Massive murals expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement have popped up in cities across the country in recent weeks. The one painted on the streets in downtown Worcester, created by hundreds of volunteers, was a community effort.
Community members including artists, organizers, and politicians came together on Wednesday to begin work on the streetscape mural, a project that was originally scheduled to take several days. But a group of just over a dozen volunteers grew to over 500, and the project was done in hours, said City Councilor Sean Rose.
“As we’re seeing things happen outside the city, and everyone doing their murals or streetscapes, it was only a matter of time when people came together in Worcester,” Rose said.
The city councilor, along with the city’s Deputy Cultural Development Officer Che Anderson and Pa’Lante Latinx Moving Forward President Em Quiles, organized the project with the city’s support.
Each letter in the mural is colorfully painted, filled with unique designs created by 18 local artists, 16 of whom are Black or brown, Rose said. Drivers downtown can’t miss it — the organizers chose an area on the street by Major Taylor Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard for the mural, and for good reason. King was a renowned civil rights leader in the 1960s, and Taylor was a Black world champion in cycling at the turn of the 20th century.
Khalil Guzman-Jerry, a 24-year-old artist, was put in charge of designing the letter “K.” In six hours, his contribution was complete: white stars, a blue background, red stripes, black lines.
“It is my take on what the African-American flag would be,” said Guzman-Jerry, a Worcester native.
When the pandemic began, he switched from his job in customer service to working full time as an artist and created the Worcester Workshop, Guzman-Jerry’s art company which he hopes evolves into a collective of local artists who give back to the city. The mural gave him a chance to express an idea he had been holding onto for a long time.
“I had this idea way before the mural came up. I just felt like, looking at other ethnicities and groups, they have a flag or something to hold onto,” he said.
He wanted to create one for African Americans. By swapping the white stripes in the American flag for black ones, the design incorporates African origins while acknowledging pride in the traditional flag.
“I felt like it was important for our mural to be created, organized, generated from artists in the Black and brown community,” Rose said. “Our mural is very unique in the sense that each individual letter acts as an individual mural in itself.”
Organizers, headed by United Way of Central Massachusetts, set a goal of getting $12,000to cover expenses including food, water, supplies, and personal protective equipment for volunteers. The project drew more than $20,000 in donations, Rose said, thanks to generous donors from across the state, country, and even one donor from the Netherlands.
“Being the second biggest city in New England and doing a project on this scale elicited a very positive response,” Rose said. “When we saw negative comments or blatantly racist dialogue that happened on social media, this [project] significantly overwhelmed any negative spirits.”
About 40 volunteers would work at a given time to ensure social distancing and safety, he said. But that didn’t deter people from coming — there were so many volunteers who wanted to participate that they had to turn people away.
Mayor Joseph Petty and City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. were instrumental in putting together the project, giving organizers the support and clearance to envision and execute the mural as they saw fit, Rose said. Because several residents have expressed opposition to the Black Lives Matter Movement, whether it be on social media or when they drove by the artists at work, the organizers were especially proud of the city’s commitment to the movement.
“The city manager didn’t have to get into crosshairs of the negativity of people who didn’t want to see this happen, and I just can’t say enough how special it made us all feel that he was open to the idea of making this happen,” Rose said.
“For me personally, you see [movements] happening across the nation, you don’t expect it to come to your city, but when you’re here and you get to be part of it... I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Guzman-Jerry said.
People from all walks of life, ethnicities, ages, and occupations showed up to support the project. Rose recalled a comment he overheard from one person, a white grandmother carrying her young grandchild.
“You are never going to see a special act of symbolism like you are observing here in your whole life,” she told the child. “Soak this in.”
Matt Berg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattberg33.