Chris Devins, an artist in Chicago, decided to paint a mural of Michelle Obama across the street from an elementary school she attended on the city’s South Side to inspire young women.
He raised nearly $12,000 on a GoFundMe that said the mural would probably cost about $15,000.
“The purpose of this mural is to give today’s children someone they can literally look up to and to celebrate Mrs. Obama’s life and accomplishments during the last 8 years as First Lady of the United States,” Devins wrote on the donation page. It showed a black and white rendering of a possibility for how the mural would look, though Devins said it was “preliminary and will most likely change in the final rendering.”
Turns out, it changed a lot. The problem was, it changed to the design of another artist, Ethiopian-born Gelila Mesfin, who Devins did not credit originally – though he is doing so now.
The mural was unveiled on Friday, and Devins seemed to take full credit for the mural in an interview with DNAInfo. His mural is nearly identical to the artwork posted on Instagram by Mesfin, which was created using a photo by the New York Times Collier Schorr (Mesfin gave credit to Schorr in her Instagram posts).
“I wanted to present her as what I think she is, so she’s clothed as an Egyptian queen. I thought that was appropriate,” Devins reportedly said to DNAInfo on Friday.
Mesfin posted on Instagram the next day, calling Devins’ actions “disheartening and so disrespectful on so many levels.”
“I wouldn’t mind if he had given me credit or said he took the design from another artist but saying you designed it is just wrong!” she wrote. “The man is a teacher for God’s sake and said he was doing this to create positivity for his students and community... but he didn’t think that stealing a young girl’s artwork and making a profit out of it does more damage than good.”
Devins revised his remarks in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, saying he got the idea for the mural from a post on Pinterest, but he hadn’t known where it originated. He denied any wrongdoing, but did say his approach was “sloppy.” He has now credited Mesfin and Schorr for their work.
“For me, this is a time for learning and self-reflection, not justification. Though I did not receive any funds based on Ms. Mesfin’s work, I was granted money based on a socially responsible message about Black women,” he said in a statement. “She has accepted my extended hand of friendship and collaboration.”
Mesfin said in a following statement posted on her Instagram that she had been in contact with Devins to resolve the issue. Devins told CNN he hadn’t spoken to her directly, but was speaking with her attorney and had offered to pay a licensing fee.