EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 23, 2013

Art, history clash over city murals

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE — Brick walls around the city got splashes of color this summer when students working for the newly formed Lawrence Mural Arts Program covered them with oversized portraits of athletes, musicians and historic figures with local roots, such as Robert Frost and Leonard Bernstein.

Jonas Stundza, chairman of the city’s Historical Commission, was not amused.

Last night, Stundza asked the City Council for a moratorium on “unregulated mural installations” to keep the artwork from going up on historic and architecturally important buildings.

A clash of two causes that typically work together — public art and historic preservation — is taking shape at City Hall, where a council committee last night reserved decision on whether to regulate the splashy, colorful portraits.

The art is the work of the Lawrence Mural Arts Program, which Lawrence High School teacher Eric Allshouse and the Essex Arts Center created this year to provide summer jobs to high school students while also teaching them about art and covering dreary urban spaces with splashes of brilliant color.

Besides the portrait of John Lennon and other musicians at 147-149 Essex St. that the students completed last week, their work includes a mural depicting sports stars like Larry Bird on a handball court in Costello Park and a black and white portrait of poet Robert Frost — who graduated from Lawrence High School in 1892 and was married in the city in 1895 — on an Essex Street corner.

Stundza said the young artists should submit their ideas to the city before heading out with their brushes to ensure that their murals don’t infringe on the city’s historic and architecturally distinct buildings.

“Say, for example, City Hall,” Stundza said yesterday. “It’s a unique building, built by an architect, George Adams, who is nationally recognized. He’s done 37 municipal buildings around the city. And if someone decided they’d paint the side of City Hall, it’s not necessarily appropriate because the building has an architectural value, standing independently, without anything added to it.”

He urged the council to block similar murals from going up until it can consider whether they should be regulated for their “size, type and appropriateness of place.”

Allshouse said he would not object to an ordinance regulating the work of the murals program.

“In the high school, we have the same type of protocol,” Allshouse said about the oversight school administrators provide of the murals his students paint on the campus. “The superintendent or principal has to approve (our) work because it’s public work. So its the same protocol, but now in city government. It’s just a little bit of oversight.”

City Council President Frank Moran agreed.

“I definitely believe they should be regulated, but I also believe this is a way for youth to express themselves,” Moran said yesterday. “As long as it’s not offensive, I don’t have an issue with it. But it definitely needs to be regulated.”

Cindy Davila, a 17-year-old entering her senior year at Lawrence High, said students in the murals program already understand their work shouldn’t infringe on the city’s historic architecture. She said it’s the indistinct dreary slabs of brick and cement that they want as their canvases. “If the wall is nice and the building is nice, we’re not going to make a mural there,” Davila said. “It’s not like we’re going to go through all the mills and mess everything up. We know that’s part of our history. The music mural? That’s a little ally. It was ugly before. Now it’s beautiful.”