Five artists: How the protests influence their art

Most of the artists we spoke to are not new to infusing their work with elements of social justice. As a nonbinary, Black, queer person, Kenyatta Bosman’s art focused on the queer Black experience well before Louisville’s daily Justice for Breonna protests. And, “artist + organizer” Brianna Harlan already specialized in “socially engaged” art and activism. But, the current racial justice movement has shaped their work in different ways. For Bosman, it’s sent them to the streets with their camera. For Harlan, it’s steered her projects toward addressing immediate community needs. We interviewed five artists with local ties about how the movement has impacted their work.

Brianna Harlan, 27, multidisciplinary artist and MFA student from Russell, now of New York City

Brianna Harlan. | Photo by Amber Thieneman.

On being an “artist + organizer,” how intertwined those parts of her are and how her work became that way:
“So, one doesn’t really exist without the other for me. As an organizer, I think I’m always thinking of creative ways to activate community or to mobilize community, or to even just show up for community. So, definitely, my creative side comes out in that. But, maybe there’s a different tone, there’s a different priority, there’s a different way of moving. But, and then as an artist, I’m always trying to find ways to bring in that sense of purpose and urgency, I guess, in my work.”

“ … Well, I think [it happened] just naturally, because I am interested in both and I do both. I can’t really turn one or the other off. So, yeah, I think it’s just the way that I think, it’s the way that I move, it’s the way that I operate. It’s what my values are. And so, yeah, I just started filling needs and responding to things in my art practice as well. And also I wasn’t super interested in drawing or painting as, like, my purpose. Like, I enjoyed doing those things. But, I didn’t know if I found or I could see where I fit in in the world doing those things until I brought in more community focused, community based, conceptually sound work.

On how the Justice for Breonna and current racial justice movement has influenced her work:
“I mean I’ve done some pieces, like the augmented reality piece that I worked with Breonna’s family to do and Nancy Baker Cahill and 21c [Museum Hotel]. So that piece. I think, right now, I’m just really trying to focus on really immediate needs of community. So, sometimes, or often, I would do more long-term relationship work or self-determination work. But right now, I’m like, OK, what does the community need to kind of get us through these times. And so I’m kind of balancing those a bit more. And so, with projects like Black Love Blooms or the virtual monument, it’s kind of a grounding practice or artwork for the current, the current need, the very immediate needs of what’s going on.”

On her New York City gallery debut, ‘Black Love Blooms: New York Nook’ and how it’s filling the community’s needs in this moment:
“ … So the exhibit is kind of testing some pop-up space elements for me, because I plan to hopefully do some outdoor pop-ups, that people can run flowers from that space and also invite people back to that space in order to share in more love and in some community. So, yeah, there’s some archival material that shows past — kind of the progression of the project and what it is now. There are free things around the room for Black people, like the love notes and roses. And also some free lavender for everyone who visits just for a little peace and healing all the way around. There’s stories from past interactions that I’ve done. There’s some art objects, art pieces, which is, you know, these hands that are coming out of the wall holding kindness, love, flowers; actual plants that are growing; there’s a wall to show some gratitude for Black people to Black people; video. So, it’s like part record, active living record, and also, part, kind of like, built environment. It’s full of space; it’s full of Black love. There’s a street sign and a graffitied magazine box. So just building this environment out, like, that this a space of just gratitude for Blackness in the project and how that’s living and working right now.”

“ … So, the need that I see it meeting is a really essential and crucial one that I think often gets left out. And that’s for, in movements of resistance, there has to be a zero labor space for people to just be appreciated. Because we’re fighting just for the idea, just for the truth that Black lives matter. And to constantly be on that type of alert, to constantly be on that type of stress and trigger is carrying a trauma that often there aren’t spaces to unpack it, and even when there are, there’s labor to be done. Like, ‘oh, come to this healing space, and we’ll discuss how we’re feeling, and we will unpack some of this stuff that we’re feeling.’ But sometimes people just need to just be, and they need to feel good. And they need to not have anything asked of them; they need to receive good feeling, good energy, love, kindness, appreciation. And so that’s what I feel like this is doing, to remind us that not all of this has to be a struggle, not all of it is labor at all, even the healing work. And it doesn’t even have to be in spite of, like, ‘oh, despite everything that’s going on, we can still feel joy.’ No, like, we’re just blooming because, ‘cus we’re great. We’re just being loved because we’re great. Just ‘cus we are. Because we’re people, and because we’re here. And so, that’s really important to me, and that’s, I’m also happy because this project started before kind of this uprising and the pandemic, because that further proves and cements to me that this should be something that should be always.”

