SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Brunswick, Ga., is back in the national spotlight as a trial is underway for three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. He's the 25-year-old Black man shot to death last year while jogging. A mural memorializing Arbery has become a focal point for racial justice advocates. And its creator is working to expand that conversation. NPR's Debbie Elliott has more.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIRHORN BLARING)
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The start of the trial brought people to the streets of Brunswick.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Whose side are you on?
ELLIOTT: The day before jury selection began, some 200 marchers ended their procession on a corner where Marvin Weeks has painted a two-story portrait of Ahmaud Arbery. It's on the side of a building that's being redeveloped as an African American cultural center.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Justice for Ahmaud.
ELLIOTT: The crowd stayed for an outdoor barbecue sponsored by an equal justice group. Weeks says this is what he'd hoped to see happening around the artwork.
MARVIN WEEKS: I think that's very important - a gathering place, you know? Because my work really centered around neighborhoods because there's always a meeting place, a place to do the call and to talk about the issues that's going on. So, yes, I think the mural does that.
ELLIOTT: The mural is adapted from Arbery's high school graduation picture. He's smiling in a tux. Weeks painted it on a wall of tabby, the method brought by enslaved Africans that uses sand, seashells and lime to form a strong, stucco-like siding.
WEEKS: And it gave it a different whole concept with the different textures to it. And when you look at it closely, I think you see pathways of different things and still - so I thought it was a perfect element to illustrate him in.
ELLIOTT: Weeks, who is 67, grew up in Brunswick in a house not far from here. He left as a young man to pursue his art career in Miami but has remained rooted in his home community. And now in the aftermath of Arbery's killing, he's spending more time here. He's planning another art installation on this corner.
WEEKS: Yeah, check by and see what I'm doing, see the progress because it's going to be an art piece for the entire Brunswick to bring the community together.
ELLIOTT: So we did check back in two days later, after the barbecue was over and demonstrators had moved their lawn chairs to the front of the courthouse for the opening of jury selection.
WEEKS: Beautiful, fall-like days - it's perfect for producing art.
ELLIOTT: Weeks is coating large plywood cutouts with white primer.
WEEKS: It's kind of rough, but it's going to - by the time I paint over it and bring it to completion, it'll be something.
ELLIOTT: These will be the base for his plan to transform a rusty signpost left over from a restaurant demolished years ago into something new.
WEEKS: So that's going be, like, going up, and you'll see, like, a big bulb of a tree - is how I'm trying to do that installation. And to me, that's the budding of some plant, and that's my vision. Yeah.
ELLIOTT: Weeks incorporates elements of the natural world into his work.
WEEKS: I've got some oak tree leaves in there, then I picked these recently from Brunswick. And I'm placing them...
ELLIOTT: And the oyster shells.
WEEKS: And oyster shells, right.
ELLIOTT: Weeks recalls with fondness growing up among Brunswick's salt marshes and Spanish moss-draped oak trees and digging in his yard for shards of pottery and other fragments of history. He says he was influenced by his mother's green thumb.
WEEKS: My mother - I got the urge from her to change a neighborhood. You just go, and you plant a flower, and you'll change that neighborhood.
ELLIOTT: Now Weeks is trying to change Brunswick by broadening the conversation to include stories that have been hidden or hushed over decades.
WEEKS: It's a print from the Tunis Campbell that I've done. That's Tunis Campbell.
ELLIOTT: He unfurls a portrait of Tunis Campbell, a Reconstruction-era figure he wants to include in the installation.
WEEKS: And the legacy he left along the coast that people have kind of hidden and not talked about.
ELLIOTT: Campbell was a key African American leader, a military governor for communities of formerly enslaved people on Georgia's Sea Islands. Former slaveholders eventually ran them off the land. Weeks says not acknowledging all that has happened here allows history to repeat itself. And that's how he sees Ahmaud Arbery's killing - a tragedy that was little known when it happened in February 2020. It wasn't until months later when graphic cell phone video was leaked that Arbery became another name to call in the movement for racial justice. The video shows three white men chasing Arbery with pickup trucks as he's running through a neighborhood on the outskirts of town. When he's cornered, Arbery fights back and is killed by three shotgun blasts.
Weeks says he couldn't help but think about his childhood when he and friends would cut through alleyways in white neighborhoods.
WEEKS: A pickup truck was the enemy. Yeah, you would be - you would walk to a store, and people would pass you in the back of the trucks, and they'll holler at you and throw something and say words, yeah. That was a common thing, yeah. So every person my age and down could tell you that was the fear - you see a pickup truck coming.
ELLIOTT: So when you all saw this video, every man your age in Brunswick, Ga....
WEEKS: Knew. You attribute that - my brothers talk about it now, we attribute that - that that was - you know, you know what that was.
ELLIOTT: Weeks takes his painted panels outside. They're blindingly white on the lawn in front of the Arbery mural.
WEEKS: Yeah, I'm just going to put them in the sun to dry.
ELLIOTT: Next, he will hot glue leaves to the panels, then start painting on the detailed portraits and scenery from Brunswick's environment. Weeks says he thinks a racial divide persists because people haven't been honest about their shared history and interconnectedness.
WEEKS: Everybody's saying, be quiet. Calm down. The outsiders are coming in, as if there's something to hide. And so I think we are continuing that old - everything is all right. Show everybody from the outside coming in that it's OK. It hasn't been OK.
ELLIOTT: Weeks says it won't be OK until people can acknowledge that Brunswick belongs to all of its citizens, no matter their race.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Brunswick, Ga.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.