Public mural projects become more prevalent in Louisville’s urban landscape

If you’ve walked down East Market Street during the past couple months, you’ve probably noticed downtown’s newest residents. Playful, with big personalities, their Technicolor limbs and quizzical faces invite Louisvillians to look up, smell the spray paint, and maybe even pick up some new antiques.

The mural on the side of Joe Ley’s Antiques, a 60-foot colossus of rainbow limbs and painted puppetry, is the latest large public piece to enter the Louisville Metro scene, quickly claiming its status as a local landmark. When artist Wilfred Sieg approached owner Joe Ley about sprucing up the faded, storm-damaged sign that previously occupied the building’s side façade, Ley jumped at the opportunity. The new sign is eye-catching, drawing customers into the labyrinthine emporium of the old and strange that is Ley’s store. But what Ley perhaps didn’t consider is the wider impact such a work has, becoming part of the local landscape, the urban infrastructure and the face of Derby City.

A relative newcomer to the Louisville public art scene, Sieg has painted two previous murals, but this is his first project of such large scale or public exposure. “It was a funny experience,” he says. “When I was up there painting, I tried to stay in the zone, but people kept coming up and asking me what I was doing. I was sitting there painting one day, and this guy came up to me, and he was like, ‘Well, sir, it looks better than that brick wall.’ I’m like, well I don’t know if that was a compliment or a jab or what, but all right, I agree.”

This public performance aspect is part of what sets mural painting apart: Not only the work itself but also the process become part of the neighborhood, serving as a tool for community engagement. Byron Roberts, longtime artist and contributor to three major Louisville murals, remembers a similar experience when working on his piece “Past Meets Present” at Old Town Liquors. “People would come up to me and say that they actually went out of their way to go by there every day and check out the progress we were making. It generated a buzz through the community and meant more to people, it seemed, than just your average advertisement that goes up and comes down, where nobody gets to enjoy the process of it.”

Since the mural went up outside Joe Ley’s, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve gotten 400 or 500 positive comments, not one of them negative,” Ley says, adding, “It’s wonderful for the city. It draws people not just to my store but also to the area, which is good economically. It gets people excited.”

In September 2011, graphic designer Bryan Patrick Todd won a competition, sponsored by the Highlands Commerce Guild, to create a new mural on the side of the Wine Market on Bardstown Road. Todd, with his bold typography and clean design, beat out more traditional, image-based plans and found himself tackling a project entirely new to him.

“I hadn’t done anything like that before, and I had to rack my brain as to how it would actually get done,” Todd says. “The person who would do the actual painting was responsible for getting it done, and I can’t paint. I could direct the project, but as far as doing the work, I can’t.” He ended up collaborating with Danville-based hand-letterer and sign-painter Kirby Stafford. The partnership paired Stafford’s traditional technique with Todd’s modern design, a marriage of old and new that resulted in an eye-catching piece of art. “All he used was a printed-out piece of paper with my design, a yardstick, and a piece of chalk, and he got it done in two days,” Todd says, still astounded.

Todd considers Stafford’s craft a form of art, an intriguing contrast to how he views his own work. “I have a hard time calling it a mural,” he admits. “To me, it’s almost more like signage. It’s not art, or at least I don’t consider it art. Somebody else can look at that and say whatever. But as far as me, it served a function and a point of communication. I’m just a designer, and I applied it to that situation. And when they were in discussion about getting it approved, there were people who said, ‘Well it’s not art,’ and I didn’t make any bones about it. Damn right, it’s not art. I’m not an artist.”

Like Ley, Todd reports nothing but positive reactions to his work. “It’s been really cool. People were coming up who lived in the neighborhood, asking if I did this, and they were like, ‘Thank you, this is awesome. It’s great to have something like this in the neighborhood.’ Which meant a lot to me.

“And I’m also extremely thankful that it hasn’t been graffitied or anything,” he adds. “Which is a testament to Louisville, I think, across the board. People love art; they love creativity, which makes it a unique Southern city. I’d love to see a lot more pieces like mine, like Joe Ley, everything. There’s a lot of great stuff going on here, and I think it has the potential to really add more personality to the city, you know?”

