In terms of archetypical battles — light vs. dark, chaos vs. order, dogs vs. cats — the clash of art vs. politics has been ever-present since cave elders first frowned unsatisfactorily at the cave painters’ finished works.
The spirit animal of that dance, once again, has reared its head locally, starting at a Historic Preservation Commission meeting on Wednesday, May 27. The commission had its first downtown application of a relatively new mothballing application.
Mothballing, legislation passed by the Jacksonville City Council in 2011, allows building owners a temporary respite on citations, giving them enough time to spruce up the buildings, and get them up to safety and code issues. The mothballing process does carry just a few stipulations.
One of those is that the windows must be secure. Most building owners place plywood over windows to keep vandals from breaking windows and entering the property. What type of wood? How should they look? Don’t worry, there’s a guideline for that. Mothballing Administrative Rules, section II, subsection “C,” sub-subsection (2), labeled “Window Openings” clears it up: “Exterior of boards shall be primed (recommended) and painted a flat dark grey or black color with a white or contrasting color mid-point horizontal line representing the meeting rail. An optional approved muntin pattern may either be painted or applied on the exterior of the boarding.”
No problem. Until Elias Hionides sought to mothball his building at 801-805 W. Forsyth St., which has a mural painted by local artist Shaun Thurston on its plywood windows. Hionides stepped to the microphone at the May 27 meeting, saying, “[The mural] was something that we worked hard on. We think public art is something that is lacking in the city of Jacksonville. We think that it adds to making a city great … that’s up to you guys to make that decision.”
Ultimately, the seven-member commission voted 4-3 in favor of approving the mothballing with no special conditions granted for the mural — if Hionides decides to keep the building’s windows covered, he will have to replace it with exterior-grade plywood at least one-half-inch thick (according to code), and paint the wood black.
“The commission a quasi-judicial body, and judges are required to follow the law — not disregard the law. If someone wants to change the law, they should go to the legislative body,” says Jennifer Mansfield, the only lawyer on the preservation commission and the most vocal about keeping the application as conditioned in the planning department’s staff report. “Judges that disregard the law to do what they think is better rather than following the law are activist judges because they’re not supposed to make the laws; they’re supposed to apply the laws … If there’s enough public support to change the law, then so be it. … I’ll go out and apply that changed law.”
In the wake of the ruling, Hionides has 90 days to paint the plywood black once the final written order is delivered in the coming weeks.
Standard procedure. That is, until the issue went live on social media and FACEBOOK ERUPTED! Hundreds of people chimed in, most (including local artists Margete Griffin, Noli Novak, Crystal Floyd, and MetroJacksonville founder Stephen Dare) reacted passionately, calling the initiative to take down one of a growing number of public murals in the city short-sighted (scroll to the bottom For a full play-by-play of the heated debate).
Long-term thinking from a lawyer’s perspective is that by keeping the mothball guidelines in place, the city keeps precedents from sneaking in to destroy the mothballing ordinance. Long-term thinking from the arts community is that the city’s art scene continues to march forward toward vibrancy, and that the murals represent a city defining itself through art. By painting over the mural, or even by removing it, it’s like taking one step backward for public art in the city.
“The proponents want it because they like it and they like the artist and so they think an exception should be made and I think that if the tables were turned … say, a well-known developer had an application and wanted an exception because they didn’t want to follow all the rules, I think these same people would be outraged at the cronyism of that, and so part of my reasoning was that the rules should be applied equally to everyone,” says Mansfield. “It was a multifaceted decision for me … It becomes, ‘I’ll change it because it’s art,’ and art is a form of speech. Then government is thrown into the quagmire of ‘what is art?’ I’m basing [my decision] on principle and not on whim. I guess history will tell … In fact, I’m trying to avoid anyone from ever being able to make a decision based on whim.”
THE FACEBOOK FALLOUT:
Noli Novak, a local musician and artist known for her pointillism portraits for the Wall Street Journal, wrote, “There's an etiquette amongst street artists, graffiti artists and taggers of NOT tagging, painting or pasting over each others' work, and it's clearly demonstrated here with Shaun's work looking pristine. BUT … when the owner ‘mothballs’ this building with black paint, he will unleash a rush of graffiti of the magnitude never seen in Jax before … The real criminals are the property owners keeping these buildings empty for financial gain. THEY are the real vandals and destroyers of the city fabric!”
Stephen Dare, co-founder of MetroJacksonville, shared, “The mothball ordinance, which we helped in, was not created to become a stumbling block. It was made to prevent bullying from an out-of-control code enforcement department that was frivolously demolishing historic structures.”
Some saw the lens through the perspective of time. One example was local printmaker Margete Griffin, who asked, “Can the people in position have no further vision than the whim of a few to adhere strict to an untested code? 10, 20, 40 years from now, Shaun Thurston will be remembered as a pioneer in the aesthetics of our city … I mean, would you let a city worker paint a Charlie Brown Raku black?”
Crystal Floyd, another local visual artist, touched on the issue of respect for arts and the artists in the community, commenting, “Street art is temporary and always carries the risk of being painted over, but that doesn't mean that you can't treat the work someone puts into creating it with respect. If these pieces were preserved and offered for purchase to benefit MOCA (who commissioned the work for Project Atrium), that would clearly be a better solution and would leave behind the sense that the effort was appreciated.”
[Interjection: Mansfield did recommend removing the mural from the building, thus being able to preserve the work and meet the guidelines.]
There was a sense of rationalization and there were attempts at level-headed compromise. “Perhaps the way to go is to amend the mothball ordinance to also allow window boards to include approved art in downtown or commercial areas within historic districts,” wrote Kay Ehas, Chief Administrative Officer with the Duval County Property Appraiser’s Office.
And, although rare, there were a few commenters who saw the issue from Mansfield’s perspective. Anne Schindler, former editor of Folio Weekly and Executive Producer of Special Projects for First Coast News added, “Jennifer Mansfield is one of the best First Amendment lawyers in town, and a staunch advocate of free speech — artistic & otherwise. I believe she proposed moving & preserving Shaun's work, not painting over it … This is its first real test Downtown, and is essential to historic preservation in the urban core. Whether or not we agree, Jennifer is no one-dimensional villain." (In full disclosure, Mansfield represents First Coast News.)