Art has had a strong history of healing in the Black community. The power of artistic healing can be traced all the way back to African villages where tribesmen created from the tools of the Earth, and has slowly adapted over the years to include creative mediums of expression that show love, pain, and the circle of life. In 2020 we watched cities across the world pay homage to those in the struggle for justice by painting Black Lives Matter murals; many created by everyday citizens of the streets that these murals adorned. We spoke with Deborah Sheppard about her involvement in the Greenville BLM Mural project.
SM: This mural is pretty historic for the City of Greenville. What was the experience like being a part of it?
DS: Being part of the physical project created a mixture of emotions. This was a six-month process that involved a lot of conversations, disappointments, and frustrations. When this project had to get approved by the city, it created so many roadblocks that we didn’t foresee in the beginning. However, being out there (to complete the project) was amazing. The creative energy from the group was dope and unmatched. There was a great vibe that we created, we met amazing people and built stronger relationships. I think we all felt different emotions while creating the specific message within our individual letters. I feel humility, when it comes to the historical significance of this project. There has never been a public art display by Black artists in this city, so to be a part of the first to do it, is pretty humbling and dope.
SM: Why was it important for you to be a part of this project?
DS: It was super important to be a part of this project for a number of reasons. Not only was I an artist for this project, but I was also a member of the subcommittee that helped get this project pushed. It wasn’t just important to give the artists a chance to showcase their work, but it was just as important to use this project as a tool to have these tough conversations in our community surrounding race relations. Conversations revolving around systemic racism, social inequalities and inequities, have all started to take place and will continue beyond this project. That was the initial goal of this project and we are glad to see that element unfolding. I think it is truly important to give art a space in these important dialogues and this project proved that can be done.
SM: What are your hopes for what people will gain from having this symbolic project in Greenville?
DS: It is my hope that through symbolism, people will become intentional about seeking change. We have the symbol now, great. Next, let’s put the symbol to work. Let’s allow this symbol to be a reminder of the work we have ahead of us and a work that we shall not stray from.
SM: Do you have any insight on how difficult it was to get this initiative passed? What were some of the oppositions that you were aware of?
It was a difficult road. Originally, we wanted to paint “Black Lives Matter” and then that’s when the roadblocks came. We compromised and agreed to paint, “Black Lives Do Matter”, to set the painting apart from the national organization. When we thought that was going to be enough, we were blindsided when the majority of the council members decided to change the wording of the mural to “Unite Against Racism”. We were heartbroken. However, we bounced back. Although they were able to control the wording, they could not control our message. I truly believe the message in each letter, still screams, “BLACK LIVES MATTER”
Since participating in the mural project, Sheppard has continued to move forward with initiatives that use art as a way to facilitate social change. In addition to recently being appointed to the Greenville Museum of Art Board of Trustees. Sheppard says it is her mission to ensure that the “museum, its curators, exhibitions, events and membership, embrace inclusion, equity, and diversity”. She also recently launched HeARToscope; an initiative that seeks to work with local artists, businesses and organizations to bring murals to the West Greenville area to bring social, cultural and economic benefits, as well as positive mental health. This initiative will serve as an equity-advancement strategy for economic development in the West Greenville area.
Sheppard says they are releasing two two projects in the coming months. The first project is a PSA that focuses on trauma in schools, and features local African American students from Greenville NC. The second project is a partnership with the Pitt County Arts Council and a few local restaurants that will serve the homeless community. Sheppard is hopeful that her impact will be felt throughout her community, and that people will see the value of utilizing art as a means of recovery from social, political, and emotional issues.