Painted-over mural stokes debate in Londonderry

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LONDONDERRY — Ed Brown freely admits it: He painted over a mural designed by area students, on a cement wall in the middle of town, in broad daylight.

The 74-year-old restaurant owner stands by his decision, despite recently being cited by state police for unlawful mischief.

"I acted on my principle; that's what I wanted to do," said Brown, who plans to report to the Criminal Division of the Vermont Superior Court Windham for arraignment Nov. 7. "I will pay the consequence; I had to do it."

Brown's actions have touched off debate in Londonderry over the mural, painted on a retaining wall near Routes 11 and 100, and raise larger questions about public art.

The Wall

When artist Garrison Buxton, director of the Ad Hoc Art Gallery, moved to Londonderry in 2010, he saw the potential of the wall almost immediately. Buxton is a longtime advocate of public art initiatives and worked to put together a proposal for a mural project alongside Flood Brook art teacher, Casey Bailey.

The two brought the proposal to Londonderry's Selectboard, as well as the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), which owns the retaining wall.

"When I first came to town in 2010, I saw the wall and thought it was a great place in town to do a piece," said Buxton, who found support in the Selectboard, the local Rotary Club and even Londonderry's Thrifty Attic. "It's one of the few pieces of public property in town."

The wall was not new to Brown, whose Tavern operates across the street. Over the years, Brown says, he often noticed graffiti and profanity on its surface.

"It was built years and years ago because there was a barn on the backside of this wall, which prevented the barn from falling into the road," said Brown. "The barn is long gone, but the wall still remains. It's in real bad shape, just deteriorating and crumbling."

Advocates of the mural argued that public art could be a viable method of combatting that graffiti, and engaging the local community simultaneously.

"The next spring I worked with the first and second graders at Flood Brook for the imagery," said Buxton, who began working with students in 2014. "Being on a state thruway, I came up with the idea of doing stencils so that the kids could be active in the imagery but not on site; you can't have kids on the side of a highway."

Buxton worked closely with Bailey and her students, with 1st and 2nd grade classes designing the garden-themed imagery for the mural. The artist then led 7th and 8th grade classes in creating stencils based on that imagery, utilizing the opportunity to educate them on the history of stencils (which date back to the earliest cave paintings, according to Buxton.)

"We wanted them to be as involved with the production as possible," said Buxton. "It was a collaboration between multiple grades at the school, and I went there several times to work with them and get everything together."

Buxton then used those stencils to install the mural on site, with help from friends and local volunteers.

"Over a period of days we painted the wall with the kids imagery," said Buxton. "It was super well received."

The mural was not well received by everyone in Londonderry, however.

Brown, who says he has also received support for his position in the community, felt that the mural detracted from downtown Londonderry's aesthetic. "

I went down the next day to talk with the selectmen. I went to art school, I'm an artist myself, but that doesn't mean my aesthetic has to be everybody's," said Brown. "We didn't have any other walls painted, and we set a precedent that any flat wall becomes a surface that paint can be put on."

Brown insists that he never fostered any malicious intent towards the students or teachers that assisted in creating the mural.

"People are trying to make this a big thing by saying that I took kids artwork and painted it over," said Brown. "It wasn't the kids artwork, but the interpretation of the kids artwork that was put on the wall."

Paint it Black

After three and a half years, Brown had enough. The restaurateur claims that after years of sand, salt, and extreme weather the wall was crumbling and the murals colors had begun to fade. In the weeks preceding the alleged vandalism, two flood-damaged buildings had been demolished, making the mural increasingly out of place, according to Brown.

"The colors the artist used had faded and looked terrible," said Brown. "I bought some cement paint in the high noon of the day, and I painted the wall."

Brown says that while he was painting the wall along Route 100 in broad daylight, he received support from multiple passersby. "People were even stopping by to give me a thumbs up and telling me that it was about time," said Brown. "It's the silent majority that understands what has happened."

Buxton, however, was taken aback by Brown's actions. "For someone to deface public property and be disrespectful to local kids and adults in the community, it displays a lack of caring," said Buxton. "It was really bizarre; what would inspire a grown adult to behave that way?"

According to Brown, he is not against the installation of public art in Londonderry -- as long as it has the appropriate context.

"We have a beautiful wall at Clark's with another mural on it, and plenty of space. If they want to encourage kids art paint it there," said Brown. "But this is not the proper spot for it, so I painted the wall."

A Larger Debate

Buxton and Brown's ideological divisions encapsulate a larger discussion prompted by the incident: How should public art be handled by a community?

For Buxton, the conclusion is clear.

"It's really a no brainer -- the more art you have in a community the better," said Buxton. "People prefer to be around interesting and creative stuff, as opposed to nondescript and bland."

Brown, however, argues that it is important to preserve the town's character and consider art installations carefully. "Everything is setting," he said. "The mural was great, artwork and expression is great, but the setting of this doesn't make sense. Scenic route 100 doesn't need a painted wall that's fading or looks lousy."

After decades of maintaining the area, said Brown, the mural represented an almost personal affront.

"I bought the Mill Tavern when I was 23 years old, and I'm going on my 50th year of being there. It really felt like a slam to me," said Brown. "I have to look at this from my parking lot, when I've been working to keep the grass cut and appreciating the beautiful scenery. They didn't give me the courtesy to ask me what I thought."

Still, Buxton claims there is no justification for Brown taking the matter into his own hands.

"Imagine if everyone decided to go out and rectify what they find to be acceptable and unacceptable," said Buxton. "This behavior is really at the opposing end of what a community should be about."

Still, the artist hopes that the incident will continue to provoke discussion in the Londonderry community.

"I think in the big picture it brings about an interesting dialogue, which is one of the great things about art," said Buxton. "Regardless of what ultimately happens to this wall, I think it definitely opens people's eyes up to different aspects of how we behave as communities and what we tolerate."

While there has been discussion of re-painting the wall once winter has passed, Brown hopes that VTrans and Londonderry's Selectboard will reconsider approving the project.

"If they're hell-bent on doing this again, I can't stop them; I'll pay the fiddler," said Brown. "I live by principle. When I believe in something, I believe in it. I'll pay the consequences."

Reach Cherise Madigan at 802-490-6471.

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