A resurgence of public art is sweeping Louisville, splashing paint on walls from the Highlands to NuLu. It’s a return to the output of large-scale murals after a decade-long drought.

During his term as alderman from 1999 to 2003, Bill Allison spearheaded the public sponsorship of multiple murals, from Old Town Liquors to Douglas Loop and Trevilian Way. Allison was following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Tom Owen, continuing city-sponsored efforts to beautify the neighborhoods under his stewardship.

“I think when people see them, they see how it enhances that area and how art really is a part of our life,” Allison says. “It’s not just icing on the cake; it’s a daily part of our life and not just extracurricular.”

The projects initiated during Allison’s term — including one at Kizito Cookies on Bardstown Road and another at Trevilian Way and Newburg Road — added a sense of history and cultural pride to many Louisville neighborhoods. A 2002 Neighborhood Plan for the Bonnycastle area effusively praised one of Allison’s other initiatives, declaring, “In addition to its prominence as a neighborhood commercial mecca, the Old Town Liquors building has a mural on the side facing Sherwood that has become a well-known asset to the neighborhood. Painted by Byron Roberts and Gary Bennett with funding from the City of Louisville, this mural is representative of the quality of the visual environment within Bonnycastle.”

Soon after the report was released, however, city budget cuts ensued. The arts were hit particularly hard, a situation that worsened with the economy, which soon spiraled into recession. Allison attributes the drought in mural creation to the economic crisis, admitting, “When they start cutting, I really don’t think it makes sense to cut arts. I think we just have to find the money for our arts projects so that we can give quality in all of our lives. But there are economic disparities in the community. It’s the discretionary funds that pay the artists to do the murals in my area, and in some of the other areas those have to go for more basic needs.”

Such economic disparities perhaps explain the concentration and absence of public art in various areas throughout the city. While the downtown corridor and the Highlands are rich with public art — Bardstown Road alone boasts more than six murals — the South End, West End and other lower-income areas remain practically bereft of public art projects.

The recent completion of new murals throughout Louisville can be attributed in part to efforts by Metro government. As the mayor’s senior adviser on parks and cultural affairs, Mary Lou Northern has overseen progress on the Louisville Loop — a 100-mile public park and trail system dotted with public art — as well as the emergence of new guidelines for public art projects, including murals. The Design Standards for the Loop describe public art as “a critical component of livable communities.” The guidelines go on to state, “Public art speaks to the creative nature and sophistication of its citizens, enlivens public open space and facilities, and raises the internal and external values perpetuated by a community. It adds spontaneity and attraction, memorializes the values of a community, and provides a unique cultural identity for the city.”

Northern’s view of public art extends beyond murals or sculpture to include bridges, railings, sidewalks and other landscape elements, many of which may not be obviously categorized as art. “I really believe that public art should be seen as part of the infrastructure, not just as a stand-alone piece,” she says. “So it’s as much … looking at how art can help reframe the discussion about infrastructure.”

The early efforts of Northern’s office included the Legal Graffiti Wall in 2006, an experimental urban art project on the Market Street overpass. Local artists were invited to leave their mark on the space, creating a forum for community expression. The plan backfired, however, as obscene language and increased tagging in the neighborhood forced the project to be shut down six months early.

“It was interesting, because we thought that by working with the artists we would not have an issue, and then we had an issue,” Northern recalls. “The very fact that the government supported the wall was seen as a threat to their art by graffiti artists. They feared losing the ‘rogue’ quality of their art, which is why tagging stepped up in the area of the wall.”

Rebecca Fleischaker, spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Commission on Public Art (COPA), credits the lessons learned from the failed graffiti project with the steps subsequently taken by the mayor’s office to promote public art in a positive way. In 2008, then-Mayor Jerry Abramson released the Louisville Public Art Master Plan, a 70-page document outlining a long-term plan not only for cataloguing and curating the city’s collection of public work, but also for commissioning new pieces for the public sphere.

