Several murals that recently went up around town have a lot to say about our times, and our community.

Dubbed as the “new civil rights movement,” Black Lives Matter is receiving an international swell of support and attention after the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers. The issue is powerful and important enough to place pandemic news on the back burner, and protests and poignant public and social commentaries have brought to light questions about institutionalized injustices, and community rifts.

More than a hashtag or flash-in-the-pan movement, Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc., is an organization with more than 40 chapters across the U.S., UK, and Canada on a mission, according to organizers, “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” Co-founded by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer in 2013, the BLM movement gained unprecedented pop culture and media attention nearly four years ago when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernik took a knee during the National to peacefully draw attention to it.

Although Tucson may seem worlds away from news epicenters, many members of our community are quick to stand in support of Black Lives Matter. Consider artist Joe Pagac — born and raised in Tucson, he has literally left his mark on just about every sort of structure around town — from sides of buildings, to interiors of restaurants and homes, to electrical housing structures at resorts. Watching the news stories of the George Floyd murder and resultant protests, Pagac decided to set aside his policy to keep work and politics separate. “I felt passionately enough about what is going on to break those rules,” he observes. “Everyone has their skill sets. I went to a candlelight vigil. I could have made a sign, but I wanted to make a bigger impact.”

Murals. It had to be Black Lives Matter murals. He started inquiring around about venues and receiving offers for walls to use as a canvas. He reached out to activists and people of color in his friend circles to get input on how he could do this in the most sensitive and beneficial way. He came to the decision to use his contacts and resources to let Black artists get their creative voices heard via public murals. He employed his volunteers to assist however necessary. He found the canvases, acted as broker and go-between, and even helped trace and paint when invited. This is how the Tucson Black Lives Matter Mural Project was born.

Pagac put out a call to artists on Facebook, and not only connected with artists, but also received requests to support the project financially. He created a GoFundMe campaign to collect those donations. Some of the donated money goes to materials and the rest to the artists who initially volunteered to participate.

“It’s important to diversify the voices that are coming out. It’s not about [my] dominating the field, but about having the field grow,” Pagac explains. “It’s been a really fun and cool project. To see the community response is amazing. It helps me feel like I’m doing my part.” At press time, four muralists and one poet had participated in the project.

Pagac’s effort has not been without its naysayers. He did receive some backlash. Criticism he received directly included the sentiment that as a white male he was overstepping and gatekeeping walls. He takes these criticisms in stride and maintains his passion for doing what he can to support the artists in getting their messages and experience heard and seen. He believes that overall, it’s been a well-received, positive project.

To-Ree-Nee Wolf

When they graduated from Philadelphia College of Art, To-Ree-Nee Wolf’s classmates took secretarial classes to have something to fall back on. Wolf did not. She didn’t have a plan B, only a plan A — to make a living using her skills and her art. She is a visual and performance artist. She has done private commissions, as well as public art pieces around Tucson, including murals, mosaic obelisks, and the Marana town seal.

Wolf was born in Washington D.C., and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, a daughter of an African American mother and white stepfather in the late 1960s and 1970s. They had relatives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Wolf recalls hiding whichever parent wasn’t driving under a blanket on the floor of the car during road trips south. “We might not only be arrested, we might be killed,” she states.

Of the current state of affairs in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, Wolf says, “The things that are happening today have been happening forever. This is a potent, hard, challenging, alchemical moment in our world. To have an opportunity to be part of it is an honor for me.”

Pagac reached out to Wolf and she responded, eager to be a part of this moment. She agrees that representation matters. “It’s a testament to who Joe is and his character, as a white man. He realized he was not the one to do these murals. He wanted the artwork, thoughts and feelings to come from artists of color.”

Wolf completed two murals at the MSA annex — “American Dream” and “At the Altar of the Ancestors.” The former features the faces of four African American people against the background of the stars from the U.S. flag. Wolf explains, “The first person killed in the American Revolution was a Black man, Crispus Attucks. We have been involved in the formation of our country. It is on our backs that this country was built. This piece embodies that we are part of this country.”

She notes that with “At the Altar of the Ancestors,” she wants to say “remember my name,” to create understanding of the contributions of Black people to this country through history. “I want people to get used to seeing these faces, not as victims, but as members of this community. Not a melting pot but dynamic, bright, different. We are all the beauty of a diverse society, the strength of a diverse society. We have to honor and acknowledge our history,” she says.

