Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

Creator of Controversial Mural Responds to Critics

Critics call mural “dehumanizing.”

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Sep 26th, 2016 02:11 pm
Adam James Stoner's mural. Photo by Michael Horne.

Adam James Stoner’s mural. Photo by Michael Horne.

Local artist Adam Stoner created a mural in Black Cat Alley on the city’s East Side that was intended to address “Milwaukee’s painful legacy of incarcerating a higher percentage of black men than any other city.” In this piece Stoner responds to critics who have called the work “dehumanizing.”

To the communities who address my recent mural on mass incarceration:

I’ve heard a great deal of anger and pain in response to my work in the alley — and I think it’s time for me to respond with a statement, an open mind, and a desire to listen.

Devontay is a piece in a series I’ve been working on that considers mass incarceration and how we as white people disfigure the humanity of our black and brown brothers and sisters by projecting certain qualities onto them. We paint judgments in flat colors without dimension; and that’s what I’ve done here, in the spirit of a sharp critique of our American systems.

I expected the design of the mural to be controversial — I’m not black, and I had no intent to claim your experience, nor any ownership of it. Neither do I have any right or much human capital in the community to be a conduit for this conversation. I’ve been prepared, since day one, to turn this over to smarter, stronger voices than mine. We must give the floor to our black elders and leaders; their wisdom on the issue of mass incarceration will always trump my naïve white brush with it.

In the spirit of listening and learning, I want to invite the community to help me edit or change or paint over my piece if it has done damage to the cause. I can only imagine how painful it might be to look at an artifact of generations of oppression and segregation, day after day after day. I had not fully considered the very real traumatic correlations that my artwork might engender. This is magnified because it is public space; you can’t escape it.

But my error is glaring: by attempting to force a racial conversation among white folks with a deeply charged painting, I ran this risk of disrespecting the shrewd and knowledgeable black conversation with an image that is old-hat and tired and on the whole very saddening. Discourse about racism and systemic oppression is fraught with pitfalls, and perhaps this is mine. Your betterment as a people is in your own powerful and capable hands; it’s not for us white folks (who always talk too much in these sorts of things) to decide.

So the choice, I think, comes down to you. I know the stakes of this work, and I want to stand by it and see it through. But the jury is still out on whether this mural, Devontay, will be a tool for white conversion or an impediment to black hopes and black justice. If I set out to confront the “Casual White East-Sider” and ultimately undermined the true black voice, then the mural needs to change or go away.

I want to end with an apology. I want to apologize that my project did not begin with the community, or with a sense of hope. I am new to public art, and still learning how different it is from a gallery show: art doesn’t get to hover above social critique, and that’s extremely important if we really have any interest in dialogue.

I welcome continued conversation on this matter, especially from my critics, from whom I learn.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

Black Cay Alley

21 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Creator of Controversial Mural Responds to Critics”

  1. David says:

    I think you should quit apologizing. What does “naïve, white brush” even mean? You’ve started the conversation, or at least added to it, so that’s that. I remember when AA kids all over town were wearing County jail orange jump suits as a fashion statement.

  2. WashCoRepub says:

    Oh, ‘no worries’, Adam, as your generation loves to say. You did what you needed to do to complete the checklist of a social justice warrior… you established your white liberal creds, you used the word ‘folks’ quite a few times which establishes your hipness, your gameness to be ‘down with the struggle.’ Let’s see… ‘systemic oppression’… yep, nailed that one too.

    Careful on this one though: “Your betterment as a people is in your own powerful and capable hands…” That’s wandering just a TOUCH too close to Sheriff Clarke territory. Touting self-determinism won’t endear you to the crowd with which you wish to gain approval.

    I’d say a donation to Black Lives Matter (GIF the receipt somehow) is about all that remains for you to do… then you’ve got all bases covered.

  3. mbradleyc says:

    Nice painting.

    What was the question?

