. In her view, businesses in the cannabis industry in particular have an obligation to take a stand against racial injustice, considering the number of minorities who are in jail for charges such as simple possession of marijuana. In similar circumstances, she says, white people often walk away “with just a ticket.”
She also wants to clarify the thinking behind the temporary barriers. “We are boarding up windows, which can send the wrong message that we’re afraid of the protesters — and we’re not. It’s a precaution for ourselves,” Allred says. “A lot of us on this street that work are either immunocompromised or elderly and can’t go and protest, so this is the next best thing for us to make our voices heard and show that we’re standing with everyone.”
That sentiment echoes the artists’ stated intent of letting protesters know that they’re not alone — messages that Cutty, who doesn’t “see an end to the protests anytime soon,” thinks will be seen for the foreseeable future. He also thinks the painting effort “may just be an ongoing project, as long as businesses are interested.”
Once the storefronts are no longer boarded up, Cutty and his collaborators plan to auction the artwork — or possibly reproductions, since many of the originals are large, unwieldy works — and donate the proceeds to worthy groups. Allred supports this plan and has also been contacted by representatives from the Western North Carolina Historical Association who want to save some of the pieces for a future exhibit.
“With so many issues like this, after five years or so, people are mostly going to forget that it ever happened,” Allred says. “That’s kind of how our society works, so I think when we start to forget about it, we should take it all back out again and say, ‘Don’t ever forget that this happened. It’s so extremely important.’”