Detail from ‘Ancestral Offerings: We Been Bloomin’ by Brianna Harlan.

On being a Black artist in Louisville’s art scene:
“So, being a Black person in the Louisville arts scene is, it’s like, you have to create doorways; they don’t exist. And so you have to be extra creative, you have to be extra purposeful, you have to be a big self-advocate. You have to be, you have to do all of it yourself. It’s like, not just that you have to work to prove that you should be able to knock on the door, or walk through the door, or receive the opportunity, you have to create the entire ecosystem of opportunity for yourself. And then you also have to show that you have the skills, that your work should be supported. You have to navigate these old systems of power and money that typically just use your voice for tokenism or to feel good about the work that they are doing, and not necessarily to really amplify your work for what it is. Which is very frustrating. Especially when, as creatives, we’re putting in everything, like literally everything we have — making sacrifices to do it the way that we’re doing it. And then it’s just kind of watered down or misused, misappropriated. So, yeah, that said, even the opportunity for your work to grow doesn’t really exist unless you make it, and even then, there’s like a, there’s a cap. So, you’ll see a lot of Black creatives moving outside of Louisville, if not just physically, just to do work. Because in other places, there are more opportunities for sure. And it’s not just that Louisville’s small. That’s not it. Because, I think with the type of, I think that there’s definitely a lot of people that want to see the arts scene grow that have put money into it, that have put time into it. But then you have the same power players making the same decision from the same, old perspectives. And then we wonder why it doesn’t grow. Well, it’s not growing because it’s not being allowed to. The people that are actually doing the work and giving life to the scene are not being allowed to have any type of, to really do the work with autonomy and direct it and see it amplified in the ways that they need. So, yeah, that’s a really big question. But, it’s difficult I guess.”

On her campaign to make the Louisville arts scene more equitable:
“It’s going well, really well. I’m a little late getting stuff out, because I have a life and no one’s paying me to do this work, right? And I’m trying to remember, trying to remember that and being mindful of the sacrifices that I’m making. But, it is going very well. Qualitative analysis wrapped up, and I’m actually going to be writing up the list of basic results, really all the themes and trends that came out of the report probably within the next week, and then I’ll invite people for a Zoom call to go over those things, a massive community Zoom call to go over those things. And then, from there, we’ll make some demands.”

Thomas English, 63, muralist from Portland

‘Take A Knee Bridge.’ | Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

On his artistic background (including his past protest-related art):
“I used to draw in school, elementary school. I started out painting murals back in 1978 or ’79. What got me into it was, I blame two, old mural artists, Billy Matthews and Muhammad Ali’s daddy, Cassius Clay Sr. They both were sign painters and artists. And at that time I was a kid, they painted this big picture on this big wall of this big building, and I told my mom, ‘Wow, we never got to do nothing like that.’” And 30 years later, I wound up painting that. So, I’ve been a mural artist; I got into cartoon animation, was led into TV production and doing some TV shows for the youth. And I mentor youth. I still paint murals. I was out painting a mural down in Saint Petersburg, Florida, when they had two riots down there, back in 1999, 1998. No, it was 1997, when they had two riots, back to back riots down there. And that calmed the neighborhood down, and the city of Saint Petersburg.”

On how the Take a Knee bridge project got started (and how it’s a form of protest):
“I started with Colin Kaepernick, taking a knee. And then once I heard about Breonna Taylor and what was going on here, and I wasn’t in a position to go out and physically protest — but I’m still a protester, and this is a way to protest. And inspire, influence, educate and motivate through my art work.”

