In response to the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, artist Arthur Brill launched the Ashland Peace Project — which is not just a work of art, but a series of conversations intended to meet people where they’re at.
Last summer, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis spurred protests over police brutality and racial inequality in every corner of the country. Even the little town of Ashland, VA, with just less than 8,000 residents, was affected.
As people nationwide grappled with the question, “What can I do?,” Ashland artist Arthur Brill found his answer in what he knows best: art.
Almost a year later, on March 27, Arthur Brill officially unveiled the Ashland Peace Project sculpture at South Taylor Street Park in Ashland – a 40-inch tall wooden peace sign painted in two skin-tone and covered with messages from residents. Mounted atop its base, the sculpture stands about seven feet from the ground to its highest point. It is one part of Brill’s project; he has also committed to host 35 one-hour long workshops with guest panelists to discuss challenging issues about peace and unity in America through June 2021.
“I think that’s what this peace project can do; it creates the vehicle for people to have what can be difficult conversations,” said Scott Garka, president of CultureWorks, an organization that promotes arts and culture in the Richmond and Tri-Cities region. “But I think great things can come out of it in terms of enriching the community in a new way, and helping us find a path forward.”
As Black Lives Matter demonstrations reached the small town in May 2020, Brill got curious. He decided to ask some questions online: Why are the people of Ashland taking part in the protests? Is it to support the national movement or to protest against the local police department? The following week, Brill was invited to another protest in front of town hall in support of George Floyd. This time, the artist wanted to take the conversations he had online into the real world. He decided to set up a table where he could invite people to join discussions about issues with the Ashland police.
“So as a focal point for that, I wanted to have something – a piece of art,” he said. That’s when the peace sign came into action.
The hand sign itself seems to have been made specifically for this project – but it wasn’t. The 40 inches tall sculpture had been sitting in Brill’s studio, Behind the Curtain, since 2014, after it had been gifted from a friend. Yet, almost overnight, Brill turned it into a symbol of hope and unity for the town and beyond.
Only 24 hours before the protest, Brill decided to paint the hand into two different skin colors. The artist stayed up all night painting. The next morning, he started writing messages on it. A couple of hours later, the sign was at Ashland town hall and residents started adding their own messages to the piece; without knowing it, the Ashland Peace Project was born.
Since then, Brill has brought the hand to several rallies and protests, including some to change the names of Hanover County’s Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School – which were both successfully changed in October 2020.
The peace sign is covered in messages: “May all the beings in the world be happy and free.” “Make it real, no more empty promises!” “Pray for the future of our children!” On the back of the hand, a long list of names of Black people killed by the police is painted, under the heading, “Say their names.”
“When I start reading the messages that are actually on the sculpture or when I start writing names from that list on there … something kind of transcendental happens, and I really feel the weight of the entire thing,” Brill said. “In the end, like I said, all I can do is what I can do – and this is what I can do. There’s a lot of cards on the table, and if it helps a little bit rather than hurts… then, that’s a good thing.”
Brill knew that for his project to have a meaningful impact on the community, he needed the support of the town.
In July 2020, Ashland’s town council voted to fund a new arts and culture incentive program to support local art businesses. Brill and two other winning artists were awarded $4,000 for the Ashland Peace Project. The program was built to be a three-way win, explained Joshua Farrar, Ashland town manager. Its goal is to support local artists, as well as meeting the town’s strategic goals, and being beneficial to the community.
This is how the Ashland Peace Project went from a symbolic statue to a series of 35 one-hour-long workshops hosted by Brill and panelists.
“It was really easy for me to justify that that would be a win for the community, regardless of how the conversations went,” Farrar said. “Having that conversation is a value in and of itself. So that’s where I saw the value, was making sure that Ashland wasn’t just being the sleepy little bucolic town – that we were having those hard conversations.”
The sculpture originally started with just the hand. But the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 prompted Brill to expand the statue to allow more space to write on. After the insurrection, Brill added a column as a base for the sign to emulate one of the columns in front of the Capitol.
The sculpture has an original crack that seems to split the piece in two. Again, Brill decided to use the original features of the sculpture to highlight his message and painted the crack in a bright red. After adding the base to the statue, the artist decided to continue that crack all the way down through the column to represent the foundational issues of this country. The crack becomes smaller as it goes up and finally disappears as the fingers pointing upward in a peace sign begin.
“His sculpture started with the hand. But people wanted to keep adding to it, they wanted more places to write, so he had to find a way to make it bigger. And that’s powerful to me,” Garka said. “The theme of unity is tremendous. It takes a lot of work to make unity happen. But if … more and more people in the town are getting behind that idea – as evidently they are because they want to put their words on there – then that gives me some hope that we can, one day, find that.”
For the next couple of months, Brill will keep hosting workshops and will keep bringing the sculpture to local events to continue to fill the sign with messages. This weekend, you can find the statue in Carytown for Chalk Up The Town. The event runs from Friday, May 14 to Sunday, May 16; the Ashland Peace Project statue will visit on Saturday the 15th.
In the future, Brill said, he hopes to take his sculpture across the state, and then later to the many other Ashlands in America.
While there are already many signs on the statue, one particularly grabbed Brill’s attention. At one of the rallies to change the names of the schools, a young girl came up to the artist and asked him to write something on there.
“What would you want me to write?” he said he asked her. “And she said, ‘Don’t be mean to Black people.’”
All photos via Ashland Peace Project