Honored to be included in the Black Lives Matter Mural Project, Wolf mentioned the best part of her participation in it had been the conversations she’s had with passersby, “I appreciate the incredible kindness of the people who come by, and the heartfelt and insightful dialog that has happened.” She cited only one negative conversation, which was perhaps easily offset by a conversation with two ladies who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. By far, the positive interactions outweighed the negative.

“It’s important to me who I choose to be in the world,” Wolf expounds. “I choose to inhabit a world where I add to the light of things. My mother taught me to leave it better than I found it. My grandmother was the kind of woman who helped her neighbors. I come from a family that is proactive. There are a lot of things I can’t fix. But in my small sphere right here, this is what I can do. People have a visceral response to beauty. Our souls are uplifted and sustained.”

Riqqiyah Ross

Riqqiyah Ross (Kiya to friends) loves her job as a paralegal for Pima County and is a proud Tucson native. She was very artistically expressive as a child, but less so as she grew older. In 2018, three days before the grandmother who raised her passed away, she walked into a Ross store, picked up some paints and canvasses and began painting. In the days and months after her grandmother passed, Ross became more avid about this form of artistic expression.

Ross learned of Pagac’s call to artists from Thea Romano with whom she worked at Interfaith Group. She hesitantly messaged Joe in response. “I was initially afraid to. I’ve seen his work across Tucson and was slightly intimidated,” she says. From the moment they made contact, it was a whirlwind of activity. Ross created three rough drafts to submit to Pagac and the owners of the wall at the MSA (Mercado Annex) that would eventually display her work.

“I don’t know where this one came from. I was angry and kind of sad. It felt raw. I was pretty emotionally invested in this piece and it just flew out,” Ross recalls of the piece titled “Humanness,” which she created within days of speaking with Pagac. She sent this and the two other pieces to Pagac for review by the owners of the space. They were all most fond of “Humanness.” For the record, they aren’t the only ones who loved the original version. Ross’ uncle is angling to purchase the original.

Ross had never attempted a mural before, and Pagac’s expertise and equipment were a welcome assist. He projected the painting on the wall, which allowed her to hold the perspective accurately.

Ross intends to convey through this piece that, “We all, as people, have a common goal. We have this one commonality. To be loved, to feel loved, to be understood, and to be appreciated.” She hopes the mural resonates with everyone, not just people of color, and maybe specifically, the “all lives matter people.” “I don’t have the words to convey how much it would mean to me that people would be able to see the true message of the movement. See me. See us,” Ross summarizes.

Robert Gadsden

Certified Recovery Support Specialist, Men’s Warehouse associate (furloughed), avid salsa dancer, and budding (now published) poet Robert Gadsden is the only wordsmith yet involved with Pagac’s Black Lives Matter Mural Project. He’s an adapted Tucson son with 20 years here under his belt, though he was born in New York City and raised in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. After serving four years in the air force, Gadsden settled in Tucson and takes care of his “adopted mom,” Ms. Opal Weaver.

Gadsden has known Pagac for several years, having previously worked with Joe’s father. When Pagac posted on Facebook about the mural project, Gadsden called to inquire about volunteering. “I wanted to volunteer holding a paint can or cleaning up,” he explains. After he hung up the phone, he began thinking of penning a quote that was poetic in nature to capture the heart and soul of the BLM movement. “I wanted something simplistic, profound and with a universal message that would complement the murals created by the talented artists,” Gadsden states. The result, “Black is not the absence of our color, but the presence thereof.”

Gadsden asked Pagac if he could incorporate it into the project somehow and was humbled and surprised to receive his own panel for his words at the entrance of the MSA mural project. Pagac assisted Gadsden in finding a suitable font and in projecting it on the wall for scale. They both painted the brief but powerful lines on a temporary wall at the MSA. Of the statement, Gadsden says, “You can insert any person of color in place of the word Black and the double entendre is still relevant. This is what gives it its universality.”

