Michelle Smith wasn't reacting to the police killing of George Floyd when she first began a series of drawings titled "Just Let Me Breathe." But unfortunately, the work is increasingly relevant. And Smith just won a national contest with one of the pieces.
"I'm quite a Ralph Lauren fanatic, actually," said Smith, who noticed the contest through her email subscription with the company. It solicited designs to feature on a polo shirt that would speak to the theme of hope during the pandemic. Smith used a portrait of her 24-year-old son wearing an N95 protective mask. The mask created the letter "O" in the word HOPE for the design. Smith said, "I was feeling very anxious about being a Black mother, having a Black son walking around with his face mask on to protect him from COVID-19, but potentially subject him to other things that were just as dangerous."
Smith, a Springfield native, chooses not to divulge specifics of the racist profiling her son has endured, saying that's his own story to tell. But as a mother she is aware of the way a Black man wearing a mask might be interpreted by those who harbor fear and hatred. Floyd's killing added urgency to the message. Floyd, like others who have died in police custody, is heard in a recording of his last moments saying that he couldn't breathe. He also called out for his mother.
Smith's "Just Let Me Breathe" series was inspired by the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed while out for a jog in February of this year in Georgia. He was confronted by a white father and son. They, and another man who filmed the death, now face charges. But the charges didn't come until months later when a video of the killing was publicized, earning widespread criticism of law enforcement's handling of the case. "I can't wrap my brain around – a young man who just went out for a jog. He did not think he wasn't coming back home," said Smith. "He's my son's age, so that really resonated with me."
Smith's artwork is created in marker, pencil and charcoal. She's a member of the Springfield Art Association and offers prints through the organization's collective and its gallery at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. She said a show she was in that was planned for May was canceled and will be rescheduled. She's also submitting work for a virtual show through the Dim Art House gallery.
During her official work hours, Smith is a computer technician for the Illinois State Police. Her artwork has thrust her into the spotlight during a time of critical conversation about race and law enforcement, but she doesn't consider herself an activist.
"My husband, (my son's) father is a police officer ... and so we are kind of in the middle of it. We're able to see both sides because we live both sides." Smith said, "I really do believe the majority of law enforcement are good people and their intent is to protect and serve."
She's been moved by the reception of her piece, which has been shared widely online and gained media attention since it was chosen as a top-10 finalist in the national Ralph Lauren contest. On Tuesday, Smith's piece was announced as the winner.
Winning the contest means there will be a limited-edition run of her shirt available in July. "I didn't consider myself to be a fashion designer," Smith said, but she's "over the moon ecstatic." The result is a product of using her voice the best way she personally can, with art. "We're all members of the society. We all live in this world. And I think we all have an active role to play just to get along with one another."
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