  4. David K says:

    Adam, Good luck with your endeavor to please the community but most importantly our black and brown brothers and sisters. Should I ever find myself in your place, I hope I can come up with half the humility you’ve exhibited.

    As a suggestion for improvement, what do you think about adding a white person, in orange prison attire, to the mural. This will help the white community see themselves in the mural and we’ll be alongside of our brothers and sisters.

  5. blurondo says:

    Unless you were commissioned, why would you ever think that you needed to have your creation previewed by anyone?
    “I want to invite the community to help me edit or change or paint over my piece if it has done damage…” If you are going to pursue this, consider leaving this one and painting another.

  6. SteveM says:

    Aaaannnnnd the WOW counties representative goes right into personal attacks and totally dismisses an earnest artist. Nice. Whatever you need to do to keep that geographic/economic/social divide in place, keep it up. Sad.

  7. Jeff Grygny says:

    Please don’t change the painting– it’s beautiful. Those who are passionate to right wrongs can, as the Milwaukee Rep’s current production of “Man of La Mancha” shows, sometimes go off against imaginary enemies. You are not their enemy.

    But the dialog is good– keep it up!

  8. Jason says:

    I guess the answer is to not incarcerate people. If police are the problem maybe it would be wise to pull them out of the African American communities. Let us suggest that there is such thing as black on black crime. Must the victim no longer seek justice. We have created this narrative that white people are locking up black people and as I recall the 1994 crime bill under Bill Clinton sent a lot of black people through the criminal justice system. Was this some kind of master scheme of the white race to throw young black men in large cages and simply throw away the key. Could possibly it be that honest hard working black folk wanted to see justice. Did people no longer want to be victimized by criminals whether black or white. Where was the Democratic black caucus when this bill passed. Politicians are politicians and in the end even black politicians want to be reelected so of course they signed on.

  9. Vincent Hanna says:

    Black people do want to see justice. I don’t know what news sources you consume, but I’ve read many stories about how one of the reasons the African-American community has lost faith in law enforcement is the extremely low homicide clearance rate. So few cases are solved they become frustrated and angry and figure those cases just don’t matter that much. The lack of cooperation isn’t due to “snitching” but a belief that police don’t care.

  10. Vincent Hanna says:

    And of course we did lock up a lot of black people. That isn’t some myth Jason. It’s not a lie meant to hate on white people. Many conservatives have acknowledged problems with mass incarceration and problems in the criminal justice system.

  11. Jamaal Smith says:

    On his quest for bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, then-President Bill Clinton reassured to Republicans that he would indeed be tougher on crime. So he created the Violent Crime Bill of 1994, which not only targeted those in Black and Brown communities, but also a system that instituted harsher sentencing to those same people. Thus, you begin the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people. Black people indeed want justice and to assume otherwise is completely asinine. However, we want justice and equity to be evident in our quality of life, which clearly it is not. To continue providing more taxpayer dollars to build police departments, which is nothing more than a reactionary strategy, does not solve the long standing problems of institutional racism and White supremacy in this country. It is evident in the ever increasing socioeconomic disparities that plague Milwaukee. There would be no need for this mural if there was no truth to it. This artist did nothing but paint a picture of what has been and continues to be common in this society: the constant criminalization and vilification of Black men (and women). This is not esoteric information; this is common knowledge. If you are in opposition of it being exposed, help to do something about it!

  12. Mama says:

    Dear Artist, You are forgetting that you’re in Milwaukee, which has a LONG history of having a lack of appreciation for art in general. Most Milwaukeeans hate the orange sunburst by the lake. There was that accusation of anti-Jew sentiment in that letter sculpture. And that goofy looking rock thing by the Federal building. Oh, and remember the Blue Shirt controversy by the airport some years back? The fact that your piece had to do with race is actually secondary to the fact that public art in general just gets shot down in Milwaukee before it’s barely been installed.