On how he chose who to depict in the mural:
“Well, it was the people [who] come by. Because it started out with, there was, I got a photo of a guy, a firsthand Colin Kaepernick, a dude who looked like Colin Kaepernick come by and took a knee. And then people started pulling over. Then, they come in requesting, where Martin Luther King at? Can you put Mattie Jones up there? And the mothers come by, with photos of their sons that’s been killed. And they tell you about or remind you of guys, like kids, kids that were murdered, just like Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. You can’t forget these kids, can’t forget this.”

On why he included children in the mural and invited children to contribute to it:
“Well it lets them know what protest is about and how you can protest also and know the meaning of protesting. Just ‘cus it’s legal, it doesn’t mean that it’s right. And a lot of the legal is not right. A lot of the legal is evil. And like I said, it gives them a taste of standing up for what’s right. Because the little kids, the little bitty kids, when they come through, they stop and respond to the little bitty paintings of little children out there. The little bitty kids don’t know Colin Kaepernick and, you know what I’m saying, Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King and such and such. But they do recognize the little paintings of them, of the little kids. So kids listen to kids. So, it’s a hands on experience of getting an understanding of leadership.”

On why art can be more effective for protest than words:
“It’s a continuous communication. When you ride past it, you’ll see it, it’ll remind you.”

Kenyatta Bosman, 26, photographer, multimedia artist and BFA student in Old Louisville

Kenyatta Bosman.

On how the Black Lives Matter movement influences their art — and turned them into a protest photographer:
“I’ve been taken some narrative classes and some film study class, and it just really has me in the energy of documentation. So, when the protests did start, the first thing that I did, you know, I’m like, I am a photographer, you know, this is what I do is capture moments. So I did a lot of live-streaming, and I also take photos in sequence of the protests and the marches that are going on.”

“ … But, one of the photos that I did take, I shot it during a, it was for a music video called ‘BLM’ by Bblasian. They are a very, very awesome and up-and-coming artist here in Louisville. And there was a shot that stuck out to me, and the curator at the Quappi [Projects] selected it to be shown. And so I’m like yes, I took this, and it really, really just stood out. It is a Black boy riding a bike with, he has a nice fro going on, and then he has a Black hoodie around his shoulders and it says ‘KING.’ But, it was very, very strong and well, it didn’t take me too long to think it out, but once they came into my queue, in my eye, I just started capturing their photo. We kind of made eye contact for a second. And those are the very, very — those are the photos that I love to take is when it is in the heat of the moment, and there is that one person out of the crowd that notices you and makes eye contact with your lens. And it composed just an amazing photo, and I’m so excited to show it. I want to say it will be shown this October or November at the Quappi. The show will be called ‘We All Declare for Liberty,’ and the showcase will be about 2020 and the future of American citizenship. And so I’m super excited for this.”

On what they want people to get out of their photos of the protests:
“I would like people to get emotional off of them. I would like to — I want them to connect to the photo and maybe feel as if they’re there in that moment or maybe as if they know someone that is there. I want them to be uncomfortable, because in a lot of these moments, I am very, very uncomfortable; I don’t feel safe. So that’s what I want to bring out of these photos. I want you to connect with them in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, to realize there is change that needs to be brought, that should have happened a long time ago. Because a lot of companies and foundations and fundraisers, they’re doing things now, and it’s like, you should have been doing these things a long time ago. Granted, we appreciate that you’re picking up for the slack, but you should have been doing these things a long time ago.”

On not wanting to be the ‘token person’:
“I have been getting called and asked to do a lot of things. Which yes, I do want to do these things, but it’s like, also am I being a token person for your company? Kind of like, ‘Oh, well, we did this for a BIPoC [Black, indigenous, people of color] person, a BIPoC queer person.’ ’Cus that’s also a thing. I am Black, and then I’m also queer, so it’s like a double standard. ‘Cus sometimes I’m not always accepted in the queer community because I am Black, and then sometimes I’m not accepted in the Black community because I am queer. So, it’s a big struggle. And when being called to do some of these things, I am amped up for it. But, I don’t want to be that token person, nor do I want to feel rushed. Because a lot of, they’re just looking for like, ‘Oh, well, can you do this pretty quick? Like, it won’t take long.’ And, [laughs], yeah, it just gets exhausting. It’s been exhausting. But, I’m like, that’s my life, period, and that’s something that I can’t get away from. ‘Cus I always have to get up and show up, ‘cus a lot of times, I’m the only Black person in the room. So, I’m like, I have to speak for me and for us, because I’m not going to let anyone else take the room to do so.”

