Public art project hopes to help heal Flint

By Jake May
The Flint Journal

FLINT (AP) - Sandra Branch was sickened by the blight she'd see in her neighborhood and throughout Flint as she drove around the city.

She said for every two nice houses that were occupied, she saw another seven or eight would be vacant and simply "an eyesore."

Branch said Flint had been under a veil of darkness for decades, and it was having an impact on the mentality of its residents. She wanted to take action, and in 2014, she helped found the Greater Flint Arts Council, with her eyes on gathering grant funding to create public art in place of blight.

"The art is the first step in change. It's the first level of getting better. First, we slap a little paint on it. Then, we build it cleaner, bigger and better - all the way up," Branch, who is also an artist-in-residence at the Flint Public Art Project, told The Flint Journal. "The first step in rehabbing our city is paint. Imagery can heal."

Branch began reaching out to taggers and aerosol artists to provide an opportunity to use the community as their canvas, with its blessing.

She met artists like "Wake" and "Scraps," street artists with their own style.

Wake, whose real name is Charles Boike, is now a Flint-based attorney. Scraps is Kevin Burdick, and continues to be hired for large-scale mural projects across town.

Boike, a Flint native, said as art sprawls across the city, he hopes it combats some of the social blight and the broken-window syndrome, a criminological theory that visible signs of crime, anti-social behavior and civil disorder create an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder.

He said growing up in the city, he took note of the high-quality murals and saw the art respected by residents, because, he said, that is who all of this is for - the people.

"I like to believe that art in anyone's life improves their quality of life," Boike said. "We can keep businesses, attract employees and have a greater impact as a community. ... As you evolve as an artist, you grow to love the things you've seen before you. As an artist, you learn to come back and see it with a new eye and build alongside them.

"Our depictions, in a lot of ways, reflect the city's history and its integrity and values."

The city has had a history with large-scale murals taking up the entirety of buildings' sides, known as permissible walls. Take the Vernor's mural near Halo Burger in downtown Flint, for example. Look at the 90-foot-long mural at the Hispanic Technology and Community Center of Greater Flint created by Armando Fernandez Jr. in 2004.

Many have driven by the American flag mural along South Saginaw Street south of the bridge near 12th Street, which was created by a number of artists in collaboration to beautify the city.

Marissa McNamara of Burton had a hand in that mural, and said public art gives people the opportunity to express themselves while showing off their talents.

Rhonda Jones of Flint agreed, saying the art is needed. She said she always hears from people that the city is filled with trash, and the art is a welcome reprieve from that tired mantra.

National and international artists have found their way to the city, painting murals in the wake of the city's water crisis. New art projects are already in planning, such as the recently-painted murals along two outside walls of Totem Books, which was chosen by popular vote of the residents.

"We can paint murals in the middle of the day and have people honking all day long, loving that we are adding to the town and not taking away from it," Burdick said.

As Flint continues to redefine the way it's perceived, some residents are stepping up to clean up parks and keep art in mind to invigorate neighborhoods.

Quincy Murphy made it a personal mission to rebuild Dewey Park.

Murphy obtained three grants totaling $60,000 to improve the grounds. He installed a playground, repaved four basketball courts, provided new fencing, trimmed trees and will continue to work on getting new tennis courts and lighting set up.

He knew painting the basketball court was necessary, and teamed up with Branch to make it memorable to draw the community back into the parks. The court showcases all of Flint's former and current high schools, as well as some of the city's top athletes.

"People have a sense of belonging, and have really brightened up the area, highlighting our community," Murphy said. "The colorful brightness of the murals helps the park to stand out. It's just exciting.

"People like to visualize our history. We like to see where we've come from, and people learn from that. Some people don't like to read books, and we can educate ourselves and future generations about where we came from through art. That helps us grow as a community. We have to know our history."

Branch said Flint has always been an underdog. She described the city as resilient, and that this generation is writing the city's comeback story.

She said General Motors' departure from most of Flint, Michael Moore's "Roger & Me," and an increase in crime and blight, people really thought the city looked bad.

"Don't piss on Flint. We're Vehicle City, and we are a birth of cars for this nation and carriages for queens. This was a bustling town, and we need to remember who we were and who we are," Branch said. "We are a town of champions. Of talent. Of innovation and design. We are the cutting edge, and at one point, 'Hometown USA.' Come on, this is Flint.

"Flint wasn't about segregation; it was about inclusion, success and progressiveness. We need to stop promoting out negativity. It's not about how far down you were. It's about how you get up and better."

Published: Mon, Dec 10, 2018