This spring Invest STL is taking time to lift up voices, stories and neighborhoods to help us reflect on 2020 and celebrate some of our brighter moments of connection and impact in St. Louis neighborhoods. We sat down with some of our partners to look at their highly collaborative and responsive work spawned by the newly created Neighborhood Solidarity Fund and the urgent needs 2020 amplified in the community. Each Monday, over the next few weeks we will introduce a neighborhood leader to share perspective on what 2020 looked like in their neighborhood and how they were able to channel hope in challenging times.
Dr. Paulette Sankofa, founder and CEO of Peace Weaving Wholeness, reflects on 2020 and the Doors of Old North project that she produced with artists Andrea Hughes and Luisa Otero Prada. Doors of Old North is a dynamic and powerful expression of the convergence of art, wellness, and neighborhood improvement. It’s this type of emergent action that sprung up in 2020 through the Neighborhood Innovations in Connectivity grant, one of three separate opportunities created by the Neighborhood Solidarity Fund, a COVID-19 funding response developed by Invest STL in consultation with community partners and neighborhood leaders.
Dr. Sankofa and the women of the NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) in the Old North neighborhood put a joyful spin on the work of looking out for each other, bringing together beauty and strategy to respond to community needs. The wonder of the imagery, the color, the themes, the Doors of North St. Louis have a lot to offer us, if we pause to look. We sat down with the artists team to learn more about the project and how the challenges of 2020 pushed them to fall back on their creative powers.
Today we’re here to explore the concept of connectivity and how it inspired you all to push this creative effort forward and to bring this vision to life, and we also want to make that frame a little bit broader and invite you to speak about your human experience throughout 2020. So while our conversation is connected to the Doors of North St. Louis project, feel free to go beyond those boundaries and speak to neighbors you interacted with or even personal struggles or personal inspirations that may have cropped up throughout the experience of the work.
I just want to put that on the table as we get going here. I guess to start, I’d like it if each of you could introduce yourselves, tell us your name, organization, and neighborhood we are in.
Dr. Paulette Sankofa:
I’m Dr. Paulette Sankofa, founder and CEO of Peace Weaving Wholeness, we are located in Old North, but we serve the north corridor of St. Louis City.
I’m Andrea Hughes, I’m a neighbor in Old North St. Louis and I’m with Paulette Sankofa and Peace Weaving Wholeness. I am an artist and serve as the president of Zuka Arts Guild, also in the neighborhood.
Luisa Otero Prada, I am a visual artist, I am independent, but also a member of Zuka Arts Guild and work with Paulette and serve on the board of Peace Weaving Wholeness since 2018. I have been involved in Old North since I met them in 2017. I live in North County, but I am really attached to this part of the city in the Old North neighborhood. I love it.
I think we should also say that we are all CAT’s [Community Artists Training Network]- aren’t we?
Four CAT’s plus Shannon.
I have not done the CAT program, so I need to go get educated and then I’ll come back. I want to. I am definitely interested.
We will nominate you. We are behind you 100%.
Paulette, will you start by telling us about the project concept? How you conceptualized the idea of Doors of North St. Louis and what impact you felt it would have on the neighborhood and the folks in the community?
Starting in February of 2020, I contracted COVID-19. That was before people really knew what it was, there was no place to go, I had to stay at home. Andrea was delivering orange juice and hanging it on my back door. It was just a whole process.
In the midst of that, we had originally looked at another grant where we were going to buy billboards to create images about peace and well being and try to create a culture of peace in North St. Louis as a part of our overall program for Peace Weaving Wholeness.
Andrea and I had talked a number of times and I had talked about doors. How could we create something public? Having your grant as a catalyst encouraged other organizations and businesses to partner with us too, so that they could be a part of this whole thing. Trying to have these images [in the public view].
I talked to Stephen Acree at Rise and I said we wanted to do a couple doors and he said, “What about all of them?” I said then you need to match the money that we got from Invest STL. And they did! They kicked in some money. It kind of snowballed from there.
Luisa and Andrea were the lead artists. Luisa was responsible for coordination and they became the anchors. I could fall into the background and support, but they were the real life of the project. They came up with designs and ideas, and took the idea of creating a culture of peace and wellness and what could that mean, because sometimes people could only come out to go to the store and when they came out they would be able to see one of these images.
