Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Damon Davis has long created dynamic works that have helped his divided hometown of St. Louis communicate. In the wake of the Michael Brown case, he's been called to make art that is itself a form of protest.
A week before a grand jury failed to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown, stores along West Florissant Avenue boarded up their windows, anticipating the worst.
St. Louis artist Damon Davis saw the plywood-covered storefronts as an opportunity to say something more. "Hands have been the biggest symbol from this story," says Davis. So he photographed the hands of individuals behind Ferguson's peaceful protests since Brown was killed last August, then wheat-pasting the images on buildings along West Florissant Avenue.
"I shot the pictures, and put them up before the media showed up," says Davis. Those same wheatpastes could be seen as cameras zoomed in on vandalized or burning buildings last Monday, hours after the grand jury's decision was announced. "I wanted the images to show solidarity, to show there's a lot of people from a lot of races affected by this."
"I feel sorry for the businesses," says Davis, "but people are very angry. So am I. It's hard to be rational because nothing about this story has been rational."
Davis, born and raised in St. Louis, is immersed in the region's arts scene. The 29-year old runs a record label, makes music videos, and works on paintings and sculptures that contemplate social inequalities in the U.S. and in his own city.
The death of Michael Brown has brought out the most serious side of his art.
Shortly after the shooting and ensuing protests in August, Davis came up with a sculptural project called "Hands Up." Working with fellow local artist, Basil Kincaid, Davis planted plywood hands into the ground at various locations around St. Louis. The original idea was to plant mannequins, but that proved to be too expensive. Still, the sight of black-painted hands emerging from the ground along South Florissant makes a powerful statement.
In October, Davis and another local artist, Marcis Curtis, were approached by De Nichols of Ferguson Beyond Today, an organization that's been helping coordinate responses to Brown's death. Davis and Curtis came up with the idea of a mirrored casket to be carried during demonstrations.
Debuting on a Friday in mid-October, the casket was brought out for a series of marches down West Florissant to the Ferguson Police Department headquarters. Set down in front of police lines, the full-sized casket added a striking visual to the demonstrations. "The reflection says to the police looking at it, 'Look at what you've done to us,'" says Curtis. "I'd like to think it made an impact."
The impact of Davis' work 10 miles away from Ferguson is similarly powerful. Racial and economic inequality have long plagued the artist's hometown of St. Louis, best exemplified along Delmar Boulevard where the contrast is so stark, it's known as the "Delmar Divide." As reported in the Washington Post last summer, a Washington University and Saint Louis University study determined that homes on the south side of the boulevard are worth $310,000 on average while on the north side, home values drop to an average of $78,000.
Inspired by the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Davis built his own version for St. Louis last spring. The 4-foot-by-7-foot wooden structure now stands at the intersection of Walton and Delmar. There, people on one side can leave letters for people on the other side to read. It will be torn down next year by someone selected from the community, a gesture meant to symbolize the destruction of the boulevard's role as a social barrier.
Last September, Davis came by the wall to read some of the letters for the first time before photographing and posting them on the project's Tumblr. Many are about Michael Brown; some are about gentrification.
From the "Wailing Wall" to the wheatpastes on West Florissant, Davis's art looks at the ugly realities of America so starkly realized in his own region, yet it always manages to stay constructive. Says his collaborator Curtis, "he wants his art to be about love and peace and a positive expression of outrage."