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by LINDA MITCHELL
I can't exactly remember when
I first heard about the mural, but I do recall, quite clearly,
when it became The Mural with capital letters, and I really
started to pay attention. It was at a party in August, when someone
told me in passing that a mutual friend on Eureka's Design Review
Committee had to tell Duane Flatmo they had voted down his proposal
to install a mural on a building on the corner of Fifth and F.
Uh-oh, I thought at the time. This could get a little
The mural I'm referring to is
a completed, multi-paneled piece, the most recent project by
the Rural Burl Mural Bureau, a highly respected Ink People program
geared toward "at risk" teens, founded by Duane 10
years ago. At the time of the party, I hadn't actually seen the
mural myself, so I obviously wondered what Design Review's objection
[Just a few of
the 27 panels that make up the mural painted by the
Rural Burl Mural Bureau.]
I went to Duane's house a few
days later (to interview his wife Micki for another column) and
asked him about the decision. Duane said the committee had declared
his piece "inharmonious with the surrounding buildings"
in that particular neighborhood and "not consistent with
[Eureka's] Victorian Seaport" theme. Their recommendation
to the Planning Commission was to reject it for that location.
He showed me a pencil layout
of the piece and said the committee was disturbed by several
"menacing" visual elements, including red-eyed aliens,
a robot with a chainsaw arm, and a skeleton peeking around a
redwood tree (which Duane says is a tree-hugger who's been there
for a really long time). Duane explained that the characters
were created by the kids in his mural program, inspired by their
personal experiences and surroundings. He had traced and enlarged
their drawings and created an environment for the characters
to live in, making the mural a true collaborative effort with
the kids. He said he planned to appeal Design Review's decision
at the Planning Commission's next meeting.
should probably take a minute here to note that coming before
Design Review is a fairly routine step in the city's planning
process. Any planned alteration to the exterior of a building
in the redevelopment district has to be reviewed by the committee,
which has just three voting members: Director of Community Development
Kevin Hamblin, building official Michael Knight, and Charlene
Cutler-Ploss, who was appointed by the City Council.
If Design Review doesn't recommend
a project, an applicant can modify their plan and/or plead their
case to the Planning Commission. If the plan is again denied,
the applicant has the option of taking it to the City Council.
That second step turned out to be unnecessary in Duane's case,
however, because on Sept. 8, the planning commissioners ignored
the committee's recommendation
and voted to let him proceed with his plan to hang the mural
on the side of the Dalianes travel service building on F Street.
I couldn't make it to the meeting
myself (I was busy holding my new grandbaby in San Diego) but
friends who attended filled me in on the details. Ann White,
a local painter and printmaker who routinely attends city meetings
(due to her passion for saving old buildings), says the planned
mural generated a respectful and constructive debate about how
to determine whether a piece of public art is or is not a "harmonious"
addition to a given neighborhood.
Ann says that even though she
felt Design Review made an appropriate recommendation based on
Eureka's municipal code (which states that "the
ugly, inharmonious, the monotonous, and the hazardous shall be
barred"), she stood up as an artist and spoke in favor of
the mural because she believes in the principle of "art
for art's sake."
So, here's the question: Should
public art be judged by the same criteria used to evaluate other
elements in a cityscape? Unfortunately, telling an artist his
work is inharmonious with its surroundings sounds a lot like
saying it doesn't go with the couch. I don't know why, but artists
really hate that. We like thinking that art should be the focal
point of an environment, not the other way around. Buy another
damn couch, most artists would say.
Of course, a city block isn't
someone's living room. For one thing, a lot more people live
and work there (or travel through it). And Fifth and F is considered
an important intersection in Eureka's general plan. Fifth Street
is part of the "downtown corridor," which a lot of
people are busy renovating, and the
"F Street corridor"
is another big deal, because it provides the link between the
new boardwalk and the Morris Graves Museum (or Old Town and downtown).
I talked to several people who
had seen the mural, or at least pictures of it, and was surprised
by how many of these folks agreed it was "inappropriate"
for that location. While everyone insisted they love Duane's
work and vigorously support the mural program, some thought this
particular piece should go somewhere else -- like maybe the high
school or the youth center. One person told me the mural reminded
her of the kind of art her son used to produce when he was a
difficult teenager, a period she didn't especially want to be
Well, obviously, I would need
to see this controversial piece for myself. I arranged to meet
my editor Bob Doran at the site where the mural is being stored
(upstairs in the Lost Coast Brewery building) so he could take
pictures of it for this story. Duane's friend, fellow artist
Ken Beidelman (who lives with June Moxon on the third floor)
let us in.
I can't even pretend to be impartial
here, since I'm crazy about Duane and his work, but the nutty
characters and bright, graphic colors just tickled the hell out
of me. I asked Bob if he thought there was anything menacing
about the mural. We discussed those red-eyed aliens, the robot
armed with a chainsaw and an eggbeater, and the yellow lightning
bolts coming out of green clouds in that red sky. Ken Beidelman
looked at us like we were nuts. "Here's the thing,"
he said. "It isn't real." Well, yeah. There
Anyway, the more we investigated
the stacks of gigantic panels, the more we discovered. Why is
that hitchhiker's skin painted green? Is she an environmentalist?
And how about that mutant creature -- is he standing in front
of the pulp mill for a reason? Why is that blue-headed bull in
the business suit eating a bagel? It kept us entertained for
a long time.
Every morning when I'm walking
my dog past the Dalianes building on the way to the boardwalk,
I try to imagine the mural up there. I can hardly wait, but that's
just me and I'm biased. All I can say is, I'm glad I'm not the
one who has to decide where a piece of public art, the most subjective
of all the visual elements in a cityscape, should or shouldn't
be hung. I have a hard enough time deciding which paintings to
hang in my living room.
Linda Mitchell can be reached
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