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Carving Out “Sacred” Space for Culture in the Streets

3:16 PM PST on January 24, 2012

Supporters and friends of artist Patrick Henry Johnson gathered on 1/22/12 to celebrate the dedication of the mural, Elixir, to the community.
Supporters and friends of artist Patrick Henry Johnson gathered on 1/22/12 to celebrate the dedication of the mural, Elixir, to the community.

Although the pilgrimage route along Crenshaw Blvd. was short—0.8 miles, to be exact, it was rich in meaning.

The mission was the dedication of Patrick Henry Johnson's 40x40 ft. mural, Elixir, to the community.

Led by the artist, approximately 25 “pilgrims” made their way from Starbucks towards the group of supporters and artists already waiting at the base of the resplendent African American woman he had painted, just as the day was coming to a close.

The colors generated by the setting sun mirrored those depicting her as a transcendent body, rising to occupy her rightful place in the heavens as her own, self-contained universe.

Johnson had decided to make the event a pilgrimage, he said to the supporters crowded around him in front of the work, because of his desire to bring the community together “in a collective agreement to make the mural sacred.” Although Johnson had done the entire painting himself, an effort requiring just under 3 full months of work, he acknowledged he couldn't have done it without the support of the community. When he needed funds to rent a lift so he could reach the top of the wall, he said, friends came together to contribute the $270 that allowed him to finish the piece.

Friends and community members also lent moral support for him while he was painting, with one even calling to make sure he was ok when she heard him screaming and crying in front of the wall from across the boulevard. His screaming wasn't madness, he explained to us. “On the second to last day [of painting], I had this incredible surge of energy...I discovered the reason I had to do the painting myself...I couldn't have had another artist on the painting because of the love that I have for the subject matter.” And because, he realized, he needed to let her go.

As he broke down, the crowd surged around him in support, including his young son, Elijah, who sidled up and grabbed him around the waist in a tight hug. Finally, Johnson was able to get out that he had named the mural “Elixir” because it described a transformative substance—one that had transformed him. He hoped that it would be seen as a celebration of not just the woman he had loved, but of the natural beauty of the Black women in the community.

This celebration of identity was echoed in the pieces written by all of the spoken word artists that stepped up to perform.

Proclaimed Conney Williams:

I cruise Afro-Central down the River Crenshaw;
my flow is not involuntary,
so don’t view me as forty ounces
because I drink infinity and birth the miraculous...

Drink me like electric sunshine...
Drink me original and simple...
Drink all of me until thirst no longer poses on this corner of heaven.

Poetess Danna Kiel read from her poem, “I Am,” declaring:

I am George the Funk's sensation
I am God's most beautiful creation
I am Patrick Henry Johnson's transformative creation
I am a Black woman

E.L., another poetess spoke and sang her piece, an homage to the afro, with the repeated (and catchy) refrain, “With the flick of a pick—Planet Sistah!”

Supporters of the arts, like Johan Beckles, concurred on the importance of having public symbols that “would encourage black women to embrace their natural beauty” instead trying to make themselves meet some other standard. Moreover, she added, it was nice to see women being celebrated by a man in such a public way.

Beyond identity, friend and supporter Sonia Barrett noted, the mural was important in pushing those in the community to dream big and to follow their passions first, and to worry about where the money was going to come from later.

As the crowd broke up toward the end of the ceremony, however, it was clear that what had stuck with people was the empowering message of embracing your identity. As people left the celebration of art and their community, the small voice of a child sang out, “with the flick of a pick...”

“Elixir” can be seen on the southwest corner of the intersection of Crenshaw Blvd. and Stocker St.

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