Utahns create community art projects to capture protests against racial injustice

(Photo courtesy of Michelle Volz) People add their painted handprints to "The Handprint Pledge," a collaborative community art project, on June 5 at Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City.

When Sebastian Stewart-Johnson started Unified Allies 4 Change with his brothers and a friend less than two weeks ago, they knew their mission: to amplify the voices of marginalized people and bring their community together.

So, when the four men heard about “The Handprint Pledge,” a collaborative community art project started by Lehi artist Michelle Volz, they wanted in.

“We absolutely fell in love with the idea,” said Stewart-Johnson, 20, who lives in Provo.

Last week, Volz, 38, bought two canvases and painted them black. She painted her hand “a creamy flesh color” that matched her skin tone and pressed it on the canvas. Then, she brought the pieces to Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City a week ago and invited protesters and anyone else who was interested to add their handprints.

Volz painted their palms in different shades of browns, tans and creams. Protesters left the paint on their hands as they continued marching last Friday. Some kids added their handprints, too, she said.

Since then, Volz has added handprints from people who live in her community. And Thursday evening, she planned to set up at Joaquin Park in Provo with Unified Allies 4 Change so even more people could contribute and pledge to not be silent in their support of black lives.

People place their hands on a Bible or hold their hands in the air when they make a pledge or swear an oath, Volz said. These painted handprints are a “visual and tactile representation” of people pledging “to do better and to listen and to learn and to stand up” for racial equality, she said.

Thousands of people have showed up to protests in Utah and across in the country in the weeks since the the death of George Floyd, a black man who died last month after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Stewart-Johnson attended one of these protests on May 30 in Provo. That’s where he met Izzie Herring.

Two days later, Herring, 24, Stewart-Johnson and two of his older brothers, Alex Stewart-Johnson, 21, and Cole Stewart-Johnson, 24, formed Unified Allies 4 Change, with help from Caitlin Stewart-Johnson, Cole’s wife. More than 1,000 people attended a vigil they organized last Friday in memory of those affected by police brutality outside the Provo Police Department.

“Honestly, it means the world to me, personally,” Sebastian Stewart-Johnson said, to see all the people of different ages, races and genders who’ve come together and attended vigils, protested, created art and spoke out against injustices and racial inequality.

“Every day, I feel that somebody else is learning. Somebody else is wanting to make a change. It’s something beautiful,” he said.

(Photo courtesy of Lisi Merkley) From left to right, Cole Stewart-Johnson, Izzie Herring, Sebastian Stewart-Johnson and Alex Stewart-Johnson formed Unified Allies 4 Change to help bring their community together during recent protests.

Volz had been feeling helpless about how she could contribute to the growing movements. “What can I do as a white woman? I’m just a suburban mom,” she said she thought. The idea to use her art and create “The Handprint Pledge” came to her last week as she lay sleepless in bed.

Volz put one of the canvases covered in handprints up for auction on her Instagram page. Bidding closes on Friday at midnight. She started the bidding at $300, and as of Thursday afternoon she was up to $450. All the proceeds will be donated to the NAACP, she said.

Volz wants to give the other canvas to the state of Utah. She hasn’t figured out how to do that yet, but she said she hopes it will be displayed for local leaders to see and think about the conversations happening right now.

“Eventually, protests will fade. This will be a visual reminder,” Volz said.

Protesters have created vivid imagery on signs and other art to carry in recent marches; Jacob Siolo and a friend last week painted a large canvas with an image of Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, who was shot and killed by Salt Lake City police on May 23. He wanted people to see Palacios-Carbajal’s face, he said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic transformed Utahns’ lives this spring, groups such as the state Division of History, the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library and the Springville Museum of Art asked the state’s residents to help document this moment in history with their stories, photos and art. But with state officials still responding to the health crisis, they are just in the earliest stage of planning such an outreach for this summer’s marches and the changes they are driving.

Another reminder can be found 230 S. 400 West. One of Salt Lake City’s landmark street murals, “SLC Pepper,” now bears the graffiti words “Black Lives Matter” and a portrait of Floyd.

The mural’s original artist, Jann Haworth, welcomed the addition.

“I would like to thank whoever did it,” said Haworth, who created the “SLC Pepper” mural back in 2004.

The mural was inspired by Haworth’s work, with her ex-husband Sir Peter Blake, creating the iconic album cover for The Beatles’ 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

“It is a capstone for the original purpose, which is to call ‘Sgt. Pepper’ into question because of its failure to pay due respect to women and people of color,” Haworth told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Our intention for ‘SLC Pepper’ was to make gender a 50-50 balance and to embrace ethnic diversity and the contributions that have been made by people of all races and religions all over the world.”

“SLC Pepper” was created with such famous faces as author Toni Morrison, singer Bjork, rock star Jimi Hendrix, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, labor icon Cesar Chavez and cartoon mom Marge Simpson.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) George Floyd and Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal, two men killed by police, are displayed in a mural in Salt Lake City at 800 South 300 West on Thursday, June 11, 2020.

It’s not the only example of street art to come from the current movement. Portraits of Floyd and Palacios-Carbajal, who was shot and killed by Salt Lake City police on May 23, have gone up along 800 South in Salt Lake City.

The building, at the corner of 800 South and 300 West, is the fleet building where Salt Lake City stores official vehicles — including the Mobile Command Center used by city police and fire departments.

The anonymous artists knew what was inside the building when they chose that wall, said Derek Dyer, executive director of the Utah Arts Alliance and a booster of Salt Lake City’s street-art scene.

“They just said that they want to stay anonymous and not distract from the work. It doesn’t have to have a message or explanation, which is the point. The art speaks volumes already,” Dyer said.

The murals have become makeshift shrines, with people bringing flowers and signs to lean against the wall.

And Better Days 2020, a nonprofit that promotes the state’s suffrage history, is looking for artists to design and create a temporary interactive art installation that “honors Utahns’ work for civil and human rights and encourages voting and civic engagement.”

2020 marks the 150th anniversary of Utah women first getting the right to vote, the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

“This summer is a unique opportunity for Utahns to engage with the long and unfinished history of suffrage work, learn about women and people of color who fought for equal access to the ballot, and resolve to become more engaged participants in our own communities,” according to the organization.

The deadline to submit a design is Friday. The two artists selected to create the public art installation will each be paid $1,750. More details can be found at utahwomenshistory.org/2020/05/call-for-artists.