Painting SoHo: A Study on the Appropriation of Urban Space
Who is allowed to express themselves in public space and who isn’t?
In early June 2020, hundreds of artists descended on SoHo in New York City to paint plywood boards nailed to the neighborhood’s storefronts with images reflective of the tumultuous times the city was attempting to navigate. Some stores had been boarded up after the state-mandated closing of non-essential businesses at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic in March, but all of them were sealed off after the looting on May 30 and 31. Those boards used to seal the physical holes made in the stores of one of the country’s trendiest and most expensive shopping neighborhoods became blank canvases in the eyes of artists. They were used to help seal the holes in the spirits of many who felt mental strain and anger from being locked inside their homes during the pandemic and from the shock, fury, and nausea that came after watching another human being murdered, pinned under the knee of a police officer sworn “to protect and serve”.
I started off my thesis research wanting to know how architecture affects the way we inhabit and move through urban space. That led me to seek out ways in which citizens appropriate public urban space and how creative they can get when space that is planned and designed by architects, engineers, and urban planners, does not quite serve their immediate needs. I was drawn particularly to unconventional appropriation, which took me back to the art in SoHo, something I happened upon while walking through the city in June after attending a protest.
Over the course of my research, I spoke with participants in the painting, residents of SoHo, SoHo business leaders, and highly respected entities in the art world. I found that there were several different reasons why artists came out to paint, but the common reason stringing through everyone’s rationale was that they were seeking healing from the wounds of the current events. Using public urban space as a place for communities to voice their feelings during crises, has been demonstrated by sociologists and other theorists to help with collective healing.
This instance of appropriation raised some unexpected issues like who gets to narrate visual public space and what happens when there are disagreements? Who is allowed to express themselves in public space and who isn’t? Was this act even legal? Did the art have any cultural significance or value? Issues of ownership also surfaced—do the stores have a right to keep the art or does it belong to the artist? My research unearthed stark differences in ideologies between participants, something I was not expecting to find; these differences shed light on race issues that take place every day on a broader societal scale yet brought the topic from a systemic level (which is what the protests were all about) down to one-one-one interactions. This thesis broaches the above questions, which I hope can lead to discourse on these matters and a deeper investigation into each issue.
Section IV: Differences in Ideologies
“I wanna make sure we’re honoring the anger, and the rage, and the pain and the frustration, and not be like, ‘Oh look, there’s love! Let’s not be angry.’ It’s more like — the power of listening, the power of mission, the power of honoring, the power of healing, the power of coming together. Those things. The power of action. The power of cooperative power.” – Quote from anonymous female artist from Maxi Cohen’s documentary on Art2♥SoHo
With commerce shut down, shoppers nowhere in sight, and scanty vehicular traffic, artists had free reign over the streets of SoHo. There was a sense of euphoria in the air as artists marveled at the opportunity to work out in the open, amongst other artists, knowing they were having an impact on passers-by too.
For artists like Brendan, the thrill of painting in the company of fellow artists must have been surreal. Just that February, Brendan had a show at the New Gallery in Brooklyn where he did live painting and invited others to come join him as he painted, socialize, sip some wine, and even paint for themselves. Of the event he said: “My goal here is to make painting a social medium. I’m tired of painting in isolation.”
“It was an amazing canvas on the street. Certainly a way to share what you felt and because of the George Floyd murder, this was the time to do that.” Maxi told me.
Miriam too, was ecstatic about how the overall experience rolled out: “It was one of the most magical things I’ve ever done, beside giving birth! I loved every second of it! It felt like you knew you were making a difference.”
Despite all the camaraderie and high spirits, there seemed to be a difference in ideologies amongst some of the artists, and even within the Art2Heart group. The images of cries for justice and “fists in the air” challenged some people and stirred fears. The challenge was so strong that great lengths were taken to try to block the subject matter from appearing on the boards. And although the attempts made at fencing out protest art were mostly ineffective, those attempts were met with pushback.
There had been some spirited discourse among those in the streets, led by some members of Art2Heart, about the kinds of images that “should” be painted. Miriam had made it clear to everyone—whether they were painting with Art2heart or not—her aversion to images that spoke to systemic injustice against African Americans.
“We did actually get into some debates and had some anger directed at us. There were artists who were very clear that they were there to send their protest message. At first we were like, ‘Well we’re here to bring love,’ and we got ‘Well fuck you! We don’t feel very loving right now,’” Stefanie, a core member of Art2Heart told me while laughing with a sense of resolve.
The censorship went as far as expurgation. Konstance and Brendan told me about a painting of a Black woman titled “God is a Black Woman,” where the words “God is a” had been painted over. Despite the grainy pictures they had both been shown, of someone as they were covering the words, they were instantly able to recognize the silhouette. Neither would reveal to me who they thought the recognizable silhouette belonged to, preferring not to stoke fury.
