It may have been a while since you’ve been far past your house and neighborhood. But in March, just as the coronavirus spread began shutting things down, a couple of new, brightly-colored murals popped up see in downtown Austin.
The murals, both keyed to this year’s centenary celebration of 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote, are a part of the Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation’s new Writing on The Walls program, an annual series of public art installations and events. And it’s a tale of three artists and two walls: internationally renowned street artist Shepard Fairey and Canadian artist Shandra Chevrier collaborated on the large-scale mural on the west side of the LINE Hotel downtown, while local artist Sadé Lawson was chosen to transform the wall under the Lamar Boulevard underpass.
Molly Alexander, executive director of the foundation, a newly-formed offshoot of the Downtown Austin Alliance, says the focus of the Writing on the Walls program is to turn more of Austin’s public spaces, sidewalks and parks, which make up half of the land downtown, from transient places to conversation topics.
“We spend so much time thinking about the transformation of the landscape in our city around tall buildings and density and I think sometimes we miss the opportunity to think about what the rest of our land looks like, to really make them special to people and meaningful,” Alexander says.
They quickly found that finding walls could be a complicated process, Alexander says, balancing the wants and needs of the city with that of property owners and downtown residents while keeping in mind the wall as a potential canvas. A conversation with Susan Lambe, who leads the city’s Art In Public Places Program, resulted in securing the Lamar wall for the project, where they wanted to help amplify a local artist due to the heavy-traffic of the spot.
“[Susan said] if you could do one thing, get me that wall on Lamar because we can’t seem to get it. I don’t think anybody really knew who owned it or had the license for it. It’s kind of complicated,” Alexander says.
In short, they were able to find out that while the Union Pacific Railroad owned the wall, Gables Residential had a license agreement with the city that was created during the construction of the adjacent apartment complex in order to keep the retaining wall in tact. The Gables company loved the idea of a mural and gave approval readily.
The new Lamar underpass mural greets Northbound drivers just before artist Laurie Frick’s “Data Tells A Story,” offering an atypical sense of permanence compared to the lackluster tagging that for so long defined the wall. The images depicts three women of color — the same figure in primary colors of red, blue and yellow surrounded by water lilies. Called “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay,” the mural is by Austin artist Sadé Lawson, who imagined a mural that touched on the overarching theme of the program — women’s empowerment — and a topic she incorporates frequently in her work, mental health.
“How can I illustrate somebody being empowered by all of their motions, not just the ones that are deemed okay or accepted?” Lawson says.
After being approached by Carlos DeLuca of Station 16 Gallery in Quebec, Canada, who was working in a curatorial role with Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation, Lawson came up with a plan in ten days. Her mural was painted in early March and took around a week to complete.
Lawson has been living and making art in Austin for seven years and says while she still deals with social anxiety, connecting with local artist communities such as the Cherry Cola Dog collective at their weekly Art Will Save Us events helped her find her niche.
“I was pushed by people asking ‘When are you going to come out and live paint?’ because live painting really was the thing to do,” Lawson says. “It was a really easy and cool way for the people, not just artists, but the community, to come in and see how you work, who you are, what your style is and see you as a person.”
She started participating in live art ‘battles’ with the Cherry Cola Dog folks and performed at one of street art group sprATX’s summer bashes, happening which helped her get used to painting quickly with an audience of curious strangers. Lawson says she was initially intimidated by the size of the Lamar wall having previously painted mostly small-scale murals, but she was confident in her abilities to paint and her support of the community.
“I think when you have something very important to say or a message that you feel is really close to your heart, being able to put them in a public space, that’s just fantastic,” Lawson says.
While painting the mural, Lawson reports that passersby in cars honked, waved, and some even stopped to see what was going on. Regular Lamar commuters, myself included, were happy to see some TLC on such a historically misused site.
“Feedback from strangers was very overwhelming, people I didn’t even know were thanking me for bringing some brightness to that area,” Lawson says. “It’s a wall that was heavily tagged up and just didn’t have consistent type of work. People would paint over the walls with a bunch of different colors, which is crazy, because when we were painting on the walls, the wall would give and, it’s kind of gross, but water would leak out of the wall. Paint was just packed on there.”
The whole mural was completed in a week with the help of an assistant hired by Station 16 Gallery and some skilled female brush painters Lawson brought on. Lawson also participated in some programs at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders.
The companion mural to Lawson’s is a twelve-story monument featuring Wonder Woman breaking the chains of inequality. It towers over Congress Avenue on the west side of the LINE Hotel. Co-created by famed street artists Shepard Fairey and Canadian pop painter Shandra Chevrier, it is now the largest mural in Austin.
Negotiations between the LINE Hotel and Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation lasted about a year, Alexander said, adding that the LINE had a desire to connect its Austin property with its hotel in Los Angeles, which also features a large-scale mural by Fairey.
Partnering Fairey with Chevrier, who had never met, took some intentionality on the part project organizers. Both Fairey and Chevrier work heavily with multimedia and portraits. Chevrier headed up the design and Fairey worked with her to bring it to life.
“Shepard was all in and recognized that we have to be careful with a white man taking center stage on something around women,” Alexander says. “But recognizing that if we’re to do this, we need to create an allyship because women and all voices have to be lifted up together.”
While the longevity of street arts can be unpredictable, Alexander hopes the two new murals will last between five to ten years. The Writing On The Walls program will continue in the future and the team is actively searching for new walls downtown. But, like the rest of the world, they are on hold until COVID-19 subsides.
Lawson continues to make things during quarantine, including paintings and stickers, and tries to stay in touch with her audience. While she gained some of the public limelight with this project, she hopes leverage that to keep producing work and engaging with the community.
“(My mural) is changing people’s daily routines,” she says “They have something different to look at and can see their space in a good way.”