It’s been quite a couple of weeks in public art here in this formerly sleepy arts colony. First, a driver careened into a bayfront statue named “Unconditional Surrender.” Loved and reviled, the damaged statue of the famous sailor/nurse kiss celebrating the end of WWII was lowered to the ground last week by a crane, sending the damaged sailor from a vertical kiss to a horizontal grope.
The bigger news, though, is a new mural, which replaced a controversial old one. The sequence of events:
- A mural called “Fast Life” was painted on the side of a prominent building. The mural’s name comes from the eight letters painted on a would-be gangsta’s knuckles.
- Fast Life gains immediate notoriety, with pushback from this historically African American (and crime besieged) neighborhood. The mural seemed like a recruiting tool glorifying gang life. Perhaps more galling to the neighborhood was the fact there was no outreach in the first place.
- Earlier this month, Fast Life was painted over by the building owner, who was sick of the vitriol.
- Last week, a new mural by same temperamental French artist appeared on the side of Sarasota Architectural Salvage. This mural contains all sorts of imagery mocking removal of Fast Life, with stinging, but less controversial content.
Here is where #5 gets interesting. The owner of Sarasota Salvage, Jesse White, at first expressed apprehension about the pointed painting, but then did something unexpected: he put a chalkboard at street level to solicit opinions from the people.
This marks a new direction for public arts talk here in Sarasota. While we all love spirited public debate, all too often, art talk is uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. Arts, which is supposed to tap the talents of the many, is perceived (right or wrong) to be a possession of a few. The chalkboard may or may not attract that many comments, but all of a sudden, it is part of a mural, that is part of a neighborhood, that is part of our collective artistic heritage. We are MTO (whether he likes it or not).
This is not the only way chalk has become a transformation in communities. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the popular pedestrian mall is home to the First Amendment Wall.
In New Orleans, a large project called “Before I Die” hit town, combining the ultimate morbid thought with aspiration and inspiration.
What Jesse White did was something Sarasota needed: he shifted the way we look at things from problem to asset. The mural seems to still be a work in progress and there are all sorts of ways this may not become the transformational piece we need it to be. But that’s our job.