Downtown Kalamazoo windows go from bleak to moving with a message from local artists

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo  series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

Plywood boards covering the windows of downtown Kalamazoo businesses became the "canvases" for murals by 36 artists over the weekend. By Sunday night they were covered with images of hope and messages of solidarity for those seeking racial equity and an end to the injustices and suffering caused by racism.

The boards went up earlier in the week after about a dozen businesses were looted the night of June 1. Not knowing whether further property destruction would be taking place as protests continue, local business owners and landlords took precautions to protect their merchandise and property by boarding them up the next day, says Jennifer Jelenek, Chief Operating Officer for Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership.

An idea to turn the blank sheets of wood into the background for pieces of art came from Anna Roeder, owner with her husband Erik Vasilauskas of Dream Scene Creative Placemaking. She's a member of a citizen coalition that is part of the leadership network of the Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership and she came forward, asking whether this might be an opportunity for artwork to go up. 

Why public art? Art can be a vehicle for social change. It influences society by changing opinions, instilling values, and translating experiences across cultures. It gives voice to the politically or socially disenfranchised. 

Artists converged on downtown Kalamazoo Saturday and Sunday to turn boarded up storefronts into art spaces.

Team members of the Downtown Partnership got excited about the idea and they got to work contacting downtown businesses to find out who wanted to be part of the project.

"I think in this time when the community is hurting in so many ways and there so much difficulty in today's world," says Jelenek, "we thought this would be a really cool opportunity to bring the community together and offer an outlet for expression and be a beacon of hope in some ways to take something that's unfortunate and turn it into something very positive for the community."

Working together with Dream Scene, the Downtown Partnership also quickly reached out to their various networks of artists. Artists who are representative of Black, Indigenous and People of Color populations were the first to be asked to be part of the public art project. 

By the end of the week, 20 businesses had agreed to have a mural created on their storefronts. On Friday Roeder and Vasilauskas primed the boards in preparation for Saturday and Sunday's creative efforts by the artists. 

Artists converged on downtown Kalamazoo over the weekend.

The Downtown Kalamazoo Partnership, recognizing the importance of paying the artists for their work, will spend about $10,000 on the project. Some of the funds also went to City Center Market & Deli, which fed the artists over the two days and allowed them to refresh themselves in the market's restrooms. 

"We wanted to make sure people were safe and taken care of and fed throughout the day," Jelenek says.

Paint for the cause was donated by Douglas & Sons Inc. paint shop, a downtown business.

The artwork went up from 10 a.m. Saturday till dusk Sunday and a total of 29 murals were created. Throughout the weekend, some artists dropped by the downtown to see how the work was proceeding and some volunteered to help out just to be part of the project though as funds are limited the volunteers will not be paid as the original group of artists is.

"Some volunteered just because they wanted to be involved," Jelenek says.

And as protestors marched through the downtown Saturday and Sunday the artists stopped their work and stood silently to give the activists a moment and their voice, Jelenek says. 

As part of the planning process, the team also committed to finding a place for the artwork after downtown businesses reopen, post COVID-19,  and the boards are taken down. 

"We're committed to placing the art in another public space so it continues to be a part of the downtown at least through the summer as we seek a longterm solution," Jelenek says. "We want these artists' voices to continue to be part of downtown. This is a piece of history."

The reaction from the community has been very positive, Jelenek says. "A lot of people have given us positive feedback. People are saying they are so glad to see this and that these artists have been given an outlet for expression. There were also tears. People were moved by this. It was a beautiful weekend and as an organization, we're so thankful to be a part of this."

Read more articles by Kathy Jennings.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.