A mural project on a Kachemak Center retaining wall by Heath Street stirred up some controversy this month when people noticed a 25-year-old art work had been painted over. “Life Song,” conceived by Homer artist Jean Steele and painted by students in a 1991 Homer Council on the Arts summer art program, had fallen badly into disrepair.
“My bible to mural making is never cover up an artist,” said Kady Perry, the Bunnell Street Arts Center artist in resident who has been leading mural workshops during her six-week residency.
But that’s what Perry and other artists — including Steele — wound up doing when Perry, building owners Angie and Chris Newby, Bunnell director Asia Freeman and volunteers assessed “Life Song.” Angie Newby had served on the Homer Public Arts Committee several years ago when the city appropriated money to repair “Life Song.” The mural paint had faded so much the pink of fireweed turned to gray. Water got into the concrete surface and cracked it Repairs stalled after former owner Ray Evarts died.
When Freeman approached the Newbys about doing a mural, and Perry looked at the retaining wall, the group decided “Life Song” couldn’t be repaired. To do a mural right, the wall would have to be sandblasted and the concrete patched. It wound up getting not just a coat of concrete patch, but several base layers
“It’s very imperfect and it’s actually quite sad to paint over something. We think it’s going to be there forever,” Freeman said. “It’s not without sadness, and it’s with absolute respect for what she (Steele) did. I think the energy for that project is underneath all of it.”
Perry made it clear she worked with Steele closely on the new project.
“We all wanted to make sure Jean understood why this was happening. You never want to paint over another artist’s canvas without having some conversation,” Angie Newby said.
“Life Song” tells a common story, that of a commercial fishermen hauling in a good set of fish. Everyone involved wanted the new mural to tell a similar story and to have maritime and fishing elements.
“The whole concept and everything, they ran it by me. I said there weren’t enough fish,” Steele said.
When it came time to put a base coat down, Steele came to help.
“To help me say good-bye to the wall, I painted over it with a roller,” she said.
Steele also helped spray paint stencils of sea stars on the mural, as did other volunteer artists. That’s in keeping with the spirit of the 1991 project.
“Life Song” was the second of Homer’s street murals, following a 1985 project, “Tribute to the Performing Arts,” done by Tom Reed on the retaining wall by NOMAR, the Proctor’s Grocery Store. Reed, a surveyor on a Pioneer Avenue road reconstruction project, got the commission from the road project manager for the mural of silhouettes.. In 2007 he repaired and repainted the wall, adding a second generation of silhouettes of performing artists in gray.
For the 1991 mural project, with funding from the city, HCOA put out a call for proposals, making “Life Song” Homer’s first publicly funded mural. Steele thinks she got the commission because she involved children. About a dozen kids ages 8 to 12 worked on it, as did some adults.
“That was an integral part. These young people were helping paint the wall. They’re in their 30s,” Steele said.
Some even became artists. One girl, Carla Klinker, now Carla Klinker Cope, told the Homer News in 1991 she wanted to work on the mural because, “When I grow up, I want to be an artist,” she said. That dream came true, and Klinker Cope is now one of Homer’s more accomplished painters, with work shown at Bunnell and Fireweed Gallery.
Public mural commissions aren’t like private commissions, where a patron more directly steers the project.
“That’s not how mural painting works. You give the owner a concept and allow the artist to interpret that,” Perry said.
Angie Newby said she wanted the mural to be colorful and have a maritime theme. The only time she directly interceded was when she saw an image of a bottle. Newby didn’t want the mural to perpetuate the “quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem” idea of Homer.
“I absolutely hate that,” she said.
Instead, the bottle became a message in a bottle.
A pale blue similar to the original mural’s background also forms the base coat for the new mural — part of Perry’s idea of taking elements from “Life Song” and continuing it. On top of the bright background of sea stars and what Perry calls “pin stripes,” opaque white panels have been painted like a comic strip. Written by David Brame, the series of panels will tell a Homer fishing story — a man going off to sea and his wife waiting behind.
“It’s a cosmic love story,” Perry said.
The opacity of the panels invites viewers to step back from across the street and look at the mural, but Perry said she wants people to get close to the mural, too.
“To me, public art should get people to interact with art they would just drive by,” Perry said.
In a 1991 article on “Life Song,” Steele said as the painting progressed, most people passing by approved of the work.
“You stand here and people drive by and their faces beam,” she said then.
That’s been happening with the new work. Last Friday while Perry worked on the mural and talked about it, a guy drove by and yelled, “Awesome!”
“You always know it’s good when people comment before it’s done,” she said.
Perry’s mural project team will do five more murals on Pioneer Avenue and Lake Street. The first one was done earlier this month on the south wall of Pioneer Car Wash. Forthcoming murals will be done on the Art Shop Gallery, Skiff Chicks, K-Bay Caffe, Ulmer’s Drug and Hardware, and a seventh location to be announced.
Steele said she felt sad about “Life Song” being painted over.
“It had a life for 25 years. I appreciate people who said they liked it and are mourning its loss. I am,” she said. “The whole process … public art is a process.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.