Artist spearheads neighborhood “good trouble” mural honoring John Lewis
September 15, 2020
A mural honoring John Lewis now covers the wall where Lockwood Terrace and Grove Street merge in the Decatur Heights neighborhood. Margot Ecke, a Dekalb-area artist and Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) professor, spearheaded the mural and leveraged her design skills to lead the neighborhood in collaborating, producing and funding it.
After two years of living two houses from a wall she deemed an “eyesore,” the appearance of new layers of political graffiti containing vulgar language catalyzed Ecke to spearhead a mural proposal she had often imagined.
The popular quote “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble” by late Civil Rights activist and representative, John Lewis, is the centerpiece of the mural, sprawling across the wall. Behind it, are bright, joyful, colorful shapes and patterns, purposefully chosen by Ecke.
“It’s such a heavy time in American history, and I wanted the quote to be inspiring and hopeful and I wanted the backdrop for that quote to be joyful… The colors we’re using are very saturated,” she said.” So it’s not a weak red or a pale pink, it’s a hot pink. It’s not a pale orange, it’s a deep passionate orange.
As a professor of color theory and design at SCAD, Ecke is knowledgeable on the psychology of color.
“If we’re really highlighting a message by John Lewis, who devoted his whole life to activism and standing up for civil rights and putting himself in harm’s way in order to do what’s right I wanted to make sure the design really reflected a color palette that was really passionate,” she said. “So that’s why the colors are warm and deeply saturated, rather than muted. We’re not using greys. We’re not using a lot of pastels.”
Ecke orchestrated this community-oriented effort by creating a sign up sheet accessible at the site of the mural and on Facebook. Each family signing up was limited to a two hour shift painting the mural, due to high interest and to effectively social distance.
Originally, Ecke’s design was a quilt pattern and contrasted highly from its current state. It took inspiration from GEE’s Bend Quiltmakers in Alabama, a group of African-American women who have quilted as a community for generations and who Ecke has experience doing quilting residencies with.
She unleashed the design in Adobe Illustrator and sent the proposal to the Decatur Arts Alliance to uncover the ownership of the wall. Being unaware, they forwarded it to the City of Decatur, who approved the proposal.
The next step was introducing the project to the community. Ecke did this by posting the design on a community Facebook group page.
“People were supportive of the design, they were very supportive of doing something with the wall because it was such an eyesore,” Ecke said. “But they wanted it to be more clearly reflective of what’s going on in politics right now… People said ‘oh I wish it said Black Lives Matter.’ But because I knew that Black Lives Matter was going to be a mural on the ground in front of the high school, I didn’t want to do that again… I just thought, ‘huh, ok, so my quilt message isn’t blatant enough, it needs to be louder.’ ”
So she looked to make more of a statement reflecting the political climate and supporting activism. Naturally, her mind drifted to late Civil Rights activist and representative, John Lewis.
“I’m a fan of John Lewis,” Ecke said. “I think that most people are. I mean what a hero, a local hero at that. And he just passed away. So I thought, I would like to do a quote of John Lewis’ and I threw around a couple quotes with the community. And the one we all liked was ‘get in good trouble, necessary trouble.’ ”
Having experience creating activism-based art in the past, Ecke is “prone to make work that rallies the community.”
“[Lewis] was so committed to service,” Ecke said. “You don’t see that in a lot of politicians. We see it in Jimmy Carter, John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. We see it with some people but we don’t see it with all politicians, and it’s a wonderful trait… [The quote] is just a reminder that public service is essential to support American democracy. But It also seems like it really resonates with other people which is wonderful because it just means that people care. So, to me, it’s a mural that celebrates the care that Americans could have, can have and do have.”
Ecke ultimately chose the quote and initiated the shift of her design. First, she tried to adapt her original quilt design by placing the quote over it. But the product was “too busy.” So, despite her fondness of the quilt design, she abandoned it. She updated the community via another facebook post.
Seeking to garner the support of the community, Ecke met with two neighborhood women who contacted her with hopes for a more political mural. She was transparent with her plans to center the mural on John Lewis. The women were pleased since Lewis had also been on their minds for an ideal mural.
