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Artist Says New Rutland Mural Was Fueled By Rage, Powered By Love

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Lopi LaRoe, courtesy
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The police killings of  George Floyd and other Black men and women have sparked protests around the world and across Vermont. The killings have also sparked public art with new murals in Burlington and in Rutland.

This past weekend, Rutland artist Lopi LaRoe put the finishing touches on a work she calls, "We Who Believe In Freedom Cannot Rest Until It Comes."  The words are from the lyrics of a song written by members of Sweet Honey In The Rock, as a tribute to civil rights activist Ella Baker.   

The lyrics begin: "We who believe in freedom cannot rest...We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers' sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons."

Dabbing orange paint, LaRoe filled in the letters L-M-N-O-P-I, which is the name she goes by as a street artist.

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Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
The Rutland artist known as LMNOPI finishes a large mural in Rutland on Saturday.

When she finally finished, she leaned back, checked her work and then unbuckled her harness and climbed out of the mechanical lift she’d been using for the last two weeks. “It goes way up,” she explained. “It's actually terrifying. But I've gotten kind of used to it.”

LaRoe’s canvas is a nearly four-story brick wall that towers above the restaurant Roots, in Rutland’s Center Street Alley.

Rutland resident Bill Lovett stood on the sidewalk this past weekend and snapped a photo of it.  “I like her eyes you know? A lot of hope in her eyes.”

Jen Denton, also from Rutland, walked by a few minutes later and also pulled out her phone to take a photo. “It’s stunning,” she said. “And it’s so poignant to where we are as a community, as a world, as a people.”

More from VPR: From Slam Poetry To Mr. Rogers: What Vermont Artists Have To Teach Us About Race

Rutland resident Nancy Brower tilted her head to one side, studying the face of the beautiful young Black girl painted in browns and tans across the brick wall.

“Somehow or other I feel her,” Brower said, “like, I sense her being.”

The girl’s brown eyes stare straight ahead and her face is framed by a cloud of hair.

Brower got visibly emotional looking at the enormous portrait. “Yeah, I have Black granddaughters, so I wonder how hard this journey is for them, and love them to bits.”

The girl in the mural appears with a giant sunflower. Its yellow petals blow to one side as if caught in a breeze, and words are painted on them.

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Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
Rutland resident Nancy Brower says the new mural moved her deeply and made her think of the journey her black grandaughters will have to take.

Ten- year-old Skyla Perkowski is from Brooklyn and is spending the summer in Wallingford. She read the words in the petals out loud to her father, Andrew: “Protect, love, nourish, nature and respect and trust…"

“Yeah,” Andrew responded, “There’s a lot of great words there right? What does the sign say right behind the person painting?”

“Black Lives Matter,” Skyla said.

“Black Lives Matter,” Andrew affirmed. “Exactly.”

More from VPR: Talking With Kids (And Parents) About Systemic Racism

To create the mural, Lopi LaRoe used mini rollers to paint over the bricks, a process she admits has been exhausting.

“I've been ripping my muscles every day for like six to eight hours a day with my arms going up and down, up and down, and pushing into the bricks,” she said.

LaRoe said her first attempt at the young girl’s face didn’t turn out right, so she started over until she felt she captured the exact look she wanted.

“She represents childhood,” LaRoe said. “And her name is Breonna - Brie. Named after Breonna Taylor.”

LaRoe said the police shooting of 26-year old Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky infuriated her, as did police killings of George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

“This mural was fueled by rage and powered by love,” she said.

LaRoe grew up outside Schenectady and moved to Rutland nearly two years ago.

The 55-year old says she’s fought for social justice and environmental causes for years and believes public art can help change the way people think.

“Art is a weapon," she added, emphatically. “It’s my only weapon.”

And sometimes, she said, there can be pushback. Last fall, a mural she painted in Rutland of climate activist Greta Thunberg was defaced and she had to repaint it.

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Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
Petals, part of the new mural in downtown Rutland.

LaRoe also knew she had to be sensitive with this mural. As a white woman, she said some people may question her motives. “You know, shouldn't a black person be painting that?” she said.

“And all I can say is, well, what would you have me paint?  I mean, if you don't allow me to use my ammunition in this fight, then you're going to lose another fighter.”

LaRoe said that not long after moving to Rutland, she got to know Mark Foley Jr. Foley is a local arts patron whose company, MKF Properties, owns a number of historic brick buildings in Rutland.  

After George Floyd was killed, LaRoe said, “I contacted Mark and I was like, ‘Hey, I want to do a Black Lives Matter mural.’ And he just was like, boom: ‘Let's do it.’ Like, he didn't even hesitate.”

The city has been trying to develop the Center Street alley space where the mural is located for years. Foley wouldn’t say how much the artwork cost, but said he had help paying for it.

Foley said Rutland Regional Medical Center, the Vermont Community Foundation, Green Mountain Power and Rutland Blooms, a local charity that works with United Way, all contributed money for the project, as did Roots, the restaurant located under the mural.

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Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
The artist LMNOPI said this Center Street alley project is the most physically demanding mural she's ever completed. She wore a harness and used a mechanical lift, which she said was terrifying at times. Instead of a brush, she used a mini roller to push paint across the bricks for six to eight hours a day. She says it took more than two weeks to finish it.

“It doesn’t happen very often that someone captures something and it’s so beautiful the first time that you experience it and I just felt like she nailed it,” Foley said.

Rutland resident Jen Denton agrees.

“I’m proud of Rutland. And honestly, if you had asked me two years ago if this was something I would expect to see or even maybe understand in a way that I understand today, the answer would have been no," Denton said. "So it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.”

Lopi LaRoe said members of the local NAACP have reached out in support of the mural, which she’s happy about. She hopes her art can make a difference.

"Yeah, I want, like, little kids to come and go, 'Hey, that looks like me. And, wow, she's huge and beautiful. And I'm beautiful.'”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck @NinaPKeck.

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