Instant icon: Portrait of George Floyd added to River Trail’s ArtPath

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A stunning, 6-foot-tall portrait of George Floyd by Flint artist Isiah Lattimore is stopping joggers, bikers and strollers in their tracks as they pass under I-496 on the Lansing River Trail.

Lattimore quickly painted the portrait Thursday and Friday in an open square of embankment next to his 50-foot-long “St. Cecilia,” a recently completed mural for the Lansing Art Gallery’s outdoor ArtPath exhibit.

The portrait has instantly become a civic icon, as people stop to take photos, leave flowers or just lock eyes with Floyd’s compelling visage. The words “walk with me … let’s walk” are inscribed around the portrait, in a nimbus of gold and black.

A friend of Lattimore’s from Flint, Eric Phelps (his graffiti name is dtacheks), drove from Flint to add the ornate lettering.

The project came together breathtakingly fast. Lattimore called the Lansing Art Gallery at about 10 a.m. last Thursday, as widespread horror at the police murder of Floyd in Minneapolis peaked.

“I just wanted to do it that day,” he said. The gallery and the city of Lansing gave him the go-ahead that same afternoon.

“I was super fortunate,” he said. “That shows how everyone was affected, how everyone needed to do something.”

He rushed to the site, cell phone in hand for a reference photo, and finished the portrait by the next day.

The phrase “walk with me” is a nod to events last week in Lattimore’s home town.

“In Flint, when the sheriff came down and met with protesters, he basically said, ‘What do you want?’” Lattimore said. “One of the people said, ‘Walk with us,’ so he sheriff said, ‘Let’s walk.’ It ended very peacefully and I thought that was a very beautiful moment. I thought that’s what our response as a nation should be, ‘Let’s walk together.’”

Lattimore’s epic ArtPath mural, “St. Cecilia,” just south of the George Floyd portrait, is another direct response to a painful year.

The swirling panorama centers on a woman in a surgical mask, prostrate on the ground.

“You want to talk about themes that affect everyone, and obviously, the story of 2020 was the coronavirus,” Lattimore said. “But there’s a lot of other subtle narratives in there as well.”

St. Cecilia is the patron saint of music. In the mural, her eyes are burning with life force, despite her exhausted posture, suggesting that she’ll rise up and make mighty music some day soon.

Lattimore based the image on a celebrated statue by early 17th century sculptor Stefano Maderno. He painted her top half is in grisaille, a colorless gray that imitates sculpture.

“It’s kind of melancholy,” he said. “I guess it represents the state of the nation right now. She’s not dead but tired and going through a lot.”

Maderno created a shockingly realistic rendition of the martyred saint’s body as it was found, according to the church, when her tomb was opened in 1599.

But in Lattimore’s take, the figure is infused with bright colors that spring from luminous bubbles floating around her.

“It’s almost as if she’s in the process of coming into form,” he said.

The bubbles show up frequently in Lattimore’s work. While he was painting “St. Cecilia,” passers-by asked him what they are supposed to mean — are they God? Planets?

“I just like having them in there,” he shrugged. “They’re aesthetically pleasing.”

Playing with the bubbles gives him a rest from the rigorous work of getting the figures right.

“I guess the short answer would be that they’re making the figure come into being,” he said. “The swirls come back and forth from the figure to the bubbles, back and forth.”

Lattimore’s art seamlessly blends the punchy flow of graffiti with the voluptuous sensuality of old masters like Caravaggio (Lattimore’s favorite), Rubens and Rembrandt. St. Cecilia drifts in a web of swirling, calligraphy-like flourishes that almost, but not quite, resolve into words. The painting would be equally at home in the Flint Institute of Arts and the side of a train.

“I love graffiti art,” Lattimore said. It’s a great art form. But there is a lot of disconnect between artists working in that space and artists who came out of traditional settings like universities. There’s a loss in translation between the two. One side doesn’t understand the other very much.”

Lattimore did his share of tagging back in the day, before studying the old masters.

“Those forms are definitely inspired by graffiti, but I’m not really attempting any letter structure,” he said. “Letters are a lot like the face. Once they’re there, they’re so overpowering that people don’t look at other aspects of the work. They just want to know what it says.”

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