A movement memorialized: Plywood art honoring George Floyd goes on display

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 Dec. 12, 2020. An exhibit of some of those paintings goes on display Saturday in Minneapolis.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

The murder of George Floyd last year sparked an eruption of grief and anger that many expressed through visual art. As Twin Cities businesses put up plywood to protect their windows from rioters, people with paint brushes and spray cans followed behind. They created hundreds of murals honoring Floyd and demanding an end to systemic racism.

An exhibit of some of those paintings goes on display Saturday in Minneapolis to commemorate the anniversary of Floyd’s death.

As businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul began uncovering their windows last summer, Kenda Zellner-Smith jumped into action. The 24-year-old rounded up volunteers and started collecting 4-by-8 sheets of plywood.

“We had a huge outpouring of support and community and people outside the community come and rally for this cause.”

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Many of the boards featured portraits of Floyd. Poems, the names of other Black people killed by police and demands for justice were on other wood pieces.

Zellner-Smith would soon learn that 28-year-old Leesa Kelly was doing the same thing, and they joined forces. They raised money for storage space, and got help from professional conservators and the Minnesota African American Heritage Museum and Gallery. By December, the women had gathered up around 600 panels. Today, the collection has grown to more than 900.

A woman smiles for a photo.
Kenda Zellner-Smith with Save the Boards stands near Phelps Field Park in Minneapolis on Tuesday. Zellner-Smith, Leesa Kelly and other organizers prepared an exhibit of murals painted on plywood that protected businesses during the unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Ahead of the anniversary of Floyd’s murder, they’re putting a selection of the artwork on display at Phelps Field Park at 39th Street and Chicago Avenue, a block south of George Floyd Square. The exhibition includes more than 70 works painted over 200 sheets of plywood.

“We really wanted to make sure we got a great range of art. We have colorful pieces, we have pieces that are just black and white, we have pieces that say one message on them, we have pieces that have a million,” Zellner-Smith said.

Organizers didn’t want to put anything on display without the creators’ approval. Many of the pieces are unsigned, so Zellner-Smith says her team spent time tracking down artists. She said each piece captures its moment of creation, particularly the boards that feature simple messages such as, “don’t let them change the narrative.”

“Because those were made amidst the unrest. Those were made while the precinct was burning. Those were being made while Target was being taken over. And so those are the pieces that express true emotion on the experience of what was going on,” Zellner-Smith said. “The colorful pieces that came months later, weeks later, I value those, I love those. But those were created not necessarily by the people who were most impacted by what happened.”

The exhibition includes live painting of new work by some of the people who made plywood art last summer.

Melodee Strong led the creation of a community-painted mural at the former Kmart building on Lake Street, and believes saving and displaying this artwork is key to preserving its anti-racist message for future generations.

“Hopefully this will remind people that history cannot continue to repeat itself. We cannot continue to do and see and be what we’ve been for the last 500 years,” Strong said.

Melodee Strong creates art
Melodee Strong helped create a mural at the former Kmart on Lake Street in Minneapolis, one of the artworks created after the killing of George Floyd.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

The middle school art teacher and children’s books illustrator is thinking about what to include in her live painting this weekend. So is Sean Garrison, another Minneapolis artist taking part.

“I’m not exactly certain what that’s going to look like. I know what it’s going to feel like. I want it to be hopeful, but I still want people to just feel this thing that urges them to do something the next day,” Garrison said.

Man looks at artwork
Minneapolis artist Sean Garrison plans to take part in memorial for George Floyd.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

As they walk through the exhibit of plywood paintings, Kenda Zellner-Smith says she wants visitors to reflect on the last year since Floyd’s murder, think about what’s changed and how much still needs to change.

She said efforts to preserve the visual legacy of this moment in history will continue. Long-term plans include finding a permanent space to protect the art and make it accessible to the community that created it.

The exhibit opens Saturday at Phelps Field Park and runs through Sunday.