Smile Politely

Brief Encounters with Art: North First Street Barbershop

Inspired by the ways in which COVID-19 has limited and transformed our in-person access to and experience of galleries, festivals, museums, and other designated art spaces, Brief Encounters with Art investigates the power, potential, and complexities of encountering art in passing moments and unexpected locations. If you have suggestions, ideas, or feedback, feel free to contact us at [email protected].

This installment of Brief Encounters with Art explores a bit of new ground. It is the first to explore an encounter with a permanent work of art, an outdoor mural. It is also the first to consider a site-specific work, one that is created specifically for and inherently impacted by its unique location.  

Location:  North First Street Barbershop, on North First Street, north of University Avenue, Champaign

Installation format: Mural painted along the south-facing side of the building

Artist: Langston Allston 

Theme/artist statement:

*SPOILER ALERT* Some people like to enter into their encounters cold. Allowing not even one single syllable of background or context to influence their initial experience. If that sounds like you, feel to come back to these statements after you’ve had a chance to see the work yourself. If you like to arrive prepared with contextualizing information, then read on. 

From the mural project’s Go Fund Me page:

“Champaign-Urbana is a symbol of hopes and dreams, of opportunity, and forward-thinking. The goal is to commemorate the challenges and messages of 2020. The mural will have the theme of sustainability and will be decorated with details and symbolism relating to the environment. The mission is to inspire conversations about important topics.”

From Allston’s website:

“I use my art practice as a way to tell stories, drawn from my own experience, and from the experiences of people in my community. My work provides an opportunity to reflect on these shared moments and histories, and to draw a thread between the past and the present.”

My brief encounter, in brief:

My visit to the site was planned and shaped by my reading about the mural in a recent Smile Politely SPlog. It was also influenced by my knowledge of and appreciation for the artist’s previous work. So, in short, I set out on purpose, with a preview photo in memory, and a mind inclined towards appreciation. My experience, and thus my review, are also impacted that by the time of my visit. A breezy blue-skyed Sunday afternoon. 

Having isolated indoors for the past few days, I took the long way just to take my time and be “out.” As I finally approached North First Street Barbershop, there was no missing it. The mural is big and bold. Seeing on it online does not fully prepare you for the in-person experience. After I got out the car to observe and photograph it from different angles, the mural’s full spatial and emotional footprint became clear. 

Full view of Langston Allred's new mural featuring three Black men huddled together in an embracel. Photo by Debra Domal

Surrounded by trees and grounded by grass, the mural is immersed in the landscape. It is also one of the best examples of site-specific art I’ve seen here in Chambana. It is truly of and for its community. Created by a Champaign-born artist, funded with community support, and installed at a popular Black-owned business, its message of empathy and support stemming from its specific site and its visual vocabulary. And yes, this vision of huddled Black bodies stands across the street from the Champaign Police Station. 

Wide view of Langston Allred's new mural featuring three Black men huddled together in an embrace, located on North First Street in Champaign.. Photo by Debra Domal

This wide angle-view is my favorite. It is embedded in both nature and city life. With neighborhoods in one direction and downtown Champaign in the other. During my quiet Sunday afternoon visit, there was no foot traffic and little vehicle traffic. But as I once again regard this view I can almost see people walking down the street, giving it a quick glance or stopping to consume it more thoughtfully. I like to imagine kids from the neighborhood sitting in the grass, masked and six feet apart, looking up and finding inspiratiion, strength, and pride in this bold composition.mThe grass, unlike the sidewalk, invites us to linger for a while. 

As I lingered and walked along the length of the mural, getting closer enough to see the roller brush marks, I discovered important details I had missed in the long view. The figures on the left and right are proudly sporting fresh fades as if they had just emerged from the barbershop. And yes, the fact that this mural lives outside of a barbershop is significant. It honors the spirit of what barbershops have long represented in Black neighborhoods. Storytelling. Community. Empathy. Hope. Pride.
 Close up detail of Langston Allston's new mural at North First Street Barbershop. Photo by Debra Domal

Closing thoughts: 

Langston Allston has lived in New Orleans for a while now. But during a recent trip he decided to leave us with another bit of his magic, a renewed connection to carry us into a (hopefully) brighter future. 

There is a deceiving simplicity to the mural. And though one can “get it” during a quick stop, it stands up to second or third viewings. The North Street Barbershop’s pride in this site-specific work is evident in their recent posts on Facebook, which document the creation and installation. 

After returning home I noticed a few friends had recently posted selfies in front of Allston’s mural. Maybe this will catch on. Let’s make site-specific art the new Urbana sunflower patch. Let’s take our families and our dogs and share this important space.

Follow Langston Allston on Instagram (@langstonallston) to see photos of the mural in process.  Learn more about the artist and his work on his website

Photos by Debra Domal

More Articles