On the night of June 11, artist Adri Norris stood in relative darkness on Broadway with a can of spray paint in hand. As protestors marched through downtown, Norris and a small crew of others traced the lines of a city-commissioned mural onto the street. Overhead, a projector secured to a bucket truck cast the design Norris had created with fellow artist Pat Milbery onto the pavement.
“Black Lives Matter,” it read. And in smaller type underneath: “Remember this time.”
Over the past four years, Norris has dedicated her artwork to remembering the times—and more specifically, the women—often forgotten or left out of history textbooks. From her mixed media and watercolor series Women Behaving Badly, which highlights women who blazed trails by breaking society’s rules, to her Women of Colorado trading card collection to her current project, an exploration of women of color and voting rights, Norris combines research, storytelling, and visual art to highlight historic women and their achievements.
Born in Barbados, Norris immigrated to the United States with her family at age 5 and moved to Denver in 2005 after serving in the Marines. A self-proclaimed artist since about age 7, her curiosity about women in history was sparked by stories she heard on podcasts like WNYC’s Radiolab and 99% Invisible.
“Within those stories, I would learn that…for example, the refrigerated shipping containers that would allow us to send vegetables from country to country—that was invented by a woman,” Norris says. “I thought that was absolutely fascinating.”
She wondered why such stories weren’t common knowledge. With every new discovery Norris made, an idea grew in the back of her head: Why not look for women in history to learn about and paint?
In early 2016, a curator for Coffee at the Point in Five Points gave Norris an opportunity to do just that. Inspired by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the curator suggested to Norris that she do a show about women. Norris mentioned her idea of focusing on women in history, got the green light, and that April, unveiled her first Women Behaving Badly show.
Every Women Behaving Badly collection has its own theme, including women in the arts, women who’ve won the Nobel Prize, queer and transgender women, and, last year, women in sports.
For each one, she aims to represent multiple races and ethnicities; if she’s having a hard time finding women from a certain demographic, she’ll ask others for suggestions. After selecting her subjects, she researches—watching documentaries and reading books (Norris especially appreciates autobiographies, which tell the women’s stories in their own words). She also tracks down newspaper clippings and photos and learns about the context of the women’s lives. The resulting artwork combines a background collage of clippings and other images with a larger watercolor portrait of the woman in question.
To Norris, women in history offer a window into systemic marginalization of various groups, as well as inspiration and motivation for those who see themselves reflected in the women’s stories.
“Growing up as a young Black, queer woman in the United States, I didn’t have very many examples of that—I thought,” Norris says. “Until I started digging, and I was like, Dude, if only I had known about Barbara Jordan and Audre Lorde, this would have been a whole different thing.”
Norris intentionally does shows in family-friendly spaces so that kids can see her work and potentially walk away with new role models. Through Think 360 Arts, a local education nonprofit, she hosts workshops in schools to teach students about specific women or has them research historical women on their own and create their own artwork.
In 2018, Norris did her first Colorado-specific project—a set of 28 trading cards of women from Colorado’s history—funded by a grant from the Denver Women’s Commission. Last fall, as part of a three-month fellowship with the Center for Colorado Women’s History, Norris started researching women of color who were part of Colorado’s women’s suffrage movement (this August marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment).
Initially envisioned as a coloring book tightly focused on Colorado, the project, Norris discovered, had to expand beyond the Centennial State’s borders.
Norris quickly found a number of Black suffragists who were part of Colorado’s suffrage campaign, but Native American, Chinese, and Latin American suffragists were scarce. When Norris stepped back to consider the historical context of what those groups faced—obstacles to citizenship, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, which transferred former Mexican territory (and citizens) to the United States—she understood why suffragists from those groups were elusive.
She’s now working with a lawyer who specializes in Native American rights, as well as others, to research and publish what will be her most in-depth project to date: a graphic novel telling the story of how and when various groups in U.S. history were barred from voting or granted suffrage.
Along with highlighting specific women, the graphic novel will cite different laws and court cases that restricted or expanded voting rights so readers can do their own research. “One of the things that I’ve noticed as the national discourse expands to include the life and experiences of people of color is that there are a lot of folks who will happily deny that those things happened,” Norris says. “If I anchor this story in something that is so easy to look up … you can see for yourself that this is not just me making up a story because I sympathize a certain way.”
With the Black lives matter street mural, Norris saw an opportunity to ensure our current moment in history isn’t forgotten.
Although the street protests in response to the death of George Floyd have resulted in sweeping reforms in Colorado and across the country, demonstrations end—and life for many continues as before. So when an official from Denver’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure asked her to help with the street mural, Norris believed it was essential to add the line “remember this time.”
“To only put ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the road would not have told the story I want to tell,” Norris says. “It doesn’t give us a sense of history. But the words ‘remember this time,’ it sets us firmly in the moment … I want people to remember exactly what is happening right now.”
Norris and Milbery passed design concepts back and forth, and overnight on June 11, traced the design onto the pavement. A day later, Norris and more than 100 others descended on Broadway to bring the outlined mural to life. At the edge of Civic Center Park, in view of the Capitol building, where protests played out for more than 10 days, paint met pavement and the words took form: Black Lives Matter. Remember this time.
Corrections: An earlier version of this story reported that Norris’ first Women Behaving Badly collection was about women in the arts (her first collection was about women in history in general) and that she especially relies on autobiographies when researching a subject.