    It’s wonderful to see people who want to change the world through their art, but I don’t think you can do that in this town, sorry to say. We Milwaukeeans just haven’t been trained to thoughtfully contemplate art; rather, we have been conditioned to immediately find something wrong with it and then get our undies in a bundle over it.

  13. WashCoRepub says:

    Maybe the Milwaukee Bucks could pay to have this painted on the exterior of their new stadium?

  14. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    I went to visit Black Cat Alley the Monday after the Open Doors weekend to be able to view it without being encased in a crowd. It’s GREAT! Artistically it’s amazing that you can convey the entire figure (which appears solid) by only filling in certain parts. The fact that the background is the same as what the figure is wearing to me connotes how the community engages in imprisoning certain people. The monumental quality of the work has a great impact on viewers, too. And take it from me – who’s experienced in receiving criticism for my work in the arts, in poetry, writing and journalism, and for a television series I did for many years in Milwaukee (Where The Waters Meet, about the arts), you absolutely can’t please everyone and your work will be misinterpreted by many – but you know what your intentions are and it doesn’t mean that you had evil subconscious ones! Also, all publicity is good publicity – that’s really true – since people talking about your work is much better than the reaction of silence! Stay true to yourself, and I wish you many more years of continued artwork success! Your work is strong!

  15. Charles J Trimberger says:

    Socially and culturally relevant art is bound to anger some, and bound to please some. I believe that if this genre of art didn’t anger some or touch an emotional chord, then it probably isn’t culturally relevant art. I’m a poet. All poetry isn’t beautiful, full of hearts and flowers. In dictatorships, the first people to get killed are the poets. Why? Because they write impactful poems that threaten the dictator.

    I’m thinking now of a recent work of sculpture owned by the Milwaukee Art Museum, called “Eggs Benedict,” which responded to public statements by then Pope Benedict that condoms would make the AIDS epidemic worse among African men. The artist, who lives in Shorewood, made a sculpture of the pope made out of 13,000 condoms of various colors. Very controversial. The MAM convened a panel discussion in its auditorium the was attended by some 200 people of varied political persuasions. Bags were searched at the door for weapons! The meeting was hot, but it was a public service by the MAM that I appreciated very much.

    Let’s face it. Culturally relevant art is going to anger some people and educate others. Do not take your piece down or modify it. You’ve made an important statement which might add to the conversation that Wisconsin and Milwaukee needs to have about its correctional system. Maybe your next piece will contribute directly to the freedom of African Americans.

  16. Virginia Small says:

    It’s a powerful image. It’s beautiful. Its scale and public location add to its impact.

    Thanks, Adam Stoner, and others for creating significant murals around Milwaukee.

  17. Lee Bitts says:

    Who took offense at this?

  18. AG says:

    Lee Bitts, probably no one. I’m guessing this is just an outlet for the artist to vent his white guilt.

  19. Vincent Hanna says:

    There’s nothing wrong with worrying about how the community views and is impacted by public art. That doesn’t mean he is too PC or feels “white guilt.”

  20. Gloria says:

    The question is not what is wrong with Adam Stoner’s incredible mural but rather what is wrong with the stilted thinking that started the myopic criticism of this awesome painting. How can anyone look without awe at this worthy and sensitive expression of “Devontay,” an African-American man depicted on the larger-than-life 60-foot wall?

    Stoner’s painting is exquisite, a provocative work of art loaded with emotional impact. This is one of the most significant works in the Black Cat Alley exhibit. Adam Stoner, don’t change it for the small-minded critics. Thank you, and thank you Black Cat Alley Mural Project for a great exhibition.

  21. Adam Stoner says:

    Hi all,
    After a few weeks of conversation with other artists and community members, we’ve put together a public roundtable discussion to digest some of this controversy. The event will be a moderated public forum where anyone affected by the mural can share their concerns, and where we can pose possible solutions to the issues at hand.

    We’ll be meeting this Thursday, October 20th, in the back room of the Colectivo on Prospect ave. adjacent to the alley from 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm. You can find further info on the facebook event page here:

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