The plan, approved by Metro Council in 2009, created COPA as the governing body for public art and established a funding mechanism for the commission. When the city budget did not have enough funds to cover an arts administrator or staff, Northern and her assistant, Althea Jackson, stepped up, having previously worked on developing the Master Plan. The city also hired consultant Yasmeen Siddiqui to act as public arts planner, bringing expertise and experience to the creation of new public art guidelines and procedures.

These procedures have been a long time coming. As Northern describes it, “There was no public art agency or public art platform before 2007 in city government. And what we’ve been doing is a start-up, you know, it’s like starting a small company within government. So it’s been exciting to do, and it’s been really fun to watch other people now carrying it forward and moving on.”

Working with Siddiqui, COPA has drafted preliminary site guidelines, which outline the procedures for creating or commissioning public art. These guidelines give COPA jurisdiction over public art, create permitting procedures, and include stipulations for maintenance plans and partnerships between artists and community organizations when creating a new public piece.

The guidelines are still in draft process, but Chris Radtke, local artist and founder of Zephyr Gallery who currently serves as president of COPA, says the organization hopes to have them ratified by January. Northern echoes her sentiments: “For the moment, COPA has sort of a gentlemen’s agreement with Public Works and Codes & Permits, the two bodies that typically oversee proposals for public art, where if they have a piece that comes before them, they’ll talk to COPA. COPA, in its start-up mode, responds as well as it can, but it can’t take an official position yet because it doesn’t have the adopted guidelines.”

Ideally, the ratified guidelines will help improve the transparency and accessibility of public art procedures, particularly with regards to the permitting process. Ask most artists, including Bryan Patrick Todd and Wilfred Sieg, what their experience was like creating work in the public sphere, or if they would take on a similar project again, and the response is predominantly positive. But ask them if they have any idea how to go about obtaining official permission for future work, or even how the permitting process worked for their recent murals, and they draw a blank. They all seem to have a vague understanding of hoops to jump through or bureaucratic mazes to navigate, but the concrete guidelines for submitting a proposal and getting it approved remain unclear.

Sieg expresses his frustration: “I hear Mayor Fischer talk about keeping Louisville weird and Possibility City. Let some of these things be possible! Don’t make it so hard! I guess it’s more about doing the research, really. But I think a lot of businesses look at it as a hassle to have to go through all these hoops just so they can get something on the side of their business. I think that’s the big drawback for sure.”

In fact, the few negative experiences reported by muralists all stem from some confusion or miscommunication in the permitting process, when an un-dotted “i” or an un-crossed “t” resulted in a work being painted over shortly after completion. Carol McLeod, creator of the “Hunter’s Louisville” mural at the Monkey Wrench, also painted a three-story mural on the side of Rainbow Blossom, only to have it painted over because the project’s organizer had gotten permission from the store manager but not the owner of the building.

Paul LePree, owner of UltraPop, was worried the graffiti-style mural at his store might face similar repercussions since it went up unpermitted. Luckily, he was able to apply for a permit retroactively, providing sufficient documentation to prove the artists involved were trained professionals, the mural does not promote his business, and the integrated design enhances the urban environment — all qualifications for a public mural.

Both Northern and Fleischaker of Metro government envision COPA as the steward for the ever-changing face of Louisville, creating and maintaining projects that make the city unique. When asked about the role of public art, Fleischaker says, “I think it makes us human. I think it gives us a great sense of connectivity in terms of coming to a space and being able to enjoy it together. I think it makes our different areas unique. We talk about having unique neighborhoods and being a really welcoming city, and I think public art is part of that fabric that makes us that way.”

With their ability to turn a building into a landmark, to become part of a neighborhood, and to get people invested in beautifying an area and making it unique, murals perform an important role in the diversification of a city. With more large-scale projects expected in the coming months — including mural portraits of Louisville’s “Next Top Neighbors” throughout the city and a 200-foot-long painting celebrating the Bashford Manor neighborhood on the I-264 Buechel overpass — 2012 could usher in an even more colorful future for Louisville.