Emma Berger’s Mural of George Floyd Sparked a Massive Community Art Project Downtown

After Berger painted the first mural, the community quickly joined in.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Emma Berger

Over the past three months, the Apple Store at Pioneer Place has transformed into a mourning ground for the lives lost to police brutality.

It began with a brushstroke.

On June 1, artist Emma Berger took some of her paint supplies to the canvaslike black plywood lining the electronic store's windows. With her favorite brush in hand, she began painting a portrait of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed by police on May 25, next to his last words: "I can't breathe."

She completed the mural in about two hours. The next day, her mom called from California telling her she saw the painting on the news.

"It's a little bit out-of-body sometimes," says Berger. "I personally feel that I only initiated it and there was a lot of work put in by many, many people. That's really what made it awe-inspiring."

Berger moved to Portland a couple of years ago to help design sets at the stop-motion animation studio Laika. Although she's done other artwork in the community (she painted the mural at Ben & Esther's Bagels), she didn't have many connections in Portland's local art scene. Her mural changed that.

After Berger painted the first mural, the community quickly joined in. Some used chalk to write poetry, others brought candles. Local artists offered their own depictions of victims. Berger later organized a volunteer art event and has been helping local businesses connect with artists of color for contracted pieces.

She also teamed up with a group of artists to paint murals around the city. Under the name Secret Mission Studios, the collective has painted murals at Bhuna Restaurant in Northwest Portland, the old Payless near the Selling Building downtown, and at the plaza just across the St. Johns Bridge.

"It's important that there's free art everywhere that everyone can see. It's not constricted to a gallery space or an online platform," says Secret Mission artist Jamaali Roberts. "You don't have to pay anything for it and it's a larger-than-life presence."

It's unclear what will ultimately happen to the murals of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery painted on the plywood when the boarded-up Apple Store reopens. Berger says that whatever happens to her work, whether it's donated or brought down indefinitely, it's hardly hers to stake a claim over.

"I'm proud of what it's become, but I don't really hold its glory in what I did, I hold it in what everyone else has helped it become," Berger says. "It's not my words anymore, it's a lot of people's words and a lot of people's effort. And for that, it would hurt my heart a lot to see it in a dumpster."

A Pandemic Has Crippled Portland's Biggest Arts Season. But That Hasn't Stopped Local Artists From Creating.

The Nation's Longest-Running Weekly Screening of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" Has Continued During the Pandemic in an Almost Empty Theater

Emma Berger's Mural of George Floyd Sparked a Massive Community Art Project Downtown

Photographer Linneas Boland-Godbey Hosts Art Therapy for Activists

Two Artist-Run Projects Have Teamed Up to Create an Emergency Relief Fund for BIPOC Artists

Many Portland Arts Venues Are Closed, but That Doesn't Mean That Nothing Is Happening. Here Are the 20 Best Things to Do, Watch and Livestream This Fall.

A Local Activist Group Holds Free Weekly Movie Nights, Both to Recover From the Protests and as a Form of Activism on Their Own

Portland's Laid-Off Stage Hands Have Made and Donated Thousands of Masks During the Pandemic

A Portland Media Accessibility Organization Has Launched an All-Local Online Streaming Service

With Venues Closed Indefinitely, Jazz Musician Kerry Politzer Has Started Hosting Shows in Her Driveway

Photographer Intisar Abioto Has Added "Muralist" to Her Résumé With a Work That Pays Tribute to Black Women and Girls

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.