Rescuing the plywood — and memorializing a movement

Two Black women are leading the effort to preserve the murals painted on storefront boards in the Twin Cities

George Floyd's name is painted on a board.
Volunteers sort through stacks of painted plywood put out to protect businesses during the civil unrest in the Twin Cities following the death of George Floyd, in a storage space in northeast Minneapolis on Dec. 12.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Among those who protested the police killing of George Floyd last spring were artists who expressed their grief and anger through painting.

They created hundreds of murals on the plywood that Twin Cities businesses used to protect their windows during the civil unrest. With winter on the way, two young Black women are leading a major effort to preserve the artwork.

At the far end of a sprawling industrial building in northeast Minneapolis, a small group of volunteers is busy sifting through large paintings. Most are on 4-foot-by-8-foot sheets of plywood. They’re stacked along the walls of two small rooms, and fill the space with the aroma of a lumberyard. Many include the name and image of George Floyd. Some feature poems. 

One, salvaged recently from an Uptown drugstore, gets right to the point. Over a swirl of color, white text spread across three panels reads: “Until the color of your skin is the target, you will never understand.” 

Two women in masks stand with their arms crossed in front of painted boards
Kenda Zellner-Smith (left) and Leesa Kelly inside of the northeast Minneapolis storage space where they are keeping painted plywood recovered from around the Twin Cities following the summer's civil unrest, on Dec. 12. The two women met while working to preserve the art and joined forces to form Save the Boards to Memorialize the Movement.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Kenda Zellner-Smith, 24, and Leesa Kelly, 28, are leading this effort. After months of diverting the art from dumpsters in a borrowed Jeep and pickup truck, the women and their helpers have gathered more than 600 panels. While they’re still collecting boards donated from businesses before winter descends in earnest, Kelly said their main task now is cataloging and conservation.

“We want to make sure that we get some of the more fragile and damaged boards so that they can be looked at by the Midwest Art Conservation Center,” Kelly said. “We also want to make sure that all the boards have their match and their family that they belong to, and that we’re able to sort and organize them by the location that we picked them up.”

The two women began gathering the pieces independently. Zellner-Smith said they met and joined forces only after each learned what the other was up to.

“One day, someone at work mentioned that they saw boards coming down, and my heart just dropped,” she said. “And that day on my lunch break, I made my Save the Boards Instagram account. I had no idea Leesa was out there somewhere doing the same thing.”

Kelly and Zellner-Smith say preserving the visual legacy of the racial justice and police accountability movement is key to keeping it alive.

“I think when we both first started this, it was about, I have to do something to make sure that the movement continues and keeps going and isn’t forgotten,” Kelly said. “And for me it was really about written and visual history. Art is, and has always been, a tool for storytelling throughout history.” 

“We’re in a really unique position right now to make sure that this conversation doesn’t get overlooked and pushed under the rug,” Zellner-Smith said. “And so it’s been really important for me and Leesa to be able to visually capture what went on here for weeks.”

They call their joint effort Save the Boards to Memorialize the Movement. For both women, it’s been a crash course not only in art curation, but also nonprofit management and fundraising. They’ve pulled together enough cash through foundation grants and GoFundMe donations to rent temporary storage space in the Northrup King Building. 

Painted boards lean against the wall in two rooms.
Painted plywood collected from businesses following the civil unrest surrounding the death of George Floyd sits in storage before being sorted and archived by Save the Boards to Memorialize the Movement in northeast Minneapolis on Dec. 12.
Evan Frost | MPR News

They’re also getting help from professionals including Melissa Amundsen with the Midwest Art Conservation Center, who said a few pieces need minor repairs but most are in great shape, and will last for years with the proper care and storage.  

“I think that’s in no small part due to how rapidly they were collected and not just discarded or tossed around or anything,” Amundsen said. “It’s really due to Leesa and Kenda and their foresight in collecting them and getting them under shelter as quick as possible.”

Kelly and Zellner-Smith say their long-term goal is to find a permanent site that not only provides continued physical protection, but also makes the artwork accessible to its creators and the community it represents. They also hope to stage an outdoor exhibition on the anniversary of Floyd’s killing next May.

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