Hanging from every wall and tucked into every corner of a room in Valerie Castile’s house is the face of her son, Philando, rendered in paint and pencil.
The artworks began arriving soon after a St. Anthony police officer fatally shot him nearly two years ago, the aftermath captured and narrated by his girlfriend in livestream video that transfixed the world. The art kept coming.
Paintings, drawings, posters. A pair of handmade teddy bears.
“Each one of these pieces has its own story,” she said, unrolling an 8-foot-tall canvas.
The images gave Valerie Castile comfort as she grieved. Castile, 62, is a spiritual woman, and a voice — God? Philando? — kept nagging her to share the artworks with more Minnesotans so that they, too, might be comforted. Last year, she called the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s general line and left a voicemail.
That cold call launched an exhibit.
“Art and Healing: In the Moment,” which opens this weekend, showcases 15 works from Minnesota artists, created in response to Castile’s shooting. The show, in the small Cargill Gallery off the museum’s entrance lobby, includes portraits, videos and a ceramic sculpture of a broken heart, the word “ why” patterned over its right atrium. There are protest posters, too. One, depicting a raised fist, was signed by dozens of students after the death of the 32-year-old elementary school cafeteria supervisor they called “Mr. Phil.”
Along with the art, the exhibit features a sold-out talk Friday evening by attorney and author Bryan Stevenson, founder of Alabama’s Legacy Museum on slavery, lynching and racial segregation.
Bringing Castile’s story into this encyclopedic museum gives it weight, artists said. The show also illustrates the changing role of art centers, as they attempt to host difficult conversations and act as hubs for social action during a time charged with calls to decolonize historically white institutions.
“Younger audiences are really demanding that their local museums stand up to contemporary relevance — and walk the walk,” said Kaywin Feldman, director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. “To do that, you’ve got to do projects like this, that really reflect the community at large.
“All the good and the bad and the beauty and the trauma. All of it together.”
These contemporary projects sometimes receive pushback from more traditionally minded museumgoers, Feldman said. “I completely understand their perspective. But I always try to say that there’s a 500,000-square-foot building here where if you want to look at French impressionism, you can.”
Valerie Castile’s voice message, which she left about a year ago, quickly made its way to Nicole Soukup, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art. She and two colleagues visited Castile’s home, then in Robbinsdale. The artwork was everywhere.
“It was a moment of awe,” Soukup said. “To see that generosity from our community and that support. It was overwhelming and beautiful and yet heartbreaking.”
In February, when Valerie Castile moved to Brooklyn Park, on a quiet cul-de-sac, she dedicated the front room to Philando. In a way, she said, this is his house — its purchase made possible by the settlement she received. “We wouldn’t be here if this horrific thing hadn’t happened,” she said. She keeps the artworks in that room, along with her only son’s first video game controller and a folder full of court documents, some showing the dozens of times he was stopped by police over the years.
A black-and-white protest sign leans in the window sill, visible from the street.
‘One of the hardest projects’
Sarah White cried as she watched the cellphone video, taken in the seconds after police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Castile. Castile’s girlfriend streamed the aftermath on Facebook, while her daughter sat in the car’s back seat.
First, White responded as a mother: “I went into a panic.” Then, she responded as a masseuse and healer, providing essential oils, sage and body work to protesters. Then, the DJ, musician and photographer went numb.
White’s daughter finally inspired her to respond as an artist. Mica Sol, 5 years old at the time, “was just out there, dancing,” White said. She picked up her camera and started filming. “It wasn’t choreographed. It wasn’t planned.” Her daughter knew the truth of what happened to Castile, White said, because they had “really tough conversations.”
Still, she danced.
The two-minute video, called “Raising Black Joy,” comes toward the end of the Minneapolis Institute of Art exhibit. It’s been shown before, first as part of a project pulled together by Pollen Midwest, weeks after Philando’s death, then at New York’s International Center of Photography, in a show titled “Black Lives (Have Always) Mattered.”
Museums across the country have grappled in varying ways with police shootings of men whose names are tattooed into the consciousness of America: Michael Brown, Stephon Clark and Philando Castile among them. In late 2015, the Smithsonian announced that its new National Museum of African American History and Culture would be collecting posters, photographs and artifacts from the Black Lives Matter movement.
This exhibit, in Minneapolis, has kept Feldman up at night.
“It’s one of the hardest projects we’ve done,” she said during a recent interview in her office. “And we want to get it right.” That’s partly because of the subject matter, which is tough. But it’s also because some museums have gotten it wrong.
In the May issue of Apollo magazine, Feldman noted that “changing demographics have brought identity politics front and center in art museums, engendering angst in museum leadership across the country.” In 2017, the Whitney Biennial faced protests for its inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket,” a white artist’s depiction of the dead Emmett Till, whose murder in 1955 ignited the Civil Rights movement. Artists and activists have demanded that museums consider not only the content, but who’s creating it.
“With Nicole and I being white,” Feldman noted, “it’s not our story to tell.”
The museum created and curated the exhibit with the help of an advisory panel packed with artists of color and community leaders. They considered putting the works beside historical depictions of trauma and pain, culled from the museum’s collection. They weighed whether to include artists from around the country. But in the end, Soukop decided to keep the exhibit focused on this event, this place.
“I was impressed by the diligence of Mia,” said Leon Wang, a St. Paul designer who participated in the advisory panel and has three posters in the show. “They’re trying to do this right. To listen and understand the conversations and the issues, the sensitivities.”
Other institutions have fallen short, Wang noted.
“It’s a huge step,” he continued. “They have the weight of decades of being part of the status quo, of institutionalized everything on their shoulders.
“They’re trying to break out of that.”
Bringing pain to light
One afternoon last week, Castile arrived at the museum to preview the exhibit. She hugged Soukup in the lobby, which was buzzing with teenagers and couples getting coffee. “We can make any adjustments,” Soukup assured Castile, as she pulled aside the curtain and led Castile into the small gallery.
Inside, it was quiet.
From behind her gold, cat-eye sunglasses, Castile looked left, then right. She nodded at the first sculpture, a ticking clock. She leaned toward a wall of portraits, fashioned out of oil and acrylic paint, tissue paper and pencil. She stood before the intricate quilt. Each time she paused, she murmured, “That’s just beautiful. Beautiful.”
After walking through the gallery, asking questions along the way, Castile again hugged Soukup — harder this time. “You did an awesome job, my sister,” she said. “This is about our community ... their response, their pain. And you brought it to light.”
“You made the call,” Soukup reminded her. “I did make the call,” Castile said, “but you made it happen.”
The pair talked big picture, then dove into small details. With warmth, anger and a little sadness, Castile spoke again, as she often does, about Philando. His perfect attendance: “Every other month, he had to fight a ticket. But he held that job for 13 years.” His love for his students: “He didn’t have children biologically, but he had thousands.” His quiet nature: “You couldn’t drag two words out of that young man. But he’s talking loud right now.”
Throughout, Castile’s eyes kept returning to the penned drawing of her son, hanging across the room.
“Just look in his eyes, baby,” she said. “Look in his eyes. He’s watching.”