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Published: Thursday, 10/25/2007

Egret painting in Monroe threatened with extinction

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sara Beth Miller, left, Joan Harris, and Susan Carr hope to rewrite a city ordinance banning murals on buildings in Monroe. Sara Beth Miller, left, Joan Harris, and Susan Carr hope to rewrite a city ordinance banning murals on buildings in Monroe.
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Artists say code banning murals for the birds

MONROE - Sara Beth Miller and Sue Carr are in a bit of a panic trying to save a 16-month-old mural of a peaceful egret depicted on one side of their downtown Monroe art gallery.

"It's our top priority right now," said the frenetic Ms. Miller, a local Realtor who co-owns the Monroe Street Gallery with her fellow artist, Ms. Carr. "We weren't trying to break the law. We were trying to beautify the city."

The problem with the mural - and its accompanying depiction of a lotus flower and a bucolic river's edge - is that it is painted on the exterior of the West Front Street side of the building that houses the two women's gallery.

And under the city of Monroe's existing ordinances, murals are illegal.

Ms. Miller and Ms. Carr received a letter last month from the city's building inspector giving the pair until Nov. 9 to remove the mural or face a potential code violation.

The city code, which specifically bans mural signs painted on the sides of buildings, makes no distinction between advertising and art. As artists, Ms. Carr and Ms. Miller make such a distinction, and believe the city should too.

"When we put it up [in July, 2006], our building needed painting," Ms. Miller explained. "We got permission from the building owner to paint it, so rather than painting it brown or orange or green, we painted the mural."

Ms. Carr said a number of local artists worked on the display, which is about 150 square feet and depicts a scene along the Raisin River in an impressionistic style.

It took several days to scrape the old brown paint off that side of the building, which also houses a locksmith's shop. Ms. Carr said she and the other artists made no secret about what they were doing in July, 2006.

"I specifically kept it muted so that there wouldn't be any objections," she said. "We worked out in the daylight. People saw us, certainly."

Ironically, staff members for the city worked on a city mural program in 2002.

The program would have allowed artistic murals on buildings as long as they were privately funded and their content approved by a committee that included local artists. Those with murals on their buildings would have to then obtain a yearly permit to keep them, ensuring that they remained in good repair.

The proposed program was presented to City Council in a work session that year, but was dropped because of the expense of overseeing it, city officials said.

When it was first brought to the attention of the two women last year that their mural was not allowed, they contacted city hall and spoke with several elected representatives who encouraged them to petition City Council to change the ordinance.

"We got busy with our business and, I admit, we never followed up until we got the [enforcement] letter from the city," Ms. Miller said.

Ms. Miller and Ms. Carr are attempting to get a "stay of execution" for their river scene.

They've talked with officials from communities across the country that have active mural programs so that they can present to City Council next month a detailed vision of the ways that murals can help spruce up Monroe's downtown.

"Our city can't afford a mural plan right now that would mean extra staff or extra costs," Ms. Miller said.

"We realize that. But there are people out here who are willing to volunteer their time and talents to help the city look better, and we think there ought to be a way to do that."

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: lvellequette@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.



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