While one might never mistake them for the Algonquin Round Table, art criticism was the topic du jour at Monday’s meeting of the Somerset City Council — specifically, criticism of the art recently popping up around downtown Somerset.
“I had a friend come up from out-of-state and seen it all, and he said it looked like you were pulling into a comic book,” said councilor John Ricky Minton at the meeting. “Too much is too much, and if this had come before the council to paint that out there on the front of a $10 million building, I would have said ‘no.’”
Specifically, Minton referred to the mural by Tyler Whitaker and Bryan Landon II adorning the walkway and stairs in front of the Somerset Energy Center, essentially Somerset’s city hall. But that’s only part of the artistic wave unleashed on Somerset in the past year or so.
Mayor Alan Keck has made it a mission to spruce up the downtown area with more art, approving projects like the Energy Center mural and the redesigning of the Rocky Hollow Park basketball court by local artist Amanda Brooks — both projects Keck rubber-stamped on his own without council input, a point of contention from Minton’s angle. Brooks also took part in a mural on the side of the God’s Food Pantry building on South Central Avenue. Watershed Arts Alliance has recently launched a project putting art by young people in display windows throughout the downtown area, including one in front of the Energy Center. And just across the street is last year’s mural by Jordan Justice on the side of the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce building, depicting some of the attractions Pulaski County has to offer, from a beautiful lake to Somernites Cruise.
Feeling like one was in a “comic” book was not the only complaint about the art at the meeting, however. Tom Eastham took issue with the depiction of the American flag on the ground in front of the Energy Center, claiming that guidelines for the display of the American flag clearly state that it is not to touch the ground, and that the presence of the flag’s image where one could walk on it or it would be vulnerable to other desecrations was a sign of disrespect (despite those guidelines applying in practice only to actual flags and not representations, such as in art).
“I make no apologies for being upset that we have a flag painted on the ground,” said Eastham. “Not taking away from the artistic ability of the person who did it, but it is an improper way to display an American flag and we should not have that.”
Added fellow councilor Jimmy Eastham, “I know nobody meant any harm. That flag was put on the sidewalk with good intentions. I believe that. But it’s turned into something not popular.”
Keck said he would have the flag’s image removed from the mural. But there was another complaint made that meeting — comparing the town’s public art projects to graffiti and, more controversially, referencing protests in other cities over racial issues in comparison to the local art projects.
Minton said that “if you turn the TV on, and you look out at Minneapolis and them places where they’ve took over towns, the whole streets are painted like we’re paying people to come here and do. ... You get stopped at a railroad crossing here in town and the trains go by, you can see the same kind of paintings. And they arrest people for doing it. But they can’t catch ‘em all. But here we are, wasting, spending taxpayer dollars in pretty hard times right now. We should be kind of watching our money where we don’t have to raise taxes, don’t have to raise our utilities.”
When Minton asked if the mural had cost $4,500, Keck explained that the single mural was only part of a project that included other pieces, such as the painting of the basketball court at Rocky Hollow, the total of which was $4,500. Whitaker said the total cost also included a video about the downtown art explosion as well as his own mural, though the video is now on hold due to the flag being removed.
Brooks observed to the Commonwealth Journal that the price paid was actually a bargain — specifically, the work she did on the basketball court was a $20,000 job, she said, and yet she did it for $1,000. Likewise, her work on the God’s Food Pantry building was done for free in exchange for donations to the pantry.
“So the people complaining about tax money makes me shake my head,” she said.
Brooks referenced a quote from French impressionist Edgar Degas in responding to the council, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
She said her “question for the council members who spoke out against the art projects in town is this, what is it that you want others to see? What is it we, as artists want others to see? It is my understanding from the comments made that what they want others to see is what they see, and that is fear. Fear of becoming like Minneapolis where diversity is honored, fear of younger generations not seeing the flag and honor the same way they did.”
Brooks noted that the goal of the murals initiated this year was to provide hope and happiness during the disruption that COVID-19 concerns caused to modern life.
“Our mission has always been to spread a message of love and hope. Art has a way of building bridges and opening conversations within a community of people who wouldn’t normally come together,” she said. “What we wanted people to see was a place of many colors, a safe space for all to be creative and I have a very big message for any artists in our community who feel scared of putting their work on display for all to see after rude words spoken out by those men on the city council: Do not be discouraged. Look around you, take a walk through our beautiful city. We have come so far in one year!
“This is every bit as much your city as it is mine, and we will continue to support all artists and creative endeavors here,” she added. “That is the beauty of freedom and our generation and those younger know what it’s like to have that taken away.”
As one of the artists behind the mural that specifically found itself under fire at the meeting, Whitaker was diplomatic regarding the meeting’s events, specifically the decision to remove the flag’s image from the piece.
“Like with anything art-related, the artist puts a little part of themselves into it. When someone levels a criticism toward art, it’s easy to take offense, but it’s something we have to avoid,” said Whitaker. “I understand the position where they’re coming from (regarding the flag). I’d just counter that in no way, shape, or form was any disrespect intended by the flag (being included). It was meant to symbolize the community between us, Kentucky, and the nation as a whole. Bryan, the other artist involved, and I both have a lot of respect for the flag and our country. ... From our point of view, it was meant to be a symbol of unity.
“It’s city property. The council does have the decision over (the removal of the American flag),” he added. “If that’s what they wish to do with that, then they can. Anytime your art draws (negative) attention, it can get to you, but they have every right to do that.”
Whitaker said he’d be “completely open” to working on another project with the city and said that he can’t express how supportive Keck has been, though rather than getting more projects himself necessarily, Whitaker would like to see other artists get involved as well. He also said he’s received “a lot of support” from the community about the mural, hearing “a lot of positives from a wide range of demographics” — specifically children, who have particularly seemed to enjoy the mural on the ground, he noted.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world, (such that) this is not worth worrying over,” said Whitaker. “What it bubbles down to in all honesty is, this mural just happened (to be created and draw attention) at this point in time. I don’t think it would have drawn the attention it did if it happened when there’s a whole pantheon of events going on in the country right now. A lot it comes down to bad timing, and we just happened to find ourselves in the crosshairs of it. ... If it’s going to help ease tensions in the community and all it requires is the removal of the flag, then so be it.”
Bobby Clue, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, has been particularly pleased with the mural by Justice on the side of the Chamber offices, only a stone’s throw from Whitaker’s own mural.
“I can’t speak for anybody else’s murals, but I can tell you I’m very proud of ours,” said Clue. “We felt an important part of the Chamber assimilating itself into downtown was partnering with the City of Somerset on a mural, and we wanted to make a statement about how proud we are to be downtown, to have a landmark, to make our building a destination. It’s accomplished everything we wanted to do. I’ve not seen a day when someone hasn’t been out there taking a picture.”
Clue added that he supports Keck in “whatever he decides” and noted that the downtown area is “starting to see a lot of different things happen,” including new businesses as well as new art.
“I certainly don’t see anything off-color about the other pieces of art, but (people have) opinions about every piece of art down here,” said Clue. “I’m sure some people don’t like ours either, but I’m proud of it and I’m glad it’s a part of downtown.”
Amanda Balltrip is president of Watershed Arts Alliance, the town’s non-profit arts organization which has recently brought more art to the area through a project “Downtown Art in the Open,” which has seen frames placed in different parts of Somerset — including right in front of the Energy Center — featuring the work of local young talent. (Watershed is also putting on an art exhibit about racial issues called “Hate-Free Holler” to be held at The Shine House July 2-August 28). Balltrip took umbrage with some of the comments made at the council meeting, specifically those by Minton.
“The first thing that I would want the councilman to know is that arts education is also a part of what we do at Watershed Arts Alliance; part of our mission is to help bring unique cultural endeavors to the people of Pulaski County. An element of that is helping introduce new concepts and arts education in general to the public,” she said. “There is a big difference between illegal graffiti and public art endeavors.
“Public art endeavors are a sign of a vibrant, healthy town. A vibrant arts community is a sign of a healthy economy as well,” she continued. “So we need to recognize the difference between those two kids of art and we need to pay our artists. That’s money coming back into our community, beautifying the community and representing more than one idea of one kid of art. The more diverse art we have, representing in some form all different walks of life and all different styles, the better.”
When asked if the comments made by Minton were disrespectful to the artist, Balltrip said that it was “much more disrespectful to have undertones of racism” present.
“Artists are used to rejection — we understand that not everyone likes everything we put out — but it’s concerning that art is somewhat tied to the idea of ‘hoodlums’ who graffiti trains,” said Balltrip. “That’s not what they’re doing. If he’s talking about the murals of people killed by racism or police brutality, art helps us process the world around us and these difficult-to-swallow events, and to belittle that is concerning.”