BURGAW — An already controversial mural in Burgaw is raising additional contention as the town prepares to renovate the building and its 75-foot-by-12-foot wall on which the art is fastened.
In 2017, Canadian artist Danae Brissonnet collaborated with Burgaw residents to paint a vibrant, mystical representation of Pender County on the side of an abandoned EMS building, slated to be converted to a multipurpose facility for the town. The town and Pender Arts Council jointly approved the roughly $2,000 project.
While some praise its symbolization of Burgaw — a train, blueberries, a hog and other historical elements appear in the work — the surrealist painting also leaves room for other interpretations, some feeling it could be perceived as anti-religious. As well, residents expressed concern about the use of taxpayer money to have it commissioned.
“Some love it and don’t want to see it go and there are those that can’t wait to see it go,” town manager James Gantt said earlier this month.
Discussions are underway about what to do with the mural, known as “Pender Panorama,” located at 108 E. Wilmington St., facing Walker Street. It was created on canvas and then attached to what once was the EMS building, now in the beginning stages of converting to an approximately $1.3-million multi-purpose center.
Pender Arts Council, working to re-establish its presence in town following a pandemic-induced hiatus, is calling for the mural’s preservation. Local artists and residents spoke on behalf of the arts council during a public comment period at last month’s commissioners’ meeting.
Mayor Olivia Dawson clarified no official request from Pender Arts Council has been submitted to the town to preserve the artwork.
“The final decision has not been made; however, it’s going to have to come down in order to complete the desired renovations and facelift of the building,” she told Port City Daily. “We are suggesting that we give it to the arts council. Of course, it’s in the best interest of the artwork to preserve it the best way we can during the process of removal.”
Dawson said she expects a decision to be made at the next board of commissioners’ meeting Mar. 8.
Gantt told commissioners’ at Feb. 16’s budget retreat it may be difficult to remove without damaging the work, but crews would be required to do so for the renovation process.
“We’re gonna get a lot of noise about this,” commissioner James Malloy said at the meeting.
Gantt added the art has started to degrade from sun damage. The hired contractor doesn’t want the responsibility of handling it, so it’s up to the town to figure out a plan.
“We don’t know if we take it down, if it’s going to rip,” Gantt explained. “I don’t know what kind of condition it will be in when we take it down. We’ll be as careful as we can, but it’s old for the material it is.”
The mural was commissioned with town funds, so it does belong to the Town of Burgaw. The town even paid to install lights around the mural to ensure it’s spotlighted.
“The town is not trying to destroy art; that’s not the purpose,” Gantt said earlier this month. “The purpose is to renovate a building that needs renovation.”
International artist Brissonnet has traveled the world, interacting with the communities where she’s commissioned to do public art. She’s painted murals in Mexico, New Orleans, Montreal, Puerto Rico, France, Spain, Taiwan, Belgium and Florida, and also delves into obscure mask mastery and puppetry.
Brissonnet visited Burgaw for 10 days five years ago and spent time learning from residents about the local history and what’s important to the community. She included the work from local children in its final design and also hosted student workshops during her visit.
“Children to adults contributed their own creative touches to the mural, which enlivens the corner of Wilmington and Walker streets in downtown Burgaw,” Pender Arts Council president Rochelle Whiteside explained. “The mural is a well-known artist’s interpretation of the stories told by young and old, who were born and raised in this neck of the woods, as were many generations before them; or the stories of those who have moved here from other towns, states and countries.”
Still, its abstract depiction of Pender County has raised debate. According to the minutes from a commissioner meeting in May 2017, one Rocky Point resident said he sees overtones “such as Hinduism” and what he referred to as “other nonspiritual things that do not stand for good.” Another suggested witchcraft.
A self-proclaimed “minister of gospel” told commissioners she saw something sinister behind the mural’s meaning: “As a child, I saw art bring drugs into my neighborhood because a lot of those artists brought things in the quiet behind the pictures.”
“The meaning of each character and scene, in the picture, is lost in the muddled mire of a distaste for the style,” Whiteside said. “It seems a shame there are those who cannot separate their personal tastes in artistic style from the community spirit engendered in the creation of this piece of artwork.”
It took numerous hours for the artist and community participants to complete the work. The payoff has made it a tourist destination, according to Mayor Dawson. Commissioners at the February meeting agreed. People frequently use the mural as a backdrop to take photos.
Though it’s proven popular among many, Whiteside said she wouldn’t be surprised if the mural is removed permanently “in the name of remodeling the building.”
“We have to figure out what can be done with it, and it will really depend once it’s taken down for repair, if there’s the potential to replace it or place it back up somewhere else,” Mayor Dawson said.
Commissioner Wilfred Robbins, who was in favor of the art when it was first pitched, suggested offering the piece to the arts council to restore once it comes down. Otherwise, it will likely sit in storage, he explained.
“What are we going to give back or do to replace it, with input from the community?” Malloy asked fellow commissioners during the February meeting.
Discussion evolved into recruiting local artists to paint a new mural and commissioners recommended it be free-standing to prevent another issue of removal and maintenance in the future.
Whiteside remains adamant the mural should be salvaged.
“The Pender Arts Council has made its request,” she said. “Time will tell the fate of the mural.”
Gantt suggested planning for the lifespan of new work and rotating local artwork every couple of years. This would head off future controversy because expectations would be decided ahead of its creation, he said: “Maybe it’s time for a change.”
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