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Despite complications and curfews, San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral uses art to commemorate George Floyd

Designs of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor projected onto the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco
Designs of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are projected onto the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
(Grace Cathedral)

San Francisco’s Gothic-style Grace Cathedral stands tall on a hill across from Huntington Park and can be seen beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. When the sun went down May 28, three projections appeared on the cathedral: On the right and left, vibrant art of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. In the center, a design of George Floyd.

“Right where his forehead is, there’s this circular pattern of the cathedral. It sort of gives a spiritual, sacred, geometric vibe to it,” said Oree Originol, who designed the image of Floyd.

Grace Cathedral, one of San Francisco’s most progressive faith institutions, has long championed social justice. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached at a worship service there in 1965, and the cathedral’s members served in hospitals during the 1980s and 1990s AIDS crisis.

Aghast at recent incidents of racism and police violence, the cathedral’s chapter decided to remember Floyd, Arbery and Taylor through artwork overlaid on the ornate concrete walls.

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But when San Francisco’s citywide curfews were put in place to curb looting during protests over Floyd’s death, the artwork blinked out because no one was at the cathedral.

So instead of the projections, which can’t be seen in daylight, the cathedral found a new artistic outlet. On Tuesday, before nighttime curfew, San Franciscans gathered near the cathedral to hear its bells.

“For eight minutes and 46 seconds. For all the time that police officer had his knee on George Floyd,” said Grace Cathedral Dean Malcolm Young. “It was incredibly temperate weather. You could smell the honeysuckle and the roses and the cathedral gardens. You could hear a trumpeter playing beautiful music on the cathedral plaza. There are people lined up on Huntington Park on a little hill, looking out at the cathedral.”

Young said the cathedral exists to serve the whole city, not only those who attend services on Sundays. The bells and image projections have both been measures the cathedral has taken to engage San Franciscans in social justice efforts.

Originol’s image of Floyd is part of a years-long project called Justice for Our Lives. He started the project right after the Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013.

“Back in 2014, I was homeless actually, and I took that as an opportunity to delve into something new, given that I no longer had space or my painting setup,” he said. “I figured that it would be a good opportunity to start learning graphic art given that it’s at the computer.”

Originol wanted to create designs quickly, so he chose black-and-white digital art. He remembers sharing his first pieces on Instagram.

“People liked it. At the time, I think it was 30 likes or something. To me, that was a lot. I was like, ‘Whoa!’ It encouraged me to continue producing more portraits, and eventually it developed into a project,” he said.

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So far, Originol has finished about 85 portraits. Once he reaches 100, he will compile them into a book. At the end of the year, his work will be on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

The cathedral images of Taylor and Arbery were created by artist Shirien Damra. She designed the pieces as an artistic form of solidarity for those grieving “black lives lost to anti-black violence in the wake of a pandemic,” she said in an email. Her tributes to Taylor and Arbery have reached more 597,000 and 400,000 likes respectively. Many Instagram users mentioned that her designs help them process the deaths.

Neither Damra nor Originol was aware that the Grace Cathedral would project their designs, but both felt honored.

“I’d actually never heard of Grace Cathedral. I don’t think I’ve ever even been there before,” Originol said. “I’ve encouraged people to use my images for whatever purpose: to express themselves, to educate, to heal.”


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