Civil Rights leader John Lewis to be honored by new 20-foot-long mural in Piano Row


Lizzie Heintz

A mural honoring John Lewis was painted on the wall in the Quiet Study room in Piano Row.

By Campbell Parish

If you take a peek inside Emerson’s Quiet Room on the second floor of Piano Row, a new 20-foot mural in honor of the late Congressman and Civil Rights Movement leader John Lewis stands tall.

Emerson Contemporary Curator-in-Residence Leonie Bradbury commissioned Brazilian American artist Julia Csekö to design the mural, “A Coney Island of the Mind”, which features excerpts from Lewis’ New York Times July 30 op-ed, published on the day of his funeral. 

As a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis was an inspiration to many who left a powerful legacy of social justice behind him. He was also a Freedom Rider, one of dozens of civil rights activists that protested against segregated bus terminals in the South. 

The Beacon spoke with Csekö about her newest work, where she discussed the mural she painted in Piano Row.


Q.  How did you get started with this project? 

A.  In March, I got an email from Bradbury saying, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you, we want to see if you want to do a mural for us.’ Out of the blue, totally unexpected. I reached out to her, and she told me the story about how [anti-Semetic graffiti] was found and how the [Emerson] students wanted to respond in part, and they thought of me because I did these past murals. 

Q.  Why did you choose this specific John Lewis excerpt? 

A.  Whenever I pick a text to work with, I find the same challenge—there’s a lot to pick from, lots of topics to pull from. In this particular case, I was looking for a certain timelessness in John Lewis’ words. The piece is responding to hateful white supremacist and anti-Semitic graffiti. I was looking for quotes that would turn this hateful act around, proposing alternatives and instilling optimism for Emerson students. What amazes me about John Lewis is his resilience and his unfaltering faith in radical pacifism as a change agent. I wanted that in particular to be at the forefront in this piece. Even though he went through so much hurt and suffering during his life as an activist, he kept a positive outlook. 

Q.  Did you have students help you pick the quote? 

A.  The students were an essential voice in picking the author. Bradbury led the conversation with a student advisory board. As for picking the particular quotes, it is a very time-consuming process. Although I really enjoy understanding the people and space that each of my public murals will be made for, I know that there is only so much time the students could put into meetings and Zoom calls. I am very grateful for the time the students were able to offer and to Leonie for her thoughtfulness and leading the conversation. I hope the quotes I chose resonate with the student body. 

Q. How do you pick the text and the colors for each of your pieces of art? 

A. There is one with the subject and one with the space. If it’s site-specific, like the one at Emerson, I want it to speak to the space and to add to the space, not to feel like it’s lost in there or not supposed to be in there. I wanted [this one] to feel timeless, so I went with all metallic colors. 

When I was painting it, there was something about this, and I didn’t plan it out, but I started looking and thinking that it got a vibe of the illumination of those old books with the gold leaf. John Lewis, to me, has the Holy Spirit about him. I wanted it to be a sacred space. I wanted it to be homage to his life, his work, and his memory.  

Q. What was your favorite part about living in Brazil?

A. I do miss the warmth of people. You greet people by kissing them on the cheek. When I moved here, it was so strange because I came here and, in total innocence, I wanted to greet people like this, by kissing them on the cheek, and people would freak out. People are getting more political here but, I gotta say, I had way more success doing activism-based work related to my artwork there than here. Collaborating, there are a lot of grassroots movements that they have there that I haven’t found here. 

Q. What’s your favorite part about being an artist?

A. I can be a constant learner. That can be part of my career, essentially, as an artist. As an artist, you are required to keep learning. You are required to be inquisitive. That’s one of my favorite parts—I work a lot with texts, all of my paintings are written. That opens up the possibility of reading. I love finding authors that are proactive and that inspire me and my art—I think that should be brought into the world.