I decided recently to close up shop at my art studio in the Kaslosky building of downtown Palmer. Nope, I’m not shutting down my business. I’m just moving it elsewhere, due to the building owner’s removal of Black Lives Matter signage I had up in the windows.
I’m sharing this story so that it’s not something that happened in isolation. My message is primarily directed to Palmer property owners, businesses, and civic leaders: Black Lives Matter. This is a simple, baseline sentiment of truth for me. As an artist and a younger person with a burgeoning business, I believe I am someone our town would like to retain. But I won’t house my business where a simple statement of human rights is not tolerated.
Let me back up because as anyone who’s been in shouting distance of me recently knows, I loved that little studio. It represented a huge step in my career as an artist because it was my first ever dedicated art space. It was painful for me to shut it down.
I’ve painted since I was a teenager. But I decided to start painting in earnest late 2018, and scored the small space with a knockout view of downtown Palmer, the iconic water tower framed by Matanuska Peak. When I opened my art studio, it was a pinch-myself-is-this-real moment.
I was elated, and terrified. Paying rent, any rent, on a space would need to be supported solely by art. I’d never relied on my art income to pay bills before. But I was thrilled to find that I started selling paintings and merchandise, and had more than enough to cover rent. As I grew my business, I kept my dollars local as much as possible. I love and believe in Palmer, and I know that keeping money circulating here helps grow our community.
Enter: March 2020. With COVID-19 and subsequent social distancing measures, my art business revenue came to an abrupt halt. I have an underlying health condition, so I’ve been scrupulously avoiding extended indoor interaction. I rarely visited the studio. But, I had enough money in the bank to keep paying rent. I decided I’d hang on to the beautiful space, for now.
One of my few visits to the studio during the pandemic was in early June. My family and I went to the downtown Palmer rally following the murder of George Floyd. In my studio, we spread out posters on the floor and sharpied out the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in big block lettering. We plastered the posters in the window, visible from the street as people walked out toward the convening.
Over the course of the next few months, since I wasn’t using the studio to paint, I left the signs up in the window.
By August, the building owner insisted I remove the Black Lives Matter signage. “No political signage allowed in the building” was the newly added clause to the lease, apparently sparked by these posters.
It took me a few days to weigh my options. Ultimately, I decided to leave.
Why does this matter to me? I’m a white woman. I pride myself on being interested in and usually able to try and understand how and why people think differently from me. I value our small Alaskan communities in that we are not an echo-chamber here; we welcome differences of perspective. What is it, for me, about Black Lives Matter that was such a tipping point?
My art is all about connecting myself and others with a sense of awe. I live with a constant eye toward what my 90-year-old self will say about who I am and what I do now. I strive to fulfill my life, knowing that I only get one. I love doing anything I can to help others do the same. I believe we each have something to bring, if only we can clear out all that prevents us from realizing it. As someone who once suffered from chronic asthma and felt isolated and out of step in my own life, I remember what it’s like to have barriers to fully being myself.
My personal experience pales in comparison with generations of entrenched racism. To reflect on the systemic injustices against Black people and people of color that I see baked into our culture, in ways we can see and ways that are less clear, is a tragedy. It’s amoral, and it robs people and the very culture of the United States of innumerable potential. To think about a life cut short, the missed experiences, potential, and love, takes my breath away.
The painful legacy of slavery in the U.S. took place not all that long ago. It’s a shameful history; one I’d love to believe is fully behind us, healed, and wrongs righted. It is not behind us but thriving in our culture. Generations of white humans owned Black humans as property, as slaves, created wealth and prosperity for white families, while shoving Black people down. A bitter Civil War was fought over the “right” to own slaves, about five generations ago (if each generation is 27 years). Emancipation didn’t suddenly and miraculously turn public sentiment on its heel. Years of segregation, the very origin of our now-police force, the fight for Black suffrage, loaning policies that denied Black borrowers, siting of toxic industry in Black communities, and so much more, harmed and stifled generations of families. And the whispers as well as the blatant actions of racism threaded through many white families and institutions throughout the years.
Now, in 2020, the justice served when a white police officer kills a Black person is starkly different from when a white person is harmed. This is one of the many manifestations of continued racism. Racism doesn’t just go away because we want it to not exist — it takes work from communities of white people to undo.
A simple statement of “Black Lives Matter” is the bare minimum. Posting signs was literally the smallest action I could take. As is writing this piece. I think of 90 year old me looking back to this moment. I know I can’t live my own life with integrity when there were choices I could have made that even in some small way led to others living and fulfilling their own lives.
Palmer: I write this as a small business owner; a creative and a hard worker — the kind of artist-meets-savvy-marketer that draws in and retains money in our community from residents and tourists alike. Businesses such as mine attract the “creative class” that helps feed and build thriving business and civic districts. Palmer already has so many amazing attributes, and we have the potential to grow.
When it comes to values, I will put my money where my mouth is. I strongly suspect I’m not alone in this. I’ll figure out a new place to move my art business to, because I am lucky to be alive and to have that choice — those of us reading this article all do.
Allí Harvey is a business owner and resident of Palmer.