Susan B. Anthony and A New Generation of Voices ~ Featuring Artist Lucy Ray
Articulate, passionate and leveraged young voices are leading this era. In Rochester, New York sixteen year old Lucy Ray is championing women’s right to vote and mobility. What is unique about Lucy Ray’s voice is that she speaks through art — graffiti in particular. You can see her most recent work displayed on an entire building at the corner of 438 West Main Street. This corner is aptly named Voters Block, as it is the original location of the barbershop where Susan B. Anthony and 15 women voted illegally in 1872. At the age of 76 years old, Susan B. Anthony said, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
I recently learned that part of Lucy Ray’s research included searching through the database of local company Second Avenue Learning’s Library of Congress project Voices for Suffrage. All of us on the team were thrilled to learn how primary sources informed Lucy Ray’s vision and process. Through Lucy Ray’s mural, Susan B. Anthony and all the suffragists get new wheels to mobilize the next generation of issues requiring advocacy and mobilized resistance.I had the opportunity to interview 16 year old graffiti artist Lucy Ray at this historic location. She showed up wearing a paint speckled Wall Therapy T-shirt, cut off shorts, and tennis shoes. She looked very much like you would expect a sixteen-year-old girl to look. Her voice, insight into the importance of her work and description of her artistic process, however, are far beyond her years.
How long have you been an artist?
I can’t remember a specific age, but for as long as I can remember, my younger brother and I would reinvent our space, filling our home with paper creations and constructing images out of recycling bin cardboard. I even had a hard time watching television because I would always ask my family to pause the program so I could draw what I saw on the screen. I wanted to draw every character perfectly and bring them into my world. I go to the Harley School which has a very strong arts program. My teachers have always supported me when I veer off on my own projects, usually straying outside of the formal curriculum.
I fell in love with street art at 13 years old and taught myself to use spray paint. I was fascinated by the street art in Rochester, and was inspired by the commissioned murals and the unsanctioned graffiti equally. I would make my parents wander the streets of downtown so I could hunt for beautifully textured walls and imagine making my own original marks and statements.
What is your artistic process?
I am very passionate about a lot of things. History and science inspire me and drive me to many different types of projects. When I am working, I am very committed to accuracy. I am focused on anatomical structure and historical data. I like to know a lot about what I’m doing and feel informed about the contexts and consequences of my representations. I spend hours looking at anatomy books and researching textures and shapes. When people view my art, I hope that they are exposed to politics, science and history along with a powerful visual experience.
There is a long history to graffiti and a wide range of methods for street art – from making marks to making movements. I am a graffiti artist and I want to be called a graffiti artist and I want my art to mean something. There is a great deal of intentionality in my work and it is political. I am hearing people talk about me as being brave and courageous, while all I am thinking is “did I get the right data?,” Have I done my subject justice? Have I thought through the implications? Have I expressed something that matters?”
Formally, my true passion is a style of graffiti called “wildstyle.” It is a very intricate and complex form of lettering, and I use it to write my signature, or “tag,” which is “Manta.” A street art name, like a brand, speaks to your personal interests and identity as well as the local spaces and places that you inhabit. I work under the name Manta.585 and feel deeply connected to the streets of Rochester and their history. As a girl raised in downtown Rochester, I feel connected to the numbers and letters written in our history books and on our walls.
What resources did you use for your research on this mural?
I spent a lot of time on Broad Street and Court Street along the water. I looked through Rochester archives for historical photos from those exact spots. There were photos of women on bicycles, looking proud and powerful and free. My research led me to May Bragdon whose detailed journal entries often referenced the freedom of riding. I found old advertisements for bicycle shops and was fascinated by the shaping and detailing in spokes. As I played with the intricate designs, I found that they looked like the flower and star pattern of Rochester’s logo and I fell in love with that familiar design as it represents our Flower City. I had no idea that our city was so obsessed with biking in the 1800s and it seemed meant to be that our logo and the wheel spokes would come together. In this instance, the reference was more important than accuracy.
I learned about Voices for Suffrage from my mom Jessica Lieberman, who is a professor at RIT. Previously, I loved going down the rabbit hole of research, but I was frustrated by the resources I found and could not navigate them easily. The archives, library searches and databases had too much information, so much that it was hard to find exactly what I was looking for and impossible to stay focused. When my mom suggested Voices for Suffrage, I was so relieved. It is a huge database dedicated to celebrating the heroes and the history of the 19th Amendment. My first word search in the Voices platform was “bloomers” and I found a perfect, clean image and description that I could actually use for the mural. I loved that the images were not crowded with extra data and the layout was aesthetically beautiful. I could understand the story, see the evidence and direct my own journey through the information and it was visually exciting. I was inspired to design my own lettering for the Susan B. Anthony quote in the mural, referencing the font used by the Democrat and Chronicle when they published the proceedings of her arrest and trial for “illegally” casting her vote for president. The beautiful images on Voices for Suffrage showed how the stylized fonts of the era related so closely to the decorative and intense techniques of the graffiti lettering Rochester is known for. It seemed so perfect because I then realized that the letters and numbers in the quote were the ideal parts of the mural for members of the community to join me in painting and put their own marks on the wall in their neighborhood.
What else is important for people to know about this project?
First I want to acknowledge that there were a lot of community organizations involved in this project, the selection of this wall, donation of resources, funding and implementation. My dream has long been to be a “wall therapist”, a term that Rochester’s internationally famous Wall/Therapy project uses to describe the muralists who contribute to their community intervention project. For 2020, Wall/Therapy solicited applications for mini-grants, to support Rochester based girls and women in the production of artistic pieces that celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage while creating sites of impact throughout the city, promoting community and inspiring creativity. My mom and I collaborated on a proposal that spoke directly to my own feelings of being restricted by my size, age and gender, but also liberated by my art, my city’s history, and the passion of my neighborhood. When we won the grant, everyone came out to support us and make the mural possible: Barbara Hoffman, John Curran, SewGreen Rochester, 1872 Cafe and the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House; Bleu Cease, “Underpin and Overcoat” artists Amelia Toelke, Andrea Miller and Rochester Contemporary Art Center; The Harley School and the dozens of volunteers are a few of the many who helped make this project happen.
To answer your question, with a piece like this, when I am doing art that represents so many generations, so many different people and communities, the problem becomes how do I do my own thing? I want to be historically accurate and I want to create a new message that feels like me. It was so important that I show the stories of this community, the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood. I got to meet so many business owners in the area, building owners and the tenants of the building. These relationships changed my perspective on my original sketch and led to changes. They also lengthened the process because I kept stopping to have conversations! As I started working on the portrait and the skin tone, people would shout out of their cars as they drove by saying like, “thank you for doing something that represents me.” It was amazing. But the pressure to represent all of these different kinds of people in different ways and trying to work with extremely different voices within the neighborhood was overwhelming. Occasionally I had to sit and cry on the scaffolding, not able to hold the cans anymore. It felt so important to “get it right.”
The experience was also fun and celebratory. There were girls as young as 5 years old and women in their 70s, all helping with painting. There were homeless veterans taking turns ensuring I was “safe” and bringing me cold drinks on the scorching August days. It is really remarkable to spend long stretches of time out in my community, watching it in action on Voters Block. I was astonished by the support, the compassion, the interest. So many things today leave me feeling lonely and it is easy to become isolated. This mural is about empowerment, about local pride, about courage and about agency–about staying engaged and contributing, taking risks and fighting for our city, our community and our future.
The impact our research has on the present and the future is one of the many reasons why it is so fulfilling being part of the Second Avenue Learning team. JS