04 Aug BIPOC Celebration Mural (Part 1 of 3): Truth to Power club
It is also a memorial to Aidan Ellison.
New public art on Mountain Avenue.
BIPOC = Black, Indigenous & People of Color.
Created by Ashland High students & grads
to honor Rogue Valley People of Color.
Artist: Isa Martinez Moore.
Ashland Public Art series.
The BIPOC Celebration Mural is a bold art statement, located on a wall of Ashland High School but meant for the entire Ashland community. In this series of three articles, I hope to illuminate the creation of the artwork and the many layers of meaning embodied and implied in the artwork. I will devote Part 1 to the Ashland High School students who first envisioned a mural on this wall and then nurtured it step by step into being. In Part 2, you will meet the artist and see the painting process. Part 3 will introduce you to the people portrayed in the mural.
“This mural is a reminder, a gathering place, and a promise.”Simone Starbird, Truth to Power Club member, at the mural dedication.
Its meaning reaches back in Ashland history to the elimination of local Native American people and their culture in the 1850s. Back to the Oregon constitution of 1859 that prohibited Black people from settling in Oregon. Back to the local KKK marching white-hooded in Ashland’s 4th of July parade in 1922.
The mural’s portraits of living writers and activists for social justice (along with recently passed Grandma Aggie) provide a visual reminder that it takes many of us, through our daily words and actions, to help create the just society that we yearn for. By honoring the life of Black teenager Aidan Ellison (who was killed in Ashland November 23, 2020), the mural touches us with the need and urgency to reduce racism in Ashland and the Rogue Valley.
Its meaning looks forward to a day when we truly have “liberty and justice for all” (as we recite in the Pledge of Allegiance) in the United States of America and here in Ashland.
“Our name comes from…”
Our BIPOC Celebration Mural story begins with creation of the Truth to Power Club at Ashland High School. I like Truth to Power co-founder Isadora Millay’s opening line at the mural dedication on November 23, 2021: “Truth to Power lives at the corner of teen activism and community participation.” This public art mural is certainly an example of that.
She continued, “Our name comes from Quaker tradition. In a world rocked by climate change and inequities, we speak our truth to all the proponents of power in modern America. Our power doesn’t come from money or brute force. It comes from speaking our truth.”
The Truth to Power club’s origin
The club’s origin was a podcast several Ashland High speech and debate students put together for the National Public Radio student podcast challenge in May 2020. Out of 2,600 entries, their podcast was chosen as one of the fifteen finalists! You can listen to Truth to Power club podcasts here.
Along with faculty advisor Shane Abrams, they formed the club later in 2020 as the new school year began. Only two months after that, they and the community were rocked by the shooting death of Aidan Ellison around 4:00 am outside the Stratford Inn.
The mural’s origin
In October 2021, I spoke with Truth to Power Club members Anya Moore and Zia Brandstetter about the genesis of the BIPOC Celebration Mural. Anya replied, “The mural is one piece of our ongoing project called ‘our promise to Aidan,’ which began after Aidan was murdered last November. We realized that we didn’t want to do just one thing . . . when we all talked about it and then it fizzled out. We wanted to make sure the conversation carried on. As part of that, we wanted to make a podcast about it, which will be coming out in November. We also wanted to do something that was more permanent. We all kind of saw the lack of art at Ashland High School. So, to find something more permanent, we thought, ‘Why don’t we do a big art piece?'”
A mural team was formed: club members Isadora Millay, Mirandah Davis-Powell, Anya Moore and Zia Brandstetter, plus advisor Shane Abrams. They decided the mural would honor a variety of BIPOC writers and activists with a connection to Southern Oregon, as well as acting as a memorial to Aidan. This small group pulled off the multi-stage process of locating an artist, finding mural painting advisors, choosing the mural subjects, then presenting their design to and getting approval from the Ashland High School principal, the Public Arts Commission and Ashland City Council.
The Truth to Power club had to get approval of both the Public Arts Commission (PAC) and the City Council before painting could begin. They wanted to have it completed in time for a dedication date of November 23, 2021, the first anniversary of Aidan Ellison’s death.
They were on a tight timeline and getting projects approved through several layers of city bureaucracy can often be frustratingly slow. Club members shortened the process by presenting a masterful 38-page presentation to the PAC on July 16, 2021. They covered legal issues, budget, timeline, artist qualifications, the addition of two experienced consulting mural artists to assist lead artist Isa, maintenance of the mural, the meaning of the mural, plus extensive visuals documenting what would be painted on the wall. The PAC approved it at that meeting and the City Council soon after at their August 3 meeting.
PAC presentation highlights
I heard the Truth to Power mural team’s presentation to the Ashland Public Arts Commission at a Zoom video meeting on July 16, 2021. Club members stated that part of their vision for the mural was to “highlight contributions of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color (BIPOC for short) in our Valley,” as well as to “honor and celebrate the life of Aidan Ellison.” They chose to do this through public art that is educational as well as beautiful.
