Located just a few feet from where George Floyd was murdered, a 12-ft. by 12-ft. painted image of Floyd, appropriately named “Icon of a Revolution,” appears at the memorial site. Thousands of mourners have not only gathered and visited the memorial since late May, but have taken photos with the visage, and posted this now infamous image of the “gentle giant” on social media platforms.
For many who have seen it, the painting has become a symbol of sadness, anger, grief, hope for change, as well as a barrage of other emotions. For the artist who created the piece, Peyton Scott Russell, the process brought out many of his own emotions surrounding his personal experience in the [Black] community. Peyton, who has operated a studio in the Casket Arts Building (681 17th Ave NE) since 2013, had his own journey when painting this image.
“The curfew had begun, our city was burning, and the rioting had started,” Peyton said. “That is when I painted the first one. I was frustrated and angry not only about the incident, but about the history of police brutality, injustices, and inequality that my community [Black] has suffered obviously generation after generation. Personally, I have had a lot of brutal profiling and police encounters. I was reliving those myself, painting this piece, and imagining seeing my father who is a very dark-skinned man, under that knee. It brought up a lot of hot emotions for me.”
Peyton originally wanted the portrait to be transported and dropped on location without being recognized as the artist; he wanted the art to be completed in a guerrilla fashion. Colleague Andrew MacGuffie, a fellow sculptor from Franconia Sculpture Park, assisted with the large frame for the painting. The finished image, which Peyton considers street art, was non-sanctioned and done without permission, although placed in its current position after collaborating and working with the community members in the area.
“It was my way of protesting when the whole thing started,” Peyton said. “I was set to go out and physically participate. I have two kids, and I was desperately trying to save my program (sprayfinger) from the COVID fiasco. A lot of my mentors around me tried to get me to relax, said I had a stronger voice, and to use my artistic voice to make a statement.”
The artist, who spent part of his childhood growing up in the 38th and Chicago area, considers the area memorable, and impactful on part of his own life.
Although the George Floyd selfie that Peyton used for the image was already well circulated around the world when he re-envisioned and painted it, the image spoke to him in a way that created the emotions he felt about his own personal experiences.
“I turned it into a high contrast image,” said Peyton. “I took a lot of the detailed information out of it, made it a simple image, but infused it with a lot of emotion based on my experiences of going through police brutality. My energy went into that and when you look at it, it’s almost a haunting image. It glows, and it’s sort of scary. That’s how we feel when we get pulled over— immediately fight, the hurt, and the struggle of having to deal with the police. You never know if you are going to get roughed up, if you will get let off with a warning, if you will be placed in handcuffs for a minor traffic violation, beat up, slapped around, or murdered.”
The second piece that Peyton created during this time was transported, bolted into the brick at ground level, and located at The City of Lakes Community Land Trust building (1930 Glenwood Ave N.). Driving eastbound on Glenwood Avenue provides the best view.
Although Peyton is humbled and excited that the world has seen his work and his personal outpouring of feelings about the Black community, he has mixed feelings about the reaction. He is adamant that he is not trying to gain anything monetarily from this tragedy. “It is a great thing to be recognized, but I don’t want to be recognized just for that particular piece. I am not a protest or political artist. I like art for the sake of art.”
Peyton, who graduated from The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and is a former Bush Fellow (2012-2014) is versed in painting, sculpture, screenprinting, and printmaking. He also created a program called SprayFinger that teaches a curriculum to an all-ages group. The message: That graffiti art and graffiti writing are serious fine art. Peyton differentiates between different types of graffiti and street art when he teaches and is very firm about his stance on graffiti art as non-commissioned, non-sanctioned art, versus the stereotypical vandalism people may incorrectly think about due to ingrained stereotypes.
“There are two street art forms and genres that co-exist,” Peyton said. “One is graffiti art and graffiti writing and the other is street art. […] The difference between the two is that graffiti artists focus on articulating writing letters. It is a letter-based art form. We practice penmanship and drawing letters for the sake of making art. For street art, those artists don’t sit down in stylized letters like developing fonts. They are more about imagery, message content, possibly political statements, or making art for the sake of making art. Lettering does show up in street artwork, but it is not the focus of the art.”
“In the city of Minneapolis, because of all of the riots and protesting, plywood went up on the buildings,” said Peyton. “They all got painted, and artists came out in force, painting messages, as well as different ideals and opinions about the different things going on. I think the public was able to see this idea of graffiti and street art in a different way, and how powerful that voice was instead of just looking at it simply as mindless vandalism.”
Peyton hopes that his students who attend his current program, SprayFinger, will not only learn this graffiti art, but learn how to show their passion through the emotions they feel as he did during his own journey with the George Floyd murder.
“I teach kids how their voice can benefit society depending on how you use it, and even if you use it in a non-sanctioned way,” said Peyton. “There are elements that are waking up, and because of that, I am incredibly thankful for this situation that offers these opportunities for my students. It allows more people to see the idea of graffiti and street art become a strong voice for the people, while speaking to the community, and where people can pay attention.”
This is not the first time the artist has been in the artistic and public eye. During the 1990s, Peyton who at the time knew Prince personally and worked at Paisley Park, had some of his pieces displayed at Prince’s Glam Slam nightclub as a rotating artist. From founding Juxtaposition Arts (2007 N Emerson Ave), a non-profit afterschool youth program in North Minneapolis, to numerous exhibitions and residencies, to the Cheyenne River Youth Project in South Dakota, Peyton has already created many artistic outlets both for himself, and those who he teaches.
Passionate about art, Peyton believes that art, in whatever form, played an important role with communication to the viewing audience. He believes the emotions evoked from all of the art in the George Floyd memorial area spurred reactions from people that helped propel the movement for social justice change.
“We opened the door for people to listen, especially street and graffiti artists,” Peyton said. “We took space and put a message in your face whether you liked it or not. It forced you to see that, but also asked questions. True dialogue can happen at that point.”
Peyton encourages his students to base their art on what they want, rather than what others want, and to lead with “their heart,” and what they truly want to see happen in the world based on their own personal experiences. His passion lies with teaching others to continue the fight for social changes, using their art as a symbolic form promoting social justice and racial equity.
My contribution to humanity is me teaching artists, passing the torch on, and inspiring young people to find their personal voice and move forward,” said Peyton. “Along the way, if I can create one or two pieces and let everyone know I was an artist in my own way, that’s great. I have had a lot more satisfaction and feel alive when I am teaching, and able to share and pass ideas on that inspire my students. It heals my spirit. It’s a symbiotic relationship with a reciprocal give and take.”
SprayFinger classes are taught at Casket Arts and other locations. More information can be located at: http://sprayfinger.com/. Classes are open to all ages from elementary school age to 65.
Below: Wednesday, June 3rd 11:36 a.m., a young child carries two flowers to place at the George Floyd Memorial site. Thousands have visited Peyton’s mural and it has been broadcast around the world. (Photo by Mike Madison) Cousins Michael Hill, Linda Hill, Peyton and Jen White. (Photo by Margo Ashmore)