Having lived in major metro areas, Gadsden feels Tucson has a strong culture of acceptance, support and diversity. He says he has experienced some racism here, but very little. “I see a constant change. It’s evolving. Tucson is becoming more progressive, willing to have the difficult discussions. We just need to keep doing what we are doing and moving at the pace we are, which is much faster than it used to be.”

Adia Jamille

Adia Jamille is a doula and professional artist born in Boise, Idaho, and raised in the Bay Area and Wichita, Kansas. She and her husband moved from Utah to Arizona to be near his family and enjoy the benefits of a lower cost of living as compared to California. They’ve been in Tucson off and on for 12 years, having also lived in Tempe and Casa Grande.

The bread and butter of Jamille’s artistic endeavors is custom designed textiles for the home, including clothing, baby items, and recently, face masks (AdiaJamille.com). She had been wanting to create a mural and the stars aligned. A friend tagged Jamille in Pagac’s post calling for artists of color. She called him and the project was quickly set in motion. “From start to finish, creating this piece didn’t even take a week,” she comments. “I like to take a little bit longer, but it was good. I wanted to make sure I was doing something I would like at the end.”

She submitted one piece for review and it was well appreciated and approved for a wall at the MSA. Pagac supplied the paint and traced the piece on the wall. He had found volunteers to assist with the full development of the mural, but being Jamille’s first, she chose instead to include her husband and son in the painting process. “My husband did the details of lining the letters and images. He’s really good at that. My son did the big spaces of black. I had the shapes planned out, but when I work, I just do it as I go. I didn’t know ahead what was being colored how. I just wanted to make sure it would flow.”

Her mural, “Black Lives Matter When They Are Alive,” focuses on the stories of names torn from recent headlines. “These were whole people with families, jobs, and hobbies — more than just victims of police violence,” she recounts.

Jamille is grateful to Pagac for creating the opportunity for this project and the donated space to accommodate it. She is disappointed that the walls are temporary and feels that permanent space for these murals is the only thing that would make the project better. “What happens when these come down?” she asks. Of Tucson, Jamille says, “I feel safe here. My son is thriving. We’ve found community here. Tucson does a lot right, but it can do better.”

Robbie Lee Harris

An EMT by trade, Robbie Lee Harris is a Tucson transplant from Alaska, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Harris learned to draw at seven years of age and has always been artistic. He has commissions for pieces, sold several here and there, and even contributed a few smaller murals for a school and church. He doesn’t have a gallery, but he does have an artistic manager — his 11-year old daughter. And she’s a brutally honest critic. Everything that goes out must be approved by her. Harris’ Black Lives Matter mural was no exception.

Harris’ brother saw Pagac’s call to artists and urged him to participate. The call was perfectly timed. Harris was emotionally torn up about what was going on and wondering how he could help. He reached out to Pagac, and a day later he set to work on a mural design. The first design he came up with received a cool review from his manager, which matched his own feelings for it. But by the middle of that night, the idea for the “Young Lady with the Dandelion” came to him. He says, “The words in the back just fell into place. The idea of ‘what is she wishing for’ behind her made a lot of sense. My art manager took one look and said, ‘that’s it.’” Pagac had a similar reaction, and so it was slated for the wall outside the Rialto Theatre.

The experience was surreal for Harris. “I’ve not done a mural of this size. Being on the Rialto was like blow after blow after blow! When [Pagac] showed me that it was going up next to Prince, I was like, ‘wow!’”

Harris sought to design something simple but powerful. Something that wouldn’t smack you in the face, but would settle in and give pause while passing it. Harris reported that seeing people walking or driving by while he and Pagac were painting it was an amazing experience. “People would see it and give a subtle nod of approval. That was the coolest.” The nods were far from the most interesting part of the evening. News reporters were out for interviews and photographs. And while Pagac and Harris worked away, a man rolled up on his skateboard, whipped out a violin and played beautifully for two hours!

Harris feels the messaging of the piece is pretty clear in today’s world, but his dream is that the clarity will fade away eventually. He says, “My wish is that we as a people can get to a point where a mural like mine doesn’t make sense. Today, anybody can look at it and think, ‘Oh, a young lady is wishing for justice, peace, love.’ I want somebody to be able to look at it and wonder why people would have to wish for that. It shouldn’t make sense. We have a tortured time period where this piece makes perfect sense. But it’s sad — that a young person has to wish for that at all.”

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