“One of the things the women said when they came to the house was that the neighborhood has changed,” Ecke said. “She’s lived here for ten years and is African American and so is her husband. I think it was important for her to be involved because I’m a white artist, so she wanted to make sure my rendering was inclusive… I’m trying to be as inclusive as possible by changing my design to reflect what people were saying.”
It’s common knowledge that the Decatur neighborhood is becoming more gentrified and less racially diverse. Ecke acknowledges this, but cites the reason she moved to Decatur as it being a “sensitive place for being inclusive of different races, religion backgrounds, gender identities and sexual orientations.”
“Decatur has historically been politically open to hearing lots of different voices. I think that in the Decatur neighborhood, the racial diversity is changing, but politically there’s this open-mindedness,” she said. “And from what I’m understanding from the two women that came over, it’s less Brown and Black families and more white families. How do you have a really inclusive, open, healthy conversation about a community that’s changing in some ways for the better and in some ways not so much? How do you keep minds open? I think a quote like this– ‘make good trouble’– what it’s implying is we lean on the tenets of democracy and we peacefully protest, let our voices be known and we converse as a community made up of people with different backgrounds, different perspectives and we do it peacefully. And that’s the necessary trouble.”
In light of her intentions to promote acceptance as a community, she’s grateful the design and message resonated with people in the neighborhood.
“That is the most important thing, that people connect with the message and it’s not a wasted opportunity, that this moment for public art is appropriate for the community,” Ecke said.
The shift in Ecke’s design decreased the precision and detail needed. In turn, it accommodated more community participation.
“[It was important that I make] sure that it’s a very accessible experience for kids, that it’s very joyful and colorful, but also that it’s a good design because we’re living in a visual time, where good design is important to convey messages more effectively, So the better the design is and the more the community is involved, those two factors– that’s going to self-promote the mural more,” she said.
Ecke outlined big blocks of color, so neighborhood families could fill them in. She described it as like a “paint by number.”
In this way, families were involved. But, according to Ecke, “painting the mural itself is only about 30% of the process.” Before the final painting stage can begin, preparation is required, by power washing, sweeping dirt away, weeding, pruning the bushes, dealing with nails on the fence and priming the fence and mural. Being adaptable to fickle weather conditions is also vital.
In terms of her own involvement during the painting, Ecke described it as doing the finishing touches, amounting to about 30% of the mural, while the community partook in about 70%.
Ecke originally planned to fund the mural herself; the quilt design was simple, less colorful and she would paint it individually.
“But, as I changed the design and it became more reflective of the community and it was clear that people really wanted to support it, and we knew we were going to use all these colors, I knew it was going to be more expensive,” Ecke said.
She projected the budget of the mural to be about $2500, considering the sheer amount and cost of the quality paint they were using: four gallons for the fence and approximately 20 gallons for the mural. Alone the paint aggregated to $2000. Besides this, the mural necessitated primer, paint brushes, mural sealant and drop cloths.
“So, it really starts to add up,’ Ecke said. “But at the end of the day we want to get that extra paint so that the kids can paint. We want to make sure it’s primed so that it won’t flake off. We want to make sure we seal the mural with a mural sealant, that’s very expensive at about $200, so if somebody goes over the mural with graffiti we can just power wash it off.”
The mural is almost all community funded via printed broadsides Ecke
makes. Previous to her job now, Ecke taught printmaking at the University of Georgia (UGA). As a printmaker, she possesses five printing presses at home. Using a printer built in 1956, she is printing broadsides she designed, in four colors, of the extended version of John Lewis’ quote embedded in the mural. Each broadside costs $35 and goes towards the mural.
Ecke is satisfied with her final product, and feels her design highlights the strength of Lewis’ message.
“I could have done a realistic rendering of different people of many colors, many backgrounds and different abilities and have that reflected in the mural,” she said. “But because the language is so powerful, I didn’t want to have it compete with a narrative. So it was important for me to have an abstract design as the backdrop.”
Please contact the writer, Alexis Siegler, at [email protected] with any questions.