When murals matter more than lives

Joel Oliphint
Lisa McLymont works on a mural outside the Ohio Theatre in early June.

After protests erupted in Columbusthe last weekend in May in response to the death of George Floyd, many Downtown businesses covered their windows with giant sheets of plywood, including the Ohio Theatre. Soon after the boards went up, artist and CAPA graphic designer Lisa McLymont heard from CAPA CEO Chad Whittington, who had a request. 

“He reached out to me to ask, as an artist, if I would participate in helping to put a nicer face on the Ohio Theatre, which has sustained $15,000 worth of glass damage,” McLymont said. “I reached out to my Blockfort team because I know they do a lot of murals. Adam Brouillette, Jen Wrubleski and Andy Graham were able to come and bring their thoughts together, and we proposed this design.”

The artists painted an image of a sun, clouds and a quote from “Les Miserables”: “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” 

“The designer in me wanted to find some way to anchor the meaning of what the Ohio Theatre is, to speak to what was happening in front of it and to recognize that the protesters deserve support and deserve hope — and hope for the city, as well," she said. "And it really hit home for a lot of people. It just took off from there and inspired tons of other murals in the city.”

Murals began popping up all over Downtown and the Short North, some as part of the #artunitescbus campaign launched by CAPA and the Greater Columbus Arts Council. McLymont worked on more murals, too, which took her out of her comfort zone.

“I am a fine artist that works on small boards — small, nice boards, I will say — and I'm a graphic designer. So this is a great challenge for me to work on my hand skills and work in large spaces and work in front of people, because that's something else I'm not used to,” said McLymont, who also concentrated on “putting black words in white spaces. I've been exclusively looking up quotes from black people who have spoken up for what we're fighting for right now: justice, equality and human rights.”

But now, a month later, McLymont is frustrated. “We're still protesting, and nothing's changing,” she said. “The meaning of the murals has shifted into something else, and honestly, I didn't expect that.”

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It seemed all anyone wanted to talk about was how to preserve the art, rather than how to preserve the lives of Black people. McLymont reached her boiling point after seeing a sponsored social media post from Experience Columbus that featured a mural by artist Peace Shelbi but didn’t mention anything about the protests against racial injustice — the entire reason for the mural. Instead, the post paired the image with a message about arts organizations signing the “Live Forward Pledge to put health and safety at the forefront as they reopen their doors.”

“It wasn't really acknowledging that these panels, especially by the black artists, were to support a protest that is really serious about black lives being killed and taken and lessened. So it's hard to see that,” McLymont said. “We all want to get back to our lives. We all want to get back to working and feeling useful in the world and all of that. But the misuse of what the murals are for, or forgetting what inspired them and using them for your own marketing ... makes us angry.”

Reached for comment via email, Experience Columbus acknowledged the misstep. “It was brought to our attention that we posted a Black Lives Matter mural that was not appropriately tagged, at which point we removed [it] right away,” said spokesperson Lexi Sweet. “We immediately reached out to the artist directly to apologize and did receive permission to share her work, with the hope of collaborating more in the future. At this time, we have no plans to share any murals created as part of the Black Lives Matter movement in our advertising.”

McLymont put some of her percolating thoughts in a public Facebook post. “Artists didn’t make the work on crappy plywood boards to be preserved for years beyond this moment. We, at least the black artists, made reactionary art to amplify the protest message and demands of our oppressed community. Justice. Equality. And our lives mattering. Hope, love and peace are all the positive spin to a desire to not be cut down in the street,” McLymont wrote, in part. “None of that will stop police killing Black people or push for systemic change recognizing Black lives as mattering. We are a backdrop to marketing diversity, a scapegoat to your crimes, and only worthy of saying platitudes to while holding up a system that only benefits white rich people.”

“That was an emotional post,” McLymont said. “Maybe I was a negative Nancy about it, but I think it's still a very realistic way to look at what's happening.”

McLymont said she is by no means a proponent of discarding all the art. It’s a matter of emphasis. “We put a lot of love and passion into the boards. I'm proud that we created something that the city wants to save. So I would never say throw it all away. But what I will say is, I don't think that is the main concern,” she said. “Everybody is so focused on some material item that can be saved. And yeah, somebody is going to make money on it. And sure, you can auction it and give the money to the Columbus Freedom Fund and get bail money. But all that doesn't really mean anything because it’s like... we’re still dying!”

Recently, McLymont became a part of the Columbus Art Commission, perhaps giving her voice on these issues more volume and weight. “It’s exciting but a little nerve-racking, because I have been talking really critically about leadership in the city, and now I get to sit at a table that decides where the statues go,” she said. “Art does have an impact. Art has some longevity. And my hope is that art continues to open minds and shift perspectives.”

Artists work on the mural outside the Ohio Theatre in early June