A new public art project in downtown Milwaukee is spreading messages of hope and encouragement. Nearly 60 street pole banners were installed along Water Street and Kilbourn Avenue to celebrate the virtues of democracy, as well as the public spaces and city streets that have hosted demonstrations of our First Amendment Right over the course of our nation’s history.

Curated by Milwaukee Downtown BID #21, “Road of Democracy” is a collaborative project among three Milwaukee artists – Milwaukee’s Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton, previous Artist of the Year Della Wells and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Brad Pruitt. The street pole banners will feature collage work by Della Wells alongside excerpts from Dasha Kelly Hamilton’s 2020 poem, “Of.”

Brad Pruitt will frame the significance of the project in a film narrative highlighting pivotal moments in history and parallels to the current climate. In this historic year of transformation, 2020 marks the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Pruitt’s film will debut in fall 2020.

“‘Road of Democracy’ commemorates the 2020 Democratic National Convention and aspires to spur local and national dialogue on race and democracy,” said Beth Weirick, CEO of Milwaukee Downtown BID #21. “This project is dedicated to the countless individuals who have participated in historic movements near and far, and for the thousands yet to march.”

In all, 58 street pole banners with excerpts from Hamilton’s poem, “Of,” and images from Wells’ collage work are on display near City Hall, between August and December 2020, before finding a permanent home at America’s Black Holocaust Museum, where they will be preserved for future installations and exhibitions.

“Since its inception, there are many people and movements that have pushed America along its journey on the road of democracy,” said Della Wells. “And often there were and are those who either did or do not want to make the necessary trip to get there—either because they are too comfortable at the spot on the road we are currently at, too scared, don’t know how or don’t see the need to travel further. Fortunately, since our nation’s inception, there have been those that have forced America to continue the journey, so we may see and fix the holes and cracks. In doing so, all of us are allowed to travel on it unencumbered and achieve betterment and freedom for all of us, not just a chosen few.”

Featured works by Della Wells in the “Road of Democracy” installation include: “I Carry My Chicken With Me,” 2020; “If You Don’t Fight To Remove The Masks That America Has Placed On Us, We Will Never Harvest The Fruit Of Freedom,” 2020; “My Rainbow Makes Me Dance,” 2019; “Here It Is,” 2020; and “Riding The Road To There,” 2019.

Hamilton’s poem, “Of,” written for the “Road of Democracy” project emphasizes the purpose of place in journeying towards one’s rights.

“Of” by Dasha Kelly Hamilton, 2020

The road of democracy
Layers mud, gravel
liberation and tar
Long legacies flattened
into foundation

Speckled with quartz
conflict, sweat and sand
Limestone and gall
The road of democracy
glistens back at the sun
Hums lowly beneath the stars

Paupers, barons, newly born
and nearly departed
Impress spiked, square and bare heels
Fleeing from
Journeying forward
No pound or purpose shrugged aside

The road of democracy
Absorbs brutal storms, frost, heat
Buckles and splits open
Shimmers skyward in vapors
Reinforce, reroute

Millions yet to march
this old road
Hoisting new signs
New directions and limits
Clearer navigation, wider view

The road of democracy
Interrupts treelines
shorelines, skylines
Shoulders canyons, glens
banks and caves
Bends passage and promise
into every horizon

“One day, it won’t be so remarkable but, today, it is a bold statement for two Black women to welcome the nation to Milwaukee,” said Dasha Kelly Hamilton. “I’m proud to work with Della, lending language and offering inspiration during this time of transformation for our city and country.”

“Road of Democracy” stretches along Water Street from Mason Street to Cherry Street, and Kilbourn Avenue from the Milwaukee RiverWalk to Broadway. Additional partners of the project include: City of Milwaukee Arts Board, Imagine MKE and America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

“I appreciate this project for being intentional about highlighting the role that women and artists have played on the long road toward a democracy that recognizes, honors, welcomes and encourages all of its citizens to participate fully without bias or encumbrance,” said Pruitt.

© Photo

Lee Matz and Kevin Miyazaki