Residents in Vernon, BC, are locked in an intense debate over a controversial municipally-approved mural project, which is being hailed by some as public art with a local perspective but criticized by others as “scary” and “unattractive.”
Last Monday, the North Okanagan city council passed a resolution to fund $33,000 for the Vernon Public Art Gallery’s community art installation project to put up five of its 11 murals on three municipally-owned buildings.
Council also approved having the art gallery install the remaining murals at private properties at its own expense, subject to the agreement of property owners. All the murals would be on display for five years.
The public art project titled Behind the Mask, with each mural featuring a person wearing a papier mâché mask, is the creation of Calgary artist Katie Green. On her website, she says she has installed murals internationally, including in the US, India, Taiwan and Germany.
After a similar project in Calgary’s East Village in 2019, Green worked with the Vernon Public Art Gallery and mental health professionals from the non-profit Turning Points Collaborative Society in a series of workshops this April, helping 11 participants design masks that reflect how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their lives.
With the city’s support last March, the art gallery secured more than $55,000 in grants from the Canada Council for the Arts to organize the workshops, hold an exhibition of photographs featuring participants wearing their masks and expand those photos as murals across the municipality.
Debate over Behind the Mask project
Vernon master muralist Michelle Loughery is one of the nearly 3,500 people who signed an online petition against the Behind the Mask murals, that says the murals are “unattractive,” “scary for young children” and aren’t designed by local artists.
Loughery, who designed Vernon’s 28 historical murals in the early 2000s, praises Green’s murals and says they work well in the myriad viewing points of Calgary’s large urban landscape, but don’t work in a small community like Vernon.
She also says the city hasn’t done any public consultation on Green’s murals, a far cry from what she did with her own mural project that involved community engagement.
“Our children have had enough of masks — my grandchildren are terrified of them,” she told Chris Walker, the host of CBC’s Daybreak South. “It just doesn’t represent where we need to go in the future.”
Vernon resident Kimberly Fuller, who launched an online counter-petitionsays she supports Green’s murals because they are community based and are powerful messages about mental health issues.
Fuller also says she feels embarrassed by her neighbors’ refusal to accept artists from outside Vernon.
“We should be supporting artists, whether they live in this town or somewhere else. I want international artists to make murals here,” she said. “I don’t want to just keep some old-timey murals that we never touch or change.”
Green says she understands her murals may create discomfort, but public art is about inviting conversation about emotional experiences.
“What is underneath that? Why do I feel the emotional reaction that I’m having discomfort? What is being elicited inside me that I am willing or not willing to explore?” she said. “These questions can lead to such a deeper understanding not only of ourselves, but of each other.”