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Street art comes to St. Louis parks to document despair and hope at a time of unrest

Sept. 30, 2017. Dail Chambers works on a piece called A Song for the Black Rising at the St.ART event. Chambers said the piece examines repetition and and reflects the Jason Stockley verdict protests and the 20th-century Great Migration.
Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio

The two-day St.ART festival this weekend is billed as a street art event, but it takes places in parks, not streets.

It opened Saturday at Langenberg Field in Forest Park with local artists including Basil Kincaid, Cbabi Bayoc and Peat Wollaeger covering 8- by 10-foot canvasses with mostly black and white materials including paint, spray paint and quilted pieces.

The stark images represent deep divisions within the St. Louis community, said organizer Michael Tompkins.

“The segregation, not just in race, but also in the socioeconomic divide,” Tompkins said.

Conveying emotions on a grand scale

Today, artists will take another approach and splash color on a different set of canvases in north St. Louis’ Fairground Park. Tompkins said the contrast between the two days' work represents two realities.

“If you look at an 8 by 10-foot piece and you see the black and white versus the color the emotion of what today is and the vision of what tomorrow can be, I think that you're going to feel those from the canvas,” Tompkins said. “Large-scale art can convey an emotion that is much more grand.”

September 30, 2017 photo. By late morning on Saturday, a small group of people gathered to watch artists paint 8 by 10 canvases in Forest Park.
Credit Nancy Fowler | St. Louis Public Radio
By late morning on Saturday, a small group of people gathered to watch artists paint 8 by 10 canvases in Forest Park.

The St.ART (pronounced "start") event also includes non-visual artists. Singer Star Swain opened the St.ART festival with her rendition of the National Anthem. Poet Richard Blanco, who composed and read a poem at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, also is featured.  And St. Louis poet, writer and visual artist Pacia Anderson is among the scheduled performers.

This event, designed to capture the difficulties facing St. Louis and the promise of better days ahead, comes after two weeks of non-stop protests throughout the city. For the past two weeks, demonstrators have been marching against what they see as excessive police force against African-Americans.

The protests were sparked by a judge's decision to find former St. Louis officer Jason Stockley, who is white, not guilty in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man. Demonstrators say their larger message is to tell police to stop using deadly force against black people.

But Tompkins said St.ART was in the planning stages long before this and other recent events that have prompted action across the nation.

“No, I wouldn't have been able to forecast the Stockley event,” Tompkins said. “I wouldn't have been able to think about what just happened in Charlottesville or the gay bar in Orlando or the church in South Carolina or on the streets of Dallas or Minneapolis or Chicago.”

File photo. Dail Chambers founded and runs St. Louis' Yeyo Arts Collective.
Credit File | Provided |St.ART
Dail Chambers founded and runs St. Louis' Yeyo Arts Collective.

Local artist Dail Chambers said she did have the current protests in mind when she began working on her piece, "A Song for the Black Rising," on Saturday. She said her large painting reflects the repetitive nature of historical and ongoing black resistance.

"In St. Louis, it's almost a testing site for how much trauma we can take, " Chambers said.

Little local support

Tompkins moved to St. Louis three years ago. He said he came up with the idea for the St.ART festival after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer, and the subsequent events in Ferguson. But Tompkins said he ran into a snag when he began fundraising locally for his project.

The St.ART festival is a $300,000 event. But the vast majority of that money came from outside of St. Louis after local fundraising efforts fell through.

File photo. Michael Tompkins has been planning the St.ART festival for several years.
Credit File | Provided | Michael Tompkins
Michael Tompkins has been planning the St.ART festival for several years.

“I held a variety of dinners, lunches, went and pitched around to, I can’t tell you how many, influencers here in St. Louis, even to sponsor an artist for $5,000 — and it didn’t happen,” Tompkins said.

Tompkins said he eventually collected the money from people he knows through his company that recruits executives in the hospitality industry.

After the event, Tompkins expects to have 20 artists’ canvases plus two additional canvases that local children are invited to work on. They will be sold and displayed, likely outside of St. Louis, he said.

Some proceeds from selling the art will benefit St. Louis ArtWorks, which provides paid art internships for teenagers.

The work will be stored in St. Louis until March and is available for local display.

“If there is an organization here in St. Louis that would like to exhibit the art, I'm more than welcome to hang them here, so that our city can enjoy what our artists of the city have created,” Tompkins said.

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

If you go:

St.ART festival

When: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1

Where: Fairground Park in north St. Louis, bordered by Grand Boulevard to the east, Natural Bridge Avenue on the south, Fair Street to the west, and Kossuth Street to the north.

Admission: Free

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.