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‘Art Is Not Always Easy’: Gainesville 352 Walls Selects Artists for New Social Justice Murals

In downtown Gainesville, three crosswalks are painted like the rainbow to highlight the resilience of the LGBTQ+ community. A convoy of colorful capuchin monkeys looks down on Northwest Third Avenue. 

Gainesville is home to art that celebrates local trailblazers, such as educator A. Quinn Jones and fire chief Donald J. King, and pieces that possess the passion of a nation, including the Southeast Fifth Avenue Breonna Taylor mural.

These pieces are all attributed to artists working with the 352 Walls Gainesville Urban Art Project. 

Gainesville Parks and Recreation Cultural Affairs Manager Russell Etling said the initiative has helped to facilitate over 80 murals by local artists and 37 pieces from traveling professionals since its start in 2015. This October, 352 Walls hopes to present the city of Gainesville with 12 new temporary murals.

“It was started as a tourism development initiative,” he said. “But it also had a great impact as a quality of life enhancer for our neighbors, and those who live, work and play particularly in the downtown district.”

While the artists can present their own ideas for the new murals, all 12 must pertain to the same theme: social justice. 

The Gainesville City Commission came to the Parks and Recreation Cultural Affairs division to encourage recognition for the national reckoning for social justice after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.

“Social justice is a theme that’s very diverse,” Etling said. “It can range from, obviously, the Black Lives Matter movement to LGBTQ rights to immigration issues.” 

Etling said he hopes the murals will provide a catharsis for the Gainesville community to express its desire for a better world and an opportunity to find a moment of beauty juxtaposed with dark times. 

The due date for artists to submit applications to participate in the project was Sept. 21, he said. Six jurors, made up of curators, art advocates and community social justice representatives, judged the submissions.

According to consultant and curator Raquel Vallejo, the criteria included artistic ability, suitability of the artist’s individual style, consideration of gender, racial and ethnic identity in relation to the entirety of the project and availability.

There is currently in a three-way tie for the top 12, Vallejo said, but the decision should be finalized around Oct. 7.

Artists applied with a portfolio of their previous work and a sketch for their design pertaining to the theme, she said.

The selected artists will begin painting Halloween weekend and will be allotted three weeks to complete the project on their own time, Etling said. The team hopes pieces will be finished in time for 352 Walls to celebrate its fifth anniversary in November. 

The murals will be painted on 8-by-8 panels, so the pieces can be moved multiple times over the tentative two-to-three year span of the project, said Vallejo. She hopes the moving panels will give more Gainesville residents a chance to view the project. 

“Personally, I think it [social justice] needs to be addressed immediately,” she said. “It’s happening around the country. It’s not just us, and this city wants to have a voice in this movement.”

Vallejo said she believes artist Renda Wright’s homage to Breonna Taylor provides a perfect example of art’s ability to allow a small town to elevate a national movement. 

The Gainesville community will be able to watch the selected artists complete their murals while following social distancing guidelines and can follow the progress through the organization’s Facebook page.

Etling said he believes art can have an important job in the realm of social justice. 

“I think that art plays an important role in our day-to-day lives — not just from the perspective of things that are beautiful, but also as a vehicle for us to think a bit more about the world around us,” he said. “Art is not always easy. It can be controversial.”


Avery Lotz is a University of Florida sophomore majoring in journalism. She started working as a News Writer for Her Campus UFL in September 2020. Lotz has covered the Alachua County metro beat and is interested in political reporting.