As a teenager, Kirk Washington Jr. expressed himself through graffiti.
Later, he turned to the written word, seeking and often finding a way to bring north Minneapolis and the rest of his community together to talk about issues sometimes swept under the rug — racism, housing inequities, police brutality, politics.
He was among the first to say, “Enough with talking. We have to do something,” said friend and fellow artist E.G. Bailey.
“He was a brilliant artist,” Bailey said of his friend, whom he called Bro Sun. “He was like a bright light. He filled up a room and was always engaged.”
On Monday evening, Washington’s voice was silenced when he was killed in a rush-hour car crash on Interstate 94 near Hwy. 280. He was 41.
Washington was headed toward St. Paul when a westbound car crossed the median and crashed into his Volvo station wagon, pushing it into a Metro Transit bus.
The driver of the other car, Nancy Scott, 52, of Michigan City, Ind., was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where she was in critical condition Tuesday.
In 2011, a concrete barrier near the crash site was shortened to improve sightlines for eastbound traffic, according the Minnesota Department of Transportation. After an earlier fatal crash there, in March 2015, plans were made to restore a barrier there by later this year.
When Bailey first saw Facebook posts about Washington’s death, he was in disbelief.
“It was a shock,” he said. “It’s devastating. We’re losing an advocate for the community. A fighter.”
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said the city suffered the loss of a great talent. “My heart is heavy,” she wrote.
Mpls has lost a great artist & community member, Kirk Washington. I wish peace in grief for his friend, family. https://t.co/MtE1niBvdo— Betsy Hodges (@MayorHodges) April 5, 2016
Washington was among several poets who wrote a stanza for the poem “One Minneapolis: A City in Verse” for Hodges’ 2014 inauguration:
language describes the ideas of the ones who speak it
… the single stories about the 5th ward …& the words we see that narrate gentrification, in real time, say a lot
I speak the gospel of the Northside, with the rage of lovers …
… and perceive in my dreams …
a unified breath that electrocutes fear and misunderstanding
… to remain apathetic is assured enslavement so … precisely, what is a dream?
‘Many tears shed’
In a post about his work, Washington said one of his goals as an artist was to foster social change.
“I hope to achieve a counternarrative to the preexisting single story about African-Americans with my work,” he said. “I absolutely love stories,” he wrote. “The story … gives cues to understanding human nature.”
As a teen, Washington took to the streets to express himself by “spray painting and using markers” around town, he said. “Of course this wasn’t legal,” he said. “But it gave me the sense that I could be intentional and express myself simultaneously.”
He turned to writing at age 17 while recuperating from torn knee ligaments. “It also gave me time to go inside myself,” he wrote.
At 19, he began reading poetry around town and took his first art class at a city park. He later joined a performance-art residency. “It changed my life,” he wrote.
He then spent 5½ years living in the United Kingdom, where he worked as an interdisciplinary artist.
Back in Minneapolis, Washington joined about a dozen other black male artists in forming a performance collective called Sirius B. “We were training to be artist activists,” Bailey said.
The focus was on issues that affected black men, such as gun violence, body issues, rites of passage. A year after Minneapolis hit a record 97 homicides and was dubbed Murderapolis, the group created a performance piece addressing gun violence.
Washington was never afraid to address the tough issues, often through art that could be found in the neighborhoods. “Kirk would push us not to take the easy route,” Bailey said.
Over the last year, Bailey said, Washington had been working with another artist to build a gathering space on the North Side that would be part coffee shop, recording studio, computer lab and meeting rooms.
As news of his death spread, those who knew him posted comments of grief and loss.
“He captured our struggle with such grace … many tears shed this morning,” wrote artist Camille Gage.