Lydia Venieri, an artist and resident of SoHo for over twenty years who did her own poster project throughout the neighborhood, expressed to me her dismay about the monitoring of expressions and images in public space. Her take was that the call to artists “was in good spirits”, but the energy around the attempts at regulation felt “school-like.”
The reactions to the art that made political statements had some of the most profound impact on pedestrians walking through SoHo. Konstance told me of people stopping in front of her work to have a moment—crying, praying, smiling, and having discussions about what they saw in her Goddezzes.
On Amir’s Instagram page is a picture of one of his boards that says: “BLACK MEN CAN PROTECT YOUR STORES BUT WE CAN’T GET JUSTICE” written in red with the word ‘JUSTICE’ across the black tee-shirt of the security guard in the work, and the rest of the text set against a city backdrop with blue skies and white clouds. There are also three live African American men in the picture (at least two of them are security guards) taking photos of the painting. The work was resonating.
Artists had not come out to SoHo, a place still seen as a safe place for artists, to be censored. Being told how to feel and what to express was not appreciated. Miriam recalled one incident where she was met with a refusal of the chef-made sandwiches Art2Heart had organized for painters and a “Don’t tell me what to fucking paint” after relaying to one young woman what she was looking for.
In the end, many boards reflected beautiful benign messages of love meant to foster a sunny atmosphere, like the one that said “Humanity Should Be Our Race Love Should Be Our Religion,” surrounded by hearts and a single rose under which were the words “Flower of Love”; and the image of one large heart with the words “Be Kind” written in white across the hear and enclosed by a few smaller hearts. And while those kinds of images may have demonstrated the genuine feelings of some, there seemed to be a majority who had something more to say about the current state of America, and said it, despite being marshalled.
But what could possibly be the reason behind the monitoring? Lydia volunteered that it may be because of a mindset that was “old” surmising that the monitors with their hearts and flowers and sunshine were just “hippies without the spirit of what hippies could be.” Perhaps the thinking was that any expressions of anger, disgust, reclamation of power, or BLM, would create a heavy atmosphere and depress pedestrians and residents even further?
“It was scary to be a white person in New York City. It was not an easy time. It was a time to put on your hood and walk down the street and put on your mask,” Miriam said to me as we continued our Zoom call.
“I was very adamant,” she admitted. “I got in trouble for this. Remember, I was born in New York City, raised in Harlem. I don’t see color. No one told me what they were going to paint. But as the day went on, I could see the difference in the paintings that were beautiful and magical and just breathtaking. And then you saw the fists. The paintings with the fists. The paintings of the man that choked to death with the police officer on his neck.”
She passionately relayed to me the type of images she told artists she wanted to see, “You have to paint from your heart,” she recalled, with a downward focused gaze and hands to her chest. “You have to paint in cheer and give love to the streets of Manhattan,” she said as she opened her hands toward the ceiling and directed her eyes upward. “Let’s take away the pain and the anger that we’re feeling,” she continued, with a large smile on her face.
Not everyone in Art2Heart agreed with the singular “hearts and joy” narrative. Some, like Bobbi, said that it was time for America to do some reflection where racism is concerned and deal with it, not hide or prevent others from expressing their experiences with it, no matter how strained or unpleasant of an atmosphere it created for some. “I think fear was a huge part of what was going on in SoHo because of the looting and because of all the problems,” Bobbi thoughtfully said to me over Zoom. “I think the biggest thing it [the painting] did was allow people to verbalize how they felt. We were all thrown in, very unexpectedly, very quickly, into a very uncomfortable experience. All of a sudden, we had to look at one’s own racism. It forced everybody to look at the way we felt about things. Because we could paint on the plywood, we were seen, we were heard. Didn’t matter what the messages were.” Some seemed to be more willing than others to confront the effects of racism.
Despite the “paint patrol” and threats of no sandwiches for protest art painters, Amir accomplished what he set out to do. “I wanted to protest by making art; I didn’t want to be one blip [in a crowd of protestors]. My job as a painter was to go out and paint what I felt. This was my message to give to the world and I needed people to walk by and see it for themselves,” Amir told me, explaining his reason for being out in SoHo.
He had started off wheatpasting in the neighborhood on his own at the end of May, choosing SoHo because of its history as an “art mecca.” Fresh from quitting his job at a factory, the twenty-one-year-old had spent a year trying to find his purpose after a “self-awakening” during college. He left after his freshman year and rediscovered his love for art and decided that was how he was going to communicate with the world. “The way I see it is, since the beginning of time, people have used art to document what’s going on in that time, what people are thinking at that moment. I feel like this is a time I need to document.” His paintings are colorful and raw with a child-like innocence to them; lines are rough and his images do not obey conventional proportions. Always accompanied by text, much of Amir’s art during the summer depicted the African American struggle with the police and a justice system that has always worked against them. And after sneaking a burrito from Art2Heart one day during the summer, continued the work he felt he was always meant to do.
To learn more about Michelle’s thesis, watch/listen to her thesis presentation below or contact the department at email@example.com.