‘Healing process’: Artists covered GR riot damage in calls for equity

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A year after a riot broke out in downtown Grand Rapids, leaving behind a mess of shattered glass, most people wouldn’t think twice as they walk past storefronts long repaired from that night’s events.

Kim Kunze, on the other hand, can’t walk past the intersection of Ottawa Avenue NW and Louis Street without reflecting on what she painted there. 

“I got to see and be part of Grand Rapids in a way that I have never been able to be a part of,” Kunze said. 

After businesses’ windows were smashed out, the community came together to put up plywood over them. In the days following, some local artists saw the blank pieces of plywood as an opportunity

Lions and Rabbits and Element 7, they’re two art groups in town, they put out a call for artists to say we have a bunch of windows that need to be boarded up and we want people to come paint on them,” Kunze said. “So I came out the day after said, ‘Hey, do you need somebody?’ And then they said, ‘Here, this is your window.'”

Kunze participated in the May 30, 2020, protest against police brutality following the death of George Floyd and though she was home long before the destruction started, she felt it was important not to cover up the pain that led to those shattered windows. 

“I was trying to be really cognizant of the fact that I’m a white person who’s experiencing this in a really different way than a lot of the people of color in our city,” she said.

As she looked back on the events that led up to the night of the riot, she couldn’t help but think of her cousin Lt. Col. Albert Harris III, a captain in the U.S. Air Force Space Command, and his 8-year-old son.

“Whenever I see stuff happening with people of color, like especially with police brutality and things like that, I’m often picturing them in my head, so it was kind of a healing process to paint them,” Kunze explained. 

The window painted by artist Kim Kunze as part of the Windows GR project that was organized following riots that broke out in downtown Grand Rapids on May 30, 2020. Pictured in the painting are her cousins, Albert Harris III, and his son Albert Harris IV. (Courtesy Kim Kunze)

She called the experience “powerful.” Working alongside other artists and specifically artists of color gave her more insight into a variety of different perspectives about how people were feeling. 

You couldn’t miss the artwork as you walked through the streets of downtown, and that’s also the case on the second floor of the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Three paintings that once hung on downtown businesses now hang on the walls of the upstairs hallway. Museum leaders say they hope when people see the paintings, it continues conversations about race for years to come.

“When people look at what happened last summer, what’s continuing to happen, the conversations that are happening about systemic racism, being able to have pieces in our collection and stories to look back at to bring that story full circle,” said Kate Kocienski, the museum’s vice president of marketing and public relations. “It’s really important for us to be able to share the stories and these pieces for future generations.”

The pieces became a permanent part of the museum’s collection when they were auctioned off last summer. 

“These pieces not only tell a story of something that’s happening present day, but also for future generations to look back and say, ‘Wow, that’s what happened,’ and the museum has artifacts that represent those stories. That’s what’s really important,” Kocienski said. 

Kunze plans to gift her piece to her cousins and said she hopes the intent behind the art continues, uplifting marginalized voices and creating lasting change.

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