A mural debate still rages on 15th Street.
Almost six years ago real estate broker Michael Sher commissioned freelance artist Dee Chhin to paint a mural to brighten up the alleyway at 15th and Waverly streets--a spot that, at the time, was attracting graffiti and had become a stomping ground for prostitutes.
On a brick wall that spans a third of the narrow block, Chhin painted what she titled The Death of Venus, a mural featuring glamorous leotard-clad women in various stages of death and rebirth, surrounded by representations of the fine arts, including a painter's palette and musical instruments.
In 2001 neighboring Pierce College filed a complaint with the city's Historical Commission because Sher didn't follow procedure and obtain a permit before painting began.
After community members expressed strong support for the mural, the Commission tabled the issue, planning to address it again in four years.
Now those four years are up, and the Commission has rejected a proposal to approve the mural.
"They basically ordered it destroyed," says Sher of what happened at the Historical Commission's Jan. 12 hearing. "I'm not going to paint it over. The implications of that are massive."
Sher views the mural's removal as a slippery slope toward government regulation of art, and believes the neighborhood would suffer the mural's loss. And he's not alone.
Sher has received letters of support from neighbors, the University of the Arts and art scholar Michael J. Lewis of Williams College, who called the mural "a lyrical grace note in the neighborhood."
"I've done everything the Commission asked me to. I've got documentation--one of the leading historians in the world weighed in saying this is art," Sher explains.
The mural's removal would also have a damaging effect on Chhin, a transgendered Cambodian refugee who says the mural represents the story of her life, and is a tribute to her artist uncle who was murdered by soldiers from Cambodia's Communist Khmer Rouge.
"If it's painted over or demolished, it's killing a piece of me," she says. "When I was little I witnessed my uncle being killed while painting at the crack of dawn, and I promised him as a young child, 'I want to live the dream for you. I want to become an artist.'" Chhin also says the mural was meant as a tribute to the Avenue of the Arts.
"The issue before us was narrow," explains Historical Commission chairman Michael Sklaroff of the 6-4 decision to reject a proposal that would approve the mural with condition reports every five years. "That is: Did the mural detract from the historical qualities of the building? That's the basis for which we have jurisdiction. We do not get involved in the aesthetics of murals or related social issues."
When Sher was granted a permit in 2002, Pierce College pulled out of the debate, leaving little or no active opposition to the mural.
"Our concern at the time was that the process wasn't followed," says Pierce executive VP and chief operating officer Jim Mergiotti. "The way I understand it is, yes, they put the mural up without the proper approval, but then after the fact they went through the process. We've had no issues with it, and we haven't raised issues with it with anybody since that time."
No one else appeared at the Jan. 12 hearing to advocate the mural's removal. Some neighbors have written letters asking it be allowed to remain.
"From my daily observation of activity at the corner, I can say the mural causes passers-by to stop and converse about it with one another," says next-door neighbor Lynn Baron Henson, a retired city planner. "[The mural gives] so much life back to all those who reside and visit here."
Jane Golden, director of Philadelphia's legendary Mural Arts Program, which has created 2,700 murals around the city, says her first response in this case is to sympathize with Chhin. "I think it's very painful to artists when you lose a mural, especially one that has significance to a particular community," she says. "The other part of me feels this is why I would urge artists to work with Mural Arts. We've been able to refine our process of working with communities and the Historical Commission to try to prevent things like this from happening."
Sher says he plans to appeal the ruling. But in the case of this mural, it may be too late.
"A lot of my friends who are transgendered really love the mural," says Chhin. "If I'd painted women giving each other flowers--butterflies, looking up at the rainbow, dogs flying--would it have been different if I'd done that? I love the variety of murals in the city. I want my painting to be part of the variety."
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