Their presentation went on to say: “The mural design is composed of seven portraits of BIPOC individuals whose legacies hold importance to the local community.” As I looked at the eight proposed portraits (including Aidan’s), I realized that I knew a little about four of the people and nothing about the rest. I was inspired to learn more about all of them. Truth to Power Club members hope that many people will have the same reaction I did. They hope people who view the mural will seek to learn more not only about these individuals, but also about how we can work together toward a less racist and more inclusive community in Ashland and the Rogue Valley.
The artist the mural team chose was recent Ashland High graduate Isa Martinez Moore. I will write in detail about Isa and the process of painting the mural in Part 2 of this series.
Introducing the mural subjects
“When it came time for choosing the subjects of the mural, we looked for those individuals whose work and activism have helped our community to grow in its inclusivity, compassion and equity.”Anya Moore, at the mural dedication
Here is a brief introduction to the people portrayed in the mural. Text in quotes below is taken from the students’ presentation to the Public Arts Commission. I will describe each person in much more detail in Part 3 of this series. The photos below show proposed portraits shown to the Public Arts Commission by artist Isa Martinez Moore.
“These portraits include:
Winona LaDuke – Indigenous environmentalist, economist, activist and author from the Ojibwe Nation of Minnesota. First Green Party candidate to receive an electoral vote.
Walidah Imarisha – African American writer, activist, educator and spoken word artist.
Tehlor Kay Mejia – First Gen. Mexican-American and LGBTQ author who grew up in Ashland.
Agnes Baker Pilgrim (Grandma Aggie) – Indigenous spiritual leader from the Takelma and Siletz Tribes in Grants Pass.
Michelle Alexander – African American author of The New Jim Crow and AHS alum.
Gina DuQuenne – Ashland City Council member, Co-founder of SO Pride.
Lawson Fusao Inada – Japanese American poet, 5th poet laureate of the state of Oregon.
Aidan Ellison – Former AHS student whose life and memory this mural seeks to honor.”
The above text is from the the students’ presentation to the Public Arts Commission.
The Truth to Power Club students’ caring, vision and drive has made an impression on me. It is a great example of community-driven public art.
References for the series of articles:
Alexander, Michelle. Her website is https://newjimcrow.com
Anon. Digital images at Minnesota State University, Mankato. https://aytch.mnsu.edu
Anon. “Lawson Fusao Inada,” Poetry Foundation website. [accessed 11/15/2021]
Anon. “Isa Martinez Moore, Editor,” The Rogue News (AHS paper), November 16, 2021. [accessed 11/16/2021]
Brandman, Mariana. “Winona LaDuke.” National Women’s History Museum. 2021. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/winona-laduke
Brandstetter, Zia and Moore, Anya. Truth to Power Club members. Interview, October 2021.
Cedar-Face, Mary Jane. “Winona LaDuke (1959-),” Oregon Encyclopedia. [accessed 11/17/2021]
Darrow, Allayana. “We are inheriting this world,” Medford Mail Tribune, August 21, 2021.
Duquenne, Gina. Interview, January 2022.
Duquenne, Gina. “Hello! Can I Help You?,” Medford Mail Tribune, April 5, 2021.
Ehrlich, April. “Oregon Town Grapples With Shooting Death of 19-Year-Old Aidan Ellison,” NPR.org, December 4, 2020.
Fong, Mimi. “Author Tehlor Kay Mejia Shares Why Representation in Literature Matters,” Disney Parks Blog, October 14, 2021.
Imarisha, Walidah. Interview March 2022.
Imarisha, Walidah. PDX Talks video, 15 minutes, describing her talks around Oregon called “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon: A Hidden History.” [accessed 4/2022]
Imarisha, Walidah. Her website is https://www.walidah.com/home-1
Imarisha, Walidah. “How Oregon’s Racist History Can Sharpen Our Sense of Justice Right Now,” Portland Monthly, March 2020. [accessed 2/17/2022]
Inada, Lawson Fusao. Interview, January 2022.
Kiper, Dmitry. “Michelle Alexander,” https://www.hwwilsoninprint.com/pdf/cbioy16_samplepgs.pdf [accessed 11/15/2021]
LaDuke, Winona. Interview, May 2022.
LaDuke, Winona. Website about her work, https://www.honorearth.net/just-transition [accessed 5/2022]
Mejia, Tehlor Kay. Her website is https://www.tehlorkaymejia.com.
Moore, Isa Martinez. Interview, September 2021.
Peace House. “Sorrow at the Murder of Aidan Ellison,” Peace House website. [accessed 2/18/2022]
Pilgrim, Agnes Baker (Taowhywee). Grandma Says: Wake Up World, Blackstone Publishing, 2015.
Sakamoto, Henry. “Japanese American Historical Plaza (Portland),” OregonEncyclopedia.org. [accessed 11/15/2021]
Truth to Power Club podcasts at anchor.fm
Vivrett, Tara (Truth to Power Club media liaison), and other Truth to Power Club members. Personal communications, October 2021 and other dates.
Wixon, Vincent. “Lawson Fusao Inada (1938-),” OregonEncyclopedia.org. [accessed 11/15/2021]