‘Down on my Knees.’ Frankfort, 2020. | Photo by Kenyatta Bosman.

On promoting intersectionality in their work as a Black, queer, nonbinary person:
“So, I work for, I’m a photojournalist for Queer Kentucky, and that has been my goal since the Black Lives Matter movement, is to expose racial injustice to the white, queer community. And especially cis people. Because if you’re going to say Black Lives Matter, then you need to be saying Black Trans Lives Matter, Black Nonbinary Lives Matter and Black Queer Lives Matter, period. Because, like I said, you know, we’re not all free until we are all free.”

“ … And when I came to Queer Kentucky as a photojournalist, I kind of let it be known, ‘Hey, a lot of the work that I’m going to be doing is going to be Black people and people of color.’ Because there is a lot of white, cis space that is taken up in the queer community with a lot of ignorance that Pride and Pride period revolves around a Black trans woman. The first Pride was a riot. So, my work that I do, I’m uplifting BIPoC voices … and also queer, BIPoC voices. ‘Cus they’re silenced the most, especially the BIPoC trans people. There are a lot of cases out here, they’re not even reported. And, I want to say in ‘Paris is Burning,’ there was a … trans woman who was choked and just put under a bed. And that is very, very — it’s disturbing when you hear these things and you get to see them in a documentary of, a very beautiful and kind of like a butterfly — and to hear that something so gross happened to them, yeah, it’s very disturbing. So, I really want to educate people and get intersectionality out to the world. I think that is very, very important: intersectionality and education, period.”

On how white people should be making protest art:
“If you’re not a BIPoC artist, and you are making art of Black people, as far as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, etc., etc., don’t do that. ’Cus right now, that is taking up space. Which, you know, it’s already done. It’s taken up enough space. So, stop and let the BIPoC people do that work. But, you can, there’s still things that you can do as far as protest art and doing art intersectionally in groups and being coordinated by BIPoC people and everyone working on that together. That is fine; that is OK; that is awesome. Because, what you’re doing is you’re getting the input and the feedback, ‘We are non-BIPoC people, but we are getting the inspiration, the design and what they want to be presented,’ and not so much stepping in and being like, ‘Here, this is what I have and this is my idea.’ That’s what we don’t want. So, a lot of time that’s projected, and a lot of people are doing murals of Black people, and they’re getting recognition. And that is a very, very — like I said, that is exhausting, and we don’t want to see it. Because, if there is Black murals of Black people, we want it to be done by BIPoC people. So, it’s actually us and perceived by us.”

Jon Cherry, 31, multi-specialty professional photographer in Louisville

Jon Cherry. | Self-portrait.

On how frequently he incorporated activism into his art before the Justice for Breonna protests:
“Not very often actually … I guess I used my art purely for commercial purposes before the movement began, because I didn’t find room for it there; I found it in other avenues of my life.”

On how he got started taking photos of the protests:
“Well, the very first night I got a text message from my best friend, who said, ‘I heard seven people were shot downtown. Everybody’s protesting. There’s tear gas and all that other stuff. Would you like to come down with me?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, man. Let me give it some thought.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m on your porch, so come outside.’ So we got ready to leave, and we were just going to go down and see what’s happening and just kind of get our own eyes on it. He told me to grab my camera. Something felt kind of oddly voyeuristic about bringing it, but he assured me that it was kind of my job to record moments like that. And then that’s when it started. And the next 32 consecutive days after that I went down and got photos.”

