By Sean Chase
On May 30, 2020, Grand Rapids changed forever, as protestors took to the streets to express their distrust in the police, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
What started as a peaceful protest, turned violent as destruction enveloped several downtown Grand Rapids buildings. With the sound of glass breaking, mixing with the commotion of burning police cruisers, the city of Grand Rapids resembled a war zone.
Through all of this, the citizens of Grand Rapids looked to salvage their city. As the protests and curfews died down, people took to the streets to repair the damage. Plywood became a popular choice to cover the windows damaged during the riots.
However, on June 5, 2020, these out-of-place plywood boards became canvases and began to receive some much needed life, as local artists of color took to the streets with paint and brushes.
Once the windows these pieces covered were replaced, they became available for purchase, with proceeds going to individual artists throughout the city. After discussion, the Grand Rapids Public Museum decided to acquire multiple pieces, opening the ‘Windows GR’ exhibit in January 2021 as a permanent installation.
“We actually purchased these pieces from local artists in the area, so they did receive that payment,” said Alee’a Cherry, GRPM marketing manager. “We did go through a process of figuring out what would fit best into the museum.”
As you walk up the stairs into the second floor of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, following prints presumably left by Buzz Aldrin’s moon boots, the largest of the three ‘Windows GR’ panels, painted by Jalexia Stoutmyre, hangs silently to the right of an extravagant multi-colored bi-wing airplane.
“It’s been real this year,” Stoutmyre stated, in an artist statement. “Every year, the same marginalized communities face everyday oppression from the institutions we’re forced to be a part of. Towards the end of May, there was a protest here in Grand Rapids to gather in honor of Black Lives lost and harmed at the hands of police brutality. The protest was also the result of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Near nightfall is when the rioting occurred. Element Seven coordinated artists to cover the boarded up windows with artwork.My piece depicts the wording, “Black Lives Matter.” I used Loteria cards because it’s something I took from my Chicanx culture to amplify the words above because Brown People for Black Power always. The continued mistreatment of Black womxn, Black lgbtqia+ individuals, Black mxn, Black folks with disabilities, and Black gender queer folk lights a rage in all of us.Making a piece of artwork alongside other Black artists and artists of color makes me feel like the message I’m trying to spread is a little more heard. All Black Lives Matter.”
As you pass Stoutmyre’s background information, you come across the final panels, one painted by Guillermo Sotelo and one by DeVante Barnes, looking onto the Grand River.
Curating art from the community surrounding the GRPM is the museum’s mission, however, they hope these pieces can add some perspective surrounding the events of 2020, for many years to come.
“We actively collect items to add to our collections throughout the year, and a large portion actually comes from the community,” Cherry said. “So, with that event taking place, we want to make sure that we’re accurately portraying the history of our city, as well as amplifying the voices of Black and Brown people. It’s a great opportunity that we were able to purchase pieces from local artists, showcase their work to educate the community, and to also give them a platform to change the perspective on the situation.”
Due to the nature of art, GRPM believes displaying these panels will be incredibly important to provide context on the events surrounding the death of George Floyd for people from all walks of life.
“They’re visually appealing, so you’re going to not only see the surface level of the greatness, as far as the execution of the pieces, but you’ll also be able to learn about the artist, learn about their background, learn about the different messages within the pieces,” Cherry said. “You can also interpret other things as well, art is subjective, so we’re happy to have these displayed at the museum to allow people who are educated on the matter, as well as those who aren’t, to help devise their own opinions on the type of events that have been happening throughout this.”
The ‘Windows GR’ exhibit is included with the purchase of a general admission ticket to the GRPM. However, Grand Rapids Community College students can use the GoSeeGR! voucher, provided by the Student Life offices, for free admission to the museum.