I like doing the project in Old North because the idea is for Old North to be an arts center. There are little pockets of art all over the place in Old North, so this is a perfect place for the neighborhood doors project. I love being involved in projects in the neighborhood, especially when it has to do with art. It made it feel really special to be there and be a part of it.
You know, come to my neighborhood! Yeah, I did that, I did that, I did that! I bring my family in from out of town and it’s a good feeling to walk around and show some of my artwork without having to actually go to a gallery.
It was one of those projects that just came at the perfect time. As Paulette mentioned, she was thinking about doors. Maybe a couple years ago, when she painted her door, everybody was asking about it in the neighborhood. Curious about how much it would cost, wanting their doors painted, things like that. She painted her door a couple years ago and it caused some attraction and she kept thinking, “I want to do the doors of North St. Louis.” And this was the perfect time because it was an outdoor project, it improves the neighborhood, it does many things at the same time. Everybody was indoors, but we were outside painting. It was a way to interact with the neighbors and neighborhood. It was an uplifting project for ourselves and for the neighborhood at the same time.
What was the response from the wider neighborhood? What were people saying about the project?
There is always, in the news, we get a lot of negative press in North St. Louis. And in one of the clips in the video, Andrea talks about how there are lots of wonderful people here. We are literally an artists colony in Old North St. Louis and we now have a public art museum, people can come to the neighborhood and now there is a new narrative that is emerging from [the doors project]. It’s not going to end, we are hoping to do it again this summer. Maybe even partner with the Heart Association and other people who are doing doors now, or the Cancer Society. I think that there are other ways to expand it, but for me it was important that I was able to employ local artists. Whatever funds we get into the program, we try to share with local artists and other people in the local community. So that the money turns over in Old North before it goes out of the community. There were a lot of things that grew out of that seed money that you all gave. You all [Invest STL] invested literally, and through that investment we were able to get dividends coming back to the community. People look at those doors and people don’t mess with those doors. Nobody is coming along and doing anything to them, they respect them. That’s a big deal, that is a huge deal. And we’ve got plenty of graffiti artists in the neighborhood, so next time I am hoping too, to add that dimension. I know that there are other neighbors who want their doors done. Some private citizens paid for their own when we ran out of money.
The response was incredible. It’s a response to the message we are sending out. The message is the color, the message is the theme. We are trying to do something without telling the people, don’t do this, or do this. So as we worked, we decided to find a theme for every block and would see what people on each block were telling us. So we have the garden block, a block where we decided to do music, the wellness block, and diversity. So that was the idea to have a few themes and the message of art, color, and beauty. That’s it, without any other agenda! The response was amazing, people telling us thank you, this is beautiful, curious why we were doing the doors, always positive.
When we were doing some private property, we did the Bee Center, right there at the corner of 13th Street and St. Louis Avenue. We call it the Beehive. I did the door with the bees and all the flowers, that one was one of my personal favorites. It led to another project where they wanted signs with bees in the front yard.
Another woman has a fence on Market and Blair, she wanted an African theme, so Luisa and I came up with a concept and we combined everything that she asked for. She wanted something to speak to the neighbors to say that this is unity and this is something beautiful. So we did requests, something we had never done before on that scale. It was tremendous.
One woman wanted something in green and since we were doing the themes of entertainment, prosperity, and peace, I painted Josephine Baker with a green dress on. The woman was just over the moon with that! Downstairs from that the woman wanted something elegant so I painted a chandelier for her and she was really happy. It was a good combination of speaking to the neighborhood, plus making the people who have to go in and out of those doors happy too.
It helped a lot of businesses to come out of their comfort zone too because I think they were afraid of putting up images, you know. I suspect that eventually they are going to want some color on the front doors of some of their places. The whole idea is to help them reach the point where they can say, “this is going to help my business because tourists are going to want to come and see the place that has the most painted doors and the most beautiful public art work.
I have been trying to raise money to buy Peace Polls. Which is the next level because I did a Peace Polls project in Minnesota and even though I wasn’t doing research at the time, it was funded by the state of Minnesota Injury Prevention. And what we found was that the liquor stores started to report that people didn’t bother their flowers, where these Peace Polls went up violence went down in the community. And again, those are all public health issues. So if we can continue to use our funds to support well-being in the community and find ways of expanding that to help artists and other people in the community find ways to be engaged, then I think we are meeting our goal.
Speaking to what inspired you the most about the projects, where you were able to find hope throughout this year, and the connectivity between residents, the larger neighborhood, people coming into the neighborhood, and the effect on business as well. Then that forward looking vision for how you can continue to grow and utilize what you have learned through the project and the response that you have gotten from the neighborhood.
I do just want to quickly highlight that I thought it was interesting when Luisa brought up that really, part of the main concept with this, came out of the fact that Dr. Sankofa, you had a door painted before, and that neighborhood response was baked into the initial concept that you put out. I want to celebrate that moment, because learning that really speaks to the values of community engagement, community beautification, and the style of empowerment that you all are walking in.
So I want to ask one more question. Where there any unexpected surprises? Are there any individual anecdotes that you can share about something related to 2020 and something you didn’t see coming out of this project or some impact you didn’t expect?
For me, a lot of people complain about 2020, I mean it wasn’t the best of times, and I don’t know if this is the artist in me or what but, I like change, I like challenges, and everybody wants to go back to a so-called-normal and I like to meet whatever we are right now and respond to it right now with whatever I have. 2020 wasn’t as bad for me as it was for everybody else. Yes we were secluded from everyone else, but when I got outside and got to paint and meet neighbors I never met before and get to paint with Luisa and have fun with Paulette because she is right down the street. We are very close neighbors, it was joyous. It gave me a reason to just hang out in the neighborhood. This way I’m sitting outside and actually having conversations even though we are socially distanced. I’m still having conversations with my neighbors and people are enjoying what we are doing. People are coming up to me and saying, “Hey, I didn’t know that you could paint, you’ve really got some talent there!” It’s kind of a nice sharing there. It was a good feeling. So, I don’t want to dismiss that because we are in, “2020” and we had the president that we had. I just took lemons and made lemonade sort of thing, it was fun for me.
For me, I won’t even say it was bitter sweet, it was phenomenal, 2020. Out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it causes us to have to think outside of the box, and fortunately, because I work with a lot of artists and I am an artist myself, and our organization is small, that works to our advantage because we could turn on a dime. We didn’t have to go through a bunch of bureaucracy, all I had to do was talk to a couple people on our board, and I called all of our funders. We were normally a face to face program, providing programs for seniors. I called them sick with COVID and told them what was going on and that we needed to switch from face to face and that I wanted to buy computers. So the funders changed and gave us money to buy computers and a van to make sure that we were mobile and that the artists had what they needed.
So even out of that wilderness, something phenomenal emerged and we grew leaps and bounds because we were able to meet what our population that we serve needed at that particular time. Because they were isolated, having the ability to do things virtually, when they could get outside, they could see the visual art, when they were inside they had the ability to do things virtually.
For me, even though there was a little bitterness, there was a lot of sweetness in 2020. I got a chance to know the artists a lot more than I did before, because they were my friends and colleagues at Zuka [Arts Guild] and we had worked together before. But we worked together in different ways and we met some other artists that helped us to grow and expand. So many opportunities came out of this, we learned about Invest STL. New things were coming up, one person would tell you to call this person… a lot of people were starting to network and share in ways that they hadn’t shared before. Once you said that you would do something and you did it, then people started to reach out to you because we are in a pandemic. We are a family, we are not a closed family, because we take in everybody to connect with, but we are a family and we serve our community. We are servants who serve through servant leadership and servant artistry.
I was amazed by the way the piece worked in 2020. Just to see seniors learning how to get on a Zoom call at 75 [years old]. By getting them computer access and virtual learning. We did virtual painting classes with them once a month. That was something that really surprised me in a positive way. Everything that Paulette was pushing for bloomed in 2020, that was for peace, it was great.
Excellent. Thank you all for the lively conversation. We look forward to connecting with you again as your efforts evolve.