More Art in Lexington
Last week, I wrote a post about the sound installation Surface Reflections in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Even as I was writing the post, more public art was going up just a few blocks away.
German street art duo, Herakut, painted a mural on the south facing wall of 156 Market Street at the back of an unsightly asphalt parking lot. The wall is visible from Cheapside Park, a center of downtown activity and recent downtown renewal. The mural, “Lily and the Silly Monkeys,” creates a focal point that pulls the eye through the market pavilion at the park and up away from the parking lot, and is ultimately framed by the spire of historic Christ Church Cathedral.
Judging from the daily excitement surrounding the mural’s creation, I think that Lexingtonians are happy with this new addition to downtown. When I visited the mural Thursday afternoon, a small enthusiastic crowd was gathered at the foot of the wall watching artists Jasmin “Hera” Siddiqui and Falk “Akut” Lehman work. Siddiqui paused to talk with some school children, and explained one component of the piece – a visual pun. The “horse fly” is a white horse with the wings of a dragonfly. (One kid smartly piped up, isn’t that a Pegasus? Saddiqui patiently and with a big smile pointed out the difference in wings – a Pegasus has bird wings, you see.)
Late Thursday afternoon, the artists moved along to the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Street to paint a second mural on the wall of the former Spaldings Bakery building. This block of North Limestone has been experiencing its own revitalization. Recently an art gallery, Homegrown Press, and North Lime Coffee and Donuts opened alongside longtime favorite, Al’s Bar. A free book exchange, rehabilitated historic houses, and inspirational quotes stenciled on the side walk have also sprung up around the intersection. It promises to become an artistic hub. The placement of the Herakut mural is striking. It can be seen for blocks as you approach the intersection, and the character looks as if she is being sheltered by the building. It features the quote, “It was a beautiful moment when the little giant woke up to see where dreams come from.”
The team works quickly with spray paint, rollers, brushes and a cherry picker to bring their characters to life in dramatic scale and detail. The pieces are the first installments of a special children’s book project, which centers around Lily, whom Saddiqui describes as a “stubborn little girl.” Herakut has painted murals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Berlin. They have published two books previously.
Art, Revitalization, and Preservation
Recent studies have found a strong correlation between downtown revitalization and art, therefore, it definitely seems as if Lexington is moving in the right direction. And Herakut’s choice of locations, two areas experiencing a renaissance, is telling. Historic places that are thriving, can be great for historic preservation. Buildings are maintained and adapted for new purposes and the community acts as a steward of the built environment in the best cases. However, as much as I love the murals and the sense of community that developed around their creation, I worry about the effect of painting directly onto the side of historic structures. Murals, no matter how beautiful, alter the historic appearance of the building and effect historic integrity.
The mural located on Market Street is less troublesome (to me), because it doesn’t detract from the architectural character of the building. The wall is not a primary elevation and lacks architectural detail. It is mostly a blank canvas, punctuated by just a few windows. It probably bordered an ally at one time. Facing the building head on, no one would ever never know that the mural is around the corner.
The mural on North Lime, however, is another story. The mural distracts from the lovely arched windows and doorways and other Italianate details of the building. Because it is painted on a prominent (though not the primary) elevation, it is obtrusive. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it is not necessarily preservation friendly. On the other hand, the larger- than-life modern mural announces that the intersection is being used in a new way – a hip artsy commercial/residential area. It’s exciting and builds on the history of the neighborhood. (Although, that opens up another can of worms entirely with concerns about gentrification – but that’s fodder for another post sometime in the future).
A final concern is the permanency of paint. I don’t know if spray paint actually damages historic brick, but I do know that paint removal is costly and has the potential to be very damaging. A future owner of either building may have to make the decision to remove the mural at some point, which would mean damaging the brick or painting over the mural. So then you have a brick building that was not painted historically, being painted… which again, effects its integrity. You see where I’m going here.
What do you think? Do you love murals on historic structures? Do you prefer community murals or murals designed and executed by artists? Or do you think there is no place for murals in historic neighborhoods and districts (unless they are historic themselves)?