'The Main Goal Is To Humanize Him': Mike Brown's Father And Stepmom Work On Memorial Art Show
Michael Brown Sr. is unapologetically quiet and introverted.
“I’m not trying to be mean towards anyone, but sometimes I don’t have anything to say,” he said.
His son, “Mike Mike,” was much the same way, he said, and it also made him a “believable” prankster. One day, Michael got a call from his son, telling his father that he had a baby on the way.
“I said, ‘What?!’ and he hung up the phone,” Michael said. “I’m calling him back and he ain’t answering.”
Cal Brown, Brown’s wife and stepmother of Mike Brown, chimed in, “We had made a whole plan of how we were going to deal with a grandbaby.”
Michael laughed and said, “Then he just happened to call us later on, not knowing that that’s still on our minds. I said, ‘What was going on with that conversation when you said you got someone pregnant?’”
It was April Fool’s Day, 2014. And it was Mike Mike’s last practical joke on them.
Michael was remembering stories about his son on Thursday, July 11, while he lay on the hardwood floor at the Art House in North St. Louis, the hub of the Ferguson activist group Artivists STL. Cal and local artist Dail Chambers were gluing strips of old St. Louis American newspapers onto his chest. They were building a paper mache cast of Michael’s chest to create a life-sized replica of his son for the five-year anniversary of his death on August 9.
The sculpture will be part of an exhibit that Cal envisioned, “As I See You: A Tribute to Mike Brown Jr.,” which will be open August 9-11 at the Urban League’s Ferguson Empowerment Center at 9420 W. Florissant Ave.
“The main goal is to humanize him,” Cal said. “The media spent a lot of time de-humanizing him, forgetting that he was somebody’s son, brother, cousin, grandchild and friend. I just wanted people to see who he really was. In this exhibit, you’ll get to know the things he really liked, the people who were close to his heart, his different hobbies, some of his belongings.”
Michael and Cal are co-founders of the Michael Brown Chosen For Change Foundation, which hosts community events during the Michael Brown Memorial Weekend every year. At 18, their son was shot and killed by then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the North St. Louis County suburb of Ferguson on August 9, 2014. His death sparked a national movement demanding police accountability and an end to institutionalized racism.
Three weeks and three days before he was killed, Mike Mike was his father’s best man in his wedding to Cal. And five years later, people still don’t see him as a human being, Cal said.
“We continuously receive the nasty messages,” she said. “A lot of people don’t believe that there is a family grieving over their loved one being gone.”
Only a handful of people were in the room when the cast of Michael was being constructed on July 11, and the St. Louis American and Real STL News were the only media outlets present, using minimal equipment to capture the moment.
“It was just so intimate,” Elizabeth Vega, leader of the Artivists STL, said of the casting. “Watching Cal and Dail, it really felt like a collaboration with his family and other people who deeply cared about the issue. There was a gentleness but also a vulnerability that Mike had, laying there covered in paper mache and I’m sure thinking about his son.”
The stories Michael told about his son reminded Vega of the practical jokes her own sons would play on her.
“It felt like community; it felt like what art was intended to be,” Vega said. “Not highbrow, but from a place of needing to express that which is often inexpressible.”
The “As I See You” exhibit aims to be a direct counterpoint to white artist Ti-Rock Moore’s exhibit in Chicago in 2015, which portrayed a life-sized replica of Mike Brown lying face down on the floor and surrounded by crime-scene tape — as he remained for 4.5 hours after he was killed.
“It was the inhumanity of that scene that got us engaged,” Vega said. “But we do not have to recreate that scene to have our humanity. So Cal wanted to do Mike as he lived, and that spoke to my heart as a mother and grandmother.”
The question was how the Artivists were going to help Cal complete the project in only a month. The Artivists are currently fundraising for the project, while it’s being completed.
On July 13, two artists — Cbabi Bayoc from St. Louis and Ana Marcela Maldonado Morales from Kansas City — painted the first layer on the cast. Their paintings will now be covered by a second layer of paper mache, and other artists will paint on the next layers – including young black St. Louis artist David Pulphus, whose painting about police brutality that was recognized by U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay and hung at the U.S. Capitol was censored by Republicans.
At 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 21, the Artivists will host an open house and invite the community to add their reflections on the cast at the Art House at 3911 Greer Ave. This is an important component for the family, Cal said.
“Without those people this movement wouldn’t be what it is. Mike would have been just another 18-year-old killed, and it would have been swept under the rug,” Cal said.
“It’s the activists and the community who we have to be thankful that they did what they did. While they were out in the streets getting tear gassed and assaulted by police, we were in the comfort of our homes watching.”
The American asked Michael if he wanted to speak about the anniversary and the exhibit coming up, but he said he wasn’t ready yet. However, he sat near Cal, supporting her, as she read a letter she wrote to Mike Mike.
“You were the Chosen One to make a difference, to awaken those who carried the fire in their pocket,” Cal wrote. “You let those who see us as having no value understand that the blood we bleed and this melanin we produce is priceless. It is God-given and something money can’t buy. You gave those little people in the back the courage to never go unnoticed. You unlocked passion and purpose in people of all ages around the globe.”
For more information about the project, visit the Michael Brown Chosen For Change Foundation Facebook page or email Elizabeth Vega at firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations for the art project can be sent to the YeYo Arts Collective’s PayPal at yeyoarts or email@example.com.
Rebecca Rivas is a reporter for the St. Louis American, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
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