On what he hopes people learn about the protests from his photos:
“Well, there’s a level of humanism that I need them to see in these images. Because there’s a lot of disinformation that’s being spread just about the protesters, who they are as people, what they’re out there for, what they even look like. And, so to be able to tether the viewer between perfect strangers and help them kind of understand these moments more than they might get from reading a news article or even watching a livestreamer or watching a video of whatever’s happening. I think that’s probably the most important thing to me is exposing humanity and really honoring those moments that are happening, and trying not to be voyeuristic in any way.”

Photo by Jon Cherry.

On why he switched from posting photos in black and white to posting in color:
“Well, one of the reasons that I posted mostly in black and white is that I didn’t feel like color added to the story, it didn’t add to what was happening in the images at all. But slowly as I — and this is more of a recent discovery — but slowly, as I realized that if I manipulate the colors in a certain way, that I can add to the story in a way that is mine. And that’s when I made the switch. And I noticed that everybody else was posting black and white, too. Once my work started blowing up in Louisville, many other photographers started using a very, very similar black, gray and white tonality. And so I switched over to color. Now everybody’s switching over to color again as well. I’m not saying that it’s related, but it feels like it.

On what direction he sees his art taking if the regular protests stop:
“I don’t think it’s going anywhere, and my art has changed from the daily protests to doing more of the backend logistics, art installations, direct actions that are more related to supporting the community. And so if that is going to be my role within the movement, is to no longer take photos of the square once the square has been disbanded or once the occupation has ended, then that’s fine.”

Tyler Abell, 29, multidisciplinary artist in Crescent Hill

Tyler Abell.

On PeaceState, a collective he’s a part of:
“It’s a collection of artists who wanted to respond to social injustice, mainly to bring more attention to BIPoC people and LGBTQ. Our art is kind of driven around just, really, it’s art activism. So, our basic mission is, we’re an intersectional art activism collective. Our mission is to harness the power of artwork to disrupt systematic oppression. Right now we’re focused on confronting police brutality and amplifying the voices of Black, indigenous, people of color.”

On how art can help ‘disrupt systematic oppression’:
“Well, I think the most obvious way is to get people to think and realize that their voices can be heard, whether that is through getting involved in the community and then, I mean, using art just gets people to think a little differently. Because you can express a lot of different things through art. And also it’s physical, and when someone sees something physical, they react to it. ‘Cus, maybe it’s hard for people to understand that people of color are held down by our justice system a little bit differently than other people. So, if you create a piece of art that can represent that, it puts it kind of right there in their face.”

On his role in art activism as a white person:
“I would say that, I don’t want to, I try not to bring attention to myself other than just using my ability to organize and provide a platform for other people to be highlighted. But it’s not about the white person, you know. That’s why on PeaceState, I’m not focused on at all. I started PeaceState, but I’m not focused on… [My role is] to organize events and to get the art collection together, get the event spaces together and then to assemble the show and to promote the show… I have a few art installations in it, but they’re under ‘anonymous,’ because I just didn’t want my name out there.”

‘Death of a Nation.’ | By Tyler Abell.

On how he balances art activism with his web design/architecture studio,, and why he does it:
“Well, I actually took some time off from working, like pretty much the whole month of May and June to focus on getting PeaceState together and to create art. And then, I’ve just been balancing my schedule from working on my own —  because I’m a freelancer, so I can kind of create my own schedule — to creating art, helping out at downtown Injustice Square [Jefferson Square Park], going to protests and just creating art… I mean, I think it’s important to try and create a world that we can all live in. It seems like it’s something more meaningful than just working in an office, where if there’s something happening in our society that needs attention, that we need to address it, and we need to think about it, and we need to care. It takes a lot of energy, though, to care and to push your attention towards that. But, I guess I’m willing to give forth the energy and make some sacrifices, too.”

On what’s next in art activism for him:
“Well, actually, I’m working with [The Mammoth curator] Aron [Conoway] on a resource website. It’s basically a website for all events that are occurring in Louisville, an education center with papers and articles from local news outlets. And it’s basically just a hub for everything related to social justice that’s happening here in Louisville.” [And, he’s working with a group of Black artists, the Roots 101 African-American Museum and teacher Matthew Kaufmann to paint a mural downtown of the protest and prominent, Black leaders.]