“Street Art and the Art of Protest” in Butler’s streets

Photo by Lauren Hough.

EVA HALLMAN | STAFF REPORTER | ehallman@butler.edu

Art can change the world —  we just have to listen to artists.

JCA Signature Series guest lecturer Dr. Heather Shirey recently gave a talk about the balance of communities expressing needs, desires and demands during protests through artistic mediums.

The Jordan College of the Arts Signature Series is various programs of scholars, artists and musicians that visit Butler University. JCA Signature Series’ goal is to expose students to the arts while building community and campus connections.

Dr. Shirey is a professor of art history at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She also is an active researcher, consistently analyzing patterns and data through her work with the Urban Art Mapping team. Dr. Shirey focuses on street art in communities of vast demographics and relations, primarily the art created in response to George Floyd’s death.

During the Oct. 6 lecture, she educated students, faculty and staff on the importance of documentation of street art. She also enforced the idea of preserving street art while viewing this form of art through an alternative perspective rather than perceiving street art with negative connotations. The following day she held a special workshop titled “Don’t Let Them Change the Narrative” with Dr. Peter Wang’s museum studies class, which focused on what should be done with art created in the context of protest.

The Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall was packed on Oct. 6 with students attending for various purposes, yet all left with a new perspective on street art.

First-year political science major Vanessa Smith partly checked out this lecture due to an assignment in her first-year seminar but enjoyed the educational lecture.  

“I didn’t know much about street art or graffiti before, so it was interesting to hear how it spread, especially following George Floyd’s death,” Smith said. “Also [I learned] how different pieces of street art can provoke different emotions.”

Smith was also in attendance with a first-year political science major Kiana Johnson, who attended for an extra-credit opportunity but found herself taking a lot of information from the lecture.

“I absolutely loved [the lecture],” Johnson said. “We talked about some of these concepts and pictures in my class, so it was interesting to learn more about the impact [the pieces had].”

Both Smith and Johnson are interested in attending further JCA Signature Series events and are eager to learn in-depth about topics guest lecturers are passionate about. 

Dr. Shirey was excited to be invited to Butler University by Dr. Wang as a part of the JCA Signature Series. 

“This is the first invitation to come speak in person [since the pandemic],” Shirey said. “I have a history in Indiana. I went to Indiana University Bloomington for my Ph.D. … I was excited to come back to Indiana and speak to students.” 

Throughout her lecture, Dr. Shirey reiterated the importance of capturing various mediums of artistic response. She wanted Butler students to understand the value of all forms of street art and destigmatize graffiti. 

“I want people to see the complexity of graffiti and the emotion behind it,” Shirey said. “I want people, students most importantly, to stop and see the value and realize [the art’s] true intentions.”

Dr. Shirey’s work is based in the Minneapolis area and was previously focused on capturing the conflicting ideologies during the beginning and zenith of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then after the death of George Floyd in May 2020, Dr. Shirey and the Urban Art Mapping team switched focus to preserve a multitude of art created in response to the tragedy.

Now, Dr. Shirey is set on educating students about the raw emotion portrayed in street art following George Floyd’s death. Street art is found in cities nationwide, yet the poignant strategic art in 2020 Minneapolis exposes students to a specific instance of artistic activism.  

“I think it’s absolutely important to see the conversations that are taking place outside of your usual city,” Shirey said. “Different conversations and dialogues are happening in different neighborhoods … street art is a way for us to come together.”

Few Butler students in attendance are from the Minneapolis area and have seen George Floyd Square. However, Katherine Foe, first-year critical communication and media major from Minneapolis, experienced the community’s response to George Floyd’s death in person. 

“She did a good job of changing the narrative from a negative light that people are vandalizing and corrupting the city,” Foe said. “She changed the view from negative to a movement.” 

With experiencing social justice movements in Minneapolis from 2020 through now, Foe expressed how important this lecture was to fellow Bulldogs who might not know first-hand the impact street art has on current events, especially the Black Lives Matter movement.

“This isn’t a topic that is going to go away,” Foe said. “People are going to continue to fight for the Black Lives Matter movement. These tragedies happen all over the country, so it is important to learn about how these uprisings and movements became stronger through street art. Also, [it’s important to be] aware that [social justice movements] are not so far away from home, and these [tragedies] can affect you wherever you are.”

Dr. Shirey’s message of being aware of the artistic expressions occurring in one’s community through art is very important, no matter if it is in response to national protests or for aesthetics. Butler students learned how even the simplest of pieces can be the most vocal in politics. Students learned to transform their perspectives and recognize how street art can hold a subtle yet powerful message. 

The lecture and workshop provided Butler students with an opportunity to grow as bystanders and aesthetes, which was Dr. Wang’s goal in inviting Dr. Shirey to Butler University. 

Dr. Wang stated how there has been an influx of students interested in museum studies and art history, so he brought Dr. Shirey to inspire these students for their future careers. He hopes Butler students enjoy but more importantly learn more about the world around them via these lectures.

“I brought Dr. Shirey to campus to reflect on the past two years for street art,” Wang said. “I hope [students] learn how to make a difference. Everybody has different expertise, backgrounds, experiences, identities and ethnicities. With art activism, how do you be an ally, be active or be an activist to take care of society and demand change?”

Dr. Shirey’s words were a real reminder of the artistic expressions occurring outside the Butler bubble. Art allows people to respond explicitly in times of protest and how students can analyze the pieces to further grasp the community’s dispositions.  

The JCA Signature Series, including the lecture “Street Art and The Art of Protest,” accounts for Butler Community Requirement credit. The next JCA Signature Series is “Celebrating Identity Through Music,” with the Bardin-Niskala duo on October 18th at the Edison-Duckwall Recital Hall.


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