Artists paint uplifting message to the Black community on electrical box

The words "resilient, bold, proud, iconic, authentic, worthy and innovative" now cover the typically vandalized electrical box on the corner of East Ponce de Leon Avenue and Sycamore Street, describing the deep substance and beauty of Black lives and attempting to dive beyond the popularized saying, Black Lives Matter.

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After five days of painting through the intense blaze of the sun and unpredictable rain, Dekalb-area artists Lori Smith and Jordyn White made their final touches to a mural uplifting the Black community on an electrical box on Aug. 31 before it’s unveiling Sept. 1 at 7 p.m.  

Amidst Decatur’s efforts to create an inclusive atmosphere supporting the Black community, Gregory White, City of Decatur Active Living Director, jumped at an opportunity for Smith and Jordyn White, his daughter, to paint an educational mural on a typically vandalized electrical box.

As Gregory White traveled to and from work each day, he passed this electrical box on the corner of East Ponce de Leon Avenue and Sycamore Street, directly on the Stone Mountain Trail and outside the Avondale Marta Station. Routinely, he saw inappropriate language and messages sprawled across the box. He was responsible for stripping these. 

“[This location] is a gateway to the city… So I just thought, besides people defacing property, [there’s] a better way of putting some art on it as a way of expression,” Gregory White said. “That’s why I think it means so much. When you exit the city you can see it, when you enter the city you can see it.”

Jordyn White spoke of her father’s excitement. “He’s been talking about this for years, like ‘I’m going to get y’all to do this,’ ” she said.

To get approval for the mural, Gregory White reached out to Angie Macon, head of the Decatur Arts Alliance. With the support of the City Commissioners and the City Manager, Andrea Arnold, Smith and his daughter could unleash their vision. 

When Jordyn’s father decided this was the optimal time to transform the box with art, she and Smith knew their mural should center around the Black Lives Matter movement. But they wanted their message to be more profound and heart felt.

Jordyn White, a graduate of the Decatur High School class of 2015, is now a student at Clark Atlanta aspiring to get her masters in social work, which she hopes will enable her to blend what she learns in social work with art.

“When [Gregory White] told us about the push in Decatur with the Black Lives Matter theme… we brainstormed and were saying that a lot of people say Black Lives Matter without even thinking anymore, like it’s surface level and so we wanted to think about how we could go deeper than that and make people think [about] what it means when you say Black Lives Matter,” Smith said. “When we matter, why do we matter? Because we have substance, qualities, things about us that make us matter.”

In creating her art, Smith often takes inspiration from other artists. She admires one fellow artist, Fabien Williams, for his interactive and thought provoking pieces. So, when the White family had the idea to embed the game “telephone” into the mural, Smith became excited at the prospect of making the piece more interwoven and interactive. 

“I love [the idea] because it reminds me of Fabien, but it also makes people think about the message,” she said. 

In a game of telephone, one person passes on a message to another, and this process repeats in a chain of people, altering the original message. 

A silhouette of a young Black girl is featured on one side of the box. The girl has a thought, but doesn’t know how to finish it. She starts the game of telephone by saying this thought, “Black lives are…,” into a tin-can telephone and implores others to complete her message. 

On the remaining three faces of the box, silhouettes of Black adults and children hold a tin can telephone to their mouth, like the young girl, or to their ear to listen to the message. The cans connect by blue threads, uniting the piece. Each person emits words describing the depth of Black lives as a completion of the message. 

Jordyn White and Smith chose words by narrowing down a long list they brainstormed, with the help of family and friends. 

“I asked my family to give me some words about what it means to be Black, to feel Black,” Jordyn White said. 

“We ended up settling because all of these words except for maybe one or two we had on our separate lists,” Smith said. “So we were like clearly those are ones we need to go with because those are ones we both thought about.” 

Ultimately, both artists hope their mural will lead to reflection, precipitate change, incite inspiration to become more involved in community work and bolster a supportive environment. 

“I really hope it inspires people to think differently [and] it inspires Black people to continue with our resilience, with being proud and bold… and that it may change how some people interact with African Americans if they have a better understanding of their character,” Jordyn White said.

Smith is an art teacher at Pine Ridge Elementary School, and also teaches enrichment art classes in the City of Decatur. She’s excited to show her students her mural. “I want them to be inspired. The neighborhood that I teach, there’s no art outside of our school building. So, I usually show them murals that have been done in Decatur, or in the Edgewood neighborhood or Downtown Atlanta. But to be able to show them something I’ve done as their teacher is a connection… That’s why we wanted to include children and the adults on here to kind of bridge that gap as well,” she said.

Already, while painting, they’ve seen the inspirational effects of their mural and an outpour in support.

 “With it being at this intersection there’s a lot of traffic constantly, whether it’s people walking or riding their bikes, or driving by. [People have been] at the stop lights honking,” Smith said.  “People who were turning [at the light] yesterday stopped to ask us questions…  People on bikes have stopped and we’ve had conversations with them. We’ve taken pictures with plenty of people. People have been coming out from their houses walking over like ‘we’ve been watching y’all from our house and wanted to come over.’”

Even as a seasoned biker himself, Gregory White was awed by the number of bikers and walkers going past the mural. 

“To me, [art] is the way of change, the way of education,” he said. “It just takes some heart, some steps to get the conversation going… Who knows what’s going to take place with young people being engaged. Somebody like me, I’ve got some ideas but I’m on the other side now. So, I love to be around young people. I think they have so much to say.”

Born in 1961, Gregory White is “grateful” that he lived through the Civil Rights Movement, its aftermath and racial progress. He attributes these experiences as imparting him with a desire for further racial equality, inclusivity and education. 

Gregory White believes that his desires align with Decatur’s and this mural fits perfectly into their mission to embrace diversity by promoting artistic expression.

“I’ve been here since 1994, working for the city for 26 years. People talk about gentrification and how [Decatur is] transforming,” Gregory White said. “But I would just say Decatur’s always been a city to be smart, be wise and do things differently. It’s a city that embraces art, diversity regardless of your color or your sexual preference, we’re like ‘hey everybody matters.’ So to me it fits right into the City’s whole theme, like their strategic plan for the next ten years and I think this whole movement.”

“This was right up our alley,” Smith said, whose artwork is rooted in presenting stories of Black people and the African American experience.

 

Contact the writer, Alexis Siegler, at 94alexsieg@csdecatur.net