The power of public art

An artistic movement springs forth in Pittsburgh and in cities across the country

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By Kimberly Palmiero

A man whose horrific death inspired a nationwide movement is now memorialized through spontaneous works of public art in bridges, streets, and buildings.

These murals are often impromptu tributes for George Floyd and testimonies for hoped-for change, across the region — in Cincinnati, Birmingham, Memphis, in Flint, Mich., in North Carolina, and in Pittsburgh, among other areas. Floyd died on Memorial Day when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck.

In Pittsburgh, Conor Clarke, 29, was moved to gather friends and coworkers to paint along the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh. They painted BLACK LIVES MATTER in a day and a few days later were joined by artist Camerin “Camo” Nesbit, 27, with other artists.

“(This movement) is just something I’ve always felt very strongly about and never really done much about and….now is not the time to be quiet, it’s time to send a message,” said Clarke, a house painter who moved to Pittsburgh about seven years ago from Philadelphia. 

House painter Conor Clarke listens to muralist Camerin “Camo” Nesbit (left) near the Black Lives Matter mural along the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photograph by Martha Rial)

Clarke and Nesbit worked on the piece together, with more than two dozen other artists on June 10. Nesbit has created 116 murals, traveling across the country and producing work on commission. He also paints on canvas, on sneakers, and he produces prints.

“I wanted to see how we would make this moment a little bigger,” said Nesbit, founder of Camo Customz. “We want to build community with it….if we are going to stand together the intention has to be clear and good and the work has to be intentional.”

Camerin “Camo” Nesbit gives tips on working with aerosol to fellow muralist Janel Young as they add to a Black Lives Matter mural along the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh. (Photograph by Martha Rial)

Clarke initially pulled together some people he knew — house painters and construction workers — and they went to work. He describes it as more of “a message than public art…it’s something for people to take in and to understand.” He’d also created murals in East Liberty and Garfield.

The piece is on public property but neither the City of Pittsburgh nor the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation indicated they will stop the artists.

“There needs to be a platform for anyone to say what they feel, especially if it’s in a positive way. People are in need of being able to feel positive for themselves and when you take away the ability for people to express themselves freely people become frustrated,” Clarke said. 

“I’m not a full-time artist. I’m a full-time human being that has feelings that a wild injustice is being put upon a certain race.

Alycia Washington adds a raised fist to the Black Lives Matter mural along the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh. The mural was originally created by a group of white house painters. (Photograph by Martha Rial)
This is initial Black Lives Matter mural painted along the Three Rivers Heritage trail along the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh. Artist Camerin “Camo” Nesbit helped to bring artists to the site on June 10, and with Clarke, they added to the piece. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)