On June 2, 27-year-old acrylic portrait artist and graphic designer Ezra Kalmus collaborated with Soapbox Tees clothing brand owner Stacey “Sun” Smith to paint a mural on the wooden boards that covered GOODS at 1317 Main St. during the Black Lives Matter protests. The duo spent about three hours painting the mural, which included black-and-white fists that mimic the Soapbox Tees logo layered over vibrant hues of green, pink, yellow, and purple. We chatted with Kalmus about his vision for the mural and what it meant for him to be able to create public art during a pandemic.
What inspired this project?
People were tagging Fuck the police and a lot of profanity, and there were some murals popping up here and there. I hit up [Soapbox Tees]—her logo is a black-and-white fist— and asked if she’d like to collaborate with me on a project to bring some bright colors and prettiness to Main Street rather than profanity. She was like, I don’t know how to paint! And I’m like, You can still help me! So I made some stencils of her fist [logo], and I went down there and was looking around, and there’s a lot of text everywhere on the murals, but I just wanted to use some strong imagery. I think the imagery speaks a lot more than any words we could have put on it. As individuals, we [ask], What can we do to help? Can we go downtown and march? Hand out water bottles? Donate money? And painting to spread positivity and just putting something in front of people where they’ll walk by it and think Oh, that’s really beautiful—I just wanted to be a part of that.
What was your vision for the mural?
My vision [for this mural was to portray] human beings coming together to conquer the toxicity of the human nature. I think we all look forward to the day where everybody stands together to fight for each other and try to build a more beautiful world for us to all live in. The bright colors and all the hands together represent unity and fighting oppression.
Were you commissioned for this?
Absolutely not. [It was] completely voluntary. I wouldn’t have accepted any money.
I’m a native of Over-the-Rhine. I went to SCPA growing up, and I’m one of the artists who has a lot of merchandise stocked up at GOODS. I had my second exhibition at GOODS in March before COVID-19. That store has done a lot for me, and there’s a lot of powerful imagery and revolutionary pieces of artwork and clothing in it. The second I saw it in person, I thought, This little shop is my home.
What’s so important about public art?
You walk by a brick wall that has nothing on it and continue on with your day, but if you walk by something that you’re forced to look at, your mind is taken somewhere that it wasn’t naturally already at. When your brain notices something, it soaks it up, and sometimes it can change your perspective. And I think that’s what we need today. I think we need people who are willingly or unwillingly blind to everything that’s going on to be able to have that chance to have their perspective changed…. It’s never too late to understand that you’re wrong about something and to accept it and try to make changes. You’re never too old to learn and soak up information. The most important thing about public art, especially when it comes to global issues [like racism], is not everybody wants to listen to what they’re being told, but if you throw something in their face that’s so pungent, it might give one person the chance to change their mind. And that’s completely worth it.
How was this project different from the art you typically create?
I had a vision and my heart just helped it. It was a little less thought out, and it just came from what we were feeling at that time, after all these terrible things happened. I feel like the world needs art right now more than ever. It feels good to give that. This would definitely be the first time that I have painted for a public message. I guess this being the first type of [protest] that I’ve encountered in my life, it only felt right to go down and support my fellow community [through my art]. Most of my work is done in the studio. [Painting the mural] was not something necessarily I needed to do; it was something the community needed me to do.