Artist paints his own story on boarded up State Theatre
Boarded up buildings splashed with color and commentary adorn entire neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. Artwork and graffiti on boarded up buildings cover visible signs of pain and destruction with artistry and hope. A drive through many neighborhoods reveals a city alive with anger, protest, unity, community, and so much more, reflected in vivid brushstrokes and spray paint. And on the front of the historic State Theatre in the Hennepin Theatre District, you’ll see something that stands apart from the rest.
Visual artist and muralist Reggie LeFlore spent two weeks painting “The Overseer: Divinity and Humanity,” a triptych of portraits that illustrates a story he’s writing. The central image is a portrait of the fictional Overseer character, flanked by two side characters in the story, depicted in spray paint, showcasing LeFlore’s bold signature style. LeFlore is a prolific and in-demand artist in the Twin Cities art scene, but he’s had the idea of the Overseer — which he describes as part of a mythology he’s creating — in his mind for decades.
“The story is about a demigoddess that was placed on planet Earth,” he explains. The Overseer was created by gods and goddesses to be a deity for humans, which the gods and goddesses saw as lowly creatures incapable of change. “But the demigoddess kind of had a different outlook on humanity… She constantly compared these humans to the vast intricacies of the universe.”
LeFlore saw an opportunity to create this depiction of his story when Hennepin Theatre Trust’s public art program approached him in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent riots with a commission to create art on the boarded up State Theatre. LeFlore has worked with the Trust several times since moving from his native Omaha to Minneapolis in 2015, most recently with Art Connects Us. He’s created large-scale artwork along Hennepin Avenue before, but says he appreciates this platform in this moment.
“Seeing that other people that look like me around here are proud that I’m up here doing my stuff, that’s been great for me,” said LeFlore. “To be able to get that freedom to express myself in the way that I choose is pretty important. And that type of energy is just reflected up and down Hennepin for me.”
He noticed that most artwork on Lake Street, where Floyd was killed, and across the Twin Cities had images of Floyd or social justice messages, which was appreciated, but he wanted to add his own voice.
“There aren’t a lot of folks creating their own individual pieces of work with a storytelling element to it,” he explained.
It was the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic slowdown that inspired him to return to his idea of the Overseer, which he thought of in high school. He has spent much of his time in the past several years working on commissions and commercial projects, and now he is enjoying exploring his old concept.
“Once [COVID] hit, it started affecting all my live gigs and planned projects that I had for the late spring and summer, and it also helped me understand my relationship with money as an artist and the work that I’ve been doing.”
That, coupled with the trauma of seeing Floyd killed on camera, has been a catalyst. He also felt that, as a Black artist, it’s important that he be allowed to express his own creativity and artistic ideas.
“I think it’s time for me to really start putting these personal stories out and really trying to make the best work that I can make. I figure it’s best to get that out in the universe in some sort of way before my time is up. It almost sounds a little morbid, but it’s real.”
LeFlore says this project has been therapeutic in many ways.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about the stuff surrounding George Floyd. It’s just been on my mind recently, but it’s been dissipating a little bit. Also, COVID sucks,” said LeFlore. “Being out here and sweating and stepping out into the street, all of this is really, really good. It’s helped me process everything.”
LeFlore does have a message during this time of societal racial reflection. He says that immediately after Floyd’s killing, he was approached in some transparent ways about his work, including to create art that would use Floyd as an advertisement.
“I felt like a pretty big resource that was conveniently thought of in the midst of all this. And those same people who have been reaching out for all these projects haven’t been reaching out to me. This project is different because they gave me the freedom to paint what I wanted to paint and put out what I wanted to put out in the world.”
LeFlore is still in the process of writing the story that accompanies the mural on the State Theatre. In the meantime, he wants people who see the art to get a clear message.
“There’s a beautiful Black man that painted this project up here. And this beautiful Black man has a story to tell. This beautiful Black man would love for everyone to process this story and try to fit this story into their own lives and try to spread that same energy in their own creative circles.”
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