Sheesh, it’s been a bad season for chalk.
Last week’s column talked about the arrest of a young man who scribbled his powdery protest against corporate capitalism on the sidewalk outside the Bank of America.
This week, public art blackboards got the big bad eraser of bureaucracy.
A hullaballoo has erupted over SeeSAW’s “Before I Die” murals, city–sanctioned public art installations that invited passersby to add their own hopes and dreams on these colorful collective bucket lists.
Savannah was the first city to devote two walls at once to the project, which graced locations at MLK Boulevard and Waters Avenue from April 7-May 7.
The project first found traction in 2011 when artist Candy Chang claimed the side of an abandoned house in New Orleans; since then, cities all over the world have hosted “Before I Die” walls on neglected spaces. It’s quickly become a heralded way to give voice to overlooked communities and empower citizens to admit their humanity in a public forum.
Of course, there’s always gonna be some joker who draws a penis.
On the Waters mural, facing out of a privately–owned building used mostly for storage, a crude drawing of said anatomy found its way amongst the earnest entries. Although the space was maintained daily and any inappropriateness removed, some neighbors complained to their district alderperson, Mary Osborne, who said she knew nothing about the project.
City Manager Rochelle Small–Toney also pleaded ignorance at the city council workshop last Thursday, while the rest of downtown was held hostage by a mad gunman.
What’s weird is the Metropolitan Planning Commission’s new mural policy—over a year in the works—has gotten plenty of press here and elsewhere, but perhaps our city leaders are too busy to read the papers. Fortunately, the MPC’s cultural resource and urban planning manager, Ellen Harris, was at the workshop to break it down for councilmembers and the mayor.
Harris has worked closely with SeeSAW founders Matt Hebermehl and James “Dr. Z” Zdaniewski (Connect’s Best Visual Artist winner, whoop whoop) to refine the protocol for public art in Savannah, and the partnership has been met with much excitement. Mostly.
“With public art, there will always be a negative voice in the community. You can’t please everyone,” said Harris. “But if you look at the active participation of the residents in the mural project, it was a complete success.”
But the outrage had already reached the gold dome. At the workshop, Mayor Jackson interrupted Harris’ presentation to bring an unscheduled guest to the podium.
Ms. Inez Jenkins, a longtime member of the Live Oak Neighborhood Association, began her speech with admiration for “Before I Die” but reproached the council that she and her neighbors were not consulted before the paint went up. (The policy requires a 10–day notice on the wall for private property; SeeSAW’s had a sign posted for nearly a month preceding the project.)
She also articulated that the mural was disrespectful to the seniors and children living nearby.
I’m with Ms. Jenkins: Profanity brings a neighborhood down. But the irony is that as part of the community, she and her neighbors had the power to erase the offending graphic with the swipe of a rag—and then add blessings of their own. It was just chalk, after all.
By separating themselves and making a huge fuss (Madam Mayor was clearly miffed at the accusations that had been leveled at the city), these well–meaning folks have jeopardized all the hard work put in to make mural art part of Savannah’s urban landscape.
The upshot of Thursday’s workshop is that both the city manager and the mayor, who had no knowledge of the mural before a few people’s complaints, now say they want the city policy amended to require that any wall art—on public OR private property—have final approval by city council.
That means it’ll take more paperwork and taxpayer–funded time to get approval to paint a clown on the side of your house than it would to build a three–story gun turret on top of it.
It also means that what’s deemed art for public consumption would rest solely in the hands of our elected officials, none of whom ran on a platform of aesthetic experience or expertise.
The intention of SeeSAW and its collaborators was to encourage honest and genuine expression; we should all have compassion for the creatively–impaired partypoopers who couldn’t come up with anything more original to scrawl than cartoonish renderings of genitalia.
They live among us, whether we like it or not.
After Ms. Jenkins spoke, Mayor Jackson implored the council to tighten up and “to make sure this never happens again.”
If by “this” she meant a free–flowing atmosphere where art and community meet for that messy and provocative dance called authenticity, we’re in trouble. Stay tuned.
Got weekend plans? The only thing to do is jump over the moon: Rent has four more glorious shows at the Bay Street Theatre. Full disclosure: It’s my favorite Broadway musical and I memorized the soundtrack before I wore out the cassettes singing in my minivan.
Some cynic suggested that the plot, penned almost 20 years ago, is dated; I say starving artists scraping the bottom of life’s barrel couldn’t be more relevant. (Hear that, recent SCAD grads?)
With a fiery cast that includes the powerhouse voices of BST vets Cecilia Arrango and Christopher Stanley as well as the smoldering chemistry of Tyrone McCoy and Christopher Blair (Connect’s Best Actor winner two years running!) as Angel and Collins, it’s a wonder that the tiny theater hasn’t exploded with the collective talent. Huge hollas to director JinHi Soucy Rand and the rest of the crew for a tender and true production.
Shows at 7:30 Thursdays–Sunday; The extra bones for table seating are worth every penny as the theater’s pillars and pipes can block views and you don’t want to miss a minute. Get yer tickets at baystreettheatre.org.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.