We all know the hotbed that has been St.Louis over the last two years. It is one of several racial fault lines that are under stress in our country today. The undercurrent is out of sight as things have calmed, but that is not to say there still wasn't a strange tension. My stay in St.Louis was greatly aided my friends and fellow artists Noah & Allison & Bryce. These wonderful people hosted me and arranged great opportunities to display the flag getting a diversity of interaction. My sincerest thanks for all your efforts and hospitality!
My first stop was FloValley Community College where the Dean of Arts & Sciences quickly arranged I be put in the center of campus where students couldn't miss out interacting. FloValley is on the north side of St.Louis and the majority of students are African-American. In speaking with the Dean, she was very appreciative that this project was available to her students, acknowledging the challenge to thinking and critically responding is beneficial to young minds. Over the next 6 hours, Noah and I gathered the perspective of these young people which had several impressive observations about our country. There much adulation for Black Lives Matter, but even more attention was given to Love being the path. Early on there was a sly addition to flag, "I sold my virginity for $100", I believe it to be a genuine expression. If this is the answer to my inquiry "How do you feel about America?" then, yes, we all need to pay more attention to black lives and stop with the bullshit push back. Stop with demanding a comparison. Stop insisting that you know because you don't know what people are facing. It has become kind of a litmus test when people see BLM on the flag and how they react because there is only one answer. YES. BLACK LIVES MATTER because we as a society have done everything we can to maintain the divide. Why is it so difficult for people to have a heart & a brain? What's the problem with being compassionate? What are you afraid of America?
The next day promised a far different demographic as the flag was posted up in "The Loop" in the center of St.Louis adjacent to Washington University. I had the pleasure of meeting Jodie Lloyd who works for the city and arranged for me to post up in a prime parking lot. She explained to me at length about the history of St.Louis, its 90 different municipalities, and how difficult is has become to change anything. I got the impression that many of the municipalities use fines and fees upon people to fund their coffers. She explained that you could get 3 different vehicle citations in the span of a mile and there's nothing you can do about it. Everybody wants their piece and it has intentionally or otherwise become a method of trapping the poor in poverty. Can you imagine hearing "You have a taillight out" 3 times in one trip home? I do not think this is an exaggeration and most likely a reality for many people of color in the St.Louis area. What's fair about that? When confronted, the police point to the municipality cash flow as a means of justification, that they're simply doing their job, keeping the poor, poor. We can do better and Jodie Lloyd is out there doing it for us. Thank you for your service!
In a distinct contrast to the students at FloValley, two design classes from Washington University took a moment to gather inspiration before getting up on the flag. I asked if they needed a shot of bourbon? I asked if they had ever been to jail? I asked of they were alive? My sarcasm was blithely acknowledged. Unlike their counterparts at the community college, these students had very little to say about America. And why would they? The group was made up of top-notch students from all over the United States, attending a prestigious university at their parents expense. Perhaps they were paralyzed by the process of coming up with something profound when they have no experience to draw upon. They feel no responsibility to be aware of what's going on in the world. (Full disclosure: I didn't give much thought to anything except myself when I was 20, too) But the contrast can't be more distinct, one group of students work two jobs, take classes, live with the daily threat of violence, and still pushes themselves to be something more, to get better opportunities. The other group starts at the top, knowing very little about life outside that shinning city on the hill. This became very apparent when a WashU student sprayed "Yezee 2020" in big letters on the front of the flag. (Yezee 2020 is Kanye West's bid for the Presidency) I asked her if she knew what she was doing, if she understood the power of her words, the power of art, and her responsibility as an artist? She admitted she was being glib, and just having fun, but I couldn't let her off the hook. (Sorry kid, full frontal real life coming at you) I did my best to explain the power artists have when they work with charged icons, citing Andre Serrano, Dread Scott, and Carolee Schneemann. I charged these students to take their work and their words seriously, emploring them to be aware of their responsibility for their actions as humans and creative forces. Blank stares. Good luck, kids- life isn't fair, hopefully you're getting a chance to find out.
My final day in St.Louis was at the City Museum. An amazing place where many talented sculptors work, it is a wonderland and a treasure to the community. Noah worked at the City and when arrangements were made to host the flag, they put me right out front with hundreds of people walking by. At this point, the flag is as much something to see as it is to write on, so I was perfectly fine letting the flag ride as Noah and I toured the museum. Lots of people made additional contributions while we were there, but none so interesting until the end. I had a conversation with the two young men pictured above left. These guys are what America is afraid of. Young, desperate, with limited tutelage beyond the streets. As we talked, another couple was watching, listening, while Noah recruited their participation. These boys asked me if I knew what it was like to live with daily violence. "Does the liquor store in the white neighborhood get shot up every night? You don't know what it like, you don't know." I could only keep his eye contact and encourage him to keep taking, keep letting it out. He continued, "You see my hair? I am a king! This is what kings wear in Africa." I replied, "Well ya gotta respect a king, right?" He grabbed my hand in solidarity, both knowing that's all he wanted, respect. At that moment, his friend finished his tag and started shouting "Fuck Trump" which completely scared the white couple Noah was talking to. The gentleman was about to write when the shouting started, but then quickly walked away, leaving his wife scowling at the boys. I asked if she wanted to share how she felt about America. Surprisingly, she grabbed a pen, crossed out the word "FUCK" and wrote "VOTE" next to "TRUMP". As I went to thank her, she threw the marker at me in disgust and quickly disappeared to her waiting husband.