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Live art show depicts mass lynching to provoke community conversation

Artist Sean Garrison's new show, "The Darkness In My Skin," includes disturbing imagery and painful emotions. He says he hopes it leads to healing.

ST PAUL, Minn — Inside the historic Mounds Theatre in St. Paul, Sean Garrison is working to bring a dark chapter of our nation's history into the spotlight.

"I'm painting a mass lynching," Garrison said, describing his latest show, "The Darkness in My Skin: A Live Painting Experience."

But the live art show, which features an immersive soundtrack, video and live painting, doesn't feature a typical canvas. Instead, Garrison is painting human effigies, as they hang from nooses on stage. 

He knows the imagery and multimedia will provoke painful or upsetting emotions, but he says the goal is to produce community healing. The 90-minute show includes time for community discussion among the audience.

"I decided to use that image because it evokes a particular feeling in people; it takes us directly back to a particular time in America's history that we know was ugly," Garrison said. "I didn't choose this image to shock people, it was to stop people. Stop and focus. We don't take the time to just stop and think about the experiences of other people."

Too often, Garrison says, that kind of collective focus doesn't happen unless there is a real life shock and tragedy that stops us. 

"This show, in part, was born, out of George Floyd's murder," Garrison said. "That day, when I saw what happened, I called my mother and I apologized to her. I apologized because I felt like my generation hadn't fought hard enough. Her generation went through the water hoses, the dogs, the cross burnings, all of these things. That moment galvanized my resolve to do whatever I could, as an artist to change the course of what we've got going on."

Garrison has used painting to follow through on that promise. KARE 11 was there when he began painting on the day Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder. That painting, "Walking On Air," captured the uncertainty and elation he felt that day. But as he reflected on that moment in the years since, he felt a call to go deeper.

Garrison: "To me, Derek Chauvin is a leaf on this tree we call America. Leaves die off and we sweep them to the side, and another leaf is born. I don't think we dig at the roots as much as I think we need to. My thing going into this is, are you brave enough to heal? Because you have to be brave to watch this."

Erdahl: "I was going to ask you about that because you say you have to be brave to watch this. What has it taken out of you to paint this? To paint effigies of a mass lynching?"

Garrison: "It's taken everything that I thought I had in me, out. Every ounce of courage I thought I had has been depleted. The most painful part was having to go online and learn how to tie a noose. I think it was 90 seconds for me to learn how to tie a noose. This weapon of mass destruction was created with such ease and was going to go on the neck of another human, and then delight was taken in that. Quite often, those humans looked like me."

Erdahl: "You call it a live painting experience. It is you painting, but it's also a discussion?" 

Garrison: "Definitely. The discussion, for me, is 80 percent of the total experience. It's meant to help you understand that you can go through this angst and this pain of seeing this, and knowing that after you express yourself and digest what everyone has just witnessed, then knowing that everyone is going to be okay."

Because for as difficult as the experience may be, Garrison says this time it will be art, not tragedy, starting that discussion.

"The only thing that is dying within this space, would be people's reality before they came into the room," he said. "People's honesty within themselves before they came into the room."

"The Darkness In My Skin: A Live Painting Experience," will be Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. and Sept. 17 at 4 p.m. Click here for tickets.

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