Although it won permission, the StreetSpark program will not paint recycling mural.

Recycling mural won’t be painted on historic Hamilton building

For many residents and business owners in the Rossville Historic District, StreetSpark’s decision brought a curt response: Good riddance.

“I have yet to speak to anyone who thought it was a good idea,” said Frank Beuter, co-owner of Treasures on Main, located across Main Street from where the mural was to be painted. “To me, what they need to do here is put something that represents Main Street, represents the history of this area. That’s what I think people want to see.”

“Garbage on the wall isn’t one of them,” Beuter said of the mural that playfully depicted soft-drink cans and cups with straws and paper coffee cups against a pink background.

StreetSpark, a collaboration between the city of Hamilton and the Fitton Center for Creative Arts, had city approval to paint the mural, after the design was rejected by Hamilton’s Architectural Design Review Board but later approved by the city’s but decided to back away from doing so.

Ian McKenzie-Thurley, executive director of the Fitton Center for Creative Arts, said that while StreetSpark had won the right to put up the mural, “We’re looking long-term, and want to work with our partners within the city and within the community.”

“It doesn’t become about bureaucratic yes and no’s — it becomes about us, together, forging a cultural identity in this city,” he said: “We want to make our artistic mark, we don’t want to make our bureaucratic mark.”

“We thought: ‘You know what? Why don’t we just take a step back? We want to be working with the community. We want to be working with people like the ADRB and citizens here.’ For us, we thought this is a chance to take a step back and build a conversation with the ADRB,” McKenzie-Thurley said.

StreetSpark still bought the work for the competition’s award price of $500, and artist Lily Knights of Spartanburg, S.C., agreed to sell it, despite the possibility it may never go on a building, McKenzie-Thurley said. Knights said she’s willing to adjust the artwork to fit another location.

“We own the piece, and there may be a point where we will find a better fit for it within the community,” McKenzie-Thurley said. We don’t know where that is now, so it’s not scheduled at the moment. What we’re focused on is the two other murals” that will be painted next month.

“We realize everyone won’t like every piece of art, and that’s what art is,” he said. “But StreetSpark should be there to work hand-in-hand with the community.”

Community conversation

“We’ve had a piece of art that is making us look at the way we work together as a city — that’s a really positive thing for art,” McKenzie-Thurley said. “It’s a piece of art that’s started a conversation about, ‘How do we communicate? How do we build a better community together?’”

StreetSpark leaders will meet with the architectural board June 21 before the panel’s regularly scheduled meeting. That 3:30 p.m. session is open to the public. It takes place at the city building..

“Her art has started a conversation that’s bigger than her piece of art,” McKenzie-Thurley said. “Without painting one brushstroke on Main Street with that mural, it’s created, I believe, a platform for really positive dialogue as we try to shape this city. Art did that.”

“I think it’s fascinating,” said Knights, a mother of two who turned 32 on Friday. “I did not submit that design anticipating any sort of widespread conversation. I love that people are talking about art, and talking about what art is … What constitutes public art? What’s the purpose of public art? And I think the purpose of public art is, for one thing, to be interesting to look at, but also to start conversations and to make people think about things.

“And if people are thinking about: ‘What is art?’ Man, that’s awesome,” she said.

Among other criticisms, people had complained the artwork was too pink, too modern to be painted on the side of an historic building, and while it was designed to be a playful advocate of recycling, didn’t make clear that promoting recycling was its aim. One resident compared it to placing large stickers on a pink wall.

The design for the particular building, located just northeast of D and Main streets, was made all the more complicated by the fact nobody knows the future use of the vacant structure, now owned by the CORE Fund, which hopes to sell it. A future owner may want to cut windows or doors into the wall where the mural will be painted.

Sometimes art grows on you

Would the mural have really been an irritation to Hamiltonians, or might it have grown on people?

Art history is filled with examples of how art and buildings that initially were considered abominations were later embraced by the masses.

Strongly disliked when they first rose to the skies were the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, later to become an iconic and admired part of New York City’s skyline. Also controversial was the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which a group of writers and artists described in a protest letter as “useless and monstrous,” while ground work for that project began. It’s now the symbol of that city.

Might the recycling mural have eventually ingratiated itself into the fabric of Hamilton to become something people embraced?

“I just don’t know,” McKenzie-Thurley said. “I couldn’t tell you. Possibly. Possibly not.”

“I still hear about the Blue Baby every day,” he said about another recent Fitton Center outdoor project that conjured plenty of conversation. “Some people love it; some people hate it; but everybody’s got an opinion, and I hear all about it…. The Blue Baby was never meant to be permanent, and it’s not. We’re looking on another piece to go in there, in the fall, and that was always the idea. But the idea was to make sure that when you’re driving past, you’re looking at an arts center.”