Thursday, June 13, 2024

‘Lots of unanswered questions’: Burgaw mural discussion continues, public input welcome

‘Pender Panorama’ used to hang on the EMS Building in Burgaw but has been removed due to renovation. Whether it will be rehung comes down to Burgaw’s new mural ordinance it is proposing. Public feedback welcome by early next week. (Courtesy Pender County Tourism)

BURGAW — “The town does want public art,” Burgaw planning director Gilbert Combs clarified for the public and city council March 16, as it addressed its first proposed mural ordinance.

Multiple locals spoke out during last week’s meeting and public comment period in favor of an ordinance, but not with the encumbrances proposed within its draft. Despite the planning board’s passage in February, the public requested the town commissioners table the vote in favor of more consultation and to hash out a thoughtful approach.

READ MORE: Burgaw’s proposing an ordinance that could prevent famed mural from being rehung in town

“There are still lots of unanswered questions,” Pender County Arts Council president Austin Gaskins said. “And you can correct me if I’m wrong, it seems to be that there’s probably gonna be a motion to approve this today. I think at the bare minimum, we would like to see a little bit more discussion happen.”

Burgaw politicians listened and voted to keep the public comment period open. On Tuesday, March 28, it welcomes everyone to the Historic Train Depot (115 S. Dickerson St.) at 5:30 p.m. The feedback gathered will help town staff draft rules and devise an appropriate guideline. Staff have been researching 11 other cities that have ordinances in place as well. 

The proposed ordinance states a wall sign or images must be painted directly on a surface, rather than projected, suspended or mounted above or on it. Murals would also have to follow all sign requirements and must be:

  • Limited to the rear and side façades and shall not be permitted on any primary façade. For the purposes of this section, a primary façade shall be any side of a building facing the street to which it is addressed and that contains the principal entrance
  • Not permitted on any roof or permanent fence
  • Maintained and not become faded; any in disrepair shall be considered a violation of the sign permit and shall be removed
  • Demonstrated to have existed previously to be permitted as an “historic mural,” regardless of placement
  • Disallowed on buildings listed as a contributing resource on the National Register of Historic Places, collectively or individually, sand, high-pressure water blasting, and treatments that cause damage to historic building materials, whether for surface preparation or maintenance purposes

All applications for the murals would have to be signed off on by the property owner and come with a maintenance plan.

Local business owners, residents and members from the Pender County Arts Council were among the voices questioning the ordinance’s varied restrictions.

Karen Harding specifically took issue with government overreach prohibiting business owners from choosing what to do on their own properties. For instance, she questioned why someone couldn’t be allowed to paint a fence that faces inward to its customers. The ordinance currently states murals would be allowed only on the sides of buildings — not front-facing — and not on roofs or fences.

“I think you’re holding property owners to a higher standard than you will hold yourself,” she said. “You have a Tree City Plan that kind of gets written every year and then just put into a drawer. So is that what the maintenance plan is going to do? Is it just another ordinance that you will adopt and then don’t enforce?”

The ordinance proposes maintenance measures to prevent faded art. Harding reasoned sometimes a weathered look adds to art. 

“Who is going to be in charge of deciding something’s too faded or not?” she asked.

Burgaw Antiqueplace owner John Westbrook already has a mural underway at his Wright Street business. His historic building adds to the national register and has roughly 10 front-facing windows, some of which have been broken in recent years. Rather than constantly replace them, he decided to cover a portion of space near his entrance with wood and paint it.

“According to your regulations, it wouldn’t meet standards,” Westbrook said, declining to reveal what the mural will contain, citing “First Amendment rights” but adding it is “historically significant.”

“I’ll be grandfathered in,” he said. “It would be a shame to be the only place in town allowed with a mural [in the front.]”

Eden Mills, who owns Art of Eden in Burgaw, agreed. Also an artist, Mills has done seven murals in the area and spoke against preventing them from being allowed in front of businesses — a place where they will likely not garner as much attention.

“Which is not the purpose of the mural — it needs to be seen,” she said. “I believe that if the business wishes to add an original piece of art to the front of their building, they should be allowed to do so as long as it respects the businesses surrounding.”

Westbrook said he was also for “Pender Panorama” being reinstalled. This is somewhat where mural discussions in Burgaw originated over the course of many years. 

In 2017, “Pender Panorama” was designed by Canadian artist Danae Brissonnet, in collaboration with Burgaw residents. They painted colorful scenes on four panels and affixed the finished work on the abandoned EMS building on E. Wilmington Street. Its design caused backlash from residents, some calling it “sinister” and “non-spiritual.”

READ MORE: Controversial Burgaw mural: Will it stay or go?

Now, it is stowed away under the ownership of the Pender Arts Council, as the EMS building undergoes construction. The mural was gifted to the council by the town, which commissioned it from Brissonnet for $2,000.

As is, the proposed ordinance essentially would keep it from being rehung as it specifies a mural must be “painted directly on the surface of a wall.”

“Our town has had a mural and it caused some controversy,” Rochelle Whiteside, former president of the Pender County Arts Council, said. “And we’re dealing with it. And if you move forward with this today, I feel like it does push it just a little fast. Let’s talk some more. Let’s really decide what the outcome is that we want.”

Only allowing building-painted murals means overlooking a great deal of storefronts in historic Burgaw. Some were constructed with masonry supplies from Burgaw Brick Works at the turn of the 20th century and Whiteside indicated she would not want to see that destroyed.

“Those bricks are beautiful,” she said. “If I ever paint something on there and decide it’s time to change it, I’m gonna have to paint the whole side of the building to cover that up. And I don’t want to do that.”

Therefore, mounted art installations could be inclusive to those businesses, too, she surmised.

Combs was clear the town’s goal is to elevate public art, as it helps draw in tourism and creates a more inviting visit. The mural ordinance wasn’t created to deter or deny art, he said.

“Murals have the ability to share a town’s history, create a sense of place, or just make for a good photo op. This has the potential to attract visitors to our area. We live in a digital age where fewer words are desired.”

City murals have helped communities “gain likes and recognition,” he added. The Second Street mural “I Believe,” located in downtown Wilmington, for instance, has become a hotspot for Instagram photos that aids in promoting the Riverfront city and North Carolina, as it includes the state flag.

The public will be allowed to share feedback next week. Those who cannot attend in person Tuesday can email Combs at with the subject line “Mural Input.” Emails must be received by Monday, March 27, 5 p.m.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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