Councilwoman Sheila McNeil tries to redirect attention from a debacle“Isn’t that story finished?” asked a young woman at Sheila McNeil’s office when I called to speak with the District 2 councilwoman about the Nolan Street underpass mural that’s caused an Eastside uproar. She added that the councilwoman had important things to focus on, like education (and indeed, last week McNeil announced a new education thingy that was long on partnerships and short on specifics).
When May elections roll around, McNeil could learn the adage that you may be done with history, but history isn’t done with you. It’s been a month since neighborhood residents first expressed anger that the mural did not include Eastside artists or themes, and was not approved by the full Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association. But McNeil, who’s responsible for the mural, has yet to forge a solution with all of the parties (or to return phone calls from the Current).
The artwork, which covers both sides of the train underpass just west of the historic Dignowity Hill neighborhood, was created in July by a national team of graffiti artists as the crowning event of the fifth annual Clogged Caps festival. The festival was conceived by local graffiti artists as a way to legitimize and celebrate the artform, which despite national exposure and a Toyota Scion marketing campaign is still primarily associated with gang tagging.
Like many (if not most) public works of art, the big, colorful mural was not beloved by all beholders. “That first `Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association` meeting was awful. They should have had stones to throw at us,” recalls Victor Zarazua, a Clogged Caps organizer and one of 62 artists who contributed to the painting. Zarazua and his supporters, who include banker and Cultural Collaborative implementation chair Tom Frost III and Frost’s wife Colleen, founder of the Askew urban-youth art program, felt ambushed by the neighborhood’s reactions. Zarazua, after all, had gone through what seemed like proper channels.
But like most public works of art on public property, the Nolan Street mural was not vetted by a public-approval process. McNeil, whose district encompasses the area, sold the idea to DHNA President Dianne Green. Green has since claimed that the neighborhood was not properly informed about the mural. A July 13 release from McNeil’s office called the event the “International Street Art Mural Festival,” characterizing it as a neighborhood cleanup and mentioning “graffiti wipeout” three times. According to DHNA member Nettie Hinton, McNeil didn’t follow Green’s recommendation to attend a neighborhood meeting before the event to present the proposal, but, after the paint hit the fan, told the association, “I figure when I’m talking to your president, I’m talking to you.”
And I figure when we elect councilpersons, that they’re going to lead (and return phone calls), which often calls for compromise and humility. The artists and the neighborhood are looking to McNeil to forge a compromise that leaves everyone feeling whole. Despite her staff’s insistence that this issue is put to bed, the parties seem to have very different ideas about how the mural will be dealt with. Hinton says that the neighborhood and McNeil agreed that it will be painted over quickly, and eventually replaced with a mural approved by the DHNA. Zarazua says the neighborhood association is forming its own art committee that will paint its own mural. Colleen Frost was left with yet another impression: “From what I understand, they’re going to be painting just a little bit at a time, painting over and deciding what `is` going to go there.”
Underlying these discussions is the issue of resources. Zarazua says the Clogged Caps event was sponsored by Toyota Scion and other companies, and the neighborhood doesn’t understand how expensive it will be to replace the existing artwork. His solution is for the neighborhood and the artists to work together to create a new mural next fall. “I offered them my ideas and how we’re sponsored, and we can get more money to pay for it,” he says, and adds, “but I don’t know if they even want to work with us.”
Tom Frost III likes a collaborative solution, too, because the Nolan Street underpass isn’t just a gateway to Dignowity Hill; it’s part of downtown. “From the Cultural Collaborative standpoint and my role in looking at the entire city, to me it’s very important that it be handled properly and not just be erased as some people have said is gonna happen,” he says. “If you just erase it, you’re censoring. Some people don’t like it; some people do like it; that’s the way art is” — observations that may not be palatable to everyone, but do sound like something a councilperson might say if they were leading on this crucial issue rather than hiding behind vague new education initiatives.