[Episcopal News Service] A mural honoring George Floyd near where he died May 25 has become a prominent visual landmark among the sprawling makeshift memorials at East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd’s larger-than-life face radiates from a fiery sunflower on a blue background, and his name is painted in bold yellow letters across the width of the mural on the outside wall of the Cup Foods grocery.
The names of other black victims of police violence in the United States are scrawled in white behind Floyd on the sunflower’s black center. Floyd, 46, joined their tragic ranks after Minneapolis police pinned him to the ground for nearly nine minutes, with one officer pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck as he struggled to repeat his last words: “I can’t breathe.”
One of the mural’s lead artists, Cadex Herrera, is an Episcopalian from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, who immigrated to the United States from Belize when he was 19. Herrera works as an elementary school behavioral specialist who creates art on the side, and he told Episcopal News Service in a phone interview that he specializes in social justice art.
“That is my passion,” Herrera said. He was honored to be able to help create the Floyd mural.
Herrera, 45, attends St. John in the Wilderness Episcopal Church in White Bear Lake with his wife, Karen Herrera, who serves as junior warden. They have three sons, ages 16, 14 and 12.
They started attending Episcopal worship services more than a decade ago after becoming disaffected with the Roman Catholic Church. “We thought The Episcopal Church was a good match for our family,” Herrera said.
He said he was scheduled to lead a workshop at St. John in the Wilderness this summer, to show participants how they can use their creative talents to speak out on social justice issues, but that event has been canceled along with in-person worship at the church because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Much of his work focuses on various social issues, such as immigration and the environment, and he hopes his art will “promote and elevate those causes.” His artworks range from chalk on paper to watercolor on glass. Most are smaller-scale works that he then shares on his social media accounts. Though some people ask to purchase artworks, he doesn’t promote them for sale, and he said he never takes money for paintings of social justice leaders and other portraits.
“I do not want to profit from their likeness,” he said. “I just do it to do it and get the word across.”
He had never been involved in a mural before but knew fellow artist Xena Goldman through serving together with a Latino community organization called CLUES. After Floyd’s killing sparked outrage in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Goldman contacted Herrera and asked if he wanted to help conceive of a memorial mural. Herrera readily volunteered, along with a third artist, Greta McLain.
Herrera said he, too, was deeply moved by the death of Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police. “I was caught up in the moment, angry about what was happening.”
The artists got together and started sharing ideas, with Herrera contributing much of what became the mural’s background.
“The sunflower represents longevity and loyalty,” Herrera said. “I wanted to use that also because it represents life.” The names of other victims of police violence – Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, to name a few – were positioned as the sunflower’s seeds.
“They were seeds that never got to be flowers themselves,” Herrera said.
— Justin Bailey (@iamJustinBailey) May 29, 2020
Inside the letters of Floyd’s name are small, faceless figures in blue, raising fists for justice. The depiction of Floyd is based on a photo, and below his face are the words “I can breathe now.”
Goldman told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that she was hesitant to add those words, which were suggested by a local resident, because she didn’t want to put words in Floyd’s mouth.
“We wanted to be certain that it felt appropriate,” Goldman told the Pioneer Press. “We didn’t have any black artists in the group, and we wanted to make sure the community felt like that statement was representative.”
Another resident conducted an informal poll of people in the neighborhood, and they were overwhelmingly supportive of adding that phrase, Goldman said. Even so, the artists asked someone from the local community, not the artists, to paint those letters as the mural’s final touch last week.
“We wanted to make sure the community had the final word,” Herrera said.
The intersection has been the site of peaceful protests and vigils for Floyd, with his faced calmly fixed in the mural as a backdrop. On June 1, Floyd’s brother, Terrence Floyd, visited the scene and took a moment to view the mural up close, along with the other memorials. Former President Barack Obama used a photo of the mural as the lead image of his blog post reacting to Floyd’s killing.
I wrote out some thoughts on how to make this moment a real turning point to bring about real change––and pulled together some resources to help young activists sustain the momentum by channeling their energy into concrete action. https://t.co/jEczrOeFdv
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 1, 2020
Now Herrera said he and other artists are working on second mural that will be displayed on a building not far from the first.
“There’s a lot of pain, but there’s a lot of hope and support of the community, and the people coming out and just speaking their voice and letting the world know this is unacceptable and should never happen again,” Herrera said.
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.