Town Talk Features

PaintedBlack STL: A Creative Light

It’s an understatement to say 2020 has been a difficult year. Along with a global pandemic, several tragic events have demonstrated how much systematic injustice remains in the United States. However, despite the troubling times, we have also seen some of the best parts of our community rise to the occasion. One example is PaintedBlack STL. Created by Javyn Solomon and Tyson Baker, the initiative works with local Black artists to create public-facing works and inspire St. Louis to come together.

The unifying power of art in all forms is evidenced throughout history. A program focused on creating was a perfect fit for these uncertain and unsettling times, says Solomon. “Art and design are truly powerful forces in whatever direction you point them,” he explains. “In turbulent times, they offer a capacity to connect. That’s why we see powerful iconography in periods of unrest. The fist, the peace sign—they’re examples of design that become symbolic of a moment.”

Solomon says the seeds for the idea that would become PaintedBlack STL were initially planted in conversations he had with Baker about the importance of compensating artists for their work. “There’s a preconceived notion that art and design should be cheap or free,” he explains. “But artists need to be properly financially backed.” After protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody, Solomon and Baker discussed collecting donations for artists to paint damaged storefronts in solidarity with local businesses. Solomon himself acted as guinea pig for the project, painting a mural at Bella’s Frozen Yogurt downtown.

With its black lines and purple shapes, Solomon’s work showcased the initiative’s mission. At its center: A black fist inside a white heart over the letters “STL BLM.” “We wanted to make a grim situation a little brighter while putting our money where our mouths were in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement,” he explains. “Our goal was to promote a voice that was underrepresented and under-supported: Black artists in St. Louis.” 

The sincerity of PaintedBlack STL’s efforts made it an immediate success. Businesses reached our for murals and donations of money and supplies started coming in. The program was able to coordinate with artists to get them paying work while bringing beauty and joy to the community. “All Tyson and I did was connect people and bring in artists,” Solomon says, adding that the organization works as a collective, and all creators retain the rights to their work. “The rest grew organically. Everything we do is for the sake of creativity. Without using turbulent language or being verbal or physical, we want to foster genuine progress while creating
unique experiences.”

A shining example of the synergy the initiative creates between Black artists and the rest of the city is its partnership with St. Louis Shakespeare Festival. As part of the A Late Summer Night’s Stroll walking experience in Forest Park, the organization commissioned 14 artists through PaintedBlack STL to create decorative arches. Artists of all ages and experience levels participated. “We worked with the Shakespeare Festival to get Black artists a space in Forest Park, and everyone was paid,” Solomon says. “We would love to expand by working with more organizations to help curate different experiences featuring Black creatives.”

PaintedBlack STL is planning its next projects, according to Solomon. The collective is still working to create murals and connect with more artists. It’s also looking for other ways to create public-facing works and exploring other artistic organizations to collaborate with. “We aren’t working in isolation,” he notes. “Whenever we have an idea, there is undoubtedly someone down the street or across the city doing the same thing. We don’t want to pull double duty when we could be working together the whole time. We’re very open to collaboration. We’ve had schools, neighborhoods and businesses reach out.”

While PaintedBlack STL was created to support Black artists, Solomon hopes the collective will reach a point where it can open up to work with creators of various backgrounds. One thing he is most proud of is how the initiative has been able to bring together such different artists and designers in a short period of time. “So many unique artists are being seen and shown on a large scale, and they’re all from St. Louis or have been rooted here for some time,” he notes. “We have so much talent in this city, even though we often think of New York or Los Angeles as being home to great artists. We need to look inward and create equitable platforms. In a sense, PaintedBlack STL has proven we can do it.”

Photos courtesy of PaintedBlack STL