Race & Art Matters: Three Artists’ Reactions to the Death of Trayvon Martin

After George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case, I, Iike many, felt a sense of helplessness and dismay.  On the one hand, the ruling was not altogether surprising, but on the other, the very fact that the innocent verdict is even remotely un-shocking has stirred feelings of further disillusionment, sadness, anger, and disappointment. - Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

Byron Bradley | “Trayvon," digital, 5400 x 2700 pixels, 7/14/2013, Courtesy of the artist.

In the wake of this case, however, a much more complex dialogue about race has arisen in both public and social media – a dialogue that is so necessary to have in order to move past an often popular, constricting, dangerous, and dated belief in a color-blind society. President Obama also surprised the press by adding to this conversation in what the New York Times called his “most extensive comments on race since 2008, and his most extensive as president.”

Because art helps me to process things, I looked to a number of artists who were addressing and contemplating this case and/or verdict in one similar way: through portraiture. I asked them a series of questions to see where their motivations and inspirations were shared or divergent.  I hope that this is just one way of continuing and adding to a growing conversation.

Michael D’Antuono

Michael D’Antuono | "A Tale Of Two Hoodies," 30" x 40,” oil on canvas, 2013, Courtesy of the artist.

Ellen Caldwell: What about the Trayvon Martin case moved you to pick up your brush or pencil and speak? 

Michael D’Antuono: The inspiration for my painting  "A Tale Of Two Hoodies" came less from George Zimmerman than the police who were willing to sweep the whole incident under the rug. As bad as the act of profiling by one overzealous racist individual was, it seemed less horrifying than the idea that a whole police department could be so racist as to not hold or even take the gun away from someone who murdered an unarmed teenager.

EC: How does (or does) this style differ from your usual mode?

MD: The style of my painting '"A Tale Of Two Hoodies" is basically the same as all of my work. I may have tried to 'roughen up' the flags in the background a bit to give them the torn and tattered look, but for me an artist's style is just something that comes naturally. To try and deviate from that is like trying to fake an accent.

EC: What has the response been to your work?

MD:  All of my art is meant to challenge people to think more deeply about serious issues and perhaps even inspire them to improve sociopolitical conditions. I design my art and website Art and Response to create public discourse. The response is every bit as important and as the art as it gives anyone an opportunity to express themselves and be exposed to other points of view. As such, it reflects the diverse attitudes of real people and often enlightens me. That is particularly true in the case of 'A Tale Of Two Hoodies."

I was greatly disillusioned by the degree of racism that still exists in this country until I read many of the comments on my site, my Facebook page, and other sites around the Internet. So it must be understood that my art is not so much meant to give all the answers as it is a starting point for a national and often international conversation on important issues from which I also learn.

Michael D’Antuono | "Brought To You By The NRA," 30" x 40,” oil on canvas, Courtesy of the artist.

BYRON BRADLEY

EC: What about the Trayvon Martin case moved you to pick up your brush or pencil and speak? 

Byron Bradley: I was surprisingly moved by the verdict...I thought I was ready for it. But it really hits home for me as a black man who is constantly aware of and negotiating my body language and physical presence to anticipate and mitigate this exact sort of cultural and racial misunderstanding. It could have been me...Or my brother, or my younger cousin.  Better to try and establish a dialogue through art, to do my part to make sure that this tragic loss of life need not be repeated.

Byron Bradley | “Outkast,” mixed media, 1200 x 700 pixels, 5/3/2012, Courtesy of the artist.

EC: How does (or does) this style differ from your usual mode?

BB: My artifacts typically are very precise and more calculating, with regards to the flow of the line work. This one I did more loosely and with more emotionally charged gestures, so that there is a chaotic element that I usually work very carefully to avoid. You can see the artist's hand, more so in this piece than in any other of my artifacts.  It seemed appropriate to let loose a bit for this piece in particular.

Also, I have done all my other artifacts with mechanical pencil and ink...This is the first one I did digitally using a Wacom pen and tablet with Photoshop. I freestyled this one directly after hearing the verdict.

Dáreece Jordan Walker

EC: What about the Trayvon Martin case moved you to pick up your brush or pencil and speak? 

Dáreece Walker: I made this image in May of 2012 because when I heard that an unarmed young African American boy was shot by neighborhood watch, it made me realize that I can die any day because my black skin combined with confidence equals danger to white society. 

EC: How does (or does) this style differ from your usual mode?

DJW: This work is fairly representative of my usual style of art. I create high context, high quality art on low quality materials like cardboard and found wood. 

Dáreece Jordan Walker | "Saint Sebastian the Slave," Acrylic paint and wood stain on cardboard, paper and wood pallet, 2013, Courtesy of the artist.

EC: You brought in Emmett Till to your work as well -- could you speak to this and describe the similarities in cases? 

DJW: When I chose to create an image of Trayvon Martin with Emmett Till, it was for several reasons. Both boys were killed shortly after visiting a corner store in the south, both boys were unarmed, and most importantly, the murders are 56 years apart but the mentality that killed Emmett Till still lingers widely in contemporary American society.

Dáreece Jordan Walker | "Never Forget Emmett Till, Always Remeber Trayvon Martin,” charcoal on corrugated cardboard, 2012, Courtesy of the artist.

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Michael D’Antuono is an American, New York-based contemporary artist whose provocative paintings focus primarily on socio-political issues. He is best known for his controversial portrait of U.S. President Barack Obama crucified in front of the Presidential seal entitled "The Truth," which twice became a U.S. and international news story.

Byron Bradley was a classically trained artist before he graduated from UCLA School of Fine Arts.  He has been drawing and painting in various mediums (watercolor, oil, pastel, graphite, acrylic, and recently digital) professionally as a freelance illustrator, storyboard artist, and painter since the age of 15.  You can see more of his work on his website, tumblr, instagram (@calibyrnz  and @byrnz312), and facebook (Byron Bradley and Calibyrnz Artifacts).

Dáreece Walker uses cardboard as his canvas to help convey ideas and subject matter he believes have been overlooked or disregarded. “My work attempts to communicate the misunderstandings and lack of information regarding the black American experience,” Walker says. “I identify as an African-American, and those two words have a lot of information tied to them…Depending on who hears them, they have their own ideas about that. There are preconceptions based on my appearance, and I’m exploring the origins of those preconceptions.” Walker recently won the RAW: Natural Born Artists award. His first solo show, “Torn Existence,” debuted last year at the UCCS Heller Center, and his piece “March With King,” a charcoal-drawn version of Martin Luther King Jr., is in the permanent collection of UCCS. Walker’s second solo show, “Black Testament,” opened in April at the Business of Art Center.

(Bio by Jennifer Mulson in Creating Powerful Art with Help of History for the Colorado Springs Gazette.)

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor. 

For more reactions to the Trayvon Martin ruling, please see:

·       Transcript: Obama Speaks of Verdict Through the Prism of African-American Experience

·       Questlove: Trayvon Martin and I ain't shit, New York Magazine

·       The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin, New York Times

·       Howard University students' video PSA: Do I look suspicious?

·       George Zimmerman, Not Guilty: Blood on the Leaves, New Yorker

·       25 Works of Art Paying Tribute to Trayvon Martin, Buzzfeed

·       How the System Worked: The US vs. Trayvon Martin, Counterpunch

·       What Killed Trayvon Martin?, Pittsburgh Post Gazette