BUFFALO, N.Y. — As Western New York last weekend marked the somber one-year anniversary of the racially motivated mass shooting that left 10 Black people dead and three more people wounded, others around Buffalo decided to act on the community’s continued talk about the need for a memorial.
As a result, a handful of Buffalo-area artists and activists have unveiled The Landon Street Unity Mural Project, a giant blue work of art on a corner across the street from Tops Friendly Market, where the shooting took place.
The project on the city’s predominantly Black East Side was the brainchild of local Black small businessman Gary Heard, who grew up on Landon street and personally knew several of the victims. It was important to Heard that they were remembered, and remembered in a way that was a true expression of the individuals and the surrounding neighborhood.
Heard’s vision was of a place where the lives of the people themselves could be contemplated and remembered, not just a date and an awful event. He had a vision of how he wanted the mural to look, but he had no painting experience on that scale, no money, and he didn’t own the building that included the wall he was eyeing.
About a week after the shooting, Paula Connors and her husband, Kevin, had come to the site of the shooting to pay their respects. Connors saw Heard consoling a sobbing woman and her heart ached. She wanted earnestly to do something, anything, but was mindful of not wanting to come off as intrusive or a “white savior.”
“I felt out of place but I just went up, introduced myself to him, and I asked what could a white woman like me possibly do that could have a meaningful impact?”
It was fate. Gary told her that he needed permission from the building’s owner for a mural. As it turned out, Connors knew someone who knew someone who knew the owner, and she secured his glad consent.
Connors works part-time at Wild Things Artisan Gallery so she began by raising interest in the project among her artist friends. She made phone calls, wrote grant requests, and secured donations from places such as Home Depot, 84 Lumber, and financial aid directed to them from Buffalo City Council President Darius Pridgen, a Democrat, and also the office of New York State Sen. Tim Kennedy’s, D-Buffalo. Connors said it was a shock to see first hand the white privilege antiracism activists have been talking about for so long, as it became clear to her that having a white person as a spokesperson helped generate funds and support.
“That was really painful for me to witness, but it’s true that my white privilege got me the ability to access politicians, write grants, and do the things that the project needed,” she said.
Heard had several artists lined up to work on the project with the assurance of remuneration once funds were attained. Many couldn’t afford to wait and had to move on to other projects. Heard then reached out to his friend, Johnfredrick Daniels.
Daniels recounts that Heard told him “we don’t have no money, no budget, we just gotta’ come out here and figure it out.”
Daniels came to art after he experienced in a short period of time the death of his infant child and the dissolution of his marriage. That was in 2018. In therapy, it was suggested that he needed an outlet for his grief. He’d done a little drawing and painting throughout his life, but now it had taken on a new urgency.
“Before long, it just started becoming a piece of me,” Daniels said. “It was releasing all my stress, I was able to tap in therapeutically, and then reach out to other people that might have lost a loved one.”
Daniels’ friendship with Heard was one of the things that brought him through that rough patch in his life. During their talk about the mural, Heard shared what he had in mind and Daniels brought it to life in form and color, taking over the painting side of the project. Suggestions from passers-by on the street were also incorporated – as was some of the leg work. Daniels didn’t hesitate to solicit random people’s help if he was already high up on a ladder and didn’t want to climb down for the next can of paint or a clean brush.
As sweeping as it is, The Landon Street Unity Mural Project is far from complete. Plans are still being made (and financial support is still needed) to add benches, lights and flower pots to turn this spot into a place where people can gather to remember loved ones who have passed, the outpouring of support at such a harrowing time, the sense of community that deprived that shooter’s bullets of his aim to dampen the spirit of this neighborhood. To get involved, contact Paula Connors at Wild Things, 716-882-3324.