In the midst of celebration, one mural protest raises questions about public art

By Jan Worth-Nelson

While Flint residents for the most part seem to be enjoying the appearance over the last year of dozens of murals produced through the Flint Public Art Project (FPAP), work has stopped on one wall in Carriage Town because of a protest from its neighbors.

The dispute, between the congregation of Woodside Church and the FPAP, appears to be raising questions about the role of “public” in “public art” and about censorship of street art, even as the proliferating project draws sponsorship support and as local, national and even international muralists erect their booms and swathe wall after wall with various  colorful visions.

Contested mural facing the parking lot of Woodside Church at 502 Garland St. (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

The contested mural is on the east wall of the maintenance warehouse of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA).  It faces the parking lot of Woodside Church, recently relocated to the former Carriage Town Antiques/Hoffman’s Deli space at 503 Garland St. from its longtime East Court Street locale.

Woodside pastor Rev. Deborah Conrad said she and her Woodside parishioners find the mural objectionable and want it covered over.

“I find it personally to be offensive in its objectification of women,”  Conrad said.  “It turns a women into disparate body parts, some of them mechanical, some more intended to be human, and it is also a hypersexualized image of a woman.

“Our culture is not a fan of women generally,” she added, “and this seems to embody as it were all of my complaints about our culture regarding women.”

The Woodside congregation historically has been known for its advocacy of social justice causes, its members often participating in marches and other actions in support of the poor and disempowered. Its web page describes the church as “a progressive Christian community committed to nurturing freedom, honesty and diversity,
where members and friends live Jesus’ way of social justice.”

Conrad said one parishioner emailed her that they found the mural “vulgar,” and a recent first-time walk-in visitor to the church expressed dismay, saying, “Are you all okay with this?” Since posting about it on Facebook, she said she has been getting many messages of thanks and support.

Conrad said Flint Public Art Project director Joe Schipani “has been willing to have a conversation and I’m very hopeful we can work this out.

“The mural needs to go,”  she said.  “My question is when.”

Conrad said she had been given only minimal information about the artist, who she knows only to be “a young white man from Detroit.”

“I’d love to talk to him,”  she said.

Officials of the Flint Public Art Project declined to be interviewed on the record for this story, have not wanted their names used and strongly requested, in fact, that this story not be written.

Because of that, it has been difficult to obtain official information on the record about the nature of FPAP’s interactions with Woodside, about the artist of the DDA mural,  the philosophy behind it, the nature of FPAP’s contracts with its sponsors, its agreements about censorship with its artists, or how it interacts with the owners of the properties allowing the murals.

However, East Village Magazine has some experience with at least one of the murals–documented here. The mural, reproduced on the cover of our July edition, is on the large west wall of the EVM building at 720 E. Second St.  Completed in June and celebrated with a party by the Central Park Neighborhood Association, that mural has been a rousing success.

Ed Custer, owner of the EVM building, said he was very satisfied with how the mural project was implemented in his case.  He described how the muralist, Spanish artist Murales Lian, met in person several times with the neighborhood association to talk about what could be portrayed on the wall.

“She even chose the black and white palette to honor East Village Magazine‘s black and white design,”  Custer said.

As described by Harold Ford in his  story, that mural project “was initially brainstormed by members of the CPNA’s NICE (Neighborhood Investment for Community Enhancement) Committee”–coordinated by Nic Custer, Ed’s son, nephew of the late EVM founder and publisher of EVM Gary Custer.  Nic Custer is former managing editor of East Village Magazine and almost literally grew up in the building.

In that case, Ed Custer said, the deep community connections with the building and the use of that wall were clearly acknowledged and honored.

EVM writing staff check out the FPAP-sponsored mural on the East Village Magazine building in June.  That mural has made the neighbors very happy (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

In addition to the FPAP, that project received support from the Court Street Village Nonprofit Housing Corporation and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.

However, Conrad said no similar process occurred in the Woodside case. She said she had spoken informally with Schipani earlier about the possibility of painting a labyrinth somewhere within the Woodside property, but says she was not told about the mural itself until it was in process on the wall,  and she was not invited to consult about what it might depict.

One arts official who asked not to be named said, “Street art is different from other kinds of art, and a lot of people don’t understand that.”  The tradition, he said, is based fundamentally on the artist’s independence, sometimes deliberately provocative and positioned in critique of the status quo.

DDA director Gerard Burnash said when approached by FPAP officials, he readily agreed to let the walls of the maintenance building be used.  A first mural there, on the north wall, has been widely praised, and so he gave the go-ahead for a second one.

He did not preview the proposed design and didn’t ask for it, he said.

“I don’t have a dog in this fight,” Burnash said, but added he wanted to do whatever would support the FPAP.

The Woodside situation comes just as the Flint Public Art Project prepares for the city’s first ever “Free City Mural Festival”  Oct. 7-12 bringing mural artists from all around the world to celebrate the 60-some murals completed so far.

FPAP officials say they hope to complete 15 more murals during the festival week, with a goal of 100 by 2020.

According to a Sept. 3 M-Live story, a state-based Patronicity campaign “has raised $1,805 of its $15,000 goal and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation is matching every dollar donated to support artists painting the city. The average cost of painting a mural in Flint is $4,000. That cost includes sponsoring artists and purchasing the appropriate supplies.”

EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at




Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

Share This Post On