St. Thomas Profs Preserve Urban Art


Urban Art Mapping
The Urban Art Mapping Team enjoying a rare face-to-face meeting. (Courtesy Heather Shirey)

University of St. Thomas associate professor Heather Shirey is aware most of her students walk into her art history class thinking it’s all about ancient Roman sculptures and Michelangelo; but through the Urban Art Mapping Research Project, she wants her students “to see that art is all around us, and it’s a form of communication we’re all participating in.” 

Since 2018, Shirey, associate professor Todd Lawrence (English) and associate professor Paul Lorah (history and geography) have worked alongside a team of St. Thomas students to create online databases of street and protest art.  

Originally, they were only documenting the murals in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. But in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd’s murder, they have expanded their efforts.   

Their largest and fastest-growing database is the one dedicated to George Floyd and anti-racist street art. Most of the images that make up this database are contributed by the public. 

“Not everybody who’s submitting art thinks about art in the same way that we do,” Lawrence said. “Sometimes the images they take are not the way we would have taken them.” 

The impermanence of street art is one of the reasons it is so important to document.  

“What is true of low street art is that it’s ephemeral; it’s not going to last forever,” Lawrence said. 

It evolves quickly; there can be several different pieces of art in the same location at different times, he said. 

Shirey added, “You can look at an address like 301 Hennepin, and you can see that there was some graffiti that went up early on. And then you can see it later on some other panels painted in that location.”  

Through the database, these changes are recorded. 

The members of the Urban Art Mapping Research team have high hopes for what the database will be used for in the future. They want it to be used as both a research and an educational tool.  

Lawrence said he wants researchers to “look back and really have a more comprehensive understanding of what happened in terms of artistic expression that’s connected to the uprising in the movement.”  

While these databases have great potential to teach future generations about the reactions communities had to Floyd’s murder and the following uprising, it also has the power to connect them to that history. Through the Urban Art Mapping Research Project, they have the ability to see how the artists’ reactions evolved, see the changes in the art as they happened. It will give them the opportunity to think about the events that have happened in a deeper fashion than just a single picture of a mural would. 

Lawrence said even today, as these events are still playing out, he is “thinking about George Floyd every day. I’m thinking about the uprising every day. I’m thinking about people’s pain and anger